What Apologists Need to Know about Rhetoric

Lessons from Aristotle

In chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recounts the story of St. Paul’s effort to spread the Gospel message to Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens. While Paul was mostly successful in Thessalonica and Berea, he faced special difficulties in Athens. There he was confronted with a culture that for centuries had prized philosophical discussion and public debates. During the Golden Age of Greece (about five hundred years before the time of Christ), Athens was transformed. Having defeated the Persians in several military battles, Athens became a center of ideas. For centuries, it had been the cultural and intellectual capital of the Greek world. The Athenians included not just great architects, sculptors, artists, actors, and playwrights; there were also plenty of philosophers and conversationalists in the Greek capital city. On his visit to Athens, St. Paul is said to have encountered thinkers and scholars who "spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas" (Acts 17:21). To this audience, he delivered a famous speech in defense of the faith.

Athens was also a city that prized political speech and considered it central to forming a good community. For this reason, rhetoric was especially valued. With the development of democratic government—where leaders gained authority through elections, where laws were passed by majority rule, and where court cases were decided by the vote of a jury of citizens—the ability to persuade fellow citizens was important for political and economic success. Consequently, there arose professional speechmakers. Several of these became famous as speechwriters and as paid teachers.

The philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.) frequently criticized these orators. He facetiously dubbed them sophists (or "wise ones") because they passed themselves off as experts in order to win the trust of their audiences. In his dialogues, Plato introduces us to several sophists and how they claim expertise even about things they don’t really understand. We can learn a great deal from Plato about being circumspect about politicians and lawyers who stand to gain personally from the speeches they deliver. For the most part, Plato encourages his readers to be suspicious of rhetoric and rhetoricians.

That said, Plato himself was a master rhetorician. His real criticism is of those who aim to persuade without concern for goodness and truth. Several of his dialogues center around the theme of rhetoric, and in them he indirectly advocates a disciplined, systematic study of rhetoric that enables speakers and writers to use language to persuade while drawing them closer to truth, beauty, and ultimate goodness.

Plato’s best student, Aristotle, systematized this account of the art of persuasion in his book, the Rhetoric.

Where’s the Logic in That?

We are at a disadvantage in trying to learn from Aristotle about rhetoric because of certain presuppositions that we have absorbed from the modern world, which conceives of most rhetoric as "empty." We tend to think that people are persuaded either by logic or by emotion. Given the choice between reason and feelings, most scientifically minded people think that logic and reason offer genuine access to truth while emotions are not a proper guide for finding what is true and real. Because modern thinkers tend to divide the human being between head and heart, we have a strong tendency to favor logic over emotion. With this way of thinking, any "rhetoric" that plays on the feelings of the audience tends to be viewed as deceitful and dishonest.

Christian apologists can unwittingly follow these modern presuppositions. I have met bright, young people who try to use logical arguments to prove the existence of God or that Jesus was raised from the dead. It seems logical to use logic. But an overemphasis on logic can be counterproductive. As John Henry Cardinal Newman put it, "Logicians are more set upon concluding rightly, than on right conclusions . . . For most men argument makes the point in hand only more doubtful, and considerably less impressive" (An Essay in Aim of a Grammar of Assent, 90).

Of course, an apologist cannot throw logic out the window. For example, over the last decade, many Catholic apologists have done excellent work showing how the Bible can be used to support Catholicism. When working with an audience of Evangelical Christians (who accept that the Bible is the revealed word of God), they have shown how the Scripture affirms the Catholic understanding of a sacred Tradition that complements the Bible.

But how many people join the Church based on a logical argument? Indeed, in many cases, an intellectual conversion long preceded the actual decision to enter into full communion. This can be seen, for example, in Patrick Madrid’s Surprised by Truth books. A person can be logically convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith well before deciding to take the step to enter into full communion with the Church. In these cases, more logic is rarely what is needed to make the final steps toward entering the Church.

There are other cases where logic can be counterproductive for the apologist. When the audience includes hardheaded atheists who refuse to believe the first steps needed to get an argument about God or the Church off the ground, then logic turns out to be unhelpful. The results can be even worse when dealing with an audience that dismisses logic altogether as a mask for power.

