Aristotle is one of the most well-known and influential philosophers in history; his influence helped to dramatically shape the politics and rhetoric of ancient Greece. His book, Rhetoric, is one particularly important tome that describes the art of persuasion through rhetoric; here, he outlines strategies for persuasion and convincing others of your points through three distinct modes – pathos, ethos and logos. Rhetoric still plays an incredibly important part in our political process; the use of arguments and debate is one of the biggest weapons politicians use to get their point across and communicate their desires to the people. Our modern political processes have evolved substantially from their Greek foundations, but many components are essentially similar in makeup.
Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric is firmly established in Rhetoric as the antistrophos, or counterpart, to dialectic (Book 1:1:1-2). Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is the capacity to see the way to persuade someone of your point. Your central argument, or point, is known as an enthymeme, and convincing others through rhetoric and speech involves modes of persuasion that also use syllogisms (linked comparative reasoning) and/or paradigms (models and patterns). In many basic ways, rhetoric is still the primary tool of persuasion in modern politics.
Pathos is an emotional appeal, and is one of the three modes of persuasion delineated in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Pathos can be conveyed in many ways, but the primary two include metaphor and passion. When conveying pathos, the speaker or writer can use a metaphor or some other kind of hook to draw the reader in and allow them to connect the story being told to their own life. Furthermore, the speaker or writer can deliver their message with clear passion, showcasing intense and fervent emotion when dealing with the situation. This can make the audience much more sympathetic to the reader, as they can feel more emotionally invested. More than other methods of persuasion, this one is the most emotional – “persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions” (Aristotle, Rhetoric).
Ethos is the second mode of persuasion that Aristotle notes in Rhetoric; in essence, ethos means “character,” and stands for the beliefs that comprise an ideology, typically of a nation. Speakers are meant to establish their ethos right at the beginning; this can include wisdom and practical skills, virtue, and the positive feelings the speaker has toward the audience. The audience’s role is to determine the ethos of the speaker, and so it is the speaker’s responsibility to convey that ethos correctly and accurately. This is a component of argument due to its ability to establish what the speaker thinks about a certain issue, and the overall philosophy they are trying to convey to the audience. This is what establishes the speaker’s credibility for the audience, and whether or not the audience thinks of the speaker as moral.
Logos, unlike pathos, revolves primarily around the reasoning and cognitive assumptions made on the part of the speaker when addressing the audience. Logos is the argument itself, and the way it is conveyed to the audience: “For Aristotle, logos is something more refined than the capacity to make private feelings publicit makes it possible for him to perceive and make clear to others through reasoned discourse the difference between what is advantageous and what is harmful, between what is just and what is unjust, and between what is good and what is evil” (Raye, p. 21). Someone using logos argues from a position of reason, as opposed to with pathos when they use emotional arguments.
The use of Aristotelian rhetoric in ancient Greek politics showcases the original intent of these philosophies. In Ancient Greece, political discourse was often and frequently encouraged of its people; rhetoric was used by politicians, orators and philosophers to convince the minds of the people in order to steer them toward their own political perspective. To that end, rhetoric became considered somewhat of a science, as the Greeks sought the most efficient and effective ways to convince others of their argument. People’s command of rhetoric would be championed, and logic and reasoning were the most valued traits in individuals looking to create and support their argument in front of an audience. Forums and other such venues allowed for these audiences, wherein speakers could come in and state their case to a large group of people, their greater command of rhetoric determining how effectively their argument was received.
When applying Aristotelian rhetoric to modern politics, however, one sees a remarkable similarity to the ancient Greek principles and practices, with a few decided differences. Just like in ancient Greece, rhetoric and persuasion is as important as ever – in today’s increasingly media-savvy world, it is vital that speakers have a superior command over rhetoric to stand out in a very saturated market. Often, this comes in the form of emotional appeals and a greater use of pathos in arguments; logic is often thrown out the window by political debaters in favor of quick, passionate appeals that are palatable and consumable to the average audience. Often, misinformation is bandied about with enough conviction (or appeals to pathos) to actually convince others of its validity, creating a culture that values the salacious and exciting rather than the reasoned and logical. To that end, a superior knowledge of rhetoric is just as important, if not more important, today than in ancient Greece. The sheer number of people reached by mass communication today makes it essential for a superior command of rhetoric to cut through the noise.
The need for rhetoric has been recognized by many in light of the media-saturated world of today. The Internet pervades every aspect of life, from smartphones to streaming video. Every single human need for information or entertainment can be accessed with the push of a button, which creates a culture of immediacy that some people believe threatens societal development. However, it can be said that the Internet provides a bastion of information and communication that is unprecedented at any other point in history. This is found most clearly in the advent of social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter - these are hubs of information and modes of communication between millions of individuals at a time. The immediate thoughts, the hopes and dreams, and the political beliefs of millions of people are instantly at one's fingertips. Furthermore, the advent of the news media and newspapers has created a culture in which information and knowledge about any subject can be reached. Cable news networks run 24 hours a day, having entire blocks of time in which speakers are allowed to reach huge, worldwide audiences in order to make their case, whether they be pundits, panelists or anyone else. Advertising campaigns utilize rhetoric to get a candidate’s message across, necessitating an even greater command of language than ever before.
In conclusion, Aristotle’s concept of rhetoric is just as important and valuable today as it was in ancient Greece, though it has certainly adjusted over time to have different priorities. Aristotle, in writing Rhetoric, sought to dispel Plato’s negative opinions of the practice – he thought it merely a vehicle for finding out how best to deceive people – by making it “a means for statesmanship rather than as a tool of despotism” (Nichols 1987, p. 657). However, given the greater need for pathos and attention in a world wherein rhetoric is all over the place, deceit is often used to get the message across, even when the message is untrue. Aristotle’s understanding of rhetoric allows politicians and speakers to cut to the heart of what they (and their audience) want; he also has a much more optimistic view than his contemporaries of its value: “Because it is based on a comprehensive understanding of human nature, their rhetoric will be persuasive. And because of that same comprehensiveness, it will be both true and just, to the extent that human affairs permit” (Nichols 1987, p. 675). Instead of ancient Greece’s simple Forums, the world is one large forum today; the advent of mass communication has made it possible for one message, delivered once, to reach the entire world. Given that much power, it is more than necessary to maintain the traditions and principles of rhetoric as Aristotle noted them.
Aristotle (1954). Rhetoric. (1st Modern Library ed.) New York: Modern Library.
Nichols, M. P. (1987). Aristotle’s defense of rhetoric. The Journal of Politics 49(3): 657-677.
Rahe, P.A. (1994). Republics Ancient and Modern: The Ancient Régime in Classical Greece,