Speech Criticism, the Development of Standards for Rhetorical Appraisal

By Lester Thonssen; A. Craig Baird | Go to book overview

Chapter 13
THE CHARACTER OF THE SPEAKER

Ethical Proof in Discourse

Ralph Waldo Emerson defined eloquence as "the art of speaking what you mean and are." 1 On another occasion he supplemented this reflection by saying: "The reason why anyone refuses his assent to your opinion, or his aid to your benevolent design, is in you. He refuses to accept you as a bringer of truth, because, though you think you have it, he feels that you have it not. You have not given him the authentic sign." 2

Much has been written under various captions about what Emerson calls the "authentic sign." The writers are virtually of one mind, however, in declaring that the force of the speaker's personality or character is instrumental in facilitating the acceptance of belief. Macaulay tells us that a comparison of Pitt the Younger with Charles James Fox reveals how the former inspired respect and confidence because of the correctness of his private life. Conversely, a personal touch which is neither pleasing nor inspiring may, and often does, militate against the speaker's likelihood of achieving his desired response. As John Lawson said in his Lectures: "You cannot be much affected by what he [the speaker] says, if you do not look upon him to be a Man of Probity, who is in earnest, and doth himself believe what he endeavoreth to make out as credible to you."3

Like so many of the concepts with which the modern student of rhetoric deals, this one received its first fairly specific statement at the hand of Aristotle. It will be recalled that Aristotle believed success in persuasion depended upon three things; or, to put it differently, the proofs provided "through the instrumentality of the speech" were of three kinds: "in the moral character of the speaker or in the production of a certain disposition in the audience or in the speech itself by means of real or apparent demonstration." 4 We have already discussed the last two, namely, emotional or pathetic proof and logical proof. Let us now turn to what is usually called ethical proof.

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