Of course, I am not saying that apologists need persuade on emotion alone. Rather, I am suggesting that those who want to defend the faith can benefit from learning an alternative way of understanding how persuasion works. Aristotle offers such an alternative.

A Trinity of Approaches

Aristotle has an insight into the way that words influence beliefs. He saw the art of rhetoric as a technical knowledge about the available means of persuasion. Just as a physician, who practices the art of medicine, must study the available means to diagnose sickness and bring about health, rhetoricians, who practice the art of speaking persuasively, must understand how to move and persuade audiences. Some people have a natural aptitude or a special charismatic ability that makes them persuasive. But that’s not art. The art of rhetoric is learned through study and practice. The master practitioner is the one who becomes expert at knowing the available means of persuasion. Aristotle provides an outline of this art.

When describing the art of persuasion, Aristotle did not have apologists in mind. Aristotle lived over three hundred years before the time of Jesus, and he seems to have had no contact with the faith of the Hebrew people. Having no acquaintance with the faith, he never sought to defend (or attack) it. Instead, Aristotle was writing for statesmen and students planning to become political leaders. He had three kinds of persuasive speeches in mind: those in which a leader addresses a public assembly to speak in favor or against a proposed policy, speeches in a court where one defends or attacks someone who has been accused, and speeches given on public occasions when a leader praises a hero or censures a scoundrel.

Rather than just two available means of persuasion (logic and emotion, or the head versus the heart), Aristotle sees that there are always three interrelated ways to persuade an audience:

There are three modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word. 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. (Rhetoric, I.2)

Three Greek words describe these three modes of persuasion: ethos (persuasion based on moral character), pathos (persuasion based on emotion), and logos (persuasion based on logic).

Aristotle’s Rhetoric is the first methodical treatise on the art of persuasion, but he is not the first thinker to consider the power of persuasion. For twenty years, Aristotle studied with Plato. Since many of Plato’s dialogues are about rhetoric, we can assume that Aristotle studied long and hard, learning from his master about the power and perils of rhetoric. Many of Plato’s dialogues put his own teacher Socrates in conversation with various public speakers of the day, including several prominent sophists, especially Gorgias and Protagorus, who taught and wrote books on how to deliver persuasive speeches. Ancient Athens had become very litigious, and it was possible to make a living by bringing people to court. The sophists gained a reputation for making money by winning unjust lawsuits and by teaching others how to do so.

The sophists emphasized pathos (appealing to emotions) and ethos (appealing to character). For example, the sophists recognized how to win the sympathy of the jury by appealing to their pity while discrediting the character of the opponent. They knew how to play on the whole range of human emotions (pathos), including pity, a sense of shared grief, fear, envy, indignation. They also knew that it was important to make themselves look noble and upright to win people’s trust. Aristotle’s main contribution to the art of rhetoric is that he emphasizes rational argument (logos), claiming that along with character and emotion, logic is central to persuasion. Aristotle, like Plato, is critical of the sophists who try to win lawsuits based on emotion and without reason. But Aristotle doesn’t simply think that logic is a third ingredient. His teaching on the place of logic in rhetoric is subtle, so it is worth pausing to think through reason’s role in persuasion.

Be Reasonable. Be Good.

On the surface, it seems obvious that reason should be more persuasive than emotion. But an example will show that the relation is complicated. Suppose a speaker visits a high school to address the student body on the topic of cigarette smoking. The speaker uses reason and logical arguments to convince the students that it is unhealthy to smoke cigarettes. The speaker presents scientific studies and medical data that support this conclusion. The talk is compelling, with all sorts of studies showing that smoking tobacco reduces the quality of one’s life. The evidence points to one logical conclusion: People should not smoke cigarettes. It is not difficult to imagine that such a speech could be persuasive. Students who do not smoke are confirmed in their belief that smoking is bad, and even some who do smoke are convinced they should quit.

Now, suppose that after the speech, the speaker steps outside the building to light up and smoke a cigarette. Wouldn’t it change the persuasive quality of the speech? Suddenly, the students who a few moments before felt persuaded would call the entire speech into question.

The fact that the speaker smokes does not change the logic of the argument at all, showing that there is a significant difference between the discipline of logic and the practice of rhetoric. Logic studies the way that truth is necessarily transmitted from premises to a conclusion. Logic addresses itself to a universal concern, detached from any particular audience. Like the truths of mathematics, the force of logic applies regardless of the audience.

In contrast, the audience is central to the purpose of rhetoric. In rhetoric, the speaker’s task is to move the audience.

In the example of the speaker trying to move the audience of high school students to abstain from smoking tobacco, the presentation may be perfectly reasonable (and hence successful from the point of view of logic) while also being a complete failure if the students see that the speaker’s character does not uphold his argument.

A Matter of Trust

Character is key. Indeed, Aristotle teaches that reason persuades because it provides evidence of good character. When a speaker presents good reasons to believe something that he himself believes and lives by, his words are a testament that his character is trustworthy.

Logic is not enough. Logic and reason can show that, given that one accepts certain claims, other things follow as a matter of necessity. But more is needed. To move an audience, trust is more important than truth.

This claim might seem alarming; it sounds like something that one of the sophists would say. Many of us are made nervous by slick-talking politicians and suave salespeople who say, "trust me." But there are several important qualifications. First, trust is more important than truth in order for an audience to be moved. This is not to say that truth is unimportant; it is only to recognize that truths that are not communicated by someone who is trustworthy will not be moving. Second, trust is developed when it is embodied in a lived truth.

Consider again the example of the speaker trying to convince an audience not to smoke. If the students see that, after the speech is over, the speaker goes outside to have a cigarette, it weakens the persuasive quality of the speech because the audience recognizes that the speaker cannot be trusted. A speaker who does not follow his own advice, or one who is not candid and frank, is not trustworthy. This is not to say that the ability of logic and reason to get at the truth is useless. Instead, it shows that, in the practice of rhetoric, logic is interconnected with character. For a speaker to move an audience, the use of logic and reason, especially when the logic is accepted by the speaker and lived out in his life, is a sign to the audience that the speaker can be trusted.

Aristotle claims that the speaker’s character is "the most effective means of persuasion" (Rhetoric, I.2). Audiences are more likely to be persuaded by speakers who appear trustworthy. That may make it seem that Aristotle is encouraging speakers to focus on appearing trustworthy and to be unduly concerned with reputation and looks. But that is not Aristotle’s point. Instead, he states that the speaker’s personal character is revealed "when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible" (Rhetoric, I.2). In other words, when the speaker reveals in a candid and frank manner to the audience the logic and reasoning that is moving to the speaker, it shows the audience that the speaker has good sense, good character, and good will towards them. In this way, logic and reason are persuasive when they are embodied in a speaker who is prudent, upright, and honest.

No Manipulation Allowed

So far, we have seen that Aristotle teaches us that persuasion involves someone of good character offering logical reasons. Audiences are moved more by character than by reason, but they are moved most when character and reason are integrated. So, how does emotion fit into this?

Aristotle points out that emotions involve more than just feelings of pleasure and pain. Emotions change the way we perceive things, people, and situations. Feelings affect judgment. If you are angry with someone, you are more likely to see his flaws, but if you are in love with him, you are more likely to see his gifts and talents. For a speaker to move an audience, it helps for him to understand how emotions affect judgment.

Aristotle is not advocating manipulating people’s emotions. As a matter of fact, speakers who appeal to emotion without regard for good character or logical reasoning may be able to manipulate certain audiences some of the time, but over the long haul, this strategy will backfire. Imagine a salesperson who encourages a shopper to be covetous: "You really need that; it is so you." Or consider the politician who plays on the fears and anger of the citizens: "If you vote for my opponent, we’ll have runaway deficits and unemployment; hardworking Americans will lose their jobs." Manipulating emotions is sometimes persuasive. As the political advertisers tell us, negative ads work. But such rhetoric is empty, because it misunderstands the connection between emotion, character, and reason.

When appeals to emotion are unconnected to logical reasoning and good character, the power of persuasion becomes corrupt. It’s no surprise that, in American politics, negative advertising seems to work in the short run. (Those who spend more on negative ads tend to win.) But in the long run, negative political ads have the effect of making citizens disenchanted about politics.

