And what about emotions? Fair game or manipulation?
Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Missio that the Church was in a “new springtime” for evangelization, a period in which the Gospel message could be proclaimed to the world in a fresh way.
How can we reach people of today with the Gospel message? What are the most effective ways to convince somebody of the truth of the Catholic faith?
The Church has a successful history of borrowing elements of surrounding cultures in order to advance the faith. One of the most famous examples of this is the appropriation of the philosophy of Aristotle by the medieval scholastics in doing theology.
I think we can borrow from Aristotle again in this time—not from his work on metaphysics or ethics, but from his work on rhetoric. Aristotle literally wrote the book on persuasion, and his insights are as relevant today as ever.
Among the many pearls of wisdom in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, his section on the three proofs of persuasion is especially useful for us here. Aristotle writes that to be most effective in your efforts to convince someone, three elements need to be present. By consciously appealing to these three elements in our presentation to others, we can be more effective witnesses.
The first element, or “proof” as Aristotle called them, is logos, or the appeal to reason. This is the argument itself that you’re using to convince the other. Here we want the other to see the truth of what we’re saying, or the validity of the line of thinking we’re using. We should be sure that our arguments are clear, our examples are relevant, and our facts are sound. It’s hard to convince someone when you aren’t making sense! So we should know the content of the faith: Scripture, Tradition, the Magisterium; the Fathers, scholastics, and modern theologians; common apologetic arguments and thoughtful responses to frequent questions.
Next Aristotle mentions pathos, or the appeal to the emotions. Our emotions are what attract us to or repel us away from things, so a speaker wants to arouse the proper emotion that will make the hearer well-disposed toward what the speaker is trying to persuade them about. If promoting war, make them angry; if promoting peace, make them docile; if seeking assistance, make them pity you.
This isn’t “emotional manipulation,” where we try to create a false emotion in someone; rather, it’s the attempt to speak in such a way that the emotions that naturally accompany the truths being discussed do indeed arise.
So, in our presentation to others we cannot simply lay out a series of syllogisms in cold rationality. We must also convey to others what these truths of the faith mean to us in our lives, how we’re motivated by them, how we love the teachings of Christ and His Church because they bring us the happiness of a life lived in God’s grace.
Lastly Aristotle mentions ethos, the appeal to the speaker’s own credibility and integrity. A speaker must display in his speech that he’s trustworthy and reliable, a good person who means well and who wants to make things happen (and knows how to get them done). An audience won’t be receptive to someone whom they think is a liar, or a hypocrite, or who is trying to get something from them. This is where we’re called to authentic witnesses, people who attest to the truth of the faith by the way they live their lives.
Bringing all three of these elements together, using all three of Aristotle’s “proofs,” will make us effective witnesses of the Catholic faith. By conveying the content of the faith to others with passion and integrity, our audience will be much more receptive to what we have to say. This is our way of helping to prepare the soil so that the seed of the Word of God can grow in another’s heart.