Political discourse, and our reception of oratory, has been reduced to pedantry. This election, when we weren’t watching SNL debate recaps, we were looking at graphs to determine whether the candidates’ pants were on fire. Between Trump’s verbal shelling with middle-school munitions and Hillary’s focus-group- and poll-tested precision platitudes, American rhetoric was trashed.
Rhetoric is not, however—to echo one irrepressible Black Knight on the way to the Holy Grail—dead yet. Classical rhetoric is composed of three elements, logos, pathos, and ethos, but contemporary rhetoric is essentially reduced to pathos. It still chatters on, delimbed and bleeding.
In an argument, logos refers to a speech’s conformity to rationality, to the Logos of an ordered cosmos and man’s identity as a reasoning animal. It’s not just logical, but it is that. Ethos isn’t particularly ethical, as we conceive of ethics in the modern world, basically synonymous with relative concepts of morality; instead, it is embodied character. Your ethos is your credibility, who you are, both in your societal role—billionaire businessman or lifelong political figure—and your virtues in our most earnest sense. And pathos in speech is the line delivered one more time with feeling. It is the plucked heartstring, the attempt to play the crowd, to tap into emotion.
There are three fundamental objects of rhetoric, too, in addition to these basic means, three projects for this tool set. Judicial (or forensic) rhetoric is that of the honest lawyer. It’s speech primarily concerned with the past, the facts, the definite, and its purpose is to accuse or defend in pursuit of justice. Deliberative rhetoric is concerned with the future, and it’s the special province of good lawmakers everywhere. Whether it’s Themistocles convincing Athens to build its navy or Washington’s Farewell Address, it looks ahead and urges prudence—pursue the advantageous good, avoid the disadvantageous evil. Finally, there’s ceremonial rhetoric, the vituperations and encomiums of formal address. We are intimately familiar with two flowerings of this rhetorical branch of praise and blame: eulogies at a funeral and mud-slinging in a fight.
You may have noticed the harmony or accord between these objects and these means. While all three demand all three—it takes logos, ethos, and pathos in concert to accomplish each kind of oratory truly well—there is a natural association between the elements. Judicial rhetoric requires reasoned, demonstrative argument; it takes logos. To argue deliberatively for some future action demands trust; thus, to be believed in exhortation you must have ethos. And to properly commemorate or condemn, a speaker must make his audience feel his words; ceremonial speech needs pathos.
But pathos was all we had this election, meaningless ceremony that it was. For all its consequence, it was from the beginning an election based on instinct, on fear and revulsion or anger and desire. People resigned to vote against someone as much as or more than they desired to vote for someone. It was the present—feelings now—that dominated the electorate, and the candidates were happy to keep it that way.
So we were left with crude pathos, name calling and fear mongering, whole speeches about deplorable Others, whether elites or internet trolls. The debates were scandal-splattered performance-art pieces, inspired more by People magazine than by the Federalist Papers. We, the voters, hadn’t demanded real policy, real analysis of what went wrong, what was wrong, in the past, and so the candidates didn’t give us coherent philosophies or reasoning—just “disasters” and “mistakes.”
But they had no real reason to; as a society we don’t share any real rationality. There is no Logos to mirror in our logos. We share facts alone, and we pretend they can be known empirically, isolated and naked, without interpretation. And we cling to that desperately, and clutch at our fact checkers, their charts and graphs. We barely care, and don’t believe, what the candidates say they plan to do, what future they paint for America. (Is the wall real? A metaphor? Something nice to cling to now?) They can’t use ethos even when they try. They don’t accept each other as trustworthy, as people of character, and neither do we, either of them.
No, there’s no ethos and no logos in contemporary rhetoric. And so we can’t have practical discussions of the past or constructive deliberation for the future. In this election, we were left with toxic pathos puked on us by two fossils calcified in their recalcitrance and dishonesty—and our polarized-media-addled minds were happy to let it wash over us in our damp little echo chambers.
Micah Meadowcroft is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.