The sort of speech that is most persuasive in the long run integrates reason and character with emotion. Again, good character (as embodied in the virtuous person who is candid, has good sense, and acts with good will toward others) is the most effective means of persuasion. Trust is crucial. When audience members trusts a speaker, they are willing to make themselves vulnerable and open themselves to a different way of looking at things. They have to feel confident that the alternative that they are being asked to imagine is something worth considering. When the speaker integrates ethos (good character) with logos (good reasoning) and pathos (good feeling and a sense of trust), the audience is willing to be persuaded.

Rhetoric and the Work of the Apologist

So, what can apologists learn from Aristotle’s account of the art of rhetoric? Much of the apologist’s work involves defending the faith against distortions and misunderstandings while persuading others to consider the message of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church.

Apologists can learn from Aristotle to recognize the available means of persuasion. These always include an integrated mixture of appeals to character, appeals to emotion, and appeals to logic. The expert in the art of persuasion recognizes that these three are interrelated, and that the most persuasive is a trustworthy character. The most powerful argument for Christianity is the witness of Christians who live the faith.

It is worth noting that Jesus almost never presented his teachings in the form of logical arguments. In calling his disciples, he presented himself as one who is trustworthy, and then he called them, saying, "Come, follow me" (Mark 1:17).

In addition to this kind of appeal to character, Jesus also appealed to emotions to persuade. When Jesus was confronted by the scribes and the Pharisees about the woman who had been caught in adultery, he responded by saying, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7). His words transformed their emotions. Before he spoke, the crowd had an aggressive desire to trip up Jesus while condemning the woman and disregarding her as a person created by God. After he spoke, "they went away one by one." The words of Jesus prompt an awareness of our shortcomings before God, and a sense that, like the woman, we are in need of redemption. With that feeling awakened in us, we are prepared to hear him: "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more" (John 8:11).

This is not to say that the faith is all feelings with no place for arguments and persuasive speeches. St. Paul’s letters contain many examples of reasoned argumentation where Paul aims to persuade his audience. I would like to call special attention to the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts twenty-four different speeches, most of which were delivered by Peter and Paul (see "The Art of Rhetoric in the Acts of the Apostles," page 11).

These apostolic speeches are exemplary models of the work that is done by evangelists and apologists. In them, we see the apostles aiming to move their listeners to accept a consistent set of beliefs: that Jesus is the Christ, sent by God, as promised in the Hebrew Scriptures; that Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried; that God raised him to new life and that he will one day return to his glory; that in response, each person is called to repent, believe, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, join the community of believers, and while living in communion with others, break bread, practice virtue, pray, and worship together.

These twenty-four speeches integrate 1) ethos (appeals to good character, both of the apostles and of God the Father as revealed in Jesus); 2) pathos (appeals to emotion, where the audience is put in a mood to receive the message); and 3) logos (evidence and reasons to show that these things happened as reported). In short, these speeches masterfully exemplify the art of rhetoric as explained by Aristotle.

Here is one last point to notice. In these speeches, the apostles aimed to move their listeners not only to accept a set of beliefs, but even more, to enter into a relationship and a way of life. As Pope John Paul II put it, "Underlying all the Church’s thinking is the awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God himself" (Fides et Ratio 7). This message goes beyond a set of beliefs. At the heart of our life of faith there is a personal relationship and membership in a community. As Pope Benedict put it in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (DCE 1).


Saintly Rhetoric?

In the contemporary world, we tend to associate "rhetoric" with slick-sounding words that cover up meaningless promises. Politicians, we are sometimes told, talk about solutions, but they seduce us with hollow words.

Rhetoric has not always been viewed with such distrust. During ancient and medieval times, rhetoric was an esteemed branch of study. Until the eighteenth century, rhetoric was one of the central academic disciplines, respected as a centerpiece in a liberal arts education.

After the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on objectivity and equality, rhetoric was increasingly viewed with suspicion because of the belief that legitimate persuasion should be rational, understandable to everyone, and free of elevated language. Hence, we hear warnings against those who use "empty" rhetoric. But even this word of caution reveals that there is a kind of rhetoric that is not empty or deceitful.

