Rhetoric At The Nominating Conventions: Beware The Neglect Of Logos
Of the varieties of speech with which we, a population of great talkers, concern ourselves today, there are but two: persuasive and instructive.
The latter, frankly, is susceptible to the unfortunate epithet of ordinary—a term from which even the most “average” of joes wishes, if only he could, to dissociate himself. Like him, instructive speech is unartistic and boring. It’s passed over with quiet acknowledgement, but never with open interest or curious engagement. At best, it’s prosaic, but it’s usually wearisome, utilitarian, and downright cold. While it might tell you just how to do something, with lifeless words and pallid bulleted points, it conceals from you the exceedingly important question of why it ought to be done. While it might guide you through a specific action, in linear fashion, from one step to the next, it offers no guidance to your inevitable wanderings through the unexpected turns of life.
The former, on the other hand, provides exactly that type of detailed and subtle navigation of which the lost journeyman, hacking at thistles and caught in the brush, is most in need. Often, as does instructive, persuasive speech answers that same question of how, but its reach, beyond that point, is immeasurably extended. It emphasizes not only how—a question beyond which the instructive speech can proceed no further—but, more importantly, why. And, as the ever-axiomatic Friedrich Nietzsche once stated, he who has a why on which the highest aim of his life can be targeted, by which it can be elevated and inspired, can bear almost any how.
How, in the opinion of Nietzsche, and in that of the truly persuasive speaker as well, plays forever a subordinate role. As might be said of that great German philosopher, to whom insanity too prematurely arrived, persuasive speech can be poetic and artistic, educational and delightful, explanatory and moving in such a way that none can escape the magnetic power of its force. More than anything else, though, it provides to you a why—the end after which we all seek.
Of the constituent pieces out of which a persuasive speech is built, by which it’s ultimately to be raised, there are but three: ethos, pathos, and logos. In the absence of but one of these strong, Grecian legs, the foundation of persuasive speech risks becoming unsteady. As experience tells us, and scientific probing assures us, no chair can stand on two legs alone. We’d not risk investing our comfort in the uncertainty of so unstable a seat. Remove from that wobbling structure yet one more leg, and its collapse is inevitable and swift. That said, though mutually reinforcing and jointly integral, there is, between the three legs of persuasion, a distinction to be made: the last, logos, isn’t quite as important as the second, pathos, while the second fails to supersede in priority the first.
The first, ethos, deliberately positioned as such, is by its pride of place the most important. It refers to the character of the speaker from whom the words of the script flow, the figure before the curtain or—as is the case these days—the camera by whom, ultimately, you’re either to be, or not to be, persuaded. The listener must be assured of his character and buoyed by its presentation. He must content himself with his qualification and the earnestness of his pursuit.
The second, the pathos, is dependent on the lability of that same listener, the audience member by whom those sober and discerning judgments are made. While he might have a greater or lesser propensity to be moved in an emotional way—to succumb to the lachrymose, or be elevated by the funny—he’ll never succeed in being fully immune to the manipulation of the passions by which those responses of tears or laughs are stirred. This is the speaker’s surgical prowess, a penetration through a listener’s skin to which there’s no external defense. The emotions, after all, are nothing if not the nearly visible parts of a man’s soul, lineaments of his conscience superficially hidden, onto which a good speaker’s hands can’t fail but grab.
Finally, there’s logos. To the sensitive ear of the pious Christian, by whose religious acuity, so sublime an utterance is sure not to be missed, this word refers to the literal incarnation of the divinity on Earth. To the more sublunary Greeks, a group of pagan thinkers from whom the word is more distantly borrowed, logos, with far less ineffability, means “wisdom” or “reason”. In the battle for persuasive speech, after the deployment of both ethos and pathos, one after the other, logos, in its own right, is capable of landing a profound blow. It’s timing, as noted, is of the essence: like a deadly weapon whose single blast is non-renewable and quickly exhausted, it mustn’t be wasted at the unsettled beginning of a fight. That is the time for ethos, after which pathos follows. To batter one’s audience with statistics and data (logos) before first establishing character (ethos), and then massaging emotion (pathos), would be an invitation to failure.
