Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in Greece. When he was 17, he was sent to Athens to enrol in Plato’s Academy where he spent 20 years as a student and teacher — emerging with both a great respect and a good deal of criticism for his teacher’s theories. Plato’s own later writings, in which he softened some earlier positions, likely bear the mark of repeated discussions with his most gifted student.

The Roman philosopher Cicero said that, “If Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was a flowing river of gold.”

“Aristotle taught that a speaker’s ability to persuade an audience is based on how well the speaker appeals to that audience in three different areas: logos, ethos, and pathos. Considered together, these appeals form what later rhetoricians have called the rhetorical triangle.”

-Jaclyn Lutzke and Mary F. Henggeler, School of Liberal Arts, Indiana University

Why are acts of oratory so powerful? What makes them so effective? And how can we improve our own writing and speaking so that it will influence those who read or hear it?

For more than two millennia, thinkers and writers have attempted to answer these questions. Their ideas and their concrete suggestions have come to make up what the ancient Greeks called “ritorikí”: the study of rhetoric, or what we might call the art of argument.

Plato (left) and Aristotle in Raphael’s 1509 fresco, The School of Athens

Ancient Rhetoric for the Modern Era

Rhetoric is any kind of persuasive writing or speech. Its use is not confined to law or politics. In the age of social media, persuasive messages surround us. The study of rhetoric allows us to both make and interpret arguments. Rhetoric has a real effect on people’s behaviour. Words move us to action. They drive our decisions—from what to buy to whom to elect, to whether or not to go to war.

After the establishment of democracy, decisions were no longer made by one all powerful leader. In order to accomplish anything, you had to convince a large group of people to vote for your idea. As a result, the ability to make speeches and persuade audiences became a highly-prized skill. People who could teach public speaking were in high demand. One of the most famous of these was the philosopher Aristotle.

According to Aristotle, a story must have pity, fear and catharsis: the three basic elements to a compelling story. The main lesson in this is to keep your eye on the audience; and not on your characters, plot, or yourself as a writer.

When communicating information, ideas or even emotions to a large group of people, you have to create a narrative that connects you–or your organisation–with its intended audience. In Aristotle’s time, what elicited pity was seeing a person of noble birth brought down by their own folly or an unexpected turn of events.

Has much changed since Aristotle’s time? Are we still swayed by primal emotions such as pity and fear?

Or does something else compel us towards catharsis? And if it is ‘something else’, then what is that something else?

11 thoughts on “The Aristotelian Triangle | Ancient Rhetoric for the Modern Era

  1. I’m not sure if people are as swayed by emotions of pity as they used to be… We have been desensitised to it. But considering the events of Joe Biden’s inauguration, I still think that people are drawn towards narratives of a man or woman in power ‘brought down’ to earth.

    1. Perhaps ‘pity’ has gone out of style; but the age old formula of appealing to our fears still works.

      1. Machiavelli once said it’s better to be feared than loved. Fear has a way of whipping obedience out of us. A lot of leaders prefer leading via obedience rather than consensus. In either case, consensus can only be reached if there are shared values that people hold dear to their hearts. If the shared values are not there, it is hard to reach a consensus.

  2. Ancient rhetoric is pretty much the foundation of modern PR. We spin our message to tell a story. At the end of the day, you can tell whatever story you want; but if people stop trusting what you say–then it doesn’t matter how good your story is. Telling an effective tale is only the beginning of engaging with an audience. This is how so many people become apathetic towards politics and politicians. No one believes a thing anyone says. The key is to get people to trust you and what you say. That isn’t easy.

    1. That’s why it’s important to learn the art of rhetoric–so we can interpret these arguments and not get hood-winked by stories that are mere fluff.

      1. Great storytellers reveal deep truths within their stories. The conmen pass off lies as truths by appealing to our emotions and distorting the facts to suit our fancy.

  3. As far as I could remember, Sartre once said something about an existential play that aims to present a stressful situation so that the audience finding it unbearable may feel forced to remedy it.

    I think this to be an important part of every story: to present something in a way that stirs the audience or the readers and changes their perspective towards life or at least make them do something to remedy the situation.

    I believe that pity and fear are the strongest emotions that has the power to stir something within us. We are swayed more by these powerful emotions than by any other. So, even if there are other elements to compel us towards catharsis, we continue to be swayed by pity and fear.

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