Logos (plural logoi) is a polysemous Greek term, which generally has been used in rhetoric to refer to the component of persuasion grounded in logic or reason as opposed to that based on emotion or character, although these distinctions are not entirely unproblematic. The Greek noun logos derives from the verb legô (to speak), and has many derivatives and cognates in several Indo-European languages. Logos is found infrequently in Homer (eighth century bce), coming into wide usage only in the prose writers of the sixth century, with the primary meaning of a “speech” or “tale.” It quickly became a common Greek term, with many meanings, including “word,” “story,” “speech,” “reputation,” “ratio,” “book-keeping tally,” “rumor,” “rule,” “explanation,” “argument,” and “reason.” Logos tends to signify uttered thought, rather than specific words; barbarians and Greeks are described as using different types of sound (phônê) or word (rhêma) to express the same logos. In its senses as both reason and speech, logos was used in ancient Greek to refer to that which distinguished humans from beasts. In much of Greek thought, rationality and speech were considered interdependent.
As long prose compositions were termed logoi, prose writers, including historians and those employed in the lucrative, if moderately disreputable, profession of ghost-writing speeches for law courts, were referred to as “logographers” (logographoi). A related compound, logopoios (derived from logopoieô, to write, invent, or compose stories or speeches), found in Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 bce), Thucydides (c. 460/455–c. 399 bce), Plato (427–347 bce), and Theophrastus (c. 371–287 bce), is used, inter alia, neutrally to signify a composer of prose stories or tales or pejoratively to indicate a spinner of tall tales.
Particularly significant for rhetoricians is Gorgias’ (c. 483–c. 375 bce) paradoxical “Encomium of Helen,” which argues that Helen was not culpable because she did not leave her husband voluntarily, but was compelled by a superior force, being either abducted forcibly by Paris or overcome by the powers of love, fate, or persuasive speech. Gorgias emphasizes the power of logos (in the sense of language in general, speeches, or verbal persuasion) as deriving from its magical effect, which acts like a drug, on its hearers, and thus has the force of a compulsion.
The term logos takes on distinct technical senses in fourth-century bce rhetorical theory. Plato uses logos for a speech or account as a whole, a sentence, and a supporting reason or argument, as well as for reason in general, and opposes logos to muthos. For Alcidamas (fourth century bce), logos refers to a speech, and enthymeme to an argument (of any sort). In On Sophists, Alcidamas distinguishes those who produce written speeches (logographoi) from true orators, who speak ex tempore.
Aristotle (384–322 bce) defines logos as “meaningful speech (or sound) [phônê sêmantikê]” (On Interpretation 16b), and in his Prior Analytics calls a syllogism a type of logos. Often cited by rhetoricians is Aristotle’s tripartite division of intrinsic proofs: “The proofs provided from the logos [either “speech” or “argument”] are of three types; they are those from the moral character [êthos] of the speaker, those from disposing the hearer in a certain manner [en tô ton akroatên diatheinai pôs], and those from the logos itself [en autô tô logô], in so far as it demonstrates or appears to demonstrate something” (Rhetoric 1356a1). In contemporary rhetorical theory, this is often described as proof from “êthos, pathos, and logos” with “logos” being defined as abstract reasoning, although such an interpretation depends on reading back Aristotle’s subsequent explanatory material into this passage. For Aristotle, intrinsic rhetorical proof appears based on abstract and universal reason (e.g., the relationship of lesser to greater or part to whole) rather than fact, the latter being antecedent to the activity of the orