About Rhetoric

by Jim Nugent
Department of Writing and Rhetoric
Oakland University

The meaning of the word “rhetoric” seems to differ depending on how the word is used and who's using it. You've probably heard politicians at some time or another dismiss the positions of their opponents as “mere rhetoric.” You're probably also familiar with the idea of a rhetorical question—a question that is meant to make a point and not meant to be answered.

But rhetoric, as we use it in this class, means something different. Rhetoric is simply the ways in which we try to persuade a given audience, for a given purpose.

So what does that mean more precisely? It's a simple idea, but once you begin to see it, you can find rhetoric acting everywhere there is an audience and a someone trying to make a point with that audience. Here are some classic (and some might say less-than-reputable) examples of rhetoric:

But rhetoric can be much subtler (and quite positive) as well:

Throughout most of history, rhetoric referred to the arts of speechmaking and oratory. In this class, we will use it to refer to persuasion that occurs through any medium, not just text or speech. In this class, I hope you will start to see all communication as rhetorical—that is, as a set of deliberate, strategic decisions that someone made to achieve a certain purpose with a certain audience. You will also learn how to develop effective rhetorical strategies for your own communication.

The Rhetorical Triangle

The rhetorical triangle is a way of thinking about what's involved in any communication/persuasion scenario. It involves (no surprise here) three main parts:

A triangle with vertices labeled 'audience,' 'purpose', and 'rhetor'.

An important part of the rhetorical triangle is that these three “variables” are mutually interdependent: in successful rhetoric, each of them must be reconciled and made appropriate to the other two. The purpose, for instance, must be appropriate to the rhetor and what that rhetor is capable of achieving with the audience. Similarly the audience must be appropriate to the rhetor and the rhetor's purpose. And finally, the rhetor has to be appropriate for the purpose and the audience.

Perhaps examples would help here. Say I am the rhetor, and my audience is my boss. I want to make more money, so I make it my purpose to get a raise. However, that purpose has to be reconciled between factors regarding who I am as a rhetor (am I credible or well-liked? am I worth the money?) and who my boss is (is she generous and understanding? Does she even have the money to give?). If I make it my purpose to make $1 million a year, I'm not likely to be met with much success. Therefore I must reconcile my purpose to what is possible—given both who I am as a rhetor and who my audience is. I should probably make my purpose more realistic by asking for a more reasonable amount of money.

In the same scenario, I also have to make sure my audience is appropriate to my purpose. It doesn't make any sense, for instance, to address anyone without any control over my salary (like the guy on the bus, the Emir of Qatar, the janitor, or some other person's boss). Rather, I need to talk to people with the ability—either directly or indirectly—to accomplish my purpose.

And of course, the rhetor has to be appropriate to the audience and the purpose. Having my sister ask my boss for a raise on my behalf wouldn't likely work. Or if who I was changed—if I just won the lottery, for instance—I might have a hard time making the case that I needed more money.

Now, what if I could go to my boss and say that the vast majority of people in my line of work actually were making $1 million a year? Or, what if I lived in a cash-strapped state where there was no money to give or where the cost of living was decreasing? Or, what if I lived in a culture where it was considered shameful to ask your boss for a raise? These things would go beyond just the immediate players in the rhetorical triangle, and extend to something that surrounds all of it: context.

The same rhetorical triangle as above, but surrounded by a large circle labeled 'context'.

Context refers to everything outside of the immediate rhetorical situation that also shapes the rhetoric and determines its likelihood for success, including broader historical and cultural factors.

Part of context includes what comprises “appropriateness” within a particular culture (what the ancient Greeks would call to prepon). Examples include:

Context also encompasses the timeliness of rhetoric (or what the ancient Greeks would call kairos). A timely or kairotic argument is one that is delivered at the opportune moment; proverbially speaking, it “strikes while the iron is hot.”

Even if all other “variables” in the rhetorical situation remain the same—the same audience, the same purpose, and the same rhetor—just the timing of an act of rhetoric by itself can determine its success or failure. For instance, let's say your purpose was to convince the U.S. government to relax standards for airline passenger screening. You decide to compile your best arguments into a report and you deliver it to the administrator of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. That report's odds of success would vary tremendously depending on whether it was read on, say, 10 September 2001 versus 12 September 2001. Although only a matter of hours had passed, the exact same report would garner wildly different reactions due to intervening historical events.

Three Rhetorical Appeals: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

Some ancient Greeks identified three major tactics that people use when they go about persuading other people, tactics that we'll call rhetorical appeals:

  1. Logos appeals are the elements of a message that refer to reason, logic, or purported fact.

    Logos appeals frequently include appeals to statistics, math, logic, order, and “objectivity.” For instance, when advertisements claim that their product is “37% more effective than the competition,” they are making a logos appeal. When a lawyer claims that her client is innocent because they had an alibi, that too is a logos appeal: it's logically inconsistent for her client to have been in two places at once.

    A more general reading of logos can also refer to the ordering and structure of an act of rhetoric, such as the logical ordering of information on a page or the structure of a speech.

    literally means “word” and it is etymologically related to the English word “logic.” It is also related to the suffixes -log, -logy, and -ology, as in “dialog,” “trilogy,” “biology,” “theology,” and “tautology.”

