editor's note

Illustration by Gordon Schmidt

Two decades ago, I taught persuasive writing at the small branch campus of a public university in the Midwest. The students this campus served were generally (but not always) underprepared for college-level academics, so the course was very much introductory. Part of our charge was to help students understand the physics of persuasion, the push and pull of evidence and argument that lead a reader to seriously consider whatever point of view a speaker or writer proposes.

Luckily, I had Aristotle’s help. Twenty-five hundred years ago, he outlined three basic rhetorical tools for speakers on which we still rely today. But I didn’t make my students actually read Aristotle. I gave them Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” instead.

To refresh your memory, King, sitting in jail, was replying to eight clergy of several faiths who counseled him to call off the civil rights protests that were disrupting everyday life in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963. The clergy called these protests “unwise and untimely.” King’s reply was a thoughtful and elegant “no.” For my teaching purposes, it was also a pitch-perfect example of all three of Aristotle’s persuasive tools.

AristotleWhen King described in detail “the hard, brutal and unbelievable facts” of unsolved bombings, mistreatment by the police and courts, and the refusal of Birmingham’s leaders to negotiate in good faith, he deployed what Aristotle called logos, an appeal based on logic and reason. When he conveyed “the stinging facts of segregation” with a story about his 6-year-old daughter with “tears welling up in her little eyes” learning that she cannot go to an amusement park because of segregation, he relied on Aristotle’s pathos, an appeal based on emotion. When he described himself as “the son, grandson, and great-grandson of preachers” who had “wept over the laxity of the church,” he used the Aristotelian concept of ethos, a rhetorical strategy that says you should listen to me because of who I am. Examples of all three persuasive tools abound throughout the letter’s 20 typewritten pages.

But ethos can also mute a speaker, and sometimes the deficit is in the listener. In today’s national mood, we too often pre-emptively wall off our minds and our hearts because we reflexively dismiss the person in front of us. This dynamic diminishes our capacity to find common ground and be kind to one another.

These thoughts are on my mind as we prepare this issue and every issue because opening oneself to new, better ideas and bridging differences is something we talk about at Richmond and prepare our students to do. It’s risky stuff, but to work on a college campus is to every day meet students who pull it off and offer hope. In their fundamental optimism and willingness to tread uncertain ground, I often see the better version of myself that I strive to become.

Students aren’t the only ones who can learn Aristotle’s lessons. Let’s be honest: This magazine has been engaged in one, long persuasive argument since its founding in 1936. We work hard to deserve your attention and trust (ethos), to share facts and news (logos), and to nurture your memories and move your heart with stories (pathos).

So what’s the case we’ve been making all this time? That through the ebb and flow of our lives, few experiences are as meaningful as becoming a Richmond Spider.