1. Open Your Eyes
THE INVISIBLE ARGUMENT
A personal tale of unresisted persuasion
Truth springs from argument among friends.—David Hume
It is early in the morning and my seventeen-year-old son eats breakfast, giving me a narrow window to use our sole bathroom. I wrap a towel around my waist and approach the sink, avoiding the grim sight in the mirror; as a writer, I don’t have to shave every day. (Marketers despairingly call a consumer like me a “low self-monitor.”) I do have my standards, though, and hygiene is one. I grab toothbrush and toothpaste. The tube is empty. The nearest replacement sits on a shelf in our freezing basement, and I’m not dressed for the part.
“George!” I yell. “Who used all the toothpaste?”
A sarcastic voice answers from the other side of the door. “That’s not the point, is it, Dad?” George says. “The point is how we’re going to keep this from happening again.”
He has me. I have told him countless times how the most productive arguments use the future tense, the language of choices and decisions.
“You’re right,” I say. “You win. Now will you please get me some toothpaste?”
“Sure.” George retrieves a tube, happy that he beat his father at an argument.
Or did he? Who got what he wanted? In reality, by conceding his point, I persuaded him. If I had simply said, “Don’t be a jerk and get me some toothpaste,” George might have stood there arguing. Instead I made him feel triumphant, triumph made him benevolent, and that got me exactly what I wanted. I achieved the pinnacle of persuasion: not just an agreement, but one that gets an audience—a teenage one at that—to do my bidding.
No, George, I win.
The Matrix, Only Cooler
What kind of father manipulates his own son? Oh, let’s not call it manipulation. Call it instruction. Any parent should consider rhetoric, the art of argument, one of the essential R’s. Rhetoric is the art of influence, friendship, and eloquence, of ready wit and irrefutable logic. And it harnesses the most powerful of social forces, argument.
Whether you sense it or not, argument surrounds you. It plays with your emotions, changes your attitude, talks you into a decision, and goads you to buy things. Argument lies behind political labeling, advertising, jargon, voices, gestures, and guilt trips; it forms a real-life Matrix, the supreme software that drives our social lives. And rhetoric serves as argument’s decoder. By teaching the tricks we use to persuade one another, the art of persuasion reveals the Matrix in all its manipulative glory.
The ancients considered rhetoric the essential skill of leadership—knowledge so important that they placed it at the center of higher education. It taught them how to speak and write persuasively, produce something to say on every occasion, and make people like them when they spoke. After the ancient Greeks invented it, rhetoric helped create the world’s first democracies. It trained Roman orators such as Julius Caesar and Marcus Tullius Cicero and gave the Bible its finest language. It even inspired William Shakespeare. Every one of America’s founders studied rhetoric, and they used its principles in writing the Constitution.
Rhetoric faded in academia during the 1800s, when social scientists dismissed the notion that an individual could stand up to the inexorable forces of history. Who wants to teach leadership when academia doesn’t believe in leaders? At the same time, English lit replaced the classics, and ancient thought fell out of vogue. Nonetheless, a few remarkable people continued to study the art. Daniel Webster picked up rhetoric at Dartmouth by joining a debating society, the United Fraternity, which had an impressive classical library and held weekly debates. Years later, the club changed its name to Alpha Delta and partied its way to immortality by inspiring the movie Animal House
. To the brothers’ credit, they didn’t forget their classical heritage entirely; hence the toga party.
Scattered colleges and universities still teach rhetoric—in fact, the art is rapidly gaining popularity among undergraduates—but outside academia we forgot it almost entirely. What a thing to lose. Imagine stumbling upon Newton’s law of gravity and meeting face-to-face with the forces that drive the universe. Or imagine coming across Freud for the first time and suddenly becoming aware of the unconscious, where your id, ego, and superego conduct their silent arguments.
