Five Virtues of Style in Rhetoric

Your style, however it may present about and through you, is the child of yourself and Beauty.

Wait, my rhetoric is wanting; let me take this from the beginning.

Back in the Hellenic day, a trendy thing to do was send young men to be tutored by Sophists to make wisdom as the Sophists used the term: whatever lie can be told to convince someone to act how you wanted them to. By this logic, oratory con artists would be the most wise; courts couldn’t condemn it because these orators would talk their way out of conviction, but truth-seeking logicians like Plato were really miffed about it. Hence the condemnation of rhetoric in Plato’s Republic.

Aristotle, Plato’s student, disagreed with his teacher along lines something like, “How can questioning lead to Truth if your words can’t persuade anyone to trust the dialog?” That student’s treatise has been as influential as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War when it comes to teaching rhetoric, which Aristotle defined as all the means of persuasion taken together. Even a bully’s shakedown can be understood in terms of Aristotle’s rhetoric: pain and threats thereof constitute pathos, building trust that the bully will ease off if I give in constitutes ethos, and threats themselves are propositional statements to be weighed in appeal to logos. Rhetoric is something we do naturally, are moved by naturally, and can’t avoid doing. So what do we do about it?

Both Plato and Aristotle lead us to understand that Rhetoric can persuade for the same reason Truth can, because both are of what we all want and move toward: Beauty. In Symposium, Socrates repeats his teacher, Diotima, to describe the nature of Love as ultimately being an intermediary spirit between humanity and the gods, and most especially between ourselves and the goddess, Beauty. Beauty, in absolute form, is a thing we are seeking to know and contact in every way possible, which is also distributed in everything, and which we can only know in absolute after coming to know through knowing finite beauties with Love as our intermediary. Rhetoric is about making that Beauty in what a speaker says so available to an audience that they cannot resist the mode of Love they propose. Love, the daimon, retorts that the mode proposed is only half-hearted when it is missing Truth; all the energy moved by Love cannot make a wrong action right. The answer, Plato and Aristotle agree, is to focus on Truth and virtue instead of winning, which naturally leads to Socratic dialog instead of win-or-lose debate. Aristotle naturally starts his treatise with the claim, “Rhetoric is the counterpart of, or musical harmony to, Dialectic,” for this reason.

There are at least two questions worthy of Socratic dialog we can put to this: all truths and knowings of audiences remaining the same, why will the same piece of rhetoric be persuasive to some people in an audience but not to others, and how may the same piece of rhetoric convince a person hearing it at one time while failing to persuade at another? Aristotle can answer both with a word: “Style.” My personal answer is a few words longer: as nervous systems, we are more open to and trusting of attachment at some times than we are at others. Now I’m going to show you that Aristotle and I really just said the same thing.

Why does Rhetoric work?

When Aristotle intimates to us Rhetoric works on us by embodying Beauty, he implies that its hold on us relies on Love, which means that our understanding of Love’s mechanics should give us insight into why Rhetoric works. One of the best ways we have of understanding what Love is and how it works from the perspective of nervous systems is attachment theory, which has to do with feeling safety and belonging in human connection. From conception on, we grow as nervous systems which rely on other nervous systems to set our rhythms to: heartbeat, temperature, breathing, eating, sleeping, and so on. All aspects of our homeostasis, the reflexes and rhythms of our systems keeping things the same, are grown this way, including our relational homeostasis.* When our homeostasis is upset by an event, it acts to restore balance if it can, and relies on external resources where it can’t. Social homeostasis is externally resourced by our people, which attachment theory most broadly measures by how our nervous systems handle momentary or ongoing unresponsiveness from our people. Secure attachment happens when our nervous systems are used to trusting our people will take care of our needs; securely attached people trust how they trust who they trust. Insecure attachment happens when are habituated to keeping our attachment figures from going away, or to living without them; insecurely attached people interrogate who they trust to find out if they’re still trustworthy, or try to avoid having to trust others whatsoever. People, as nervous systems, grow by shifting back and forth between moments of secure and insecure attachment, like trees grow over seasons of thick and thin bark. Rhetoric, then, is about leveraging attachment to make a person choose the way you want them to.

How our nervous systems choose is based on “[one] hedonic brain system to mediate them all”** through the mechanisms Dr. Emily Nagoski names as enjoying, expecting and eagerness. Enjoying is the system of assessing whether something feels good. Expecting is the system of linking what is happening now with what should come next. Eagerness is the system of desire to seek or avoid something. The mesolimbic cortex, which properly names this union of systems, pairs with our systems of stress, attachment, curiosity, play, sexual attraction and everything else to guide what we do. It is the choice Rhetoric exists to win. Dr. Nagoski’s work as a sex educator has a lot to do with helping people sort out where one another’s interactions motivate toward or against pleasure, sex and attachment, which largely boils down to working with the fact that this hedonic brain system can’t really vote toward and away at the same time. What happens instead is that how context primes the mesolimbic cortex can make the entire difference between someone’s yes or no, as every lover experiences and perhaps too few of us learn deeply enough. A brain knocked out of homeostasis by stress response will find even the most pleasurable experiences and contexts ruined by it, just as that same brain knocked out of homeostasis by ecstatic pleasure would have a hard time shifting into stress. Both the rhetorician and the lover are aligned in the same task if not the same goal, of turning off the inhibitions and turning on the accelerants toward a desired direction.

What that traversal looks like for the psyche may best be described in the dreamy, primary-secondary language of Processwork. The psyche (which we may also understand as the soul while discussing the goddess, Beauty, and the daimon, Love) is considered to have its own sort of homeostasis which the Drs. Mindell call its primary processes, with all incident and dissociated activity being identified as secondary processes. Processwork’s general idea is to complete the cycle of stress within a system by helping it migrate from the homeostasis that no longer works into a new one that works better, by incorporating into the primary process those processes which are presenting problems because they are secondary. Where a system’s homeostasis cannot go by itself, it relies on facilitator to do two things which are also really one thing: to assure the primary process through the integration process, and to help the secondary process emerge into the knowing of the primary. These two actions are often the same, just as easing the pain of a laboring mother and assuring the easeful birth of the child are, or ought to be, the same. Beauty again emerges at a time of parturition, just as the rhetorician emerges at a time of trying to cause a particular choice to happen. Rhetoricians tend to employ enthymeme more than syllogism in their arguments because they are following the same pattern: implying common understandings to join with their audience’s primary sense of themselves, instead of explaining everything like the audience has no direct connection to the speaker’s experience at all.

Where Rhetoric fails to reach its audience as something they embrace, that audience will actively refuse to go. Instead of being inviting, Rhetoric is perceived as invading or insulting. Calls to join, repel. Calls to action breed sloth or resentment, even greater than what was there before. The more the mesolimbic cortex is pushed and the primary process alienated, the stronger they push away and further they seek to go. Competent rhetoricians and others who would lead or manipulate will recognize this, and adjust their approach to either better connect with their audience or herd them toward a goal by reverse-psychology. True failure of both Rhetoric and leadership here is marked by the audience’s absolute indifference, which is far more clearly the opposite of attachment and Love than either adoration or hate. Rhetoric collapses when met with indifference, just like attachment and Love. It follows then that Rhetoric only works where it can be admired or despised, much like Love and attachment, because it is only then that acts are met with a response. These bounds within which Rhetoric may work are what we call Style.

Style, broadly, is how we present the points we mean to make, to whomever we mean to make them. Among the Greeks and the Romans there grew some differences of opinion as to what parts of Rhetoric to portion under the umbrella of Style versus another canon of Rhetoric. Aristotle divided Rhetoric into three broad portions: Invention, where one inventories and invents ideas to discuss; Arrangement, where one arranges what one wants to say; and Style, where one decides how to say it. Cicero and another author lost to history added to Aristotle two more: Memory, whereby you can focus your attention on your audience instead of the medium of your script; and Oration, which sums up the choices about the rhetoric is performed like a piece of music or acting. These five categories together are typically what is meant today when we discuss or Google the classical canons of Rhetoric, though both the Roman additions might be considered elaborations on Aristotle’s demarcation of Style. Even Aristotle’s Invention and Arrangement can be considered matters of Style, as evidenced by numerous explorations of bias among manners and subjects of questioning, and language and culture differences necessitate different arrangements of the same sentiments. What makes Style indispensable is its basis in a simple truth: the closer an author can connect to an audience’s experience, the easier it is for that audience to accept that author. Our Styles determine the audiences we connect with best.

Students and successors to Aristotle developed what we now call the five virtues of Style to guide them against losing their audience: Correctness, Clarity, Evidence, Propriety and Ornateness. A better, modern term for them might be the ‘domains’ or ‘avenues’ or ‘channels’ of Style, as what they each discuss isn’t really the perfection implied by a ‘virtue’ but some realms where rhetoric can succeed or fail. The best analogy would be that the five virtues form a compass rose to discuss in what directions a rhetorician has veered off-track and how they may correct. As we will see, each of the Classical virtues of Style are further elaborated by our modern understanding of how Love works through our nervous systems.

Correctness means talking normal for one’s audience. It traditionally looks like following all the rules of a language rigorously, with some exceptions for endorsing the breaking of a rule as a virtue if it works. What rules this is how the primary processes of the audience expect to be addressed, according to what their hedonic-seeking expectation systems have learned about the context. Children expect to be talked to differently by grown-ups; certain grown-ups expect to swear at each other at different times than others; different dialects of the same language have different turns of speech: in all cases, indviduals’ mesolimbic systems are weighing whether and how to embrace or reject a thing based on what their expecting system says it should be. When our expecting system gets proven wrong, we experience surprise, which has stress as a component. Stress response needs time and resources to complete its cycle of recognizing danger, acting to resolve danger, and returning to baseline. Piling on too many incidents of stress too fast, whether unpayable bills or inability to follow language, will overwhelm a nervous system’s ability to do anything but fight, flight or freeze. The essence of Correctness is to minimize this by talking the way an audience expects from the role of whatever person is speaking. One acts the way one’s audience expects.

Clarity means making your point understood. Rules-of-thumb include things like, “Don’t use words an 8th-grader wouldn’t understand,” or “Don’t use a fancy word when you can use a simple one,” or as Einstein said, “As simple as possible, but no simpler.” Where Correctness is about meeting audience’s expectations so they don’t dismiss you out of panic, Clarity is about putting the logical pieces in front of them in such a way that their curiosity naturally puts them together. We can’t feel stressed and curious at the same time, which is why Clarity doesn’t work without Correctness: most audiences won’t listen to what a speaker has to say while the speaker pukes on the front row’s shoes. Classical vices tied to Clarity are being obscure and being boring, both of which can be achieved by saying too much and by saying too little. Attunement, which is to say tuning one’s own nervous system to respond to the feedback of another, is the required skill of human attachment needed to get this right. The essence of Clarity is to iterate through putting forth ideas in ways most likely to make an understanding common between author and audience, until enough of the audience’s response tells the author they got the point, by any means from eye contact to likes and subscribes.

Evidence means helping one’s audience feel the reality of one’s point. Every writer’s cliche rule, “Show, don’t tell,” is a call to provide an author’s audience evidence. Classically and practically, this is acheived by the various techniques of poetic description–metaphor, analogy, exaggeration, understatement, builds toward climax, etcetera–toward the goal of making an emotional impression upon the audience. Where evidence might mean logical proof in logic or reasonable proof in law, as a part of Style it means relating matters to an audience’s lived experience. It means priming the expecting systems of a primary process by drawing on the experiences which formed those expectations, to ignite or extinguish the eagerness associated with those expectations. The essence of Evidence is to help the audience inhabit the world the author described, whether that world is a fantasy novel or a few moments of someone else’s life.

