The Logic and Validity of Emotional Appeal in Classical Greek Rhetorical Theory
by Bryan Register
Date: 1 May 99
Forum: University of Texas at Austin
Copyright: Bryan Register
Democracy - government by the consent of the governed - requires public speech, requires rhetoric. But rhetoric can be a tool of manipulation. The people - the demos - can be tricked into consenting. Thus can democracy become tyranny. The word 'demagogue' comes from the same root as the word 'democracy', just as demagogues are rooted in the democratic appeal of their rhetoric.
Is there a way out of this trap? On the one hand, there is the necessity for rhetoric to legitimate democratic order. On the other hand, there is the potential for rhetorical abuses to corrupt democratic order.
Perhaps the most salient element of rhetoric which comes up for condemnation by logicians is the employment of emotional appeal. The appeal to emotion is in most standard lists of fallacies. Moreover, as defenders of liberty will rightly note, demagogues typically make their appeals to the emotions of the people. Thus, demagoguery is typically fallacious.
But consider the following impassioned appeal:
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the Lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
These were the words that formed men's souls - and no logician can find the fallacy in these angry words and no enemy of demagogues can oppose them.
Thus emotional appeal is not always the weapon of tyrants, it can be the shield of liberty as well. And emotional appeal is not always an illogical trick, it can bring the facts into a clarity which some notions of logic would disallow.
If democracy rests partly on rhetoric, and rhetoric rests partly on the appeal to the emotions of the audience, then the defense of democracy must involve an understanding of emotional appeal. What is an emotion? What is it to appeal to it?
Perhaps the first intellectuals to consider these questions were the rhetorical theorists of classical Athens. Around the time of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, Athens became what may be roughly called a democracy. Rhetoric, then, became a crucial element of public life, and intellectuals were called upon to theorize about rhetoric for the first time. In this thesis, I will discuss the rhetorical theories of three classical Greeks: Gorgias, Plato, and Aristotle.
Gorgias, in his brilliant Encomium to Helen, presents a theory of rhetoric and a theory of the emotions which undergirds it. His theory of emotions, I will argue, is a non-cognitive one, wherein the emotions are manipulated by forces external to the individual mind and will, and do not report - even confusedly - on objective facts. His theory of rhetoric is the theory of using the power of words to manipulate emotions and compel the audience to obey the will of the speaker. This fits within a broader metaphysical and ethical theory in which the stronger rule the weaker by nature. Gorgias, in my interpretation, is an apologist for the demagogue.
Plato's career encompasses considerable development regarding theories of rhetoric. In the early, highly polemical dialogue Gorgias, Plato has Socrates argue with three sophists, beginning with Gorgias. Socrates argues that rhetoric, in the sophists' conception, is a cheap trick and a means of enslaving the people. The sophists merely defend this use of power. Crucially, Socrates does not question Gorgias's conception of the passions, nor does he question the efficacy of emotional manipulation. Accepting many of his opponents' premises, Socrates does not ultimately win the argument in any clear way.
But over time, Plato seems to have realized that rhetoric is not necessarily an evil, but rather that it is only frequently abused. In the Symposium, Socrates speaks according to a rhetorical approach which has a claim on epistemic validity because it shows the structure of dialectic, question-and-answer, a valid means of pursuing knowledge. In the Phaedrus, Plato's approach is substantially more sophisticated. He rethinks his theory of the emotions and seems to provide a cognitivist model of emotions, wherein emotional desire is always of the good. And he opens up rhetoric so that it need no longer display dialectical structure, though it must still be valid according to dialectical criteria. It is with the Phaedrus that rhetoric begins to look like a responsible mode of democratic discourse. But the theory of the Phaedrus is still incomplete. Plato does not tell us exactly how rhetoric can appeal to the emotions, nor does he begin to provide a logic of rhetorical appeal. Moreover, emotions and rhetoric are still thought of as very dangerous and inferior elements of the self and of discourse; they are to be engaged with, but only as a means to a transcendent end.
