Pathos as Inquiry and Strategy

In a previous post I argued that logos was impossible without pathos and that considering this relation was a step toward a rhetoric of knowing the other. In this subsequent post I argue that the first step in practicing a rhetoric of knowing the other is to analyze the audience.

In Book 2 of the Rhetoric, Aristotle notes that it is necessary to go beyond the discussion of argument because arguments are heard differently by people who are friendly or hostile, or angry or calm. It is therefore necessary for the speaker to put the audience in the right frame of mind to hear the arguments. To do this, we must know which emotions produce pain and which pleasure and how to create them. Of anger, for example, we must know three things:

  • We must know the state of mind of angry people.
  • Who the people are angry at.
  • On what grounds they get angry.

Note that there is a research project implied in this list. If we do not know these things about our audience, we have to find out. Aristotle organizes his discussion of the emotions in terms of oppositions. The opposite of anger is calm, which he defines as “a settling down and quieting of anger.” Aristotle tends to see the source of anger in slights and insults committed by perceived social inferiors. He argues that we become angry at those who belittle us, but will be calm toward those who do not seem to be belittling us and instead regard us as we ourselves do. Repenting past actions against us and apologizing can also bring about calm.

This approach is clearly relevant to the politics of our times. Before we even begin to craft our arguments, there are questions that we should be asking:

Analysis Questions

  • Who is my audience?  How do they define themselves?
  • What do they already believe about my topic?
  • What do they value?
  • What do they desire?
  • What is their state of mind? What emotions do they feel?
  • If they are angry, what makes them angry?
  • Who are they angry at? Are they angry at people like me?
  • On what grounds are they angry? What arguments do they make?

Strategy Questions

  • How can I find common ground with this audience?
  • How can I present myself as someone they will listen to? (ethos)
  • How can I calm their anger?
  • How can I present my arguments in a way that will not cause more anger?
  • How can I be persuasive with this audience without compromising my own beliefs and values?

Asking these questions about the audience, whether they be about anger or some other emotion, is likely to change the speaker too. If we know why the people we are trying to persuade are angry, we may become more sympathetic and may see our own position in a different way and make different arguments. As we become more open to the arguments the other makes, dialogue becomes more possible and we may become more persuasive because of it.

One thought on “Pathos as Inquiry and Strategy

  1. Pingback: More on “Pathos as Inquiry” – Teaching Text Rhetorically

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