***Please forgive the audio quality this week. We had to record on different equipment.***
I know a lot of you are busy this week, so I won’t keep you too long, but it seemed like it was important to check in with you all as the year winds down.
It’s a sentimental time of year for some people. I am recording this on Winter Solstice, which holds significant meaning for some people, and is an important night historically, traditionally, and spiritually for people all around the world. Some people have been celebrating the Festival of Lights recently. Kwanzaa is right around the corner. Christmas is this week. Festivus for the rest of us, if you like the pop culture approach. A lot of the world’s culture’s see this time of year as a significant turning point in the calendar and have marked it with a holiday of some variety. And that might not be you. You might not partake in any kind of holiday festivities or beliefs, and that’s okay, too.
But this time of year brings out the spiritual side of humanity, and it has since we first started living together in groups. As the nights got longer and longer and the days got colder, and we were forced to seek shelter and warmth with each other, we found ourselves thinking about big ideas and unanswerable questions.
This manifested itself in pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and evergreen celebrations of life and light well before Christians confiscated the 25th. Historically this time of year is a time for reflection on the sacred and light and those things that bring life and growth, and always has been.
So this week I am going to indulge in a little seasonal reckoning. I’m not going to talk about the roots of any particular holiday or proselytize, but I’m going to let myself wander into the KINDS of thinking that this time of year historically allows for. I’m going to do some philosophical, even spiritual kinds of exploring of rhetorical thinking. Welcome to my journey.
About 350 years before Christ the Greeks were developing the rhetorical theories that would found the discipline and become the classics. First and foremost among these thinkers was Aristotle, of course.
Aristotle described three different modes of persuasion in his germinal work Rhetoric. We often refer to them as rhetorical appeals. But he outlined the modes of persuasion of logos, pathos, and ethos.
Logos has a few meanings in Greek. It means “word,” “opinion,” “reason,” or “ground.” We’ll talk more about logos in a few minutes, but for now we need to focus on its meaning as “reason” or “logic.” When one is making an argument one mode of persuasion, or one way you appeal to people, is through reason. Logic makes things persuasive. It is through our reason that we can persuade people to think like us.
Another mode of persuasion is pathos, which means “emotion.” It’s at the root of “sympathy” and “empathy.” We persuade people by making them feel things. Our emotions are powerful and can convince us that some things are true or untrue. And that’s not bad. It is not wrong to use emotion to make your case. We are human. We have emotions. It would be weird to think you could convince a person in a completely emotionless way because, well, people HAVE emotions. That’s one of the things that MAKES us human. To think we should operate SOLELY based on logic would be to deny us of one of the very foundational parts of our humanity. So go ahead – appeal to emotion! We connect to each other emotionally. We understand each other through our emotions. Emotions make things real. Emotions are humanizing.
But don’t appeal JUST to emotion, either. Because reason is part of us, too, and we need that as well. If you appeal to just one of the other, you’re denying a big part of a person’s humanity. Reason and emotion are part and parcel what makes up a person. If you deny one, then you are denying the wholeness of a person. It is appropriate to appeal to BOTH reason AND emotion because we are WHOLE people. So appeal to the WHOLE person.
Finally, there is ethos, which sounds like our word, “ethics.” But it basically means “credibility.” This means your character is a mode of persuasion. You appeal to your audience as a member of the community, as an expert, as a noble figure – but something about you makes you believable. Your character, or your credibility makes your persuasive.
Your character is something you build – you create your character for your audience. It is a matter of how you prove that you are worth listening to.
Here’s where I want to jump into a slightly more philosophical line of thinking – I think Aristotle has a lot to tell us about what it means to be human when he tells us about the modes of persuasion.
He gives us three different ways to appeal to people – through reason, through emotion, and through character. I think the reason those are the most effective way to appeal to people is because those are the very things that tie us together – they make us human. At the heart of being a human being is reason, emotion, and character. These things set us apart. That is not to say that other creatures don’t feel emotion or that other creatures don’t reason. We know that crows problem solve, and dogs miss their owners. But the combination of reason, emotion, and our understanding of character is singular to humans. That’s why Aristotle said we must be convinced through reason, emotion, and character – because it is the essence of our humanity.
This is why the study of rhetoric has continued to appeal to me for so many years. The more I learn about my field the more I become convinced it is not just the study of persuasion, but it is the study of what makes us human.
