Apologetics to Make Aristotle Proud

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. 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.

Thus spake Aristotle in his Rhetoric. He presented to his readers the means they could use to persuade others through the verbal word. In so doing, he laid the foundation for centuries of rhetorical instruction, continuing to this very day.

As part of my swing from abstract philosophy-of-Apologetics articles back to concrete practice-of-Apologetics articlse, I felt it would be fitting to spend some time on Aristotle’s “Modes of Persuasion.” Apologetics may not be the same category as a Persuasive speech; however, persuasion is intimately involved with it. When you say, “The omnipresence of God should be a comfort to the believer,” you wish to persuade your judges to hold the same point of view. Likewise with “Atheism is wrong” or “Paul and James do not contradict each other on justification.” All these are statements which could be doubted, and which you wish to establish. How may you succeed? By means of the modes of persuasion.

A second motivation for writing this article is the widespread need for speeches that are pleasant to hear. Apologetics speeches should not be full of vibrant theological content, and yet be delivered poorly. We must have both.

I couldn’t help myself. 🙂

So in this post and the next we’ll look at the modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. While these Greek words do not appear in the English translation of Aristotle, our understanding of them is largely based on his work.

Ethos

Ethos is most commonly thought of as the credibiliy of the speaker. However, “character” is actually a better understanding of the term. The Greek ethos formed the root of another Greek word meaning “moral,” and is the origin of our word ethics. So ethos has to do with your character, two parts of which are credibility and authority.

Give that understanding, here are the words of Aristotle:

Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.

This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak.

It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses. 

Aristole, Rhetoric

I broke the above quote into paragraphs to help with comprehension. Let’s walk through it and see what we can learn.

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.”

Persuasion is inextricably tied to you. Your speech may be passionate and well-reasoned, but without character and credibility all is lost.

Imagine an alleged criminal on trial for theft. If he weepingly pleads to be released and claims he did not commit the crime, will you believe his words? Maybe. But his alleged lack of character makes you doubt.

Or consider a respected molecular biologist who presents a lecture on Saturn’s rings. Even if all his facts are lined up, you will find yourself wondering: “Is he really the right person to be presenting? Why not an astronomer? I’m really not sure I can trust him on this subject.”

In Apologetics, you must demonstrate to the judges that you are a speaker of high moral character who is eminently qualified to give a speech on this topic.

“This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak.”

Other Greek rhetoricians argued that the audience’s impression of your character before you begin to speak is a part of ethos. However, Aristotle preferred to limit ethos to the spoken word, since logos (logic) and pathos (passion) were likewise limited.

So your demonstration of character cannot be accomplished by wearing a nice suit, smiling upon entering the room, or having a natural stage presence. These contribute to the overall impression you make, but do not demonstrate ethos.

“It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”

Aristotle obviously thinks much of ethos. “Almost…the most effective means of persuasion” is a high word of commendation indeed!

In Apologetics, you must manifest personal character and credibility. How? Here are a few practical suggestions:

  • Reference yourself tastefully. You are not the subject of the Apologetics speech, so don’t talk about yourself too much. But you can tastefully use personal examples to demonstrate your character. Maybe you have a friend of another religion at school or work, and you can discuss your friendship during a speech concerning that religion.Don’t assume these have to be self-promoting, either: perhaps the best illustrations are self-deprecating. Talk about sibling rivalry in a speech on love, or your fear of evangelizing in a speech on the gospel. Show the full spectrum of your character. Rapport will be established.
  • Share your studies. As you studied this topic, what stuck out to you? Share those points with the judges, explicitly. The simple words “As I was studying this…” convey a sense of authority and preparedness. Emphasize personally impactful points, and let the judges know you really did put time into preparation.
  • Speak confidently. Experts are not phased by difficult topics. They take them in stride, almost casually. You should strive to be perceived as an expert. (Assuming, of course, that you are an expert—which after hours and hours of study, you probably are!) Ethos is conveyed not only by what you say, but also by how you say it.
  • Use appropriate vocabulary. Every area of study has its own vocabulary. Scientists speak of microbes and molecules, automotive mechanics of carburetors and pistons, Spanish teachers of the subjunctive and the imperfect. Use the vocabulary of Apologetics. Know the basic terms of theology, and be able to employ them proficiently.I recall once hearing an Apologetics speech on the topic of omniscience. The only problem was that the student spoke on omnipresence instead, but kept calling it “omniscience.” You may guess what sort of ranking I gave. This is an extreme example, but hopefully you get the point: command of vocabulary matters.In addition to the jargon of the specific field, you should demonstrate proficiency in basic English. For instance, learn synonyms for the most common English words. In this article I have needed to express the concept of saying something many times. But have I used the word “say” every time? No! You would be very bored if I had. My prose would seem monotonous. Instead I employ words like share, speak, communicate, convey, deliver, present…and employ. You can do the same. Start in your Word processer by right-clicking and selection the “synonyms” option, or go to Thesaurus.com.

Ethos is crucial to any Apologetics speech. Implement these recommendations, follow Aristotle’s advice, and enjoy revealing your true character and credibility to the judges.