And though logos should always arrive last, it mustn’t be neglected and kept idle in the rear. It’s a bullet in the persuasive barrel that must be spent. It mustn’t accumulate rust as ethos and pathos flex their bulging muscles, relish their gathering victories, and dance in the spoils of their newfound celebrity of which, through the brilliance of their rhetorical feats, they’ve come into acquisition. Without logos, a persuasive speech will never achieve perfection, will never secure complete victory, and can never hope, after the dust is cleared and the words are counted, to recruit to its side those intelligent opponents over whom they hope to claim control.
We’ve just witnessed, at the conclusion of an extraordinary summer month, to which a terrible spring has yielded way, two weeks of virtual political conventions. The first was consumed by the efforts of the Democrats, a party to whom, not long ago, the path to an electoral victory in November appeared to be encouragingly open. Nonetheless, with practiced sincerity and rehearsed urgency, it was their attempt to dissuade us, once again, from repeating on an incumbent the mistake we made four years earlier on a parvenu. Three months’ time will tell if, indeed, they were effective.
That said, a leisurely, late-August assessment of their work can be made based on the items listed above. However convincing some of their arguments, and forceful their pleas, their attempts at persuasion were generally wanting. Based on the standards of persuasive speech as outlined above, they failed to meet the criteria with which a truly persuasive speaker ought to obsess herself. They omitted, in most of their speeches, that last component by which persuasive speech is most firmly tied together—logos. Much was said of the unwaveringly decent character (the ethos) of their chosen candidate, Joe Biden, and the empathy (the pathos) of which he’s an endless and deep source, but there was no mention of a logos by which all these great things might be consummated. There was no specific agenda to which, come January 2021, we might look forward, no plan for a novel policy to which we might attach our bruised and chastened hopes, by which this current one will be replaced.
Thus, in the absence of logos, their speeches were incompletely persuasive. Come November, that failure might result in a painful consequence.
The Republicans, providing the sequel to this remote, televisual string of campaign events, succeeded where the Democrats failed. Perhaps this was the consequence of an additional week’s preparation, or the ability to watch from afar the shortcomings of a competitor. They got to see the fruits of the other side’s labor, against whose ripeness, they might taste and measure the nutritive value of their own. They were able to detect, as the Democrats packed up and sought the refreshment of a new week, the land left untouched and fallow behind them, into which rhetorical seeds might be sown, out of which persuasive roots might grow.
The Republicans proved themselves, by far, the more capable farmers. For the most part, with occasional exceptions, they were able to include all three components of persuasive speech in their addresses: ethos, pathos, and logos. A labored testament to the gentler qualities and the endearing character of a coarse and rugged president were extoled; a reference to the murderous, rioting Bolsheviks (by whom, as recounted by his wife, the late Officer David Dorn was so wantonly killed) was emotionally made; and a vision for the future, as well as a recounting of the past, was heard from workaday women and men.
Unemployment figures were announced, trade agreements celebrated, and projections for the next four years promulgated with the sobriety of statistical assurance. Facts and figures, especially when favorable, weren’t concealed, but highlighted with the confidence of a player in the lead.
In a variety of ways, with any number of permutations, these three boxes—those of ethos, pathos, and logos—were consistently checked. The Republicans, when contrasted with the Democrats, seem to have made a more concerted effort to ensure that they were marked.
Concerning the options of the political parties between which we have to choose, we have but two: Democrat and Republican. This, sadly, is the narrow binary to which we Americans—a people of immense diversity and anfractuous nuance—have been fated. Perhaps a time will come when our options will multiply, our candidates will awe us, and the omnivorousness of our palates will be better fed. That time, sadly, is not now, and this is the diet on which the body politic must subsist. Until then, however, if we are to be led by the rules of rhetoric, as opposed to the dictates of fancy, the Republican will necessarily be our choice. If rhetoric had its suffrage, its vote would be cast for the party of Trump.