Many great saints have been students of classical rhetoric, including especially St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom. Classical rhetoric was a staple of medieval universities. The art of persuasion was studied, along with grammar and logic, as a preparation for theology, the natural sciences, and the law. During the high middle ages, when St. Francis of Assisi formed his community of friars and St. Dominic formed the order of preachers, the study of rhetoric was at its peak. Students of rhetoric studied four distinct sub-disciplines: the art of letter writing, the art of poetic eloquence, the art of persuasive speaking, and the art of preaching. Training in classical rhetoric was part of the education of St. Thomas Aquinas, who, with regard to understanding and explaining the teachings of the Church, had perhaps the greatest mind in that or any period.

The Art of Rhetoric in the Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles contains two dozen speeches. Most were delivered either by Peter (eight of the first twelve) or by Paul (the majority of the rest). There also is a long speech from Stephen in chapter 7, and speeches by James and Philip. Several have co-presenters: John (along with Peter), and Barnabas (along with Paul, twice). Peter co-presents one of the speeches with the other apostles.

The audience included three different kinds of groups. 1) Many, like the first one, are addressed to a group who believes in Jesus. 2) Most of Peter’s speeches are addressed to a gathering of Jewish people or leaders in the Jewish community; Paul’s final speech also addressed a group of Jewish leaders. 3) The majority of Paul’s speeches are addressed to Gentiles and their leaders. They do not believe in God or in the personal God of the Hebrew tradition, and they typically have not heard the story of Jesus. In the speech that Peter delivers on the day of Pentecost (which is the first long speech in the text, and is perhaps the most famous of all the speeches in Acts), Peter addresses each of these groups. His audience is "all of you" (Acts 2:14).

Each speech shares a common aim: to persuade the various audiences to undertake a deeper participation in the life of faith.

Here is a list of the speeches in Acts:

  • 1:16-22 Peter addresses 120 believers about replacing Judas.
  • 2:14-41 Peter preaches in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.
  • 3:12-26 Peter addresses a gathering in the Temple Court in Jerusalem after a miracle.
  • 4:8-12 Peter and John speak about Jesus when questioned by the Sanhedrin.
  • 5:29-32 Peter and the apostles give witness about Jesus before the Sanhedrin.
  • 7:2-53 Stephen delivers a long defense to the Sanhedrin after he is accused of blasphemy.
  • 8:26-38 Philip preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
  • 10:34-49 Peter preaches in Caesarea to the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion.
  • 11:5-17 Peter addresses the circumcised believers in Jerusalem.
  • 13:16-41 Barnabas and Paul preach to the congregation assembled in the synagogue at Antioch.
  • 14:15-17 Barnabas and Paul preach to a crowd of Gentiles about nature and God.
  • 15:7-11 Peter addresses the Council of Jerusalem.
  • 15:13-21 James delivers an address at the Council of Jerusalem.
  • 16:30-34 Paul and Silas preach to their jailer and his family in Philippi.
  • 17:22-34 Paul speaks rather philosophically to the people of Athens at the Areopagus.
  • 19:1-7 Paul preaches about the Holy Spirit to some believers at Ephesus.
  • 20:17-35 Paul gives a farewell speech at Miletus to the elders visiting from the Church of Ephesus.
  • 21:20-25 James addresses Paul and the elders in Jerusalem.
  • 22:1-21 Paul defends himself and his mission to a crowd in Jerusalem.
  • 23:1-6 Paul defends himself before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
  • 24:10-21 Paul defends himself before the governor Felix in Caesarea.
  • 26:1-23 Paul defends himself before King Agrippa in Caesarea.
  • 27:21-26 Paul speaks on a ship encouraging the passengers to remain courageous.
  • 28:23-28 Paul addresses the Jewish leaders in Rome.

Gregory R. Beabout is an associate professor of philosophy at Saint Louis University and an adjunct scholar with the Center for Economic Personalism. He teaches courses in Catholic social thought and personalism. His research and publications are in the areas of ethics and social philosophy.

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 8.