The way you talk is vital to how you present yourself. It’s a type of apparel, and, as Polonius so wisely advised Laertes in Hamlet, “the apparel oft proclaims the man.” Most people you encounter will determine the quality of your person not by your “true merit” (we all make terrible intuitive psychologists anyway) but by the richness of your apparel; that is, by how you present yourself. This is not, as some individuals decide to be, something to be upset about. It is not something you need to rebel against or try and change. Instead, recognize that the art of “acting” in life and the art of “acting” you see in theaters and movies are essentially one and the same.
Whether you want to achieve excellence as a businessman, a lawyer, an artist, or even just convince someone to lend you their pen, the art of rhetoric will invariably be an important instrument in achieving your ends in most any endeavor involving other people.
People tend to have a lot of preconceived notions about rhetoric, morally stigmatizing it as an unethical or simply a misuse of language. Yet that’s only because they lack a synthetic understanding of what rhetoric actually is. So today I want to help dispel that misconception by showing you how rhetoric is essential to any heights of ethical or aesthetic achievement. Let me introduce you to an analogy I created to understand the place of rhetoric in our lives, which I hope will finally dispel whatever uneasiness you may harbor towards it, as well as give you some ideas as to how to use it more skillfully.
The House of Light
Imagine a house. Foundation, walls, rooms, roof, doorways, etc. In the house there is also a fireplace. Let this fireplace stand for your internal self – i.e., your soul. You can use it to cook your food (reflect on existence), to get warm when it’s cold (live through transitory suffering), and to illuminate the rest of the house.
The house represents the character you are acting as in society, which is determined by your goals, which are themselves determined by your evaluation (primarily subconscious) of what is important to do in your limited time alive, as well as how you rank the importance of those things from situation to situation. By character I mean the belief matrix we possess that synthesizes experiences into growth and understanding.
Sometimes it might be best to build a simple hut, sometimes you might want to build a lighthouse to help guide sailors lost at sea (staying true to our analogy by reminding ourselves that ships are the houses of sailors), other times it would make more sense to construct an impenetrable fortress, or perhaps even a mobile tank, though that might be an uncomfortable place to live for any serious length of time (and comfort is by default pretty high up on the list of significant goals for most creatures, humans included).
When people give you the advice to “be yourself”, what they are often trying to communicate is that you should construct your house in a way that your fire can dance as freely and beautifully as possible, and that so doing is actually best not just for you, but for society, as, most importantly, the freest types of beings tend to be quite virile/fertile. And not necessarily only in the sexual sense, but also in the sense that they are the harbingers of meaning, as they are most able to utilize the force of creation.
However, some people take that “be yourself” advice as “go around with no filters on”. But you can’t just go around talking straight from the hearth and hope to be socially effective – people will typically think you are, at best, graceless and inconsiderate, at worst, insane. Someone who indiscriminately lets anyone and everyone into their house conveys a lack of respect for both their guests and themselves.
As you grow and your relationships to the world and other people become more complex, you constantly are tearing down, incorporating, rebuilding, and rearranging elements of your “house”. This typically creates a progressively more and more complex character. On top of this, you are also designing and redesigning it based on external circumstances, all while trying to synthesize the ideal with the actual and your communal values with your individualistic ones. These are some of the essential existential conflicts in any person’s life.
The foundation of your house is self-knowledge. In particular, it is your concrete knowledge of the achievable goals you are pursuing that, if possible, are in line with an overall life goal that guides all of your actions, which also should be concrete, achievable (though ideals often play an important role here), and it should help fulfill your more primal survival/basic wellbeing level needs and desires as well (remembering that our willpower is limited and that if we don’t plan around our more primal urges they will usually override whatever logical goals we’ve set that don’t sufficiently take account of them).
Without a solid foundation, the rest of your house is likely to collapse.
For the sake of brevity, we’ll save elaboration on the topic of establishing an overall life goal and the other uses of your foundation for another time (though if you want to get an idea of my strategy for designing an overall goal, check out my article on False Desires).
Let the walls of the house represent your “frame”; the first thing someone will observe when they perceive you.
Wikipedia defines a frame (as used in the social sciences) as “… a schema of interpretation — that is, a collection of anecdotes and stereotypes that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events.”
