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Theory of Persuasion: Classical Rhetoric Overview
By Kapal Berita
19/10/2000 1:27 pm Thu
Komentar: Satu rencana khas untuk bahan bacaan penulis siber atau mereka
yang bakal berhujah dengan pihak di seberang sana.
Robert Gwynne, Ph.D.
Although there are various definitions of the word "rhetoric," we can say
that it is the art of persuasion. This includes written as well as spoken
persuasion, and would include propaganda, advertising, etc. Originally,
however, it referred to spoken persuasion.
By "classical" we mean that time from the fifth century B.C.E in the
Mediterranean area, particularly Greece and Italy.
Classical rhetoric is important because it established the basic
theories of persuasion that were taught until this century. These
theories still hold true today, and we can become better, more
persuasive communicators if we adhere to the best of them. If you
stop and think about it for a minute, you will note that the most
influential and powerful people in our society are good communicators.
Politicians who make our laws are generally excellent speakers. People whom
you admire (outside of sports) are often good communicators.
Although it's said that power comes out of the end of a gun, power really
comes out of people's mouths. Hitler was a good speaker who was able to
control a large military by virtue of his power to persuade. Christ was a
person who was able to persuade with sermons. Malcom X and Martin Luther
King were adept speakers. In short, communication is power. The teachers who
established rhetoric as an art knew this well and were able to observe and
establish those things that make for effective persuasion. Just as
Pythogoras established his theorem which serves as the basis for modern
multivariate statistical theory, Protagoras, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.,
established rhetorical theories which are still powerful today. Language is,
like the gun, an instrument of power for those who know how to use it.
How it Began
Rhetoric grew out of the need for people to express themselves in court.
There were no lawyers in Athens, Greece in 500 B.C.E. The story goes that a
man by the name of Corax started the first courses in rhetoric in Sicily in
response to an increase in litigation over land. We don't know if this is
true, but we do know that itinerant teachers called sophists (sophos = wise)
began teaching rhetoric in Athens in the 5th century.
The Athenians had done two things that created a need for teachers of
rhetoric. First, they founded a democratic form of government and, second,
they instituted court reform. In the first instance, government had been
based on a clan or tribal system, as it still is in many Middle Eastern
countries today. This meant that the clans with the most land, power,
people, etc., had advantage over weaker clans. Since the system did not work
smoothly Kleisthenes created a system in which power resided in the people
as a whole and not in an elite few. Second, they filled high offices by
choosing by lot from among the best qualified among the candidates. In
addition, the courts were reformed by changing from a system of magistrates
who decided cases to a system of juries chosen by lot. The juries, by the
way, were quite large, around 200 citizens. Citizens, it should be noted,
did not include women or slaves. Also note that slaves were not of African
origin, but were generally women and children or male craftsmen captured in
war. Most males captured in war were killed. If the men were not killed they
would have been used to work in mines or the galleys of ships. Getting back
to the point, since the juries were large, trials were rather public
affairs. Also, the people involved in the trials had to defend or plea their
own cases. No Johnny Cochrans here.
With such an open system of government in which people had to argue their
own cases and could become powerful politicians and leaders by virtue of
their eloquence, learning how to win friends and influence people became a
valued skill. As a consequence, speech teachers were in demand. Things were
not all as equalitarian as we might imagine, however. As always wealth
played no small part. The sophists (teachers) charged high fees for their
services, which only the wealthy could afford. Just like today, the rich got
richer and the poor, poorer. Unlike today, however, the teachers made money.
The Sophists were not an organized school of philosophy. Instead, they were
itinerant teachers, some of whom taught in Athens and competed with each
other for clients. Their main competitor, however, was Plato. Whereas, the
Sophists believed that only provisional or probable knowledge was available
to human beings, Plato believed that absolute knowledge was attainable.
Since the Sophists traveled around and saw many different societies with
many different perceptions of reality and the gods, they became relativists.