I wrote this book for that reason: to lead you through this ill-known world of argument and welcome you to the Persuasive Elect. Along the way you’ll enhance your image with Aristotle’s three traits of credible leadership: virtue, disinterest, and practical wisdom. You’ll find yourself using logic as a convincing tool, smacking down fallacies and building airtight assertions. Aristotle’s principles will also help you decide which medium—text? phone? skywriting?—works best for each message. You will discover a simple strategy to get an argument unstuck when it bogs down in accusation and anger.
And that’s just the beginning. The pages to come contain more than a hundred “argument tools” borrowed from ancient texts and adapted to modern situations, along with suggestions for trying the techniques at home, school, or work, or in your community. You will see when logic works best, and when you should lean on an emotional strategy. You’ll acquire mind-molding figures of speech and ready-made tactics, including Aristotle’s irresistible enthymeme, a neat bundle of logic that I find easier to use than pronounce. You’ll see how to actually benefit from your own screw-ups. And you’ll discover the most compelling tools of all in your audience’s own self-identity.
By the end of the book you will have mastered the rhetorical tricks for making an audience eager to listen. People still love a well-delivered talk; the top professional speakers charge more per person than a Bruce Springsteen concert. I devote a whole chapter to Cicero’s elegant five-step method for constructing a speech—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery—a system that has served the greatest orators for the past two thousand years.
Great argument does not always mean elaborate speech, though. The most effective rhetoric disguises its art. And so I’ll reveal a rhetorical device for implanting opinions in people’s heads through sheer sleight of tongue.
Besides all these practical tools, rhetoric offers a grander, metaphysical payoff: it jolts you into a fresh new perspective on the human condition. After it awakens you to the argument all around, the world will never seem the same.
I myself am living proof.
My Perfectly Rhetorical Day
To see just how pervasive argument is, I recently attempted a whole day without persuasion—free of advertising, politics, family squabbles, or any psychological manipulation whatsoever. No one would persuade me, and I would avoid persuading them. Heck, I wouldn’t even let myself persuade myself. Nobody, not even I, would tell me what to do.
If anyone could consider himself qualified for the experiment, a confirmed hermit like me could. I work for myself; indeed, having dropped out of a career in journalism and publishing, I work by myself, in a cabin a considerable distance from my house. I live in a tiny village in northern New England, a region that boasts the most persuasion-resistant humans on the planet. Advertisers have nightmares about people like me: no TV, no smartphone, dial-up Internet. I’m commercial-free, a walking NPR, my own individual, persuasion-immune man.
My wristwatch alarm goes off at six. I normally use it to coax myself out of bed, but now I ignore it. I stare up at the ceiling, where the smoke detector blinks reassuringly. If the smoke alarm detected smoke, it would alarm, rousing the heaviest sleeper. The philosopher Aristotle would approve of the smoke detector’s rhetoric; he understood the power of emotion as a motivator.
For the time being, the detector has nothing to say. But my cat does. She jumps on the bed and sticks her nose in my armpit. As reliable as my watch and twice as annoying, the cat persuades remarkably well for ten dumb pounds of fur. Instead of words she uses gesture and tone of voice—potent ingredients of argument.
I resist stoically. No cat is going to boss me around this morning.
The watch beeps again. I wear a Timex Ironman, whose name comes from a self-abusive athletic event; presumably, if the watch works for a masochist who subjects it to two miles of swimming, a hundred miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running all in one day, it would work for someone like me who spends his lunch hour walking strenuously down to the brook to see if there are any fish. The ancient Romans would call the Ironman’s brand appeal argumentum a fortiori, “argument from strength.” Its logic goes like this: if something works the hard way, it’s more likely to work the easy way. Advertisers favor the argument from strength. Years ago, Life cereal ran an ad with little Mikey the fussy eater. His two older brothers tested the cereal on him, figuring that if Mikey liked it, anybody would. And he liked it! An argumentum a fortiori cereal ad. My Ironman watch’s own argument from strength does not affect me, however. I bought it because it was practical. Remember, I’m advertising-immune.
Copyright © 2020 by Jay Heinrichs. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.