These are the materials that I prepared to help my students this summer as they analyze the rhetoric of historical documents. I am happy for any feedback that readers want to give. (Edited on 6/3/17 to include my footnotes, which did not come through originally. Now they are clumsily in parentheses and or referenced with an asterisk.
Principles of Rhetorical Analysis
What Is Rhetoric? What are the Rhetorical Appeals?
Aristotle, the renowned ancient Greek philosopher, wrote that “rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (The Rhetoric, Book I, Ch. 2).
Aristotle went on to describe introduce three means of persuasion:
Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. (The Rhetoric, Book I, Ch. 2)
After describing each in greater detail, he concludes:
There are, then, these three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand the emotions — that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited. (The Rhetoric, Book I, Ch. 2)
These three appeals are called by their Greek names: ethos (appeal to the character of the speaker), pathos (appeal to the emotions of the audience), and logos (appeal to logic).
A rhetorical analysis looks at the way a speaker or writer uses these appeals and then makes a judgment about how effective the author has been in persuading the audience.
The Kairos Component
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab defines kairos as “a term that refers to the elements of a speech that acknowledge and draw support from the particular setting, time, and place that a speech occurs.” Effective writers and speakers will take these things into account when presenting their arguments. Not every audience will respect the same appeals to ethos, pathos, or logos.
Kairos was an important concept in ancient Greek thinking about rhetoric and even life in general, and some ancient teachers like Pythagoras and Isocrates spoke about it a great deal.* Aristotle does not dedicate a specific section of The Rhetoric to kairos, but according to rhetoric scholar James Kinneavy, Aristotle’s ideas throughout The Rhetoric are closely tied to the idea of kairos. Kinneavy points out that we can even see kairos in his definition of rhetoric given at the very beginning of this handout: “rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (emphasis added).
Kairos is a complex concept with different dimensions*:
- On the one hand, there is a stabilizing aspect, encouraging the author addresses the audience in ways that are considered appropriate for that particular audience. This means appealing to an audience referring to traditions, authorities, and values that meet the audience’s expectations.
- On the other hand, there is a destabilizing aspect, in which the author seeks to speak or write in such a way that encourages the audience to think and therefore act differently.
- The author might encourage the members of an audience to change its mind portraying an idea or situation in a way that is very different from usual (sometimes even reversing the usual ideas of, say, good and evil).
- The author might use the opportunity provided by the events that the audience is experiencing to show the need to act differently now.
While these might seem contradictory, perhaps you can see how they can fit together. Challenging an audience to change while ignoring or insulting everything that its members hold dear would probably fall flat. Telling an audience to believe and do everything that its members already believe and want to do would certainly please the audience, but then there is no real persuasion.
Therefore, an author must consider both the cultural expectations of the audience and the circumstances that the audience is experiencing. Because different audiences have different values and the members of an audience do not always share the same values, an author who intends to persuade has to think about the risks involved. Do the circumstances and values of the audience make the author’s argument easier or harder? Does the author have to push against the audience’s values and experiences to convince its members of a different way of looking at things, or might the author need to persuade the audience to place one value above another? Or perhaps the audience is an easier one, which already agrees with the author on the values relevant to the issue at hand or whose circumstances provide fuel to propel the author’s arguments.
*See the articles by Harker, Sheard, and Rostagni, which are listed in the “Sources” section at the end
Let’s look at the three appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos) in more depth and see how they can be used in ways that fit a given audience.
Ethos: appealing to an audience based on the character of the author
“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.” (Aristotle, The Rhetoric, Book I, Ch. 2)
Explicit (Written or Spoken) Ethos
Why should the author work to prove his or her character in the text of the presentation? In Book II, Chapter 1 of The Rhetoric, Aristotle makes his case:
But since rhetoric exists to affect the giving of decisions — the hearers decide between one political speaker and another, and a legal verdict is a decision — the orator must not only try to make the argument of his speech demonstrative and worthy of belief; he must also make his own character look right and put his hearers, who are to decide, into the right frame of mind. Particularly in political oratory, but also in lawsuits, it adds much to an orator’s influence that his own character should look right and that he should be thought to entertain the right feelings towards his hearers; and also that his hearers themselves should be in just the right frame of mind. That the orator’s own character should look right is particularly important in political speaking: that the audience should be in the right frame of mind [is particularly important] in lawsuits. When people are feeling friendly and placable, they think one sort of thing; when they are feeling angry or hostile, they think either something totally different or the same thing with a different intensity: when they feel friendly to the man who comes before them for judgement, they regard him as having done little wrong, if any; when they feel hostile, they take the opposite view. Again, if they are eager for, and have good hopes of, a thing that will be pleasant if it happens, they think that it certainly will happen and be good for them: whereas if they are indifferent or annoyed, they do not think so.
There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character — the three, namely, that induce us to believe a thing apart from any proof of it: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill. False statements and bad advice are due to one or more of the following three causes. Men either form a false opinion through want of good sense; or they form a true opinion, but because of their moral badness do not say what they really think; or finally, they are both sensible and upright, but not well disposed to their hearers, and may fail in consequence to recommend what they know to be the best course. These are the only possible cases. It follows that any one who is thought to have all three of these good qualities will inspire trust in his audience. The way to make ourselves thought to be sensible and morally good must be gathered from the analysis of goodness already given: the way to establish your own goodness is the same as the way to establish that of others.
