Jun 29, 2016
[SHAKERS & INTRO SONG]
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric. A podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, movements, and terms that have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren and today, I'm going to finally follow up on a promise that I made earlier.
Do you remember when we were talking about Hermogenes? The hairy hearted hero who came up with a lot of extra ways of dealing with things. Well I said back then that I would come back and talk with you about stasis theory which is pretty fantastic and guess what? Now I'm finally living up to that promise.
If you haven't listened to the Hermogenes of Tarsis podcast, you can go back and listen to that for some more details but we're going to focus on the basics today. Think back of the last time you had a really bad argument. Not just like a shouting, throwing dishes argument, but an argument where everyone seemed to be talking past each other. Like you couldn't even agree on what it was that you were arguing. This is a pretty common experience. I've been through it and I'm pretty sure you've been through it too. And in fact, back in the earliest ages of rhetoric in fifth and sixth century B.C. in Greece, there were rhetoricians who were beginning to recognize that we need to think about what we're arguing about when we're arguing with other people. Sometimes you may think that you're arguing about what to do when really the person you're arguing with doesn't believe you need to have any action because nothing has happened.
Trying to sort these out has become sort of stasis theory. Aristotle loosely references the topic by recognizing there's a need to know something about the facts, the definition, the quality and policy of arguments but he never really talked about the need for individuals to come to an agreement about what it was that they were arguing about.
The first person to really articulate this is Hermagoras of Temnos who in the second century B.C. really went in depth in it. And he's the one who set out the four elements of stasis as we recognize them today. These four elements sometimes get a little bit tweaked into five elements or in fact all the way up to the 13 that Hermogenes did but in our context, we're just going to talk about the four.
These four are pretty easy to remember and they can make a real practical difference in the way that you argue today as well as the way that you look at other people's arguments. Stasis comes from the same place as sort of standing, right? So you know homeostasis for example, sort of where you are in your biology of not getting too much or too cold, your sort of standing in the middle. Stasis sort of lets you know where you stand in the argument and where your opponent stands. For me it's helpful to think about this as standing on a platform and if you and your interlocutor are standing on the same platform, you could have worthwhile conversation instead of trying to shout up to somebody standing above you or shout down to someone standing below you.
So let's go through these four stages and talk about how you might go up the staircase with your interlocutor to discuss a different issue. The first and most basic level is just fact. Did the thing itself exist? So famously, a rhetorical scholar named John R.[inaudible] applied this to talking about global warming. So if you're talking with somebody about global warming, the first thing to asses is do you both believe that in fact the Earth is getting warmer? Do you agree on fact? If you guys are already in agreement about this, then maybe what your discussion is is about the next level up.
So go up those stairs if you both agree and talk about the next level. Definition. But if you don't agree about fact, that's what you're going to have to argue about. Did something happen? What are the facts? Is there a problem? Where did it come from? What changes happened to create this problem and is there anything our arguing about it can do? These are some of the facts you would have to argue out with your interlocutor. But if you both agree, you can go upstairs to definition.
Continuing on with our example of global warming, definition is where you talk about what the nature is of the problem. So with global warming, is this a man-made issue or is this just a periodic cycle? What exactly is this issue? What is it related to? What are the parts of this issue? And how are those parts related?
Once you agree about definition, maybe what you need to be arguing about is quality. Is it a good or a bad thing? How big of a problem is this? Who's it going to affect and how much? Is this a crisis we need to resolve? Again, thinking about global warming. Is global warming going to cause catastrophic climate change that destroys human life as we know it? Or is it just an excuse to break out the shorts for a little bit? Quality sort of talks about how big or how much the issue is.
Also you have to think about what the costs are with quality. So with global warming, what's the cost of stopping global warming? Should we stop all manufacture for example? Or transportation? Is it more important to focus on "the short term health of the economy or the long term stability of the climate?"
Okay so when John R. [inaudible] says we've exhausted questions about quality, the next stage is policy. So if you and your interlocutor agree that there is such thing as global warming, it is man-made, and it is a really bad idea, the next step is to talk about what do we do about it? Is the better choice to ban plastic bags or make people ride only on commuter buses or change to nuclear power? Or any of the other things that people have suggested to try to stop global warming? All of these issues are about policy. What do we do now?
You'll see lots of different applications to this idea of stasis. In fact, Quintilian goes through the stasis when he talks about making an argument. He gives the example of somebody saying, "you killed a man" and in response the accused says, "yes, I did kill." Okay so they agree on fact but the accused says, "it is lawful to kill an adulterer with his paramour." So now he's making a discussion more about the quality and the definition. But then the person who accuses says they were not adulterers and so it contests that idea. So the argument has moved from a question of fact, was somebody in fact killed? To a question of definition and quality - was it murder? Was it a bad thing? And for whom?
This is a really fun game to play when you watch law and order and I have to confess a lot of times I kind of geek out watching the attorneys make arguments that go from fact to definition even to policy when they get to sentencing. I mean is it better to send a troubled kid to a mental asylum or to juvenile delinquency? Mostly though I just love law and order.
Stasis is really useful, not just in sort of how we analyze things but also how we conduct conversations with others. Sometimes those bad arguments we have, don't need to be so bad if we just stop and think about what is it we're really arguing and how can we stand on common ground with those we speak?