When I teach rhetorical theory to grad students the class centers on question of truth, reality, and rhetoric, and there are no more human questions. When the Greeks were figuring out what persuades us, they were asking some really foundational questions – they were asking what moves us at the most basic, fundamental level? How does one being connect with another? What causes a person to shift their perspective? These are questions about how humans think and feel. And to get to the heart of that you need to think about what it means to be human.
That’s why I think Aristotle’s modes of persuasion are so important. They aren’t JUST how we persuade. They are fundamental to who we are. We are creatures of reason and passion. We balance those precariously every day – it is our character.
But the Greeks’ influence spread beyond just Aristotle.
A few hundred years after that Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews were all in the same part of the world – their ideas and cultures intermingling and affecting each other in ways both small and large. It was into this world that the early Christians were born, and the Bible reflects these competing languages and philosophies all throughout the New Testament.
One passage that speaks to rhetoricians in particular is the opening to the gospel of John. John is what is known as the non-synoptic gospel. That means it is different than all the other gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all notably similar – they contain many of the same stories and largely in the same order, but John stands on its own, as a work unto itself. The theory is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are probably all based on the same text but John was written separately. The synoptic gospels all begin with an account of Christ’s birth. But John, instead of beginning with a narrative, begins with a much more theological proclamation.
John opens with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now, there’s a lot of writing about what this means. A lot of people talk about how this is about the divinity of Christ and other theological things, but I want to think about this as a rhetorician for a minute. In the Greek, the word that is used for “Word” in this verse is “logos.” So it’s “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.” That’s really powerful for a lot of reasons.
Theologically, Word here means Christ. But logos also means reason. In the beginning was reason, and reason was with God, and reason was God. The Greek connection between word, reason, and divinity is very strong.
Think about what that means for a minute – is it reason that brings us closer to divinity? Is it words? Are those two things one and the same? The words are the same in Greek. We forget that the root for ‘logo” or symbol, and “logic” or reason, are the same thing. So is this ability to reason symbolically what makes us human? Or what makes us god-like?
John’s first verse makes powerful claims about the nature of God – God is with logos. God IS logos. When I think about that in conjunction with Aristotle I am really moved. So our reason makes us god-like. Is it our emotion and our character that make us human?
I guess the end of 2020 has me thinking about what it means to be human, and what that means for my rhetorical studies, because 2020 has us all desperately searching for our humanity.
Coronavirus came to America in January. It’s been here for almost a year. Almost 320,000 people have died. Outside of doctors, grocery store clerks, and the two people I live with, I have spoken to a total of one person face to face since March. If it weren’t for texting and Zoom I would be completely cut off from the world.
So these questions of what connects us and what makes us tick are on my mind a lot. I think a lot about who we are and how we are functioning. And I find that these questions can’t be separated from current events – whether we are creatures of reason or passion and how that relates to our humanity is very much related to questions of why conspiracy theory or anti-science rhetoric is running amok in public discourse. And it’s not just a simple, well, people aren’t being reasonable kind of answer. We really have to think about what moves us – emotion, character, AND logic to understand how these narratives take hold. Because reason is just 1/3 of the story.
We are incredibly complex creatures who create and consume complicated arguments and narratives. We ask so much of each other every day when we expect each other to suss out what is good from what is bad. We create and destroy realities on an hourly basis as we craft stories to make sense of the world. Now THAT is god-like. If there is any touch of the divine in us perhaps it is less our reason and more our ability to create entire worlds for ourselves and for others.
Look, this may seem like a lot to dump on your plate right now, but ‘tis the season? Traditionally, this is the time of year when we think about our humanity, and our relationship to the divine, and how we fit in with each other and the rest of the world. I’m just following the rules, here.
My guess is a lot of you don’t necessarily believe in the divine per se, but you do believe in human connection. So that’s where we should probably end this. All of these ideas we’ve been throwing around are really just the fundamental things that connect us to each other, when it comes down to it. I recognize you are human because you are like me, and you are like me because you reason, you emote, and I can assess your character.
Rhetoric, at its heart, is the study of what connects us, what makes us human. Whether you think that is sacred or not is your own business, but it is most certainly common. You can think of it in terms of Vico instead of St. John.
So I want to thank you for joining me on this journey of exploration the last few months. It’s a podcast about rhetoric, but more importantly it’s about what makes us human. And we could all stand to share a little bit more of that right now.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.