The power of persuasion

Bill-newby L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

The major of my undergraduate liberal arts degree was philosophy, the study of convictions and ideology but perhaps more importantly the study of thought and reasoning.  These latter two key elements have their historical origin:

The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberal, “worthy of a free person”) to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts.

While it is easy to see the connection between rhetoric and language (particularly in the context of debate and public speaking) one mustn’t neglect the importance of logic.  This principle became especially apparent when I subsequently studied law; a mere entertaining presentation was doomed without the substance of argument and rationality.


What frequently detaches the mind from the desirable and sometimes clinical persuasion of a logical argument is emotion.  There are few concepts which are so characteristically opposed as instinct and rationality.  And heightening the difference is that both are important and often of equal significance.  The trick therefore is to bridge the gap with a combination of each.

Emotion being a visceral (and often sentimental) response is fraught with features which frequently defy logic and therefore are only open to attack upon an emotional scale, which in many instances means replacing one passion for another. Certain appetites are well known to trump others.  For example, the appetite for material possessions can normally be outranked by the instinctive yearning for family; health usually outdistances wealth; prestige and position frequently defeat mere convenience.  As a result the persuasive argument is by design targeted at the basic (and sometimes baser) fixations of humanity.  The going can however become thick when expenditure of money (even if for utterly pragmatic purposes) and austerity collide.  Here it is necessary to call upon the so-called “higher” appeal of entitlement as a rationalization, admittedly sometimes a cheap shot or dirty pool, appealing as it does to one’s vanity and sense of privilege.

Characterizing an argument as a battle between gut and brain does not of course tell the whole story.  A further sticky element in any persuasive argument is nothing more glamorous than inertia.  The tendency to remain unchanged is in turn strengthened by fear, a close relative of transformation. Even when the most cogent theses are advanced, couched in entirely palatable terms, the success of the persuasion is ultimately at the whim of the intellect that absorbs it.  Remember, there are two classes of people who won’t try new food: children and the uneducated. The struggle can quickly become the equivalent of blasting rock to make any headway with about as much expectation of mere fragments.  In the result the intransigence of some people’s minds can only be overcome by side-stepping the issue entirely and deliberately moving forward in spite of the resounding opposition.  The negotiation then reduces to a power struggle which, if the logic is not mere rhetoric, is not a bad thing.

StruggleI like to think that the success of even a well-reasoned power struggle will ultimately appeal to the most inflexible mind. This speaks to the predictable plausibility of good sense.  In the meantime however it may be necessary to dance around the idea being advanced, to cajole, to implore and perhaps even push a little.  And maybe like most things it will only be persistence that in the end wins the day.  So much for the power of persuasion!