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.”