Aristotle’s Poetics in the Classroom

In this blog, I have written a lot about Aristotle’s Rhetoric. However, I have not written about his literary criticism, which he develops in the work called the Poetics. The Poetics has had a great deal of influence on literary thought and practice for many centuries, especially on drama. Though Aristotle was mainly concerned with the dramatic form of the Greek tragedy, his principles can be usefully applied to other art forms, including novels, short stories, and movies, and perhaps even poetry. The principles are simple, easily understood, and useful for students.

Perhaps the genre in our own time that is closest to Greek tragedy is the dramatic movie, perhaps even a horror movie.  Analyzing a movie is probably the best vehicle for introducing students to Aristotle’s ideas.

Aristotle, like most ancient Greeks, thinks that art is about imitation of life. The Greek word is “mimesis,” which we find in “mime and” “mimic.” He thinks that humans are natural imitators and that we enjoy representations, even of things we would not like to see in real life, such as dead bodies or fearsome beasts. This literary theory is pretty easy for students to apply. Is the work realistic? Is it lifelike? Does that mean it is good? They can also easily disagree with it because they often enjoy fantasy and other things that are abstract or unrealistic. Disagreeing with Aristotle is fun, and it gets them thinking. They can have a dialogue with Aristotle.

Aristotle argues that tragedy has six components. I have created a simplified chart, with questions for students:

AristotlePoeticsChart-Simple-1a

A more detailed version of this chart with more extensive questions is available here.

Plot

Aristotle argues that plot is the soul of tragedy and that while there could be a tragedy without character, there could not be without plot. Simply relating the events of a tragic plot should create pity and fear in the hearer. Students appear to agree with Aristotle on this in that when they write about a novel or a short story, they tend to summarize the plot. However, such summaries rarely analyze the plot in terms of Aristotelian plot elements such as reversal, recognition, and what he calls the “scene of suffering,” the climatic scene in which the different strands of the plot come together for the greatest emotional effect.  The plot itself creates emotions, for Aristotle pity and fear, in the audience.   The questions in the chart linked above help students analyze the plot from such a perspective.

Character

Aristotle’s views on good character are probably more at odds with the students’ views than on any other aspect of literature.  He believes that the protagonist should

  • Have good moral values
  • Be above average in nobility and birth
  • Behave appropriately according to his station in life
  • Be realistic and life-like
  • Be consistent in behavior
  • Have a flaw or other characteristic that causes him to experience a dramatic change in fortune

Today we are used to viewpoint characters and heroes who are quite unlike Aristotle’s ideal.  The disjunction between Aristotle’s views and the students’ should provide lots of interesting discussion.

Thought

When Aristotle discusses “thought” in tragedy, he refers to his work on Rhetoric.  He says, “Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite” (XIX)  Clearly arguments are part of thought, but also emotional and ethical appeals, the full range of ethos, logos, and pathos.  Themes, philosophical questions, and exploration of moral and ethical choices are also included here.

Diction

Under “diction” Aristotle discusses formal and informal language, the use of strange and unusual words, and other aspects of style.  His concern appears to be mostly about the effects of word choice on the audience.  Some of the factors that we might assign to style, such as the creation of emotional effects, Aristotle sees as belonging to Thought.

Song and Spectacle

Song and Spectacle are considered to be the least important factors in Aristotle’s scheme.  For students, they may be the most important factors.  Some movies rely on exciting music and spectacular visuals, often created by computers, to become big hits, while neglecting plot, character, and thought.  Can the musical score and cinematic effects successfully make up for a lack in other categories?  This is an interesting question for students to discuss.

Conclusions

Aristotle has two big disadvantages in relating to current students: 1) he is analyzing an ancient dramatic form that is no longer produced, and 2) his analysis reflects the cultural values and customs of Athenian Greeks in the fourth century B.C.  However, looking at current cultural productions, such as movies and novels, from an Aristotelian point of view, produces what Kenneth Burke calls a “perspective by incongruity,” that allows the student to have insights into Aristotle, current artistic work, and their own perceptions and values.  It is a worthwhile discussion.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.