Propriety throughout Rhetoric means matching words and subjects that are appropriate to the speaker, the occasion and the audience. It has the same meaning within the discussion of Style but with the emphasis largely on how subjects are spoken of, though it certainly also includes what subjects are used in metaphors and other figures of speech. Most of this would be assumed as common decency for the times, and would be learned by one’s scolding as children and prior failures at Rhetoric with a given audience. Homeostasis of a primary process requires that doing certain things while never doing others, because doing them would mean disrupting the primary process. Stepping across a taboo, as a speaker or an audience, challenges audience trust in whomever broke the taboo because that party introduced a stress, and also risks the audience not finding a way back into the sense of self they identified with. Trust in the author, the speaker, the intervening practitioner, is vital to helping their audience hold their sense of self as they explore a matter at hand and open to change. The essence of Propriety is to safeguard this sense of the audience so they may try on something else.

Ornateness means speaking pleasurably, in a way hedonic to say and delicious to hear. Classically and contemporaneously, this is associated with what is aesthetically pleasing, beautiful or Beauty in the words themselves, their rhythm and distance. As this is very near to how speech is performed, Oratory, the fifth canon of Rhetoric, runs very close to the territory of Ornateness. We distinguish them by the difference between beautiful speech written by Shakespeare, and the beautiful acting needed to bring it to life: great acting can pair with bad poetry, and even the best lines can be delivered horribly. For the nervous systems, this is an obvious necessity, because without pleasure in or tied to something, our governing hedonic system would always try to have us off doing other things as part of our homeostasis. Love is tyranny if you only ever know every part of it but joy. Primary processes are only moved to reform and integrate something secondary for the promise of pleasure and release of pain that change promises. As Goldman intuited, revolutions just don’t bring us back to life when they can’t bring us to dancing. The essence of Ornateness is pleasure in participation that melts pain and resistance to nothing, for audience and author alike. Not that there cannot also be Ornateness in suffering, but that Ornateness is about illuminating Beauty by embodying her during the process of illuminating Beauty.

The infinite and absolute Beauty is divvied up across the whole infinitude of finite ways, waiting there to be known and discovered by the lover of wisdom, who is the lover of Beauty, who is everyone. Diotima and Socrates say this exactly in Symposium, exactly as they say that Love is the child Plenty and Poverty. Style is a part of Rhetoric when the latter puts forth his points with the aid of the former, but Rhetoric cannot contain all of Style. Style is naturally of Beauty, which does not just live within the world of making points. Your personal Style in Rhetoric would be that chopped-up Beauty portioned to you, being put to Rhetoric’s use at that moment. Yet your Style persists outside the moments where you are making a speech; it informs your speech because it is how you emanate the Beauty embedded in every facet of you. Even suffering is illuminated by this emanation in time.

Your Style, however it may present about and through you, is the child of yourself and Beauty.

I advocate this view for two reasons. Firstly, because I find it cultivates a more reliable trust in myself than fretting over the details of how to speak, to say nothing of all the damage done to the potency of Rhetoric by researching Rhetoric to death. Secondly, because I find it is a view that breeds a more compassionate listening for Beauty in others, as I practice this compassionate discovery of Style within myself. By experiencing the pains and pleasures of discovering Beauty through Styles, we grow secure attachment to the expectation that Beauty is in our dialogs even hidden from sight, we build tenacious eagerness to the discovery of that Beauty, and we dance in ecstatic enjoyment when She appears.

It is not a poor way to love, nor for finding patience with those around us as our dreams go from highs to lows.

** Footnotes

  • This is a tie between Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. Peter Levine, as well the myriad others studying and working with attachment, whom I cannot here name. I will add Dr. Emily Nagoski here for the merit that her book, Come As You Are, lays out just about all the neurological and behavioral parts needed to get to attachment theory, but from the prospective of sex and desire.
    ** Dr. Nagoski quotes Kent Berridge and Morten Kringelbach in describing the “move-toward, move-away-from” system that lives mostly in the midbrain. Page 84 in Come As You Are; I can’t recommend this book enough. She also names enjoying, expecting and eagerness as useful simplifications of what this midbrain system actually does.
    *** I have read too many books and actually learned from some of their authors directly. Go read literally anything by Drs. Amy and/or Arnold Mindell. They have a book for just about everything, including a book for working with your unique style, which you would never guess from its title: Your Unique (Facilitator) Style. Buy it for the continued discussion of styles; love it for Amy’s photographs of her doodles drawn by arranging pressed flowers.
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