Although Plato, most of who's writings have come down to us, berated the
Sophists for not being concerned with truth, but only in making money and
securing success in argument by any means possible, the Sophists were highly
" Plato regarded the rational soul as immortal, and he believed in a world
soul and a Demiurge, the creator of the physical world. He argued for the
independent reality of Ideas, or Forms, as the immutable archetypes of all
temporal phenomena and as the only guarantee of ethical standards and of
objective scientific knowledge. Virtue
consists in the harmony of the human soul with the universe of Ideas, which
assure order, intelligence, and pattern to a world in constant flux. Supreme
among them is the Idea of the Good, analogous to the sun in the physical
The Sophists, on the other hand, saw human nature as shaped by social
circumstances. It's ironic that, while Plato is venerated, along with
Aristotle, as THE great classical philosopher, the Sophists are the ones who
are the most modern. Philosophers such as John Searle make the argument that
social reality is constructed. For example, although money is palpable,
e.g., it is paper, silver, etc.,it is the social agreement of what money
represents that counts. Money stands for a social construct that we agree
upon. During the American Civil War Confederate dollars were worth
something; however, after the South lost the war, the North changed that
social reality. Since the Sophists often dealt with legal arguments, a more
pertinent example is the outcome of the O.J.Simpson trial. The trial made
the different realities of African Americans and White Americans manifest.
In a sense, there is an absolute reality: O.J. either did or did not really
murder Nichole Brown. But what counts is the social reality. Legally, he
didn't do it. Plato would have a hard time with that kind of argument;
whereas, the Sophists would accept it. I know what I believe, but my belief
is determined by social considerations such as my racial and ethnic
background, what I saw and heard in the trial, and so on.
Sophistic rhetoric was divided into two main schools: that of Protagoras and
that of Gorgias (Gore-Gee-Us). Protagoras was a relativist who believed that
morals are not universal and absolute, but culturally or socially
determined. Our experience of the world is limited by our senses. For
example, humans do not have the ability to see in the infra-red range of the
spectrum; so we cannot see the same things that cats can see. However, cats
can't see color; so they have no
Gorgias emphasized the power of rhetoric, both nonverbal and verbal, more
than did Protagoras. In his most famous surviving work, Encomium to Helen,
(An encomium is a speech of praise.)Gorgias argues that Helen was not the
cause of the Trojan War. For those who do not know the
story, a little digression: Helen, who most likely really lived, was the
daughter of Zeus (a god) and Leda (a princess). All the kings of Greece
wooed her because she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She
probably also laid claim to a lot of land as well. She was given the choice
of whom to marry and all of the kings of Greece agreed to defend her husband
if anyone tried to take her from him by force. She chose Menelaus, the king
of Sparta as her mate. The story goes that she
was stolen away by Paris of Troy, an important horse trading city across the
Aegean Sea on the coast of what is now Turkey. As a consequence the Greek
kings kept their promise and beseiged Troy for ten years before it finally
fell and was destroyed. We don't know exactly when all of this happened, but
it was probably a couple hundred years before the blind Greek poet Homer
(800 B.C.E ?) created the Illiad, an epic poem about the seige. By the time
we get to the Fifth Century B.C.E., the poets blame Helen for not being an
unwilling participant in the affair, which damaged Greek society and
destroyed Troy. In essence, the poets of Gorgias' time were saying that
Gorgias, who was noted for being an extremely powerful and entertaining
speaker, came to her defense by saying that she was not to blame. She was
captivated by Paris's speech and appearance. In the encomium, Gorgias writes
that "speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most
invisible body effects the divinest works: it can stop fear and banish grief
and create joy and nurture pity.
"The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the
power of drugs over the nature of bodies. For just as different drugs dispel
different secretions from the body, and some bring an end to disease and
others to life, so also in the case of speeches, some distress, others
delight, some cause fear, and others make hearers bold,
and some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion. ... if
she was persuaded by speech she did not do wrong but was unfortunate."
This sounds a lot like a modern defense lawyer talking.
Both Protagoras and Gorgias rejected the idea of absolute truth. Gorgias
said that opinion is the only guide to action. The power of speech is the
power to shape opinion. They differed, however, on the issue of symmetry in
the communication transaction. According to Gorgias the action is one way
between the speaker and the audience. According to Protagoras, both sides
influence the outcome or opinion. The relationship between the speaker and
the audience is symmetric rather than asymmetric. These differences exist
today in people's attitudes toward television, with some believing that
television viewers are passive consumers of all that they see on the tube.
