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Rhetoric Part 5: Logos

 In this series of posts on appeals and fallacies, we are exploring the last of the three modes of persuasion: logos. 

 On the surface, logos might seem like the easiest of the three modes for us to understand, but there are depths to this word that often get overlooked (and I certainly won’t be plumbing those depths here). Logos is a Greek word utilized in a number of ways, but you will usually hear it translated as “word.” In this sense, it can be understood to refer to spoken discourse or language in general. It is also the root of our English word “logic” and refers to the process of pursuing truth using rationality and reasoning. Logos is also the root of our word “logo”; a logo is a picture or symbol that represents some outside entity—it is shorthand for a bigger idea, a stand-in for a larger thing or idea. The Nike “swoosh” logo is a simple picture that represents and stands for the larger company of Nike. Logos can also be understood as a kind of root principle which guides and defines how a thing is organized, a creative seed out of which other different ideas germinate and grow. Before an artist can create a painting for example, he must first have a concept of what he wants to create. This initial logos will guide the future choices he then must make in the creation of his painting: what size canvas, what medium, what style, what color pallet? The invisible logos which exists in the mind of the artist will guide his thinking and reasoning in regard to these questions. 

 In order to be understood by humans, ideas (which are by nature intangible and abstract) must be incarnated physically through the material world and taken in by our senses. Try to imagine a color you have never seen before. You can’t, because in order to think about something you have to be able to relate it to your physical sense-memories. So, to understand abstract ideas like love, loneliness, or despair, we must in some way be able to see those ideas made manifest in the physical world. Through metaphor, analogy, and comparison, we can begin to understand abstract ideas by linking them with concrete things with which we can interact using our five senses.  

 When we see a mother breast feeding her child, for example, we are seeing an incarnation of the logos of “Love” because the essence of love is to create new life through the giving and sacrifice of one’s own self for the good of another. When we see a solitary oak tree sitting by itself in an expansive field of yellow wildflowers, we can visually see a logos of loneliness because the essential idea of loneliness is for a thing to be cut off from other creatures like itself and exist by itself. When we first learn the horrible truth that a person can be driven by desperation to commit suicide and destroy themselves, we can see the logos of despair made manifest because the essence of despair is the abandoning of every last vestige of hope and giving up completely and finally. The physical things that we see in the world are meaning-full because they are (or can be) incarnations of intangible ideas which, although invisible, are nonetheless real and are the driving force of our experience of reality. So, in this sense, logos can be used to refer to the intangible, essential principle that gives definition and meaning to a thing’s purpose and existence. 

 For our purposes here, all these various levels of meaning will be helpful to keep in mind moving forward. Rhetorical appeals will use language and words (logos as “word”) in order to establish rational connections between ideas (logos as “logic”), and those ideas will each have an invisible, intangible logos (logos as the central, organizing principle of a thing) at their core. Also keep in mind what we said before about each of the three modes of persuasion being intertwined with the other two. When words are used to incarnate an idea, the selected logos will create some ethos or character unique to it by the combination of particular words and tone chosen, which will in turn create some emotional response in the audience because of that ethos. This will become clearer as we examine particular examples and see how appeals and fallacies are a strange, sometimes complicated, dance between these powerful forces.  

 In our next post, we will explore what an appeal is and how meaning itself is formed—which will help us in determining how to distinguish between appeals and fallacies.  




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