  2. Pathos appeals are the elements of a message that play on human emotion, desire, passion, or compassion.

    For instance, home security companies appeal to our fears of violent crime, carbon monoxide, fire, etc. to convince us to buy their home monitoring systems. Many personal hygiene products appeal to our fears of social rejection and to our desire to fit in with others. Many charities appeal to our emotions by showing us images of the people or animals that they aid. Casinos appeal to our sense of greed when they try to get us to gamble. And of course, countless advertisements use sex to convince us to buy their products (this is more accurately called eros, but we'll file it under pathos for the sake of simplicity).

    A more general reading of pathos, however, can include any consideration on behalf of the rhetor for an audience's motivations or state of mind. This includes considerations of the values and beliefs that will ultimately move an audience to action. It can also include efforts the rhetor makes to “soften the blow” of emotionally troubling messages.

    Pathos literally means “what befalls one” and it is etymologically related to the words “passion,” “compassion,” “empathy,” “sympathy,” “pathetic," “pathology,” “apathy,” “antipathy,” etc.

  3. Ethos appeals, which are the parts of a message that refer to the character or authority of the rhetor. As an audience, our perception of the rhetor’s ethos is what leads us to trust them. In fact, “apparent trustworthiness” is a pretty good synonym for ethos.

    Ethos can be seen as having at least two parts: authority and character. Authority is what leads us to believe that a rhetor is qualified to talk about the issue that they are addressing. Character refers to the connections that exist between the rhetor and their audience.

    In many cases ethos is pretty transparent: if Rachel Ray wanted to tell us how to make chicken marsala, we would probably just implicitly assume that she knew what she was talking about. After all, she has built her ethos in the sense of authority by demonstrating her cooking abilities on nationwide television, in her cookbooks, and through other media. She has also built her ethos in the sense of her character by appearing to be a friendly, savvy, charitable, admirable, and ethical person.

    However, if a random person on the street wanted to tell us how to make chicken marsala, we would probably first want to know what gave them the authority to do so: do they have any experience or expertise? Do they make chicken marsala often? Why are they qualified to teach us anything? In addition, such a person would probably lack the the character component of ethos—being a stranger we would have no connection to them and we would have no sense of who they were as a person. In fact, we'd probably be creeped out by their unsolicited cooking lesson. Ultimately, we would have no reason to trust them.

    Of course, it could very well be that this random person graduated from a prestigious cooking institute and has more qualifications than Rachel Ray. (Ms. Ray, in fact, has no formal culinary training). And it could be the case that this random person is even nicer, more generous, and more likable than Ms. Ray. But in order for this person to be effective in our street-side cooking scenario, they would have to work a lot harder than Ms. Ray to convey their qualifications and character to us. We can refer to such efforts as ethos building.

    It should be said that ethos is not an innate or static quality of a particular rhetor. Rather, ethos varies with respect to the particular audience, purpose, and context that the rhetor is addressing. Thus, there is no one strategy for ethos building that can work every time in every situation.

    Ethos literally means “custom” or “disposition.” It is etymologically related to the word “ethics” and—more distantly—to the words “morals” and “mores.”

Some Considerations

It's important to recognize that ethos, pathos, and logos appeals are rarely found independently of each other, and that complex and effective persuasion usually involves them in varying measure.

For instance, logos appeals by themselves are very unusual and seldom effective—they invariably imply some degree of pathos and ethos as well. If I wrote an essay that included the statement “five people die of AIDS every minute,” it doesn't just convey a logos appeal in the form of a statistic. It also includes an implicit pathos appeal by depicting the ferocity of the disease. The statistic juxtaposes what for most audiences is an unremarkable, recurring event with an extraordinary, emotionally vivid one: every single time the second hand goes around on a clock, this disease kills five people.

This statistic also includes an implicit ethos appeal, both in the sense of character and authority. My use of the statistic suggests that I find the disease to be a bad thing. To those audiences who believe likewise, it marks me as a person with some measure of good character. In addition, since the statement stands as a confident statement of fact—it's not the sort of thing that most people would throw into everyday conversations—it suggests to my audience that I did some research and I'm probably not just making it up. So this statistic can also convey some ethos in the sense authority.

It may be tempting to think that logos trumps all other appeals when it comes to successful rhetoric, and that appeals to authority or character (ethos) and appeals to emotion (pathos) are spurious. It may also be tempting to think that if something is logically correct it must automatically be persuasive, or that logos appeals demand compulsory adherence from every reasonable person.

But the above statement “five people die of AIDS every minute” is a good example of why such assumptions don't necessarily hold. The statement itself doesn't mean much of anything until it is connected to other ethos and pathos appeals and, ultimately, has no practical effect until it is connected to a purpose (such as promoting AIDS awareness, ridding the world of the disease, etc.). The statement must be tied to beliefs and values common to an audience—such as the undesirability of death and disease—before it becomes persuasive in any meaningful sense. The statement is also not guaranteed to gain assent from every audience: AIDS denialists, for instance, may have material, political, and personal motivations to refute this fact. Or a statistician might legitimately take issue with the methodology behind the number. Or a contemporary researcher might point out that this statistic is way out of date, and the rate of global AIDS/HIV deaths is actually closer to 1.47 deaths per minute as of 2019. But regardless of the reason, it stands that a logos appeal—even when considered truthful, self-evident, and verifiable by the rhetor—won't automatically persuade everyone that hears it.