Further help comes from the authors of Everything’s an Argument. They note that authors can improve their standing the eyes of an audience when they portray themselves as
- Worthy of being believed because of their knowledge and/or qualifications or their agreement with the values of the audience
- Respectful of the audience
- Humble rather than arrogant
- Fair-minded and interested in the truth rather selfish or one-sided**
Implicit (Unwritten, Unspoken) Ethos
You may have noticed Aristotle’s statement that “this kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak.” While it’s risky to differ with one of the greatest philosophers of all time, I would like you to consider the author’s position, background, or reputation even when it goes unmentioned in the document. What would the audience know about the author even before encountering the speech or written text? Does this make the author’s goal or persuasion easier or harder?
One example of this is the conduct of a teacher in a classroom or an online course. The teacher rarely needs to say to the students, “I’m a teacher with a degree in this stuff. You can trust me.” But the position of the teacher usually makes an unspoken appeal to the students that encourages them to give an instructor the benefit of the doubt.
The Kairos Component
To convince the audience of his or her personal character, an author must connect meaningfully with the values of the audience. Values are the standards that people use to judge what things are right and wrong, important and unimportant. Here are some important questions relating to values:
- How should individuals, groups, and countries treat each other? What is fair and right?
- What are the most important things in life, and how can they be protected and encouraged?
- How should power and relationships work in families, workplaces, and governments?
- When, if ever, is violence justified?
Aristotle notes the importance of connecting with the audience’s values in The Rhetoric:
We must also take into account the nature of our particular audience when making a speech of praise; for, as Socrates used to say, ‘it is not difficult to praise the Athenians to an Athenian audience.’ If the audience esteems a given quality, we must say that our hero has that quality, no matter whether we are addressing Scythians or Spartans or philosophers. Everything, in fact, that is esteemed we are to represent as noble. After all, people regard the two things as much the same. (Book I, Ch. 9)
What makes persuasion based on ethos easier?
- Agreement between the author and audience on important values
- Events that encourage the kinds of values that the author appeals to (for example, a military threat may encourage the audience to value security more than freedom or peace)
- Respect for the author as an individual, as a member of a respected group, or holder of a respected position (in other words, strong implicit ethos)
These favorable conditions can provide a solid foundation for persuading an audience. On the other hand, weaknesses in these areas are obstacles that the author must overcome to convince the audience.
We can illustrate this by thinking about how a speaker might persuade different audiences on issues of war and peace. The ancient Romans seemed to require only a believable threat to approve of a war. If a threat was on the horizon, defeating the enemy before the threat was serious was a high priority, and the Romans tended to portray themselves as acting defensively even when they were the attackers. A speaker addressing a Roman assembly would need to take this into account when he called for war or peace. Speakers advising a peaceful approach to foreign powers would probably have a more difficult task in convincing their audience because of Roman cultural values that glorified war, while a speaker advising war would have an easier time.
On the other hand, modern-day Europeans seem (in general) much less likely to want to go to war than ancient Romans. This is fascinating when we compare it to the excitement about war that many Europeans felt before World War I. Many Europeans in 1914 valued national strength proved on the battlefield. Yet the events of the 20th century have had a dramatic impact on European values. Two terrible world wars and a more unified Europe (for now) have made war much less attractive, and so an author arguing for war has an uphill battle against current European values.
Whether in ancient Rome or modern Europe, a speaker on the issue of war would benefit from a strong appeal to ethos. In either case, a military background (implicit ethos) and a demonstration that the speaker thinks about these things in ways that the audience considers moral (explicit ethos) would be helpful in persuading the audience.
Summing It Up
To effectively appeal to ethos, an author needs to convince the audience that he or she can be trusted on the issue at hand as a believable, decent person and overcome any obstacles caused by the author’s background or argument.
** I would add that different audiences can define fair-mindedness in different ways. Some will want an author to treat those who disagree with respect, while others will respond positively to dismissiveness or hostility toward some groups because it’s what they or their ideas deserve. This is fairly common in our divided political culture, but it can also be illustrated by observing that people don’t generally demand that authors present the positive and negative points about Adolf Hitler before criticizing him.
Pathos: appealing to an audience’s emotions
“Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.” (Aristotle, The Rhetoric, Book I, Ch. 2)
Aristotle argues that a speaker must understand the role of emotions in the persuasion of the audience:
The Emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgements, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like, with their opposites. We must arrange what we have to say about each of them under three heads. Take, for instance, the emotion of anger: here we must discover (1) what the state of mind of angry people is, (2) who the people are with whom they usually get angry, and (3) on what grounds they get angry with them. It is not enough to know one or even two of these points; unless we know all three, we shall be unable to arouse anger in any one. The same is true of the other emotions. So just as earlier in this work we drew up a list of useful propositions for the orator, let us now proceed in the same way to analyse the subject before us. (Book II, Chapter 1)
Aristotle looks at several pairs of opposite emotions in Book II: anger and calmness, friendship and enmity, fear and confidence, shame and shamelessness, kindness and unkindness, pity and indignation (along with envy, somewhat similar but not identical to indignation), and emulation and contempt. (I checked and improved my list with the aid of “Aristotle’s List of Emotions,” http://spot.colorado.edu/~hauserg/ArEmotList.htm.)