With Aristotle, the passions come into their own as fully cognitive modes of propositional awareness of facts of value obtaining of the external world in relation to the subject of the passion. The emotions are a prerequisite for action in the world to sustain oneself and one's species. The emotions integrate distant goals discovered by practical reason with the current situation. The emotions are at the heart of virtue.
Moreover, rhetorical arguments are logical arguments with certain restrictions removed. Rhetoric, like other kinds of logic, yields knowledge, albeit not knowledge of the most certain kind. And when rhetoric appeals to the emotions, it is by proving the truth of an emotional judgment or by using the connection between emotional judgment and emotional desire to prove the desirability of an action. Thus emotions take their place as a part of ordinary cognitive life, with the same structure and capacity to play a role in rational argumentation as non-emotional judgments.
The structure of this thesis matches the structure of these developments. Chapter One, after discussing the nature of Athenian policy during the period of the sophists and the response of some conservative Athenians, will provide an interpretation of Gorgias's Encomium . Chapter Two will begin with a discussion of the Gorgias, and move on to a discussion of the developments in the Symposium and Phaedrus . Chapter Three will examine Aristotle's philosophical psychology to lay the context for his emotional theory, and then proceed to discuss the theory of the emotions developed in the Rhetoric . Chapter Four will discuss the nature of rhetorical arguments in general, and conclude with an explanation of how, for Aristotle, logical rhetorical arguments involve the emotions. The Conclusion will try to place these developments within the modern context of the debate between objectivists and relativists, and the possibility of moving beyond this traditional dualism. I will argue there that, by developing inclusive rather than exclusive notions of objectivity, reason, and validity, objectivists can de-motivate relativist critiques of such narrow-minded versions of objectivism as Kant's, the early Wittgenstein's, and the logical positivists'. Aristotle points us toward such an 'inclusive objectivism'.
The interpretations come in different flavors of confidence. The interpretation of Plato's Gorgias and Aristotle's De Anima and Rhetoric are interpretations which I firmly believe to be correct and to hold to the text. My interpretation of certain elements of the Symposium and Phaedrus are more hypothetical, but I believe that they are very plausible readings. Most hypothetical is my take on Gorgias's Encomium . This interpretation reaches rather far to make its point and I give Gorgias rather a lot of rope to hang himself with. Nevertheless, if the interpretation is flawed, there is nothing obvious about the flaws.
Throughout my interpretations of the three figures' theories of emotions, I will be entertaining the hypothesis, easily misunderstood, that emotions are propositionally structured intentional states which take facts as their objects. Traditionally, especially in argumentation theory, propositions have been considered to be of three kinds: propositions of fact, value, and policy. There is nothing wrong with this triad. However, I will be entertaining that emotions are propositions of value, but also that they take facts as their objects. This is not a contradiction because the members of the triad of kinds of propositions have been ill-named (at least for my purposes). The propositions "X is cheap", "X is good", and "X is what we ought to do" all take the same structure, subject-predicate. That to which they will correspond will thus also have the same structure, on a correspondence theory of truth. That to which propositions correspond has traditionally been called a 'fact' and I will maintain that usage. On this view, propositions of fact, value, and policy are all propositions of what philosophers call 'facts', just different kinds of facts corresponding to different kinds of predicate terms. Roughly speaking, predicates which run 'ought to' or 'ought not to' appear in propositions of policy, predicates which include some variation of 'good' or 'bad' (or even 'evil') appear in propositions of value, and propositions with other kinds of predicates are propositions of fact. Unfortunately, in this sense, what argumentation theorists call 'facts' end up being a kind of what philosophers call 'facts'. I will invariably be speaking as a philosopher in this sense, but when I talk about the facts to which emotional judgments correspond, I will mean facts described by propositions which will have 'good' or 'bad' as their predicates; propositions of value.
Go to next section.
Find Enlightenment at enlightenment.supersaturated.com.