 

Mini-Module: Knowledge, Belief, and the Role of Rhetoric

While revising the “Three Ways to Persuade” module to fix some serious problems with the writing assignment, I ended up writing a lot of new material that I ultimately decided not to include in that module. These “outakes” eventually became a new module that is designed to be a follow-up to “Three Ways.” It deals with rhetoric’s age old epistemological questions: What can we know and how can we know it? The problem is, sometimes there is no way to be certain, yet we still have to act. That is where rhetoric comes in.

This new module has the following learning goals:

Students will be able to

  • Make distinctions between certain knowledge, belief, and opinion
  • Understand the role of rhetoric in matters where we do not have certain knowledge
  • Understand the role of rhetoric in mediating between experts and decision-makers
  • Assess the effectiveness of different rhetorical appeals in different situations
  • Surface assumptions in their own thinking and in that of others
  • Write a list of rhetorically effective “talking points” regarding a specific issue or problem that demonstrates their understanding of the previous outcomes

Most of the activities involve charts to fill out. First,after exploring the concepts of persuasion, knowledge, belief, opinion, and probability, the students or the teacher select a current controversial event such as a murder, a scandal, a celebrity divorce, or other prominent news item. Then they fill out a chart and share it with a partner:

HowIknow-chrt-1

Because their charts probably differ, they explore the differences by filling out this second chart and discussing the assumptions they made:

Assumptions-chrt

Then, we discuss Aristotle’s statement that “The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning” (Book 1, Part 2). This translates into two main functions for rhetoric:

  1. Rhetoric is useful when we don’t have certain knowledge, but we still feel that we must do something.
  2. Rhetoric is also useful in cases where we have certain knowledge, but the meaning of the knowledge has to be explained to the audience to make it persuasive.

They explore different uses of rhetoric by filling out a chart like this for different situations. In this example, one student makes a claim that his favorite song is better than his friend’s favorite song:

RhetoricalEffectiveness-chrt

For each situation they rate which type of appeal is likely to be most persuasive, though they also see that they work together.

Finally, they take all of this rhetorical practice and write a list of “talking points” for an issue they have chosen. Here is the assignment:

For this assignment you are going to think about a community problem. This could be a problem at your school, in your neighborhood, or something on a bigger scale, such as your city, your state, or the whole country. If you can’t think of a problem, you could use the Flint, Michigan example from the previous activity.

When a leader has to speak or write publicly about a problem, he or she will have a member of the staff write up a bulleted list of “talking points.” The purpose of the list is to help establish the message and help the leader stay on that message, no matter what questions he or she is asked. This list should have the following:

  • A clear purpose. What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Arguments that support that purpose, expressed in clear language, short and simple enough to memorize. These arguments should address all three appeals: ethos, pathos, logos. (Just like you have been doing in the charts above.)
  • Anecdotes (personal stories) that people can relate to that support the arguments are very useful. Keep them brief, however!
  • Points of common ground that both sides can agree on.
  • A proposed call to action.

With your issue or problem in mind, imagine that you are a staff member working for a community leader. You have been asked to come up with talking points for an upcoming press conference. Write a one-page list of talking points for your boss.

This is a challenging module with lots of important concepts. It builds on what they learn from the article “Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals.” I think high school students can do this, however. You may disagree. Please leave a comment if you have feedback, positive or negative, or have a suggestion.

Download the latest draft of the module here.

Modifying Stasis Theory for the Classroom

I recently had a discussion with one of my ERWC colleagues about the proper way to use stasis theory. As I noted in the mini-module, the technique develops out of courtroom practices and is used primarily to locate the points of disagreement so that a trial can proceed efficiently. In this forensic use, the parties are debating the nature of a past act and what should be done about it. The process can be modified a bit to deal deliberatively with the effectiveness of a particular policy on future conditions. In either case, the first step is to get the parties to agree on the question at issue, a process which is called “achieving stasis.” Then the stasis questions are used to figure out where the disagreement lies. The result is a lot of clear thinking and efficient progress towards a resolution of the problem.

The problem for teachers and students in the application of this process is that we are not in a courtroom trying a case or in a deliberative body deciding whether or not to implement a particular policy. Instead we are using stasis theory as an analytical tool to get to the heart of a social issue or personal problem. We have to modify the tool a bit to make it work in the classroom.

