The influence of ancient Greek on persuasion

The unique qualities of the Greek language accelerated and enabled the development of persuasion techniques



In addition to the social and political reasons that led to the development of persuasion as almost an obsession for educated Greeks, one other factor contributed to this phenomenon and that was the Greek language itself. It is almost impossible for the speaker of a modern Western language to comprehend the ways in which ancient Greek could be used (and abused) in support of rhetorical aims. Laure Van Hook’s translation of a work known as The Encomium of Helen — a defense of Helen of Troy, which was a pretty standard rhetorical exercise in Aristotle’s day — written by one of the most famous of the rhetoric teachers, Gorgias, gives us some sense of just how far a skilled Greek speaker could manipulate his native language to suit his rhetorical goals:


But if by violence she [Helen] was defeated and unlawfully she was treated and to her injustice was meted, clearly her violator as a terrifier was importunate, while she, translated and violated, was unfortunate. Therefore, the barbarian who verbally, legally, actually attempted the barbarous attempt, should meet with verbal accusation, legal reprobation, and actual condemnation. For Helen, who was violated, and from her fatherland separated, and from her friends segregated, should justly meet with commiseration rather than defamation. For he was the victor and she was the victim. It is just, therefore, to sympathize with the latter and anathemize the former.


It was this combination of factors, among others, that led to the flourishing of schools of speaking and persuasion in Greece. Aristotle, now in his intellectual prime, looked around at the wide range of teachers and guides, both good and bad, competing for clients and fame, and decided that he would create his own work on persuasion. It was not meant for wide circulation but, perhaps, as a textbook for students of his own school, known as the Lyceum. Whatever the motivation, he did us a great favor, for in that comprehensive volume he laid down the basis for understanding this most fundamental human activity.