The authors of Everything’s an Argument note that appeals to emotions can be used
- “to connect with readers [or hearers] to assure them that you understand their experiences or, to use President Bill Clinton’s famous line, “feel their pain” (33).
- to make an argument more emotionally intense, using emotionally charged words, phrases, or descriptions
- to put the members of the audience in a better mood or distract them by employing humor
The Kairos Component
What makes persuasion based on pathos easier?
- Cultural standards and practices that encourage the kind of emotions that the author intends to arouse in the audience (for example, urging a group of Marines to have confidence in battle would almost certainly be made easier by their training and the expectations of their officers and comrades)
- Events that encourage the kinds of emotions that the author appeals to (for example, a military threat may encourage the audience to be fearful rather than confident)
These favorable conditions can provide a solid foundation for persuading an audience. On the other hand, unfavorable conditions present obstacles that the author must overcome to convince the audience.
Let’s think about how these principles might apply to a debate about war and peace:
- A speaker arguing that his audience should support a war must convince the audience to fear a threatening enemy or see that victory could lead to real benefits that would outweigh the losses and moral challenges that war brings. This was an easier argument to make after the shocking Pearl Harbor or September 11 attacks, while it is harder to do so when audiences are more skeptical of the seriousness of threats or fear that the gains of a war will outweigh the losses.
- On the other hand, a speaker arguing for peace must do the opposite, convincing the audience that possible threats are not as serious as some might say, or that the human, material, or moral costs of war are too high. Again, the circumstances make a big difference here. Peace may seem more appealing when an audience is exhausted by war or sees no benefit in risking peace for the uncertainties of war.
Summing It Up
To effectively appeal to pathos, an author must encourage the kind of emotions that will lead the audience to agree with the author. This includes considering whether the culture and circumstances of the audience are likely to make it more or less difficult for the members of the audience to feel these emotions.
Logos: appealing to the logic of the audience
“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.” (Aristotle, The Rhetoric, Book I, Ch. 2)
Logical appeals are very important but are somewhat simpler to explain.
An author may support his or her argument in many different ways that appeal to the logic of the audience. Here are some examples (this list is a combination of my own thoughts with the work of Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters in Everything’s an Argument and Aristotle in The Rhetoric):
- Examples from history or current events to explain the current situation or show the kind of thing that might happen again
- Citing respected authorities to support a point
- Analogies or hypothetical situations to illustrate a point
- Following a line of logic to show the consequences of a certain way of thinking
- Numerical data
- Personal stories from the author or another person to illustrate a point (which can also be a great way to appeal to pathos, as seen above)
You may know something about logical fallacies as well. Not all logical support is equally valid.
The Kairos Component and Some Illustrations
Different audiences are likely to respect different types of logical appeals, because different audiences respect (or dismiss) different sources of information for different reasons.
Here are some examples:
- An audience of experts in a certain field will want at least some of the logical support to be respectable according to the standards of their field: sociological concepts and studies for sociologists, philosophically respectable reasoning for philosophers, and so on.
- At the same time, an audience of non-experts may be more persuaded by logical support from what they believe to be common sense and examples from their everyday experience, especially if supposed experts seem distant from or hostile to their everyday experience.
- A Christian audience will be likely to respect logical support from the Bible, Christian concepts and traditions, and respected Christian figures (and of course there are different types of Christians with different interpretations, traditions, and heroes). You can draw a parallel between what I have said here about a Christian audience and other religious or nonreligious audiences who have different ideas about the most important things in life: non-Christian groups also have important texts, concepts, traditions, and figures that they respect.
- Similarly, a patriotic audience will be likely to respect logical support from the important texts, concepts, traditions, and figures from their country’s history as they have learned it.
Summing It Up
To effectively appeal to logos, an author must support the argument with clearly explained information and reasoning that the audience will understand and respect.
- Rhetorical analysis materials from KCC Professors Trisha Dandurand and Linsey Cuti
- Aristotle, The Rhetoric, translated by W. Rhys Roberts, available at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.mb.txt
- Harker, “The Ethics of Argument: Rereading Kairos and Making Sense in a Timely Fashion.” College Composition and Communication 59 (2007), 77-97
- Kinneavy, “Kairos in Classical and Modern Rhetorical Theory,” in Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2002.
- Lunsford, Andrea A., John J. Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters. Everything’s an Argument: With Readings. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013.
- Online Writing Lab at Purdue University, “Aristotle’s Rhetorical Situation,” https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/625/03/
- Rostagni, Augusto, translated by Phillip Sipiora. “A New Chapter in the History of Rhetoric and Sophistry,” in Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2002.
- Sheard, Cynthia Miecznikowski. “Kairos and Kenneth Burke’s Psychology of Political and Social Communication.” College English 55 (1993): 291-310.