Isocrates (That's not Socrates, mind you) was another Sophist who has
contributed to an especially important ideas in rhetorical theory. His
primary interest was to train talented men to become ethical and effective
speakers. Like other Sophists he believed that human knowledge is limited.
Choosing the "right" course of action in every situation is impossible. He
stressed eloquence in speech making and was quite eloquent himself. Although
learning to speak eloquently was stressed in a large part of our rhetorical
history, it is of little importance today.
What is important today is his stress on fitness for the occassion. To him,
fitness was all. That is certainly true today. Modern speech teachers
constantly admonish their students to analyze the audience and to design
presentations that are appropriate to the audience. One problem that many
scholars and scientists have is that they are unable to communicate with the
common folk because they are too technical. Another of Isocrates' beliefs
was that speakers should be moral
In the Antidosis he wrote:
"For who does not know that words carry greater conviction when spoken by
men of good repute than when spoken by men who live under a cloud, and that
the argument which is made by a man's life is of more weight than that which
is furnished by his words."
I will stress again and again that one's credibility is central to
persuasion. A person who is not credible is at a distinct disadvantage when
it comes to persuasion. Over the last few years credibility has been central
to U.S. politics. Why, for example, are the Republicans going after
President Clinton and the First Lady regarding White Water? The answer is
that they want to bring down the President or at least neutralize his power.
The Democrats did the same thing to George Bush regarding Iran-Contra. Jimmy
Swaggart and Jim Bakker lost their power to
persuade because they lost their credibility. Put bluntly, credibility is
power. The power game in Washinton these days seems to rely more on
undermining the opponent's credibility than on criticizing his/her political
Isocrates also wrote that ability, whether in speech or in any other
activity, is found in those who are well endowed by nature and have been
schooled by practical experience. In addition to credibility, rhetorical
success results from:
One of the above characteristics alone is not enough. It takes all working
together. We all know or have known someone who has a large quantity of
natural talent for something, but who suffers from not putting the talent to
use or from not having had instruction to develop the talent. In some cases
a person with great talent will not develop it because she/he feels she/he
can get by well without practice or instruction. On the other hand, practice
and instruction may be of some help for a person lacking talent, but it's
hard to reach a high level of competence without being born with talent.
This is true of communicating in front of a group. However, even if we can't
What can we learn from the Sophists? First, absolute, complete knowledge is
impossible because of our limited senses. Second, language (rhetoric) plays
a major role in shaping our sense of reality especially social reality.
Third, we have an ethical and practical responsibility to be credible, to
tell and seek the truth. Fourth, talent, practice, and instruction taken
together make for good communicators.
Plato was not kind to the Sophists. First, he competed with them for
students. Second, he differed with them philosophically. Whereas the
Sophists were relativists, Plato and his followers were absolutists. Third,
although Protagoras may have introduced the method, Plato
settled on dialectic as the means to determining truth. In the dialectic
method, an answerer and a questioner debate. The answerer defends his thesis
and the questioner tries to demolish it. The
questioner can only ask questions and the answerer can only answer with yes
or no answers. The questioner tries to frame a series of questions so that
he will lead the answerer to contradict his thesis. We now know that,
although the debates appear to be logical, they often depend on shifts in
the meanings of words. However, the method was the beginning of methodical
philosophical reasoning. A parody of such a dialogue goes like this:
Q: Have you a dog?
Plato, as I said, was an absolutist. That is, he believed that certain
things were absolutely true or false. For example 49 is a square number.
Always has been, always will be. Or, an equal lateral triangle has all sides
absolutely equal. If one side is off by just the tiniest bit, it is not an
equal lateral triangle. In order to understand where he was coming from, we
need to understand his theory of forms, best expressed in his dialogue
Phaedo. A simplified explanation goes like this:
"We cannot know things accurately through our senses. Here, he agrees with
the Sophists. The world is mutable. The snow which I see outside my window
will soon melt. Like everything, it changes. However, we know that there are
timeless truths, e.g., the square root of 4 equals 2. We
also know that there are concepts such a truth, beauty, and justice which
are timeless. For Plato a general idea or concept is immutable because it is
an independently existing real thing or entity.
