For the modern man, “rhetoric” usually brings to mind dishonest politicians or sleazy salesmen. For Aristotle, rhetoric is the art of discovering all the means of persuasion that may be available in a given situation. It is easy to see how, in the wrong hands, the tools of persuasion can indeed be used for dishonest motives or personal gain. Aristotle does recognize that the power to persuade can be used for evil, but he points out that rhetoric is in itself neutral. It depends on the character of the person who wields it.
So with all the draw backs to rhetoric, isn’t the bare truth enough? Aristotle says that almost all goods can be misused, not just the tools of persuasion. In fact, when addressing the public, Aristotle says that rhetoric is actually necessary. Most people are easily distracted from the truth by their emotions, flattery, and a dozen other things. In these cases, instructing them is nearly impossible–what is needed is persuasion to help them recognize the truth.
In fact, Aristotle criticizes contemporary manuals on rhetoric because most of them focus on methods that have nothing to do with the truth. The taught how to slander, how to bring out emotions in the audience, or how to distract the attention of listeners from the real subject. This is not the rhetoric of Aristotle.
So what about the preacher? We communicate the most important truth of all: the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Isn’t the truth of the Gospel enough? We can look to the preaching of Jesus Himself.
1. Throughout the Gospel, the way people react to Jesus shows what a startling person He was. Both friends and enemies were regularly described as being in awe. In fact, people who heard Him were astonished that they never heard anyone speak like Him before. It was not just because of what He said, but how He said it. “He taught as one having authority.”
2. Again and again Jesus’ enemies tried to trap Him, but He always had just the right answer. Although Jesus encourages His disciples to be innocent as doves, He tells them to be as “shrewd (φρόνιμοι) as serpents.” The people in His own home town were so impressed that someone from their little Nazareth could speak so well, they asked “Where did this man get this wisdom?”
3. Lastly, whenever people meet Jesus, they are filled with deep joy, sadness, or anger… but never indifference. In many occasions, He peers into mens’ hearts to speak of their hidden hurts and needs. Meeting Jesus is never a bland, emotionless experience. Mark’s account of Jesus and the rich young man states that Jesus, “Looked at Him and loved Him.” There was something in just a look that people felt Jesus’ love.
These three characteristics of Jesus’ person and preaching are three of the elements that Aristotle says go into persuasive speaking: Ethos (ἔθος) the character of the speaker, Logos (λόγος) the reasoning of his arguments, and Pathos (πάθος) the emotions he brings up in his listeners. Aristotle arrives at these three elements from analyzing the components of public speaking: you have the person doing the communicating, what he is saying, and the audience who listens.
For a preacher, using the art of rhetoric does not mean being inauthentic. On the contrary, the first “tool” of persuasion is precisely for the speaker’s character to authentically reflect what he is trying to communicate. We see this is true in the lives of the saints. True holiness is captivating and convincing.
Second, the preacher must communicate the truth clearly and coherently. A homily filled with a dozen disconnected platitudes, points, and stories is not effective.
Lastly, the Gospel is one of the most exciting stories ever told. There is emotion in our experience of the Gospel that needs to be communicated. It is a sin to make it boring! The truth of God’s interaction in human history, the plan He has for each person, and the challenge of sanctity are amazing and wonderful. There is so much emotion in the Gospel: sorrow in the passion, joy in the resurrection, guilt in sin, relief in God’s mercy. The Psalms are filled with emotion as David pours out his deepest joys and fears. God became man to share in all things but sin. Jesus Himself is described many times as having intense emotions–even to the point of weeping.
So despite the word’s negative connotation, Aristotle’s “rhetoric” is as applicable now for the modern preacher as is was for Jesus Himself.