Words Pack a Punch

Over forty years ago, drifting through my undergraduate years in my ratty easy chair, I came across three words that lifted the veil from my eyes.  Ethos, Pathos, and Logos, the Three Musketeers of rhetoric, seemed to me to be so comprehensive, so simple yet so profound, that I literally had a physical sensation as though the top of my head was coming off.

Sam Leith has written a timely book with a nifty title on the subject of rhetoric.  Words like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama is an accessible and engaging book on one of the oldest and most important disciplines in the world, namely how to use language to get people to do or think what you want them to do or think. 

It starts by demonstrating that, far from being a creature from cloud-cuckoo land, rhetoric is in the very air that we breathe.  Here is a snippet from The Simpsons.

Marge [sings].  How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man? 

Homer:  Seven

Lisa:  No, Dad, it’s a rhetorical question.

Homer:  Okay, eight.

Lisa:  Dad, do you even know what “rhetorical” means?

Homer:  Do I know what “rhetorical” means?

The point is, if Homer (the Simpson, not the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey) is learning about rhetoric, then we can too.  Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, the attempt of one human being to influence another in words.  As the subtitle of the book suggests, rhetoric has been around since the ancient Greeks, who used the art of influence to create the first democracy  (you can’t use force in rhetoric.  Only words.)   It’s also used by priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, pastors, and reverends to get us to give up our evil ways and walk the straight and narrow.  And every advertisement you see, essay you read, or speech you listen to is almost certainly designed and built according to the ancient principles and practices of rhetoric.

Did you know, for instance, that there are three kinds of rhetoric?  Forensic, Deliberative, and Epideictic.  Before you gag on those words, let me put you at ease.  Forensic rhetoric is what lawyers do at a murder trial: they argue about what happened in the past.  Deliberative rhetoric is what politicians use:  they argue about what they can do for you in the future.  And Epideictic rhetoric attempts to delight and educate the audience in the present, as in after-dinner speaking, commencement addresses, and other ceremonial forms of speaking.

The five parts of any ancient speech are consistent with our own methods:  invention (you think up what you want to say), arrangement (put your content in order), style (are you speaking in a locker room or at a funeral?), memory (get it into your head), and delivery (let it rip.)

Aristotle identified three lines of argument that help make you persuasive, and he put them in the Invention part of the rhetorical system.  Ethos is your ethical appeal, and it needs to come at the start of the speech.  You need to establish your credentials, your credibility, and your character, so that you can be seen as a reliable, trustworthy source of information.  Who wants to take a ski lesson from someone who’s never worn a parka?

Pathos is your emotional appeal.  A speaker has to convince an audience that the topic is meaningful to them, that they will gain something by listening, or lose something if they don’t.

And Logos is your intellectual appeal, your facts and figures, and the reasoning you deploy to make sense of those facts.

The author supplies a simple encapsulation.  Ethos: “Buy my old car because I’m an ex-NFL star.”  Logos: “Buy my old car because yours is broken and mine is the only one on sale.”  Pathos:  “Buy my old car because this cute little kitty will expire from a rare degenerative disease if I don’t sell my car and get the money to pay for kitty’s medical treatment.”

The book will also give you a chance to understand what you may be doing on your own—using certain forms of speech to make your message POP!  For instance, chiasmus, which puts  four terms in a crisscrossed relation to each other.  “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country,” said JFK.  “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good,” Dr. Johnson told an aspiring author.  And Theodore Roosevelt characterized as the central condition of human progress “conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess.”

The book is Words like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith, published by Basic Books.  Reading it, you will comprehend how rhetoric is everywhere—in our ears on the radio, in our eyes on TV, and in our minds constantly through print and electronic media.  You would be wise to learn how it works on you, and how you can make it work on others.


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