In other words, a frame is a way of seeing the world.
If you’re a painter, you may have the frame that you are the most skillful landscape painter in the world. You don’t just paint pictures – you create masterpieces. That’s your frame.
Imagine two cats meeting on the street. They stare one another down, and then eventually one backs down and slinks away. That’s a frame encounter, where each of them have their own frame that they are the toughest cat on the block, and the cat with the strongest frame usually wins. You can see the same thing happening between humans all the time too. Yet don’t get the idea that these always are adversarial, they’re not – they actually are absolutely vital to effective leadership and can be used cooperatively.
For example, you encounter someone who is not very bold, but you think that it would be better for both of you if he were bolder, as he doesn’t take many risks and this is hurting his ability to accomplish what he wants to accomplish in the world, which is causing him to be feel depressed and weak. So your frame is that being bold is awesome and, more importantly, it’s something that he can be. And you don’t just tell him this, you also demonstrate it. If he sees you taking bold action, and he sees other people also being bold and getting results by following your lead, now there’s this social pressure on him to become bolder too. And all of the sudden he has acquiesced to following your frame on boldness, because he realizes (if only subconsciously) that it is in his and everyone else’s best interest to do so.
This is just one of the many examples of the good that can come from frame control – a skill essential to any great rhetorician.
The most effective frames are based off of your inferences and expectations regarding the relationship between your beliefs (your map of the territory), the actual territory (objective reality), and, of course, other peoples’ maps of the territory (other’s frames). The most fundamental of these is the actual territory, yet the thing that demands the brunt of our attention nowadays is usually other peoples’ frames.
Basically, this all is to say that you must be aware of your audience, or else you won’t build balanced frames and will instead either stretch yourself too thin or over-emphasize things and come across as inflexible, inexperienced, and try-hard.
So you should seek to set clear frames from the beginning, which means you should have a concrete idea of what you want to accomplish. However, don’t beat yourself up too much if the other person is unable to interpret your expectations or clings doggedly, like a child refusing to take a bath, to some frame of theirs, unwilling to bend at all. All you can do is try and communicate as clearly and purposively as possible, and set expectations early on as sincerely as you can.
Note that in houses you not only have walls (frames) on the outside, but also on the inside. This is equally true with your character. Your external frames comprise the way you want others to perceive you, while your internal frames are more about how you perceive yourself and function to strengthen your external frames, while both of them provide support to the roof.
Your walls, or “frames”, support the roof, the roof being your personal moral system; your principles and ideals; the things you feel it important to uphold; what you “stand for”, aka, what your frames/“walls” stand for.
The problem with nihilistic characters is that they lack a roof, so when it rains (objective reality changes, you know… as it’s in the habit of doing) their house gets wet, moldy, and their fire might even get put out – which is not good for anyone, because either these people die or they end up leaning on more self-sufficient people, weakening those people’s ability to be self-sufficient. In that way, nihilists can hold themselves and the people around them who have to deal with them back.
That’s why a roof is a really useful thing to have, as, besides being something to protect yourself and to help beautify your world with, it also reinforces and helps hold together the whole structure of your house. It works the same way a keystone in an arch does.
Depending on your situation and purpose, your roof is going to be of one form or another. Some common types are the predominantly ethical man and the predominantly aesthetic one. Personally, I’m most at ease when I balance these two together. I prefer a roof that has both an ethical and aesthetic element to it.
Also, I recommend constructing a sufficiently high roof, as it adds an element of space and freedom that helps ennoble a character.
Diving into the house now, your internal frames/”walls”(your belief, habits, and stereotypes) work together to make rooms. The rooms in the house symbolize the components and the way you order the presentation of your character to yourself and to others. This is important for reinforcing your personal worldview as well as for setting yourself and your guests at ease.
What we surround ourselves with in our non-allegorical houses, and the way we organize the rooms, often has a significant effect on the way we organize our minds. This is the basic idea of Feng shui, which applies to how we organize our characters as well as our physical environments.
We can see the organization of the rooms in our actual physical houses reinforcing our habits. For example, if you want to do pottery, you may turn a room into a pottery room, and because of this, every time you walk by you are reminded that you are trying to get in the habit of making pots, or maybe it reminds you that one of your goals for the day was to finish glazing a new pot.
