Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle

In modern times, writing has been used for an unimaginable variety of purposes. Behind every blockbuster movie there are screenwriters, behind every student’s final year assignment there are proofreaders, and behind every politician there are speechwriters. I risk being a cliché but the usual quote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” always comes to mind whenever I am asked to describe the power of writing. Now the complete quote “The pen is mightier than the sword, but the tongue is mightier than them both put together,” is from Marcus Garvey, a famous Jamaican political activist. See any recurring theme? Writing and politics. I am not trying to conjure an absurd imaginary world where words don’t exist, thus politics don’t exist as well. But I am merely trying to bring us to the main thing that makes writing so crucial to politics, the quality that lends politicians the ability to arrange words that moves hearts thus winning votes, called rhetoric.

In the process of writing this article, I have encountered various strategies or frameworks introduced in the approach to understand rhetoric. But I am only going to talk about the most common, and the most popular one called Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle. Essentially, there are three main vertices to the triangle: pathos, ethos and logos.

Let’s start with the most compelling element, pathos. In the context of persuasive writing, pathos means to appeal to emotion. We, as humans can never dissociate ourselves from the workings of our emotions. Even in situations that demands pure rationality, emotions will still slip into our thinking, blindsiding us from perceiving our own biases. So how does one use pathos in writing or speech? The first point is to use descriptive and concrete language in your writing. To put this in an example, instead of saying “a woman has just been hit by a car,” you can say “a Malay woman has been hit by a drunk driver.” I mean no offense but if you feel something going on in your chest, then I have succeeded in using pathos in my example (and I purposely chose this because in my opinion rage is one of the easiest emotions you can invoke). Aside from stirring up emotions, you can also use metaphors, analogies or similes that can make you appear relatable to the audience. Ultimately, pathos should be used in a way that helps you shape your appeal to the audience. Beware of emotional fallacies such as bandwagon appeal, veiled threats and weasel words.

Next in line would be ethos, the vertex of establishing credibility. Depending on the situation, a certain level of perceived credibility is required to gain the audience’s attention. The word “perceived” here is key because this implies that it can be manipulated. In order to utilize ethos, you should first start by demonstrating knowledge that is relevant to the subject of your writing or speech. As an example, an essay on say “The Industrial Revolution 4.0” will be more compelling if it is accompanied with supplementary information on previous industrial revolutions (it could also be more boring if you are not careful). You can also use your credentials to gain ethos. To put all of this into simpler words, using ethos should make your audience go “ah yes this guy knows what he is talking about.” Ethical fallacies that should be avoided includes using ad hominem or guilt by association.

The final aspect of Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle would be Logos, the appeal to logic. Going on a tangent, Aristotle is widely regarded as the one who discovered logic. The subject of logic is extensive but in the context of rhetoric, logos is introduced to convince the audience on the credibility of your content. After all, no matter how much ethos there is in your writing or speech, an incoherent material will still cost you the audience’s trust. To demonstrate logos, you can provide examples, establish cause and effect, or build arguments based on inductive or deductive reasoning. You can also cite authority or testimony and present inferences based on them. There are a lot of fallacies that you need to be aware of when it comes to introducing logos. Examples of logical fallacies are post hoc fallacy, non sequitur, oversimplification and hasty generalization.

To wrap everything up, it is very important to note that like any other tools in this world, rhetoric (strictly in the context of this essay) is neither good or bad in essence. It depends on what we choose to do with it.

Written by, Ahmad Nuruddin bin Azhar

Proofread by, Nurul Amanina binti Naushad


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