Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ethos, Logos, and Pathos: Part 1, Ethos

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle speaks of rhetoric as necessarily persuasive, and shows three basic proofs, or appeals, that the rhetor (the orator or writer) must rely on to fully engage the audience. These proofs were important for Aristotle to establish, because rhetoric disengaged from evidence was mere manipulation, something Ancient Greek philosophers deplored about the Sophists who came to Athens to teach persuasive oratory to budding lawmakers. 

Their rhetoric was considered skolion, twisted, because it appealed solely to the emotions of the hearer, and could bewitch or enchant the listener away from a righteous or moral path. So Aristotle's concern was to establish that rhetoric had a rational purpose by aligning it with the more scientific need for proof. This act distinguished the rhetoric of the day from the merely persuasive and poetic, aligning it instead with political speech. Prior to this, rhetoric had not been taken seriously as a form of political speech, as hard as that might be for us to understand today.

First, there is the appeal to ethos, establishing the proof of one's character. This is where one begins as an orator or writer, by establishing one's character and authority to be listened to and heard. For the Ancient Greeks, this was crucial, for to be taken seriously, a man had to be of good family, a good reputation, and have connections in the community. Nowadays, some of this is still crucial when writing, but the goals are accomplished differently in writing than in speaking. In speaking, an orator will most likely have a defined audience s/he speaks in front of, and will have developed her bona fides prior to speaking. 

Her character will be established by the person who introduces her to the audience, who will tell you where she's from, what her educational background is, and any organizations she's affiliated with. All of these contribute to define the speaker's character. Yet, your character, your ethos, is more subtly communicated as well, through your tone of voice, your subject matter, and your presentation style. It is also communicated through respect for your audience, attention to their concerns, and thorough knowledge of one's subject.

When writing, the author establishes his character through his background, his vita, his list of works cited, and a biographical statement. It is important when you're a student writer to establish your credibility by picking a subject you have personal experience with. It is impossible to take a writer seriously when s/he chooses a subject she has no experience with. Your experience is your avenue to credibility. If you choose to speak or write on a subject you know nothing about, you will feel uncomfortable and you lose credibility.  

Friday, May 1, 2009

Invention: how to pick a subject to write about

This can be the single most difficult issue of all for the writer--where to begin? What should your subject be? There are a few select and highly effective ways to begin, which I will list (this list is inspired by a book called The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers, by Frank L. Cioffi; a very good book!). 

The easiest place to begin is with your feelings: You have a strong emotional response to something that happened, or something someone said or did. Perhaps it's a political issue, or something to do with civic engagement (my favorite metatopic). Probably, however, it's much more personal, and you can find a topic in anything you've had a strong reaction to. Virtually anything will work, and if you've had personal experience with the subject, you will be writing from a place of authority, a powerful ethical component of effective argumentation. 

Curiosity: There's no better fuel, after your emotional response, than a subject you would like to know more about. Usually, this requires an extensive amount of research, and it might even mean you have to go and experience what you're curious about personally. Eventually, your curiosity will lead to experiences that you will have emotional responses to, and a cycle of interest--invention--creation will begin. Curiosity always feels very exciting, and it's the surest way to stay invested in a subject. 

Aporia: Aporia means "an irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in a text." What happens is that you read something and your response is that it makes no sense. Using aporia as a method of approach to find a topic is extremely effective, especially in academic or essay writing. Your goal is to answer the question you've discovered the author has not answered, or has brought up in an incomplete manner. Aporia explains the fundamental problem most readers have with a text they question. For most readers the writing gives them a weird feeling that they're missing something, but the problem might not lie with your reading of the text. The problem might lie with the author's lack of argumentation skills or insufficient or incomplete evidence.

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