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Monday, January 25, 2021

Aristotle on rhetoric #3 - pathos

‘Once more with feeling …’

This is what directors are traditionally supposed to say to actors. Should debating coaches be saying it to debaters?

Debating is meant, in Aristotle’s terms, to be pure logos. Reason is supposed to rule supreme. But Aristotle, philosopher though he was, realised that we are not Vulcans (even though he had not heard of Star Trek), and that humans are led by feeling as much as by reason; or, as he called it, pathos.

How, then, to use feeling in your speeches?

It isn’t actually as separated from logos as it might seem. The force of an argument can lead to strong feelings. Given that debating is often about proposing solutions for real world problems, the emotions associated with the problems are a completely appropriate part of considering the solutions to them.

Let’s take a concrete example. You’re speaking for the motion ‘This house would take down public statues of people guilty of racist attitudes or behaviour.’

You say: ‘Imagine how a person of colour living in Bristol, looking at the statue of Edward Colston [a slave trader whose statue was  taken down by protesters in August 2020] must have felt to be confronted every day with evidence of the abuse and exploitation of their ancestors.’

You are making a rational point: that celebrating people guilty of racism attacks people of colour. But you are also appealing to emotion: empathy for people of colour who feel attacked.

You say: ‘Much of the wealth of Bristol and other British cities was based on slavery. Is this something we should be proud of?’

You are making a rational point: that British society should be honest about the wrongs of its past. But you are also appealing to emotion: shame at our participation in those wrongs.

You say: ‘Colston was symbolically raised above people of colour; the people from whose slavery he made his money were locked in chains at the bottom of ships, left to die from dehydration and disease, thrown overboard when they did so that he could say they had been lost at sea and could claim the insurance.’

You are making a rational point: success achieved by exploiting people should not be celebrated. But you are also appealing to emotion: anger at this exploitation.

You could use pathos on the other side of the debate, too. You could say: ‘If we edit out our past, soon we will lose all sense of ourselves; we will no longer know who we are.’

You are making a rational point: a national community needs a sense of its own history. But you are also appealing to emotion: fear of losing our identity.


So, emotion is not as separate from reason as it seems; logos and pathos work hand in hand. It’s perfectly possible to make an argument which is both strongly rational and powered by emotion.

Once more with both feeling and thought …
 

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