Plato also believed that the human souls are immortal, which implies that
they must have already existed before they got here and will continue to
exist somewhere when we die. This immortality of the soul is proved by the
fact that we are able to apprehend the everlasting conceptual objects that
Plato called Forms."
This world of Forms is a secondary, transcendent world that contains
concept-objects or ideas. This world of Forms or Ideas is a separate place
that we have come from and to which we will return. It is similar to the
Christian idea of Heaven. Since we come from this world, we have knowledge
of it. The way that we uncover that knowledge is through dialectic or some
kind of mystical connection.
So what, you ask. The "so what" is that with absolute knowledge, rhetoric,
the art of persuasion, is an invalid method of arriving at true knowledge.
Furthermore, if we have a priesthood that has a
direct line to the world of Forms, we don't need to be persuaded in the
Forms. We only need to accept what the priesthood has to say. If we have a
political leader who has a direct line to the world of Forms, we need not
think, question, or complain; we only need to listen to our dictator who
knows the truth. Soon we find that ideas that run counter to the dictator
are suppressed by shutting up the critics one way or another: jail, death,
control of the media, etc. Speech turns from
an emphasis on persuasion to an emphasis on style, etc. Ceremonial speech
and sermons become important. This sort of thinking resulted in the
Inquisition by the medieval Church which executed and persecuted untold
numbers of people, including Copernicus and Galileo. Today, it leads to
suppression of the press, and in counties like Iran to the suppression of
those opposed to the fundamentalist Shia theocracy. The Sophistic view
supports freedom of speech; the Platonic view, censorship.
Although Aristotle attended Plato's Academy, he did not agree with him in
every respect. He agreed that knowledge of universal ideas was a kind of
knowledge, but he also believed that we gain knowledge from experience, from
particulars. In between the two kinds was probable
knowledge, knowledge of what is generally the case. The arguments of
dialectic, he wrote, derive from premises based on universal opinion, while
the arguments of rhetoric derive from particular opinion. However, he was
concerned that many of the Sophists were concerned only with manipulating
words and people just to win an argument, not to find truth.
At the outset of his work, On Rhetoric, Aristotle says that rhetoric is the
counterpart of dialectic. He further goes on to define it as the art of
finding the available persuasives. Since people are not
persuaded until they are convinced that something is true, rhetoric involves
demonstration of how those somethings are true or at least usually true.
There are three sources to look at to find what
may persuade an audience:
Ethos has to do with the character of the speaker, with his/her credibility.
Credibility involves more than just honor. It has to do with demeanor,
expertise, attractiveness as so on. I'll devote
more time to this complex and important subject later. For now, however,
let's just think of ethos as all that stuff that affects the audience's
perception of the speaker. Pathos, on the other hand
focuses on the characteristics of the audience. In modern day parlance, we
might say that it has to do with audience demographics and psychographics,
i.e., education level, intelligence, ethnicity,
gender, age, interests, etc. Logos has to do with the speech itself, e.g.,
its arrangement, length, complexity, types of evidence and arguments, and so
on. All three of these characteristics are
equally important, although some may become more important in different
One thing is certain, though, and that is that each characteristic requires
research. In order to present a credible appearance, one needs to be
prepared, which involves research into the topic. Audiences, at least some
of the time, are able to recognize a strong breeze of hot air hitting them
in the face. Audience research is also important. Know your audience and
design your message so that it appeals to them and so that people can
understand it. Scientists, engineers, computer geeks,
etc., often talk over their audience's heads. Maybe they like to hear
themselves pontificate. That, however, is a good way to lose an audience.
Advertisers know how important audience analysis and audience targetting is.
