Lessons from the Ancient Greeks

Rhetoric: “The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he may express himself with eloquence.” – – Oxford English Dictionary

Your eyes burn, your head aches and the document open on your computer screen is still blank. It’s late, and you still have no idea how to approach the subject of your presentation. You scan the nearby bookshelf containing volumes you haven’t read since your undergraduate days, and then you pause at one. It’s Aristotle’s Rhetoric. You remember that the ancient Greek had something to say about crafting a speech. Could something written over two millennia ago actually help you tonight?

These days few people read Aristotle outside of a college class. However, the ancient philosopher has a lot to say about the art of public speaking. In his book Rhetoric and other writings, he lays out his view of the subject in great and loving detail. Aristotle teaches that different speaking methods work for different settings, and why it’s important for an orator to identify the specific approach he wants to use. He also serves up strategies for how to organize a presentation, and offers insights on our thinking methods.

In Aristotle’s day, rhetoric was a central part of community life. For a young man in the ancient world, the art of persuading fellow citizens was considered a vital skill in order to advance in society. Many aspects of life that today are regarded as separate – religion, law, economics, military strategy, finance and public administration – were combined in the classical world’s political system, and this remained true long after the Greek city-states had disappeared. So to the ancients, rhetoric provided an essential tool for life; what the citizens had to say really mattered. Aristotle’s fundamental contributions remain highly relevant to the contemporary communicator.


First, Make it Appealing!
Most of Aristotle’s teachings about rhetoric can be understood by applying the term he used: the appeal. To Aristotle, the appeal was the speaking method used to persuade an audience toward a particular point of view or course of action. He identified three kinds of appeals: the logical, pathetic and ethical.

The logical appeal is the approach many of us have been taught is the most appropriate. This is the appeal to reason, the attempt to convince the audience that your argument is correct. Logos, which in Ancient Greek meant “word” but also “reason” or “process,” provides the root of our word “logic.” To ancient Greeks, reason was inseparable from speech. However, the idea of speech and reason being separate and sometimes in conflict was something the Greeks also understood very well – it was a main theme in the works of Aristotle’s mentor, the philosopher Plato.

Today, some might argue that approaching an audience through their emotions is inappropriate. That argument would be alien to Aristotle. The pathetic appeal, coming from the same root as “pathos,” involves “working on the emotions of the judges themselves,” he wrote. To the Greeks, this was only realistic because humans are emotional creatures. Ignoring emotion would even show a lack of respect, as it would imply that dealing with the full humanity of their listeners was beneath their pride as a speaker. To Aristotle and other Greeks, the pathetic appeal was, in fact, the most fitting choice for public discussions, while the logical appeal was better suited to private conversations, such as a discussion on the best way to build a boat.

The ethical appeal involves playing to the audience’s sense of admiration for you. In this kind of appeal, you draw on your own life story – a narrative designed to put your character forward as the best criterion for agreement with your positions. This approach is often used today, especially in politics, where candidates focus on their war heroism or experience in office.


Second, Tell a Story
The use of narrative in the ethical appeal leads to the second part of Aristotle’s discussion: the arrangement of the argument. On this topic – the organization of speech content – Aristotle also offers us valuable lessons.

The Greeks could arrange an argument in three ways, and “narrative” was the most popular. To this day, narrative lends itself well to the ethical appeal, but it can also be used with appeals to reason or emotion. The narrative strategy is probably the oldest technique for arranging an argument – as old, perhaps, as verbal communication. The advantages are that it’s a natural way of speaking and a mode of communication most audiences feel comfortable with. It allows you to engage in multiple forms of appeal, often all three in the same presentation. And there are almost as many ways of tailoring a story as there are storytellers.

Forms of the narrative include the parable (a short story illustrating a moral), used in religious writing; the anecdote, used by speakers as diverse as Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Ronald Reagan; personal testimony of events a speaker witnessed; family reminiscences; telling well-known stories about the past; and reciting myths and legends.

The “linear” arrangement was considered the best strategy to use with the logical appeal, because you lay out facts in a step-by-step fashion building toward a specific conclusion. This is the kind of strategy used by lawyers in court arguments and scientists in putting forth their theories. It’s a powerful strategy but requires an audience to engage deeply, so it’s most appropriate for a venue where the audience has special interest or expertise in the field being discussed. You most often find it in specialized professional settings, such as scientific meetings and courts of law.

The third strategy, the “dialectic,” is a modification of the linear arrangement. In this case, the speaker lays out a point-by-point discussion of the position she is advocating and compares it to another position. This strategy is useful in debate. The problem with the dialectic is that it can slide very quickly into negativity, leading to high tempers and more disagreement. However, the dialectic allows you to honestly and realistically incorporate any pre-existing conflict into a speech. Aristotle himself found this the most powerful strategy for cutting to the basic truths underlying a hotly contested debate, and said, “Dialectic is a process of criticism wherein lies the path to the principles of all inquiries.”


How Do You Think?
The last part of Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric concerns the philosopher’s ideas about thought itself – not your form of appeal, or your strategy, but your method of thinking. Aristotle presented many different patterns of thought, but he organized them into two different groups: deductive and inductive.

Deductive thought involves beginning with a general statement about the world and moving to a specific statement about a particular event or situation. This kind of reasoning leads to conclusions that must be correct if all the preceding statements are correct. As they say in Geometry class, if it’s true that parallel lines do not meet, and it’s true that two particular lines are parallel, then it must be true that those two lines do not meet.

The inductive mode of thought does not deal in certainty. In the inductive mode, you begin with specific facts about the world and then argue your way to general statements. Aristotle said induction involves “the universal as implicit in the clearly known particular.” A specific fact might be: “This bird is a raven.” You then move to a more general statement: “There are other particular birds that I know of called ravens.” A statement following that one might be: “All the ravens I’ve seen are black.” And the final conclusion is: “Ravens are black.”

When you are dealing with induction, the conclusions you reach are not certainly true, but probably true. Even if all the ravens you see or know of are black, it’s not absolutely certain that all ravens are black; it’s only more or less likely. There could be some white ravens out there you haven’t seen. And, in the real world, white ravens do indeed exist. However, they are rare. So someone who has never seen a white raven but only the more-common black variety is justified in reaching the inductive – probably true – conclusion that ravens are black.

For an Aristotelian, putting together a speech or a presentation means taking all three of the aspects of rhetoric into account. You must decide how to appeal to your audience, what strategy to use and what form of thought will best suit your arguments.

More than two thousand years separate us from Aristotle. The problems we face, the societies we inhabit, the politics we practice, are all vastly different from those he saw. But people are still people, and humanity was something the Greek philosophers understood very well. Considering all this, it’s no surprise that Aristotle speaks as clearly to us today as he did to his students during the bright Greek mornings long ago.


Robert Oliver is a civil servant in the Washington, D.C., area with a Ph.D. in American Intellectual History from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Reach him at dr.bob.oliver@comcast.net.

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