Any cursory interaction with the many forms in which one consumes media today might show one that words are not lacking.  Words are not lacking, and, to some accounts, rhetoric isn't either.  

But what is rhetoric?

According to Aristotle, it is the "faculty of observing in any given situation the available means of persuasion." (Aristotle 1)

What are these means, one might ask?  Quite simply, according to Aristotle, there are two categories, those which are proper to rhetoric and those which are not.  We, as he, shall only deal with those proper to rhetoric.  

First, he describes λόγος (logos), which is the appeal to a system of commonly accepted facts among peoples.

Second, he describes ήθος (ethos), which is an appeal to the rightness of ethics or morality, along with the demonstration of the speaker's unity with such rightness.

Third, he describes πάθος (pathos), which is a direct appeal to the emotional faculties of the hearers. (Aristotle 1)

Beyond these three, there are no other inherent appeals proper to the discipline of rhetoric, according to Aristotle.  In such a discipline, which appears rather simple at first sight, one wonders how it possibly comprised the bulk of the English school curriculum until the early twentieth century and the advent of Bertrand Russell's praise of the "scientific mode of thought."

In this, one must consider the polis of the England in which Russell wrote, along with the polis of our nation in the present day.  These considerations will grant us some picture of the use of rhetoric in the past and its potential use in the future.

In the England leading up to the writings of Bertrand Russell, voting remained, as it does in a broader sense today, a key to the political life of the nation.  The various sections of parliament regularly debated issues and laws which would then succeed or fail in the voting process, all in dependence on the speaker's rhetoric.  

The various factions of the British parliament, although divided in some distinctive fashion, held in common certain men to whom they looked for rhetorical paragons, men such as Pericles of Athens and Gaius Julius Caesar of Republican Rome.  

In Pericles, they found one who used all aspects of rhetoric at once, ethos, pathos, and logos, whose words held some share of responsibility for maintaining the Athenian path of war even after his death.  What wonder must they have felt to see a man of the aristocracy, the nobility, so loved and hailed by the common Athenian, even down to the rowman and hoplite-at-arms?  This was a rhetorical victory they saw as worth emulating.

Furthermore, the supposed history of Gaius Julius Caesar in his Gallic commentary must have held their imagination, such that the British writer Thomas de Quincey simply had to write an English translation of the commentary in-between his opium-induced visions.  

The preceding paragraphs have hopefully shown the survival of rhetorical adoration into the Victorian Age.  But what of the present age?  Can rhetorical interest be said to survive in the present day?

If one views the appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos as appeals to actual authorities outside of one's self, one may not claim that such has survived into the present day.  This is evident to any present day consumer of news media, whether it be in the form of papers, online articles, or podcasts.  

For truly, the entire complex functions as a "chamber of speeches" given directly to one's audience, as if they were mini-parliaments seperate unto themselves.  On the other hand, the discipline of rhetoric assumes a communication with those outside of one's audience. The CBS nightly news speaks merely to its audience, while Fox and MSNBC do the same.  Furthermore, they speak from nothing outside of their own journalistic experience and perception: the only true appeal to authority is their own senses, their own perception, coupled with their unmitigated presuppositions and unswaying beliefs.  Somehow this appeal-to-self allows them to make profoundly closed statements of truth, which close out any other contradictory idea. Although media may appeal to a sense of rightness, universal ideals, and show such images as to enliven pathos, the entire method does not contain the humility of persuasion.  Why does it lack humility? Because the necessitated act of persuasion affords logical structure and an undemonized position to the "opposition," seperate from emotion.  It admits the possibility that one's ethics is subject to examination, as well as one's ideas around logic and truth.  Today rather, the opposition is naught but a group of "sinners," "racists," or "communists."  These are to be damned, not won through words.  

Thus, no one changes their mind.  Perhaps some even take the time to go out of their way and seek the "opposing" views where they exist, and even post signs asking for them to "change their mind" in the front of the video frame.  But has this ever succeeded?  We must say, from anecdotal experience common to all, no.

Then where is rhetoric today, one asks?  The Athenian mothers and fathers who lost sons in combat against the might of Sparta obviously changed their minds in some sense, so much so that they prosecuted war for three decades.  The Roman people venerated the idea of a Caesar as God, even until the days of their fall and the writing of Augustine's City of God.  These realities once required words to create them, for Athens did not love war as the Spartans, nor did the Roman people love the despot.  Nevertheless, each of these things became their realities.  Such is the power of rhetoric.  

Can rhetoric be used positively, and how might the political doings of our own polis be different if rhetorical humility existed in the sayings of our journalists and rulers?  And are the rhetorical appeals of the past sufficient to explain the rhetorical appeals of our present day?  What more might there be in the ocean of human words? (Killingsworth 1)


  1. Aristotle. The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle. First ed., New York, Random House, 1954.
  2. Killingsworth, Jimmie. “Rhetorical Appeals: A Revision.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, p. 1. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Oct 2020.