They spend billions of dollars a year on audience analysis. Finally,
preparing a well organized presentation with lots of evidence and examples
is important. People like structure and they like examples, "little stories"
that illustrate a point. It's easy to see how these three characteristics
interact. The speech has to be organized in way that will convince the
audience. We have to know the audience to do this. We also have to know the
audience in order to
Aristotle also wrote about the three virtues of of style:
Clarity is important. In the above paragraph I wrote about audience analysis
and how some speakers have problems because they speak over their audience's
heads. In every case, it is necessary to be clear. Use concise, well chosen
examples; choose words carefully; don't try to snow
your audience. Propriety has to do with what is proper. There are certain
words that we do not use with general audiences. There are things that we
don't talk about. As one Supreme Court judge said about indecent language. A
pig is just fine in a pig pen, but not in the parlor. The whole idea is to
get the audience on your side, not to alienate them. We should also use
correct language. We should use grammar fit for the occasion and correct
words. We don't want to say things such as, "Poor people are able to afford
less homes." It should be "fewer homes." We need to eliminate "ah," "like,"
"ya know," etc. from our speech.
By the First Century B.C.E. rhetoricians had settled on the five part
division of the preparation of a speech: three of these parts are still
useful to us today: invention, arrangement, and delivery.
Invention has to do with finding the arguments, evidence, examples, etc.,
that will persuade our audience. In other words, invention has a strong
research component. According to Aristotle, there are two
main divisions of arguments: artistic and non-artistic. The non-artistic
arguments are those that the speaker has to discover and not just think up.
These are the kinds of arguments that are out
there for us to discover. Aristotle divided the artistic proofs into three
rational or logos
There are various kinds of rational arguments, but the two main kinds are
inductive and deductive arguments. An inductive argument derives its
truthfulness from what is generally true, e.g., the sun has risen in the
west everyday in recorded history; therefore, the sun will rise in the west
tomorrow. Or, smokers have a higher incidence of lung cancer than
nonsmokers; therefore, smoking causes lung cancer.
Inductive arguments show up as examples, deductive arguments often
are what Aristotle called enthymemes. An enthymeme is an argument that
contains a conclusion and one premise, with the other premise being implied
or taken for granted by the audience. For example: "No one ever attains
perfect happiness in this life; so Monique had better not count on attaining
perfect happiness." We assume that Monique is a person and not my pet cat,
which seems to have achieved perfect happiness.
Since people are generally more passionate than rational, emotional appeals
are often effective. This should be readily apparent to anyone who at least
casually kept up with the O. J. Simpson trial. The judgement of the nation
was divided according to race and not evidence. Because we are emotional,
most advertising appeals to pathos. The research that is appropriate for
determining what pathetic appeals are most effective is audience analysis.
Advertisers, today's most effective
Ethos, ethical appeal, is a more important mode of persuasion than we might
first realize. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Use what language you will, you
can never say anything but what you are." Ethos, which also falls under the
rubric of credibility, has to do with the audience's perception of the
character of the speaker. If a speaker impresses the audience with his/her
appearance, competence or expertise, intelligence, good will, honesty,
dynamism, etc., chances are that he/she will persuade the audience. If not,
he/she will not be persuasive. Ever since Nixon covered up the facts behind
the Watergate burglary, both Republicans and Democrats have attempted to
Modern scholars have determined that there are seven dimensions for source
credibility (Listed in order of importance).
1.Competence : The level of knowledge and experience the audience perceives
in the speaker. Preparation, body language, appearance, educational level
are important here.
Arrangement is important because people like structure. Aristotle said that
speeches should have at least a beginning, middle, and end. This sounds
simple enough, but I have heard countless speakers blatantly disregard this
basic rule. What usually happens is that such speakers get so carried away
by the sound of their own words that their speeches have two, three, or more
beginnings, middles, and ends. A good speech, like a jazz solo builds to a
climax and ends. The audience can hear the
flow of the speech and anticipate the conclusion. To have several climaxes
in one speech frustrates the audience's expectations. Another problem that
often arises with inexperienced speakers is that they totally forget the
conclusion or fail to signal the conclusion. They leave us hanging, asking,
So, is that it?"
Outlining your speech or presentation is important. A sentence outline can
help you with the structure of the presentation, and a keyword outline
derived from the sentence outline can help you keep your place while giving
the presentation. In addition, your audience will thank you for giving them
some structure. Remember, people thrive on structure and desire closure.