Rhetoric is, simply, the effective use of language. A more intricate definition of the word might be “speech or written words that are used to prove, convince, persuade.” In either case, rhetoric is a neutral term. Rhetoric can be used to advocate either noble or unsavory causes. In English Composition, we focus on developing rhetorical skill; it is more properly the realm of philosophy to determine which positions are more worthy of our attention.

Rhetoric has been a subject of study, and practice, since Early Civilization. The Ancient Greek Aristotle, in particular, gave much consideration to the topic of rhetoric. Aristotle suggested that there were three components to rhetoric: ethos, an appeal to authority; pathos, an appeal to emotion; and logos, an appeal to reason. Different instances of rhetoric may use one or all of these components. When a police officer shouts, “Stop in the name of the law,” he or she is making an appeal to authority, or ethos. The same is true when a priest, pastor, or rabbi reiterates a commandment from God. When a homeless person asks for money because he or she is desperately hungry, it is an appeal to emotion, or pathos. And when a scientist argues for reductions in carbon emissions because failure to do so will harm the earth’s environment, it is an appeal to reason, or logos.

Advertising, include television commercials, is a form of rhetoric. Advertising usually relies heavily upon pathos, often urging us to buy something out of a manufactured psychological need. People see professional athletes using fitness equipment on an infomercial and think: I don’t look like that athlete; but if I buy that machine, I will. In reality, it would require a major lifestyle adjustment, and perhaps even occupational change, for most people to obtain a “swimmer’s physique.”

Academia focuses primarily on logos, believing that the best decisions come from careful collection of data, thorough analysis of all factors, and disciplined reasoning. This atttitude is carryover from the Age of Enlightenment, when it was thought that rationality was the path to human progress. Life, however, is much more complex, which was what probably motivated French mathematician and philosopher Blais Pascal to state, “The heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of,” or Friedrich Nietzsche to assert “Knowledge kills action.”


5 responses to “Rhetoric

  1. Lily

    I view persuasion as a gift. A lot of thought goes into properly prove a point or convince others to believe as you do. “The Ancient Greek Aristotle, in particular, gave much consideration to the topic of rhetoric. Aristotle suggested that there were three components to rhetoric: ethos, an appeal to authority; pathos, an appeal to emotion; and logos, an appeal to reason.” These three components are more complex then imaginable. They interfere with our daily life and decisions.

  2. Jaqueline Aleman

    I think that rhetoric is such an important part of life. I use it everyday and I find that being aware that you are using ethos, pathos, and logos makes it have even more impact. I also found that this is especially true in debates.

  3. Noah Shepherd

    I completely agree with Lily in that persuasion is a gift given to some, and not others. Certain people have the natural ability to persuade and change others’ opinions from one side to another. Another ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates would do this sort of thing by continually asking questions, so much so so as to create doubts in the person he was questioning’s mind, and thus persuading the other person to think and possibly view things differently, or in a different light. Its amazing what persuasive people can accomplish, whether for good or evil. There have been cases in history of this happening, some as recently as a couple of years ago, and some spanning thousands of years into the mists of time.

  4. As someone who wants to pursue the art of rhetoric as a profession, I find this topic very insightful. The concept of “ethos, pathos, and logos” offers me and all other aspiring lawyers out there a basis, or even a strategy when constructing logical arguments. If we truly analyze any politicians speeches, we can label the theme to his/her message, whether it is emotion, reason, or is G.W.B.’s usual case, authority.
    The true art, in my opinion, lies in ones ability to hone in on which ever strategy will work best on those being persuaded. Once that is accomplished, the point being conveyed will come across much clearer and quicker. The most talented though, will simply roll all three concepts into the same argument, an ability which I some day hope to attain and master.

  5. Cheronn

    Knowing your audience first is helpful in deciding your choice of rhetoric, but in my opinion I think convincing work incorporates ethos, pathos and logos into their work.

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