Back to the analogy: so if you want to help a guest get comfortable so they can open up to you when they come over to your house so you can relate and learn things from one another, the first thing you are likely to show them is probably not the cupboard where you keep your potatoes. No – you start out in the entryway, take off your shoes, go in to the sitting room, perhaps pass through the kitchen where there’s a fresh blackberry pie on the counter, then you maybe offer them a drink, or take them out on the terrace to enjoy the night sky and easeful conversation.
You see, there’s always a story involved – a narrative element, that if you were to disrespect, especially if you just met them, would make people feel less comfortable around you and trust and respect you less, effecting the likelihood of either of you getting to know the other past a superficial level and making it so that you are less likely to exist harmoniously together. Regarding that, we can thus see how the master of the art of rhetoric conceals to reveal. For gratitude is nourished by expectation. One should give of himself, but never all at once. The first principle of any art, we must remember, is restraint.
Tools for Designing Your House
There are three general tools of persuasion within the art of rhetoric, and we can see these as three primary tools we use to convince our visitors to perceive the house (in particular the fire) in one light or another. As originally laid out by Aristotle, the tools are: ethos, pathos, and logos. With these we can more effectively organize our presentation and also make appeals as to the nature of the house.
Sometimes you want someone to see it the same way you do, other times you want them to see it differently.
Either way, being able to effectively persuade others to see your rooms in a certain light is extremely useful in nearly all aspects of life.
Though I suspect most of you are already familiar with them, here’s a quick reminder on what our three tools of persuasion are:
Ethos: Ethos has to do with your credibility. It typically should be used early on to demonstrate to your guests that they are in good hands (perhaps by having them take off their jacket and shoes and maybe even putting some house slippers on, alongside some engaging banter about your profession and its relationship to them).
Pathos: Pathos represents an appeal to your audience’s emotions. In our imaginary house, pathos is absolutely vital. You need to be good at leading people’s emotions, as this is the primary determining factor for most human decisions most of the time. In particular, pathos is important when you are transitioning between rooms.
Logos: Logos involves the use of rational argument to show what the house actually looks like, and also your explanation as to why certain things are the way they are. Logos can be good for helping people rationalize decisions, but beware, it often is misused – either people try to get others to see things entirely through logical appeal, or, on the flipside, they are too focused on the emotions and because of this make really inaccurate reads on how things objectively are.
Conflicting Value Systems
There are times to be open, but there also are times to remain closed to others’ advances – like when dealing with someone who is self-destructive, sadistic, or an immature manipulator.
Everyone you meet is going to have a different idea of what makes a good house, few will be aware of the degree to which we are all actors, and only in a limited sense are people able to convey their vision to you.
Because of all this, we must bear reigniting that old, cliché (yet still good) advice: the best defense is a good offense.
That’s why it’s so important to have an overall goal and subsequent grand strategy. With those you will be able to outframe most people you deal with and also give people stories that are optimized for the relationships that you are consciously building through the help of the art of rhetoric. Without goals and strategies, you are just scrambling around hoping chance deals some winning cards. But I don’t want to leave my success up to just luck. Sure, I recognize luck as an important element of life, but I also recognize that its role is outside my control, so I’m better off not even factoring it in to my decision-making.
Being at Home in Your House
The central idea I want you to take away is that your character is a lot more in your control than you probably think, and that it is within your power to build the house of your dreams.
To do this, you must be aware of what your goals are (individualistically and collaboratively), and how you will achieve them. Otherwise, your character will be determined by things outside your control (e.g. other people, in particular the five or so closest people to you), and you will inevitably bend to stronger external frames that you did not choose.
The analogy of The House of Light is one that I use to visualize the relationship between my person and my persona(s). It’s also a model that helps explain why one would even bother consciously practicing the art of rhetoric.
Skill in rhetoric, though oftentimes thought of as a skill of concealment and manipulation, actually allows you to move into deeper relationships with other people and the world itself, while also helping you harness your ability to discern between who to let in to your house and to what degree and capacity you do so.
When you can do this, the light of your fire will be able to shine out with greater radiance, and you will be better capable of accomplishing your goals.