Aristotle’s (and Bill Clinton’s) Rhetorical Triangle

Here’s a seemingly innocuous but actually rather controversial subject: rhetoric.

Is rhetoric good or bad?

Bad if you’ve been victimized by a crafty rhetorician—either someone you bought a car from, or voted for in an election, or even dated or married, only to find out this man or woman was great with words, but the words were empty or deceitful or disingenuous. It’s also something to root out when performing dissertation editing, because scholarly writing demands the objective and formal use of language. But before we stereotype rhetoric, let’s define it. Starting with definitions is the first step in a careful, critical analysis. Always best to be sure we’re on the same page—definitionally anyway.

The 1st step in critical analysis: Define your terms

Rhetoric is the skilful use of language to persuade or argue. An early definition of to “argue” is to “clarify.” I love that because it implies that if I can just be clear enough, I should be able to persuade you to see things my way. Argumentation is, after all, a means of fulfilling desire.

Aristotle & Bill Clinton: Masters of Rhetoric

2350 years ago, Aristotle taught how to compose a convincing argument through his rhetorical triangle of logos, ethos, and pathos. Employing these three elements makes your case pretty compelling. President Clinton also was, and still is, a master of triangular argumentation. He never gave a major speech—perhaps not even a minor one or even an impromptu townhall reply to an audience member’s question—without triangulating his words. As he infamously replied to a Congressional inquiry regarding the stain on Monica’s blue dress: “It depends on what your definition of is is.” The funny thing is, he’s right.

Logos

Logos means the “word.” Quite simply, you have to use the right words. For example, our dissertation editing service examines the writer’s message for its internal consistency: your claim, contention, or thesis must be clear; your reasons must be logical; your supporting evidence must be factual. Aristotle designed a syllogistic structure to test the logic of an argument: from the premise, to the reasoning, and then the conclusion. It’s deductive; it makes sense.

Ethos

Ethos refers to the character or credibility of the author or speaker. Ethos is conveyed through reputation, credentials, tone, and style. It’s the way the writer/speaker refers to opposing views that shapes his/her ethical image that appeals to the audience. A speaker or writer creates that ethos by being knowledgeable about the issue, demonstrating fairness, and building a bridge to his/her audience by stressing shared values, assumptions, and benefits.

Pathos

Pathos refers to emotion—the impact of the message on the audience—its motivational appeal. A writer or speaker creates emotional appeal by using concrete language, specific detail, and personal experience. The issue is humanized through a moving, compelling anecdote, an actual example of how the topic impacts real people.

Face the facts: We are all rhetoricians

Tricky stuff or common sense? What salesmen and politicians do, or what you do when you want someone to agree with you? Both, obviously. We all do it, or wish we had the skill to do it. And what’s wrong with that? We should make our words and argument clear. We should demonstrate we’re credible authorities. We should show people what’s in it for them or how it affects them. Funny, though, isn’t it, how the word “rhetoric” has a negative connotation? Sheer hypocrisy, really. We condemn salesmen and politicians for their slick rhetorical skills while attempting to use those same tactics and strategies in our own daily communications. The fact is we’re all rhetoricians—to one degree or another.