December 20, 2019 | Brian Chappell

On Public

Before I began to write this introduction to the On Public series, I re-read the entries I had written for each book. I noticed that a phrase appears in some way in each: “telling the truth truthfully.” I want to spend the bulk of this introduction unpacking (i.e., further exploring for myself) this phrase. We have discovered in dramatic and ominous fashion how difficult it is to tell the truth, both in public and private. In my day-to-day life (I don’t know about you), I often find it difficult to perfectly recount an event or a conversation from even only a few days previous. And even if I do remember it, how do I know that I am not re-telling it without some bias of my own? So imagine the difficulty of re-presenting a phenomenon to a public audience. Indeed, we are experiencing an age when we are persuaded not to believe our own eyes and ears. And we are just getting started.

The ancient figures presented in this series are all (with one really important exception) very concerned about how to tell the truth truthfully. But I want to introduce you to one more: Aristotle. In Rhetoric he presents a comprehensive vision of how people are persuaded, a vision that is as relevant and influential as any idea regarding persuasion. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” There are three general “means of persuasion.” He labeled them ethos, pathos, and logos. It’s mostly straightforward. When you appeal to logos, you appeal to one’s sense of logic and fact. When you appeal to pathos, you appeal to one’s emotions. When you appeal to ethos, things get really tricky. The term refers to the overall trustworthiness of the orator. In this way ethos can be translated as “character,” or, more unsettlingly, “personality.” Aristotle knew as well as anyone ever that of the three appeals ethos is the most important. You can have all the facts and reasoning in the world, but if I don’t like you, if something’s just a little off, I’m not going to listen. Conversely, if I really connect with you, if you have made an effort to see me, I’ll believe you, even if you are blatantly telling falsehoods. 

We know this to be true, no? Can we not agree, with Aristotle, that human beings are much more (less?) than “logical animals”? In fact, logic and even plain fact so often play a small role in our decision-making. Aristotle’s three appeals correspond strikingly to our three “centers” that govern our ability to be persuaded. Logos connects to our “head-center,” where we make decisions in an efficient and rational manner. Pathos connects to our “heart-center,” where we listen to our feelings. But ethos connects to the “gut-center,” the center of instinct, a kind of knowledge that precedes thought and emotion, a split-second, almost evolutionary, knowledge which is the most difficult to override. Who is proceeding from the gut-center today? Can you become aware when you are proceeding from each center, or when each center is being appealed to?

I submit, alongside Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, and so many others, that in order to speak in public, one must be ready to tell the truth truthfully. Getting facts straight (and maintaining an intention to keep facts straight) is, we realize, not the only priority. Avoiding deceptive language in the forms of fallacies and illogic requires self-awareness and sensitivity. Avoiding the pitfalls of emotional appeal, especially surrounding victimhood, is increasingly difficult. And the subtle art of connecting with the gut-center of another human being – this seems to rule the day. An effective orator will at the very least express an awareness of the extent to which she or he is appealing to one or more of these centers. But we still don’t seem mature enough to understand how we are being messed with, and I’m not even talking about virtual spaces. We can look someone in the face, listen to what they say, and that’s enough to do it. 

So we thought this series would be timely, as it presents two classic texts that address the vagaries of truth-telling: Plato’s Gorgias, in which Socrates debates the Sophists on the nature of persuasion; and Cicero’s De Oratore, in which he extols the virtues of a skilled orator, whose skills require nothing less than a capacious stance toward the world. The third text presents a caution. Caesar’s Commentaries present history from the point of view of the aggrieved strong man. His account of events would register with ordinary Romans (those who could read) as compelling and even thrilling. But his self-promotion (indeed his quest for self-deification) should warn us about who gets to hold the microphone for how long. 

The writing in each of these books might feel like a grind. But it’s an interesting kind of grind. Each book demonstrates a certain kind of scrupulous meticulousness. Plato’s Socrates wants to make sure he is covering all his bases. Cicero wants to touch on all the ways to tell the truth (or not). And Caesar wants his readers to know just how wronged he is, and also how successful and capable he is. So we invite you to pursue the slog, because that is what telling the truth truthfully – and its payoff, a democracy – really requires.