In yesterday’s post, I talked about classical rhetoric, taught by Aristotle and centuries of teachers since, and its importance to persuasion. Before diving into the specifics of classical rhetoric and its three modes of persuasion (logos, pathos, and ethos), it may be worthwhile to answer the question whether those ancient lessons are still relevant and useful today. As Edward Corbett and Robert Connors acknowledge, “Practices and principles should not be retained simply because they are venerable with age. They should be retained only if they prove relevant and useful.”
We can best answer the question for ourselves by observing the things that influence decision making, both in others and in ourselves. In deciding whether to buy something or whom to vote for, we are influenced in varying degrees by cold logic (logos), by emotion (pathos), or our degree of trust in the seller or the candidate (ethos). When Aristotle wrote about rhetoric 2,300 years ago, he didn’t make it up; he wrote down what he observed in the people around him.
We can also see how, throughout history, influential people have used classical rhetoric to inspire and persuade others. In their book on rhetoric, Corbett and Connors cites numerous examples, analyzing speeches and writings of James Madison, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and others through the late 20th century.
But we don’t have to open a book to see the principles of classical rhetoric at work. Every day, we are bombarded by advertisements, and advertisers use these principles in the extreme. The first example of rhetoric at work in Corbett and Connors’ book is a magazine ad by Hewlett Packard promoting a color printer. And in his book on advanced legal writing, Professor Michael Smith introduces law students to classical rhetoric by analyzing TV commercials.
In short, people famous for inspiring and persuading others have used principles of classical rhetoric. Today, professionals in the business of persuading us to buy stuff use the same principles. These ancient principles have survived for a couple thousand years for one reason: they work.
Sources and authorities for this post:
- Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student 24 (4th ed. 1999).
- Michael R. Smith, Advanced Legal Writing 9–11 (2d ed. 2008).