Achieving stasis by agreeing on the question under discussion is an important first step. However, as my colleague pointed out, in an ERWC module and in general when we are discussing several texts on a particular issue, it is rare that the authors have defined the issue in the same way. They are often answering different, but related questions. Stasis theory helps us see that, but we do not have the power to bring the authors together to agree on the question. What do we do? I have summarized our discussion in this chart:

StasisTheoryChart-clr1
As noted in the chart, one approach is to tease out the questions that the authors are really trying to answer and analyze the differences that result when we try to apply the stasis questions to each approach. This would bring considerable clarity to the discussion and would make a good paper in itself. This process might begin by asking of each author, “What question is he or she trying to answer?”

Another approach is for the student (or the teacher) to pose the question that they think should actually be asked and then use the stasis questions to explore how the different parties to the discussion disagree. For example, on the Declaration of Independence, I might ask, as a stasis question:

“Did George III actually do all of the terrible things of which he is accused in the Declaration of Independence?”

Possible responses might be:

  • Fact: The parties actually disagree about this. The British say that these alleged “crimes” are all acts of parliament. The British would actually be right about this and Thomas Jefferson knows it. They are scapegoating the king for rhetorical effect, and to address the problem of declaring themselves no longer subjects of the king. They have to make the king an unfit ruler. But nobody really disagrees that these things have been done.
  • Definition: The colonists say these acts are examples of tyranny, while the British say it is just governance.
  • Quality: This really comes down to intentions. The colonists say that these tyrannous acts are designed to hinder and control self-governance in order to hamstring the colonies and keep them from becoming independent and powerful. The British say that they are governing the colonies and protecting them from harm.
  • Policy: The colonists say that such acts justify rebellion. The British wage war in response.

If we try a more philosophical question such as “Are all men (and women) created equal?” we see that things get interesting and complicated very quickly. The British immediately say, “You’ve got to be kidding. You are a bunch of slave holders.” Then we are going to get into race, social class, economic inequality, land owners versus renters, cultural practices and a host of other things. What the founders meant was that they were going to get rid of the nobility, that there would no longer be lords and commoners. The British say, “Good luck with that.”

When it comes to definition, we might say that the Declaration is “aspirational,” in that it proposes ideal principles that the colonies have not yet achieved. The British call the document “hypocritical.” On the face of it, the British are right. It does seem hypocritical to say that “all men are created equal” while holding slaves. Questions of quality are going to hinge on those definitions. Does the Declaration represent aspirational idealism or hypocritical self-interest?

About policy? Well, the aspirational view won out and we ended up with a constitution. We are still trying to meet the principled ideals of the Declaration, but we have made progress.

One of the new modules to be introduced in ERWC is built around a novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It is a murder mystery, which would seem to make it ideal for the application of forensic stasis theory. However, in this case, we are doing literary criticism and exploring some of the issues raised by the novel. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel yet. I am guessing from the Wikipedia entry and a picture of the cover.) One question in the story is “Who killed the dog?” The stasis questions might lead to some larger philosophical and ethical issues:

• Fact: A dog is dead. Did someone kill it?
• Definition: Is killing a dog murder?
• Quality: Was killing the dog necessary because it was mean, sick, or dangerous? Or was it an act of revenge or cruelty?
• Policy: Should dog murderers go to jail?

Here the stasis questions are helping us define one of the acts in the novel.

One of the questions that came up in our discussion was “Can you use the stasis questions as an invention strategy or brainstorming tool to generate lots of possible questions to explore?” As I noted above, we have to modify the stasis tool because we are not in the same situations for which it was originally designed. Use as a sort of focused brainstorming tool is certainly possible. In that case, we might ask

• What facts are disputable in this situation?
• How do different parties define the issue?
• What values are in conflict in this situation?
• What do different parties think should be done?

Then let the students supply the specifics and ask more questions about them.

There are lots of ways to use stasis theory. In almost any situation, it will help us think about questions, facts, definitions, values, and policies.

Note: The mini-module on stasis theory can be found here.

