The Art of Persuasion — III

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Part III

To be effective in the use of pathos, in order to evoke favorable emotional impulses, persuaders must bear two things in mind.

First of all, they must recognize those human desires that they can depend upon as being present and actively motivating forces in almost all human beings — the desire for liberty, for justice, for peace, for pleasure, for worldly goods, for honor, good repute, position, or preference. Taking for granted that such desires generally abound with driving force, persuaders can call upon them for the objectives they have in mind, concentrating on the reasons why the course of action recommended is a better way of gratifying them than some alternative that a competitor might be trying to sell.

Here it is the logos rather than the pathos that persuaders must employ to tip the scales in their favor, whether they are trying to make their products more desirable than those of competitors or trying to make their candidate for public office preferable to an opponent for the office. Both products may serve the same purpose and so both may be responsive to a desire that exists and that they need only invigorate; their task, therefore, is to give the reasons why their product should be preferred.

Similarly, in political campaigning or in legislative debate about conflicting policies, where the emotional appeal is for the preservation of peace, the protection of liberties, or the securing of welfare benefits, persuaders do not have to create a desire for peace, liberty, or welfare. It is there to be used. They need only argue that their candidate or their policy serves that purpose better.

Persuaders cannot always count on desires that are generally prevalent in their audiences and ready to be brought into play. Sometimes they must instill the very desire that they seek to satisfy with their product, their policy, or their candidate. Sometimes people have needs or wants that are dormant, needs or wants of which they are not fully aware. These, persuaders must try to awaken and vitalize. Sometimes they must try to create a desire that is novel — generally inoperative until they have aroused it and made it a driving force. This is what must be done with a new product on the market. So, too, this is what a candidate for public office must do if his or her claim to it is based on a novel appeal.

The element of ethos may either precede or be combined with the employment of pathos in the sales talk. The role of the PR expert or the Madison Avenue consultant is to make the company that is trying to sell a product look good as well as to make the product itself more desirable than what the competition has to offer. When such experts in persuasion work for a political candidate, they work in the same way. They try to paint a glowing picture of their candidate’s character in addition to activating the motives for subscribing to the policies for which he or she stands.

With ethos and pathos fully operative, logos remains the winning trump in the persuader’s hand. Here there are things to be avoided as well as things to be done well.

Above all, the persuader should avoid lengthy, involved, and intricate arguments. The task to be performed is not to produce the conviction that can result from a mathematical demonstration or scientific reasoning. Effective persuasion aims at much less than that — only a preference for one product, one candidate, or one policy over another. Hence the argument to be employed should be much skimpier, much more elliptical, much more condensed.

Persuaders must, therefore, omit many steps in the reasoning they present to catch the minds of their listeners. The classical name for such reasoning is the Greek word enthymeme, which signifies a process of reasoning with many premises omitted. The unmentioned premises must, of course, be generalizations that the persuader can safely assume will be generally shared. In arguments before a judicial tribunal, counsel for the prosecution or defense can take for granted certain generalizations of which the court takes judicial notice because, being generally acknowledged as true, they do not have to be explicitly asserted.

With such generalizations taken for granted, the persuader can go immediately from a particular instance, one that falls under the assumed and unmentioned generalization, to the conclusion that the applicable generalization entails. This is arguing from example. If I wish to persuade my listeners that a particular product or policy should be bought or adopted, I can do so effectively by showing how it exemplifies a generally accepted truth.

I do not have to assert that whatever contributes to a person’s health is good. I need only describe my product as doing just that and doing it in full measure. I do not have to assert that everyone has a right to earn a living and that those who remain unemployed through no fault of their own suffer a serious injustice. I need only describe my policy as one that will increase employment. If I am prosecuting someone indicted for a serious crime, I do not have to assert that suddenly leaving the vicinity of the crime is an indication of guilt. I need only produce evidence to show that the prisoner at the bar did precisely that and that his departure has no other explanation.

Brevity or sparsity of reasoning is not the only factor in presenting a persuasive argument. Another is the employment of what are called rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions are those so worded that one and only one answer can be generally expected from the audience you are addressing. In this sense, they are like the unmentioned premises in abbreviated reasoning, which can go unmentioned because they can be taken for granted as generally acknowledged.

Thus, for example, Brutus asks the citizens of Rome: “Who is here so base that would be a bondman?” adding at once: “If any, speak, for him have I offended.” Again Brutus asks: “Who is here so vile that will not love his country?” Let him also speak, “for him I have offended.” Brutus dares to ask these rhetorical questions, knowing full well that no one will answer his rhetorical questions in the wrong way.

So, too, Marc Antony, after describing how Caesar’s conquests filled Rome’s coffers, asks: “Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?” And after reminding the populace that Caesar thrice refused the crown that was offered him, Antony asks: “Was this ambition?” Both are rhetorical questions to which one and only one answer can be expected.

In the course of explaining how the three essential elements in persuasion operate to make it effective, I have indicated the various kinds of speaking with a practical purpose that I have lumped together under the general heading of the sales talk. We normally restrict that term to obvious instances of salesmanship in the advertising and selling of commercial products. But speaking with a practical purpose in the political arena, in the legislative chamber, in a courtroom where someone is being prosecuted or defended, at a public ceremony where someone is to be honored or something is to be commemorated — all these, no less than winning customers for a product, involve selling.

Every form of public speaking with a practical purpose involves the same three essential factors in persuasion that must be employed in successful salesmanship. What has just been said applies equally to practical speaking that is not public — the kind of speech made by the chairman of the board to his colleagues, the kind of speech made by the proponent of a certain policy at a business conference, and even the kind of speech made by one member of a household to the rest of the family, with the practical purpose of getting them to adopt a recommendation being advanced. In the classic expositions of practical rhetoric, from Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian down to the present, such terms as “selling” and “salesmanship” do not occur. The kinds of practical speaking are enumerated under such headings as deliberative (which refers to political oratory), forensic (which refers to the kind of speech that occurs in judicial proceedings, as, for example, counsel’s summation to a jury), and epidictic (which refers to any effort to praise or dispraise something, whether that be a person or a policy), all of which are forms of persuasion.

It should be obvious that selling a product, like praising a person or a policy, is an effort at eulogistic persuasion. It should be no less obvious that political and forensic oratory are efforts to persuade the listeners to buy some thing — a policy being advocated or an evaluative judgment.

Return to Part I…

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