The 4 Common Topics of Rhetoric

The 4 Common Topics of Rhetoric

Stay on Topic! The common topics of rhetoric.Do you ever feel like you’re having the same arguments over and over again? It’s probably because you are.

Comment threads and forums are especially heinous offenders. Cull the subterrane of Internet commenting and you’ll discover the same arguments over and over and over … (You’ll also discover a bounty of racism, sexism, and every other nasty/weird -ism.)

But the careful rhetor will notice it’s not the content that repeats ad infinitum. The content seems limitless—from superhero disputes to political snarl to grammar wars to fashion skirmishes. What repeats are the lines of argument. Something caused something else. Someone is greater than someone else. Somewhere is unlike anywhere else. Etc.

These are what Aristotle called topoi or “topics.” They are ways to examine or present arguments that are common to any content. And for anyone finding it difficult to discover the most effective means of persuasion, they can be a real lifesaver.

There are 7 kinds of topics (with about 27 total) and 8 special topics (specific to genres of rhetoric). But these are the four most common:

  1. Possible/Impossible
  2. Greater/Lesser
  3. Past Fact
  4. Future Fact

Can you feel the excitement? (I can.) But let’s not stray off topic

1. Mission Impossible (or Possible)

The initial line of argument to consider is whether your point is possible or if the point your arguing against is impossible. This is the most fundamental topic of rhetoric, and it’s usually the first place rhetors turn when they’re debating a point. Take education, for instance:

Emma: Public education in America is doing more harm than good. I think it’s about time we abolish government schools.
Vivian: That’s impossible. You can’t abolish something so ingrained in our culture. Public education dates back to ancient Greece!

Here the argument rests not on the metaphysical possibility of abolishing public schools (no one is debating the nature of reality) but on its ultimate likelihood. Even if your opponent admits that the likelihood is not zero but very close, you cannot accept victory. People are often motivated by what appears achievable, and the greater the possibility the greater the motivation. Something with a 0.001% likelihood is not very motivating. (Keep in mind that your goal as a rhetor is to convince an audience.) It’s metaphysically possible for everyone on the planet to jump simultaneously, but the likelihood that it will ever happen is basically zero. Therefore, there’s little incentive to try. (Let the Kickstarter campaign begin…)

When debating a point’s possibility, make an argument from analogy. Try to show examples where similar things thought impossible were accomplished:

Emma: Ancient Greece also had slavery, but America was able to abolish the practice with a lot of hard work by devout abolitionists and a civil war! Abolishing government schools won’t result in bloodshed, but it will take fearless determination just like ending slavery.

2. The Greater Good / Lesser Evil

Is your sports team better than all other teams of the same sport? (Mine is.) Then this topic is right for you! The “greater/lesser” topic is a perennial favorite among Internet arguments since it focuses on if something is better or worse than something else. Batman v. Superman. Apple v. Android. Justin Bieber v. Katy Perry. This topic covers them all.

Since this topic is the most obvious, I’ll dispense with the example and simply say that the most important thing when using this topic is to define your criteria. Decide with your opponent (or explain to your audience) how you will determine greater or lesser.

One more time: DEFINE YOUR CRITERIA. Do it. Imperative. One of my favorite criteria moments:

Yaron Brook: Southern California is the objectively best place to live.
Student: By what standard?
Yaron Brook: By the standard of sunshine.

3. Past Fact: Look What Happened

A rhetor arguing on “past fact” must prove that her point is either inevitable or highly likely to happen because of something that has already happened. The strongest “past fact” argument is one that demonstrates cause and effect:

Emma: With the passing of ObamaCare, health care prices will rise. That’s inevitable. There’s no way to provide more people with more coverage for less money. You can’t violate the laws of economics with political policy.

But if cause and effect isn’t easily established, then the next best avenue is likelihood. Rhetors arguing for social change often appeal to high likelihood as an argument for adopting a policy:

Vivian: The recent Supreme Court rulings will almost certainly lead to gay marriage being legal in all states. Let’s make it happen right now.

4. Future Fact: Look What’s Going to Happen

What’s a future fact? It’s something that will happen for sure in the course of time. But an argument based on “future fact” is about what should happen right now because of what will happen inevitably. When basing an argument on “future fact” try not to be speculative in your designation of “fact.” For instance, this is not a good “future fact” argument:

Emma: It’s only a matter of time before America adopts a fully free market, so let’s save ourselves the wait and implement one now?

Even if the audience agrees with Emma’s conclusion, the evidence provided is not a compelling reason to do so—since it is neither inevitable or even highly likely that America will adopt laissez-faire. Here’s a better “future fact” argument:

Vivian: We will look back at our ban on gay marriage in the same way we look back on segregation and denying women the right to vote. On what side of history do you want to see yourself? Let’s make gay marriage legal right now.

Here the future fact, though speculative, is much more likely because of social trends and past experiences, so the argument is much more persuasive (to some). But the best kind of “future fact” argument is based on certitude. Let’s give Emma a chance to redeem herself:

Emma: Seeing as how ObamaCare takes full effect for individuals in 2014, there isn’t time to develop anything to replace it. We must repeal and rethink. Immediately!

* * * * *

The common topics, like many rhetorical devices, are both descriptive and prescriptive concepts. You can use them to form your arguments or you can use them to examine your opponent’s arguments. Either way, topoi are an easy method for exploring all the available means of persuasion. Doing so will make you a better rhetor—even on the Internet.

Happy persuading!