George Campbell: The Duty of Allegiance

George Campbell wrote The Philosophy of Rhetoric, a work, published in 1776, in which he attempts to synthesize Aristotelian rhetoric, Christianity, and natural science.  He discusses rhetoric in terms of an 18th century “faculty” psychology, a view in which different parts of the mind respond to arguments in different ways.  This chart may help explain the system:

Faculty

End (Purpose)

Form

Understanding

Inform or convince

Perspicuity or argument

Imagination

Please

Beauty

Passion

Move

Pathos

Will

Persuade

Vehemence

In Campbell’s view, a persuasive speech moves through appeals to these four faculties, ending up by persuading the will to action.  One of the most interesting ideas in this work is Campbell’s rejection of syllogistic reasoning from probabilities in favor of a more scientific presentation of actual evidence.

Also in 1776, Campbell gave a sermon called “The Nature, Extent, and Importance of the Duty of Allegiance,” delivered at Aberdeen, December 12th, 1776. Campbell argues strongly against the American revolution and the Declaration of Independence specifically. Prior to the passage below, Campbell argues that it is almost never a good idea to overthrow established authority, which is established according to the will of God, and quotes extensively from the Bible in support. He also argues that there are lots of British subjects who pay taxes without having the right to vote for representatives, so why should the Americans complain?

In regard to the present quarrel, it may justly be said that it is the whole that is attacked. Indeed the ringleaders of the American revolt, the members of their congress, have, in their last declaration, pointed all their malice against the king, as tho’ in consequence of a settled plan, he had been adopting and pursuing tyrannical measures, in order to render himself absolute. They have accordingly spared no abuse, no insult by which they could inflame the minds of an unhappy and deluded people. Their expressions are such as decency forbids me to repeat. The means they employ are indeed of a colour with the end they pursue. But let those who can lay claim to any impartiality or candour, but reflect, and say in what single instance our benign sovereign has adopted any measure but by the advice of the British legislature, or pursued a separate interest from that of the British nation. It is solely concerning the supremacy of the parliament, the legislative body of Great Britain, and not concerning the prerogatives of the crown, that we are now contending. And ought not this circumstance to enhance our obligation to concur with alacrity as far as our influence will extend, in strengthening the hands of the government, now laid under a necessity of seeking by arms to bring back to their duty those insolent and rebellious subjects?

Later in the sermon he calls Americans who support the rebellion “our deluded fellow subjects on the other side of the Atlantic,” but he forgives them because “They are but the tools of a few ambitious, interested, and designing men, both on their side of the water and on ours.”  The whole sermon can be read here.  (I typed up this version from a scan of a copy of this pamphlet that was available in the U. C. Berkeley library.)

Campbell’s sermon provides an interesting context for a study of the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and its reception by the British public.

The Classical Pattern of Persuasion

I have taken ideas from several previous posts about the Roman six-part speech and descriptive outlining and created an article and mini-module combo that helps students think about essay organization.  The module overview says:

This module is designed to introduce students to a pattern of essay and speech organization based on ancient Roman practices as described in Cicero’s On Invention and On Oratory. This pattern is based on persuasive strategies directed toward the rhetorical needs of the audience so it is both more effective and more flexible than the essay formulas that are often taught to high school students. Although the pattern is more than 2,000 years old, it is still in common use today, as can be seen from using descriptive outlining to analyze the structure of current editorials and op-ed pieces. It can be used both to organize student writing and to analyze other persuasive texts. The writing assignment asks students to write an essay about a problem they see in social media, using the Classical pattern.

It has the following learning goals:

Students will be able

  • To articulate the strategies that they use in organizing essays
  • To compare the effectiveness of different modes of organization
  • To analyze the organizational patterns used in editorials and op-ed pieces
  • To write an essay utilizing the Classical pattern.

It begins with a quickwrite about how they currently organize essays and ends with a reflection on that quickwrite.  The main activities involve a lot of descriptive outlining of sample articles and other articles about problems in social media that they find online.  It discourages the five-paragraph essay, but does not forbid it or demonize it.  It presents the Classical pattern as a chart, as a series of questions for the writer, and as a series of questions for a critical reader.  It includes the Latin terms, but quickly moves to using English adaptations: Introduction, Background, Possible Positions, Support, Counter-arguments, and Conclusion.

Download the mini-module “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion,” here.  If you would like to use the article without the rest of the module, download it here.

I hope readers of this blog will find it useful.  As always, comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.

“Three Ways to Persuade” Mini-Module

In a previous post (“Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals“), I described a revision of my original article “Three Ways to Persuade” for ERWC 3.0.  This article was originally the first text in the “Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page” module.   I have now extracted it from the Op-Ed module and created a stand-alone mini-module for it.  The version included in this mini-module has some revised questions in the “Questions for Consideration” sections.

The Module Description says:

This mini-module is designed to introduce students to Aristotle’s three rhetorical appeals—ethos, logos and pathos—and how they work together to persuade audiences. These concepts are used throughout ERWC, so this mini-module should come early in the 11th grade course and may be used for review in the 12th grade. The core article, “Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals,” was substantially rewritten for this version of the course. The new version emphasizes the interconnection between the appeals, noting that a particular part of a text may serve more than one rhetorical purpose. The module also explores the distinction between belief and knowledge. The writing assignment asks students to consider Aristotle’s arguments in defense of rhetoric, including ethos, logos, and pathos, and take a position on the use of rhetoric while analyzing four quotations from Aristotle.

Click on the link to download the “Three Ways to Persuade” mini-module.

Stasis Theory: A Mini-Module

As part of my current project of developing a “rhetoric of knowing the other and being known,” I returned to an old handout I had created on teaching “stasis theory.”  I was inspired to do this by one of my current graduate students who had seen the handout and made the connection to the work I was doing on pathos as inquiry.  I turned the handout into a short article for a student audience and then wrote a mini-module around it.

Stasis theory has an unfortunate name. It sounds more complicated than it is. “Stasis” means something like “standpoint.” The initial move is for the parties to the debate to agree on what the question or issue actually is. Once they have done this they are said to have “achieved stasis.” It is surprising how often people fail to do this, either through fuzzy thinking or by design. For example, just today I read about a disagreement between a Toyota dealer and Toyota itself. The dealer says that a part called the “inverter” on Toyota Priuses overheats and fails, and must be recalled. Toyota argues that a software update makes the problem less serious. They also argue that the real reason that the dealer is suing them is for another, unrelated matter. This disagreement will not be resolved until they are arguing the same question.

Once the question has been articulated, then the four stasis questions come into play: fact, definition, quality, and policy. The article included in the mini-module explains this in some detail. Here is the module description:

This module is about using the ancient technique of stasis theory to zero in on exactly what issue or problem is being debated and where the disagreement between the parties to the debate lies. The stasis questions can be used to analyze an issue as presented in a paper or article, but can also be used as an invention strategy to generate arguments. The stasis process frames the rhetorical situation in such a way that the discussion can proceed in a coherent and productive way. The module includes an article describing the history and use of stasis theory, plus activities that allow students to practice using the concepts on past and future scenarios. The writing project asks students to find a controversial issue and examine how different sides frame the problem.

The most common use of stasis theory is in the courtroom for forensic purposes. The standard questions are very useful in determining facts of the case, the definition of the act, the motives and intentions, and the sentencing. However, one thing that is somewhat unique about the presentation of stasis theory in this mini-module is that it also includes slightly different questions that can be used in deliberative situations where we are trying to decide whether a solution to a problem will be legal, expedient, possible, and effective.

You can download the mini-module here. (Note: This version was updated on 3/8/18.)  If you would like to use the article without the mini-module, you can download it here. An update on “Modifying Stasis Theory for the Classroom” is also available.

Pathos as Inquiry: A Mini-Module

I have integrated my recent work on pathos, which I wrote about in two previous posts, “Pathos as Inquiry and Strategy” and “More on Pathos as Inquiry” into a mini-module.  This mini-module includes a short article, similar to “Three Ways to Persuade,” called  “Pathos as Inquiry: Knowing Your Audience.”  The module description says:

This mini-module is designed to help students think about the relationship between arguments (logos) and emotions (pathos). It presents pathos as an essential counterpart to logos rather than as a fallacy to be avoided. It explores pathos through a rigorous process of audience analysis that helps the writer to put the audience in the right frame of mind and to tailor the arguments to fit that audience. In the process, the writer’s own views and the reasons for them are foregrounded and the resulting dialog between differing views may strengthen or alter the writer’s position.

The mini-module provides activities that help students explore these concepts and apply them to different scenarios. The writing assignment asks them to find an article that takes a position that they disagree with and use the analysis and strategy questions provided to plan a response.

This is an early draft, so feedback will be much appreciated!  If you would like to use the article without the mini-module, you can download it here. (Updated 3/24/18)

More on “Pathos as Inquiry”

Several people emailed me about my previous post on pathos asking “What if the audience is not angry? How should we deal with other emotions?”

Anger is where Aristotle starts his analysis of the emotions in Book 2 of the Rhetoric, which George Kennedy notes in his translation is “the earliest systematic discussion of human psychology” (122). In his discussion of anger Aristotle lays out his basic three-step strategy for dealing with emotions: 1) discover the state of mind of the audience, 2) discover the people toward whom the emotion is directed, and 3) discover the grounds or causes of the emotion. With this knowledge, the speaker can work to create the particular emotional state that is conducive to his or her case.

Aristotle’s List

Aristotle’s list of emotions and definitions is very Greek and not quite what we would produce. In addition to anger and calm, he analyzes “friendly feeling” versus enmity, fear versus confidence, shame versus shamelessness, kindliness versus unkindliness, pity (which he notes could be paired with either indignation or envy as opposites), “being indignant” (which is related to a number of other emotions), and finally envy, which is seen as desiring the good that others have, contrasted with “emulation,” which is also a state of desiring what others have but working to acquire these goods. Thus “envy” is negative and unproductive and “emulation” is a positive striving.

There is quite a bit of overlap and things don’t fit together neatly in the way that Aristotle usually attempts. However, these emotions are all rhetorically useful. Kennedy notes that Aristotle saw the emotions as moods or temporary states that “arise in large part from perception of what is publicly due to or from oneself at a given time” and thus affect judgment (124).

Social Standing and Emotions

The root cause of negative emotions according to Aristotle is disparities in social standing. We are angry if we are insulted by someone we consider a social inferior. We are envious of someone who possesses goods that we think we deserve. We have enmity or hatred toward a person who is from an unrespectable group, such as criminals or beggars. All of these emotions are about a disturbance in the social calculus. Aristotle doesn’t include emotions such as love or sadness, or grief, because unlike Plato, who sees rhetoric as the “art of leading the soul to truth by means of words,” he sees rhetoric mainly as a one-to-many enterprise for persuading groups. Thus emotions that are essentially individual mental states are not rhetorically useful.

Even fear has a social dimension. Aristotle says “If fear is accompanied by an expectation of experiencing some destructive misfortune, it is evident that no one is afraid if he is one of those who thinks he will suffer nothing; people fear neither things they do not think they will suffer nor other people by whom they do not think they will be harmed” (141). Fear is often fear of others, but if social relationships are in order, we have nothing to fear.  Aristotle acknowledges that it may help the speaker’s case to make the audience fearful.

Some who emailed me mentioned states of mind such as indifference or apathy. “Apathy” is literally the absence of emotion. If the audience is in this state, the rhetorical move is likely to be to make them feel something.

A Revised List of Questions

So, how can we help students navigate the range of possible emotions beyond anger? Robby Ching suggested modifying my questions a bit:

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?
  • What makes them feel that way?
  • Who makes them feel that way?
  • What are their reasons (arguments) for feeling that way?

Strategy Questions

  • How can I find common ground with this audience?
  • How can I present myself as someone they will listen to? (ethos)
  • If they feel negatively about my argument, how can I make them feel more positively?
  • What emotion would put them in a better state of mind for my purposes? (This is where Aristotle’s threefold analysis comes to bear: state of mind, target of emotion, and grounds for emotion )
  • How can I present my arguments in a way that will make them more receptive?
  • How can I make sure I don’t make them feel even more negatively?
  • How can I be persuasive with this audience without compromising my own beliefs and values?

My analysis here goes a bit beyond Aristotle. Aristotle is basically talking about creating emotional states that are conducive to the speaker’s argument. I am expanding on this idea to include an analysis of the audience’s present state of mind.  The whole process looks like this:

  • What does my audience feel now?
  • Is this emotion conducive or not conducive to the reception of my argument?
  • What emotional state would be more conducive?
  • How can I create that emotional state?

The most important feature of all this analysis, however, is to help students think more deeply about their audiences. In many ways, the audience is an important writing partner that helps us know what to say and how to say it. The audience is an essential part of the creative process.

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.