On Rhetoric and the Art of Persuasion

Persuasion is clearly a sort of demonstration,
since we are most fully persuaded when we
consider a thing to have been demonstrated

Of the modes of persuasion furnished
by the spoken word there are three kinds.

Ethos: Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character
when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.

Pathos: Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers,
when the speech stirs their emotions.

Logos: Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself
when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means
of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question. (Logic)

ARISTOTLE, “Rhetoric“, 350 BCE


It has been several 1000 years since Aristotle wrote those words about Rhetoric and the Art of Persuasion. The debate about whether Social Security is a Ponzi scheme reminded me that the internet has not advanced the art of persuasion very much, and indeed, may be setting it back.

Why is this? Regardless of whether you studied Epistemology in college or not, Words have meaning. When we misuse the specific meaning of words to to argue for or against something, we are engaging in the form of rhetoric Aristotle termed “Pathos” — appeals to base emotion.

For example, demonizing Social Security as a Ponzi scheme is a form of Pathos. It is not an appeal to higher or better nature, nor is it an appeal to logic and reasoning. Rather, it is designed to generate a negative, unthinking emotion.  So too, is calling that form of argument “demonizing,” but at least I am demonizing ideas, and not people, as is so commonly done online.

If I disagree with someone, that does not make them a criminal or a Nazi or a racist or homosexual or a slave-owner. But those terms are commonly bandied about in internet debate, substituting for what otherwise should be intelligent discourse. It is a rhetorical technique used to demonize opponents. In my opinion, it is intellectually lazy, often reflecting a weak argument.

Which brings me to our debate:

What is a Ponzi scheme? It is a fraudulent criminal enterprise designed to scam unsuspecting and naive suckers out of their money.

Is that what Social Security is? Hardly.

In my book, that form of rhetoric is weak. It reflects an intellectual laziness and lack of gravity. It appeals to the emotions. Lastly, it betrays the weakness of the argument.

Once again I find myself shaking my head. America, we can do better . . .

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