Ethos, Pathos, Logos: On Aristotle’s Rhetoric

Is there a type of rhetoric whose goal is not the mere winning of arguments? Aristotle’s Rhetorike brings to light the nature of persuasive opinions (“rhetorike” is an odd word that appears in Plato’s Gorgias as Gorgias understands public speeches to be intoxicating, though false claims that are compelling to the masses, while Socrates believes them to be mere pandering, and Aristotle seeks to understand the nature of persuasive speeches).

In the Platonic dialogues we encounter numerous examples of sophists who employ the use of rhetoric for clever tricks at winning arguments and making their opponents appear foolish (perhaps most notably in Socrates’s fiery exchange in the Gorgias, a dialogue of “war and battle”). As an alternative we are provided Socratic rhetoric, or irony and the dialectic. Aristotle’s Rhetoric is not a primer for winning political arguments. Like his other explicitly political works (the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics) it is an investigation into the nature, including the part as well as the whole, of what is needed to make a persuasive argument regarding the common concerns of political life. In his division of theoretical and practical knowledge: rhetoric is theoria.

For Aristotle, rhetoric is the opposite of dialectic, or “antistrophe,” which is the following stanza in a choral ode that is danced in a the opposite direction (1354a 1). All people use rhetoric, but it does not necessarily proceed from common opinions upward through reason in the same way that dialectic does. The art of rhetoric, or “art of speeches,” was a popular practice in Aristotle’s day. Recall that Pericles incentivized Athenians to participate in law courts and juries by means of compensation, thus it became important for people not merely to tell the truth, but more importantly to win an argument: to persuade the crowd through artful speeches. Recall the amusing “illness” of Philokleon (he was addicted to the Athenian law courts) in Aristophanes Wasps.

In general, it is best for laws to be devised to leave as little room for future judges to make decisions, as people are commonly clouded by particular prejudices, emotions, and fear, however there will be times when it is necessary to judge a situation. And in order to solve the conflict humans will need to employ the use of persuasion, which is “a kind of demonstration” or an enthymeme (which is a kind of syllogism).

“Rhetoric is useful, though, because things that are true and things that are just are by nature stronger than their opposites, so if decisions do not come out the appropriate way, it is necessary that they have been made weaker by them, and this deserving of condemnation” (1355a 31-36). Aristotle does not seek to make the weaker argument stronger (recall Aristophanes’s Clouds), nor does he seek to artfully and tyrannically control people by means of speeches, but rather to present the true and just things by means of speech. Rhetoric is also necessary for, the contra the Enlightenment, not all people can learn and possess knowledge. Some people require the means of persuasive speeches. Rhetoric is useful not necessarily to persuade, but rather to see the means of persuasion that are available on each matter. It is like a doctor who cannot necessarily bring all people to a fully healthy status, but rather he can bring them as close as possible. That is the end of rhetoric, for sophistry is not present in its power, but in its intentions.

We are asked to let Rhetoric, then, be “a power of seeing (or beholding) what is capable of being persuasive on each subject” (1355b 25-26). And the persuasive speech has three forms: the character of the speaker (ethos), who should be “trustworthy” and “decent” in order to be persuasive in both speech as well as deed; next is the disposition of the listener and our passions (pathos), since we render our judgments differently when grieved versus delighted, friendly versus hostile and so on; and lastly the speech must find reason within it (logos), and thus it must be heard by reasonable people. However merely reasonable speeches, such as syllogisms are not as persuasive as enthymemes and demonstrations. The key to persuasive rhetoric is not manipulation, but rather the showing of evidence, and the ability to see what has been shown. It requires a firm understanding of the mind’s eye.

According to the traditional view of Aristotle, a speaker may appeal to an audience’s Ethos (or ‘moral character’ and trustworthiness of the authority), Pathos (ta pathe or an appeal to the passions, pathetike), or Logos (the ‘reasonable account or demonstration’). Recall that at the beginning of the Republic Socrates suggests Polemarchos persuade he and his to join them for dinner at Polemarchos’s father’s house (initially Polemarchos tried the democratic approach – to compel Socrates to join them by means of the group’s larger number). Socrates is persuaded (his passions sway his opinion) with promises of a torch-race and horse show, a performance that never happens.

Book I deals primarily with the introduction of rhetorical speech – its kind, character, and class and so on. Aristotle spends a great of time discussing ‘courtroom speakers’ a.k.a. lawyers. However, he also addresses “advisory speakers” or leaders. The most important speeches of advisory speakers are: finances, war and peace, territory guarding, imports, exports, and lawmaking. And the target which the good leader is aiming at with his speeches is happiness of the whole of his community. However, speeches may come into conflict with one another, arguing for the greater good, thus Aristotle’s discussion of courtroom speeches.

Book II addresses the passions and dispositions of human beings. Regardless of the coherent, syllogisms in a speech, human beings will form a judgment of the speaker’s character and trustworthiness. Skilled speakers will not dismiss the passions, but rather study them in order to find the most appropriate passion for a situation. For example anger is a feeling of desire for vengeance, and it may be turned from pain into pleasure through imaging revenge, but anger that has quieted and subsided may be turned into a desire for leniency. Anger is different hatred as well as mere dislike of someone or something. Fear is painful agitation, or anxiety, at the thought of future pain. It is different from shame. Charitable feelings have great magnitude in their quest to help those in need without want of recompense in return. Pity, as also discussed in the Poetics, is a feeling of pain at the destruction or suffering of someone undeserving. Pity is different from horror, righteous indignation, envy, or emulation.

Age plays a role in the passions: the young tend to be full of desires and quick to anger, lovers of honor (particularly those involved in winning), and they prefer beautiful deeds to money or private advantage. They are trusting and full of hope. Their errors can come from excessiveness and they feel resolute in their opinions. In contrast, the old tend to be uncertain, and expect the worst. They have less vigor and are inclined toward selfishness, stinginess, cowardice. They dwell in memory rather than hope. They are inclined toward humanity not from a ‘love humanity’ like the young (philanthropy) but rather out of a fear of their own weaknesses. They have many complaints. However the man in the prime of his life is a mean between the two, in his early thirties. He is also at the peak of his body’s powers, and the powers of the soul emerge in the early forties. The power of speeches when addressing audiences of powerful and wealthy audiences is also discussed. The second half of Book II focuses on topics to be discussed regarding various speeches: arguments, historical speeches, made-up speeches and so on.

Book III, the final book, addresses the appropriate presentation, manner, and order of speaking. If one is to convey his feeling accurately (the feelings or passions from Book II), he must take into account melodiousness, rhythm, and volume. Rhetoric engages with the realm of opinion, and opinions are influenced by the effect of a speech on the imagination, and the pleasures it gives to a listener. Skill at performance comes by nature, but the organization of speeches is an art that may be studied. Aristotle proceeds to discuss this art, particularly the use of metaphor, meter, rhythm, definiteness; and their correspondingly appropriate parts to play in speeches: introductions, statements, demonstrations (the persuasive part), and conclusions. Aristotle provides a nuanced polemic against certain aspects of Gorgias’s teaching.

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