The cool thing about democracy is that it is inherently participatory. You and your friends, neighbors and fellow citizens get to have an active hand in selecting leaders, passing laws and setting policy. Of course, the bad thing about democracy is that you, your friends, neighbors and fellow citizens get to have an active hand in selecting leaders, passing laws and setting policy.
It’s no coincidence that the ancient Greeks, who are credited with developing democracy, also developed rhetoric. Distributing a power amongst the population doesn’t make it any less of a power, and the Greeks were quick to learn the most effective ways to democratically wield that power. Orators and public speakers were held in high esteem, and were able to exert vast influence over the Greek polis. To be effective they had to learn how to convince their audience to do what they wanted, and identified three rhetorical appeals to persuade people: ethos, pathos and logos.
Ethos was an appeal to credibility, the original “look on my works, ye mighty.” You show people a proven track record of accomplishments, or upstanding behavior, or proven ability in a specific arena. Logos is an appeal to logic. The “just the facts, ma’am,” approach is the favored tool of Star Trek’s Spock. Pathos is an appeal to emotion. If you can make people angry, or scared, or sad, you can get them to do what you want. Those tools codified by the Greeks have been used by every politician since the Peloponnesian War, with varying degrees of success.
If you apply a Greek rhetorical lens to current events, you might find that while the popularity of ethos and logos have waned, pathos is putting in some serious work. The reasons are pretty obvious, I think. Ethos — credibility — requires the user to have actually done something meaningful, or effective, or ethical. Logos — logic — requires the user to present something that makes sense, that meets the onus of rationality. As Spock pointed out, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Pathos — emotion — doesn’t require any of that. It hits you right in the dumb animal center of your brain, invoking a fight or flight response. It doesn’t require you to weigh evidence or consider facts. It’s no coincidence that Yoda — if I may mix my sci-fi references here — said, “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
Rep. Ken Buck (R-CD4) acknowledged the rhetorical efficacy of pathos recently, telling the audience of a Washington, D.C., conservative event, “The people are so upset about boys playing girls’ sports and critical race theory and all the other things that are going on that we will win the majority.”
Though they developed Democracy, the Greeks never quite figured out how to effectively address the fact that if given a choice between hard truths and intoxicating bullshit, about half of the population will choose bullshit. Aristophanes, a playwright, tried to call out the bad actors of his day in his play The Knights, “You are like the fishers for eels; in still waters they catch nothing, but if they thoroughly stir up the slime, their fishing is good; in the same way it's only in troublous times that you line your pockets.”
Teachers tried to reach the Greek youth, but to no avail. Socrates was the first teacher in history to be held accountable for teaching critical theory, but certainly not the last. Of all the Greek thinkers, I think Diogenes had the right idea. He loved dogs, lived in a barrel, trolled Plato — the greatest academic of the time — generally shunned society, masturbated in public and astutely noted, “In a rich man's house there is no place to spit but his face.”
— Staff notes originally run in our daily email newsletter, Indy Now, along with news updates, photos of the day, a weekly poll and more. Sign up below.