Miller, Mark James

“I am an optimist,” said Winston Churchill. “It does not seem too much use to be anything else.”

Churchill doubtlessly was aware when he spoke those words he was using logos, that part of the rhetorical triangle identified by Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago in his book “The Art of Rhetoric,” an appeal to logic and reason rather than pathos, an appeal to the emotions. He also knew he had the quality of ethos behind him, credibility with his audience as well as their trust.

Ethos, trust; logos, logic; and pathos, emotion, said Aristotle, were the foundations of rhetoric, i.e., the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing. The use of one of these or a combination thereof were the best ways to convince an audience or a reader of your point of view. Although they are generally not aware of it, students — and the rest of us — use or are exposed to rhetoric and the rhetorical triangle in one form or another nearly every day.

A writer on Forbes.com noted recently that business is about getting other people to do what someone else wants them to do, and rhetoric is an invaluable tool in that quest.

Advertisers use pathos to try to get us to buy their product, insinuating that what they are selling will make us look younger or show us an easy way to shed unwanted pounds. Lawyers file briefs intended to convince a judge their client is not a flight risk. A chief financial officer will write a memo to the CEO in an effort to sway the direction the corporation’s money will be spent.

Students are often surprised at how knowledge of rhetoric can help them understand the world around them.

“For years I have been troubled by the not-guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995,” a student said. “Now I realize the defense used pathos when appealing to the jury, and the prosecution relied on logos. Pathos won.”

“Obama is my favorite president,” another student wrote. “I see now that he relied on ethos, because he never lied and people trusted him, and he used logos to appeal to people.”

Nowadays rhetoric has a negative connotation. When people hear the word rhetoric they think of a politician’s bombast or empty promises. Think of a certain presidential candidate who promised to release his tax returns after being elected. Two-and-a-half years later, we are still waiting.

If used properly, rhetoric can add spice to what would otherwise be ordinary and unmemorable phrases. Famous quotes, with the rhetoric taken out, have nowhere near the punch they have with the rhetoric left in. Imagine if Julius Caesar had said, “I arrived after a long trip, I looked around, and I won the battle” instead of, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Or if “A Tale of Two Cities” opened with, “It was the best time in history, but it was sort of bad too,” rather than, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” What if Hamlet had said, “Should I really live, or what? That’s the bottom line,” instead of, “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

We live with rhetoric every day. Perhaps someday it will once again be an important part of every student’s education, and they will realize that when Abraham Lincoln said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better,” he was appealing to logos, as well as to what he called “the better angels of our nature.”

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Mark James Miller is an associate English instructor at Allan Hancock College and president of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at mark@pfaofahc.com.