Aristotle’s Three Pillars
Welcome to logos, the most boring of Aristotle’s three pillars of rhetoric.
Aristotle’s three pillars were laid down 23 centuries ago in his book The Art of Rhetoric. This book is still the go-to guide for persuasive speaking after all this time.
For a long time we were taught that persuasion relied on presenting logical arguments that relentlessly took us from our shared assumptions or basic facts and, step-by-step, with deductive reasoning turned them into new, unassailable conclusions.
More recently there’s been a renaissance in the understanding that Aristotle’s other two pillars, ethos and pathos are just as important. Today, we find ourselves in a world where reasoning is undervalued and many arguments, especially political arguments are all ethos and pathos, with reason nowhere to be seen.
As a reminder, ethos is your character and your standing with the audience, logos is how you attempt to influence with audience with reason, and pathos is an attempt to stir your audience with anger, fear, or hope.
As Sam Leith puts it in You Talkin’ to Me, ethos says, “Buy my car because I’m Jeremy Clarkson.” Logos says, “Buy my car because yours is broken and mine is the only one on sale.” Pathos says, “Buy my old car because this cute little kitten, which is afflicted with a rare degenerative disease, will expire in agony, for my car is the last asset in the world and I’m selling it to pay for kitty’s medical treatment.”
What is logos and how does it work?
Logos, despite what the word looks and sounds like, does not mean logic. It can mean any kind of reasoned argument – a plea, an opinion, any kind of account or discourse.
The job of logos is marshal your arguments for and against. You should select the best arguments in the “for” column and find counter-arguments to those in the “against” column. Note that doing this assumes you already have a conclusion in mind. This is an exercise in persuasion, not in discovery or critical thinking.
When we initially come across the idea of reasoned argument as separate from an emotional appeal, it’s easy to think of it as a dry application of the rules of logic. Something that you might see in a book of mathematical proofs.
The textbook example of a logical argument is the classic syllogism: Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Socrates is mortal.
Most arguments that you get involved in, or speeches that you give, will look nothing like this. Most things in life are too complex to reduce to first principles. Imagine arguing about a change to the minimum wage, or a foreign war, or whether to get a puppy. There’s no way to reduce an argument like that to first principles in a way that would impress a mathematician. Any argument worth having contains all sorts of unknowable ideas and hidden assumptions.
Exercise: Think of a position to take. It can be anything. If nothing come to mind, let’s say, “We should increase the minimum wage to $20 an hour.”
What are the best arguments for? And the best arguments against?
For the best arguments against, what are the best counter-arguments?
Know Your Audience
One of the first things we’re told when we start off in persuasive speaking is to know your audience. When we ‘re looking for the best arguments for and against our position, we need to do that with reference to our intended audience. Which arguments will hold the most sway with the people that we’ll be talking to? What special interests or fixed ideas do they hold? What experiences have they had and what stage of life are they at? Are they already knowledgeable in the area that you’re talking about or are they new to the topic?
Exercise: How would your arguments change if you were talking to workers in a paper mill? Or to a meeting of employers? Or to your local MP? Or to an MP from the opposing party?
When we start making an argument we have to start from common ground. It’s important to know your audience because we need to know what beliefs we share. If you start from an assumption that the audience doesn’t share, you’ve lost before you start.
If you were trying to convince your audience that Socrates was mortal, but your audience didn’t believe that Socrates was a man, your task would be impossible. Imagine if your logical argument started with “Jesus is a man”. Some audiences would accept that. Some would not.
To take the minimum wage example, we might share a belief that economic growth is important. We might share a belief that equality is important. If you can’t find that shared belief, everything built on top of that assumption will fail. One of the reasons that political argument is so difficult today is that we have fewer shared assumptions than we did when everyone watched the same TV news and read the same newspaper.
Types of Argument
The first type of argument that comes to mind is strict deductive logic. As we’ve already said, it’s extremely rare that you can build an argument from first principles unless you’re writing a maths paper.
The next type of argument is proof by induction. In other words, making assumptions from things we’ve already seen. The sun has come up in the East every day of our lives and every day recorded before that. We assume it will come up in the East tomorrow. We don’t think, “Tomorrow it must be the West’s turn”.
Exercise: what inductive arguments can you use with your minimum wage position?
You could think of other times the minimum wage has changed. You could think of how the policy works in other countries.
Analogies are another type of argument. They’re not a very good type of argument. Often the two things that we’re comparing are not like each other in any meaningful way. But they’re still very popular. In every political argument on the Internet for the last 25 years, someone has always ended up comparing an opponent to Hitler. It is true? Rarely. Is it a popular device? One look at Twitter should answer that.
There are a whole lot of devices that are regarded as fallacies by the logic police but that are still useful forms of persuasion
‘Argument from authority’ fails the strict rules of logic – just because someone old or famous said something doesn’t make it true – but it’s still a useful form of argument. I’m not just telling you that there are three pillars to rhetoric; I’m telling you that Aristotle said it and that his book it still doing the rounds after two-and-a-half thousand years. That legitimately makes the argument more plausible than if I’d dreamed it up just now.
Exercise: Who can you call on to back up your argument?
Counterargument is where things get dirty.
Ideally, when you did the for and against part of your analysis at the start of this exercise, you came up with the strongest possible version of the counterarguments to your position and seriously considered them.
Coming up with deliberately weak counterarguments and then attacking those is called straw-manning. It’s a common tactic people use when they want to win an argument rather than find the truth.
Exercise: What are some straw man arguments against your position and what would your attack lines be?
What straw man arguments could your opponent use against your position?
One of the dirtiest counterargument techniques you can use, especially if you want to distract people from how weak your position is, is the ad hominem attack. Here you attack the person opposing you rather than the argument.
Exercise: Think of the sort of person who might oppose your position? How might you attack their character or motives?
How might they attack yours?
The purpose of logos is to structure your argument in a way that appeals to your audience. It’s unlikely to follow a strictly logical flow because life is too complex for that.
Generalisation, analogy, and argument from authority are all legitimate forms of argument. If you want to win at all costs, regardless of the truth or rightness of your position, there are plenty of underhanded tactics you can also use.
Your job as speaker is to think through the pros and cons of your position. You need to understand your audience. Think about what common assumptions and common knowledge you have with them and use that understanding to select your best arguments.
Try and come up with the best possible counterarguments to test your position against. If you can answer them, your argument will be hard to beat.