• Robb G. Best

Aristotle's Three Musketeers, or, A Swiftly Tipping Stool

What might the Greek philosopher and Jack-of-all-trades Aristotle think of the latest findings in neuroscience? How would his notion of what it means to be a good public speaker stack up against the bevy of brain biases Daniel Kahneman outlines in prospect theory?

In On Rhetoric, Aristotle outlines three key concepts in building a convincing speech. The speaker must demonstrate:

Ethos: character, trustworthiness, credibility

Logos: logic, facts, figures or some process

Pathos: emotion, true feelings, a sense of connection

Your ethos can be broadly defined as your reputation or honor. Unfortunately, if your listeners don’t already know you, they are less likely to give you the time of day. When famed violinist Joshua Bell played an incognito recital in the Washington subway system, virtually nobody stopped to listen. Without context, Bell's playing was swallowed up in the chaos of the daily commute. Our sense of importance is often driven more by context than actual value.

For Aristotle, logos were the facts and details, the nuts and bolts of any logical argument. The concept that an argument should be grounded in reason is one of the many things that western science borrowed from Aristotle. And yet, while we pay lip service to rationality, split-brain studies show that what we describe as our reasons often have little connection to the actual decision. We employ logic not as a compass but as a justification.

Danish author Martin Lindstrom notes an interesting phenomenon with product satisfaction surveys. Namely, that they're useless. Ask someone to review a product they've just bought, and there will be nearly no correlation between their stated stance and what they'll do the next time

When Aristotle talks about pathos, he is referring to the emotional appeal or the connection to the group, the speaker's ability to stir the hearts and minds of the listeners. Perhaps modern neuroscience has advanced no idea more strongly than the power of pathos. This is why Kahneman labels the emotional factor, and not our rationality, as the real star of the show.

Aristotle understood this, but in the context of a powerful trinity, with pathos as one leg of a three-legged stool. He wasn't entirely wrong, just a bit iffy on the relative proportions.

Aristotle often gets billed as a philosopher, and while this is true, it's also selling him short; his writings cover everything from poetry to physics, music to politics, ethics to zoology. Philosopher Bryan Magee is quoted as saying (maybe a little hyperbolically), "it is doubtful whether any human being has ever known as much as he did".

So if Aristotle was around today, maybe he wouldn't need to be embarrassed at having inflated the value of ethos and logos a little. He'd probably be too busy delving into the advances in all his many favorite areas of study. Maybe a few new ones as well. Just what would Aristotle think of neuroscience? There's no way no know for sure, but he would likely find it interesting. As a wise man once said, "The energy of the mind is the essence of life."*

(*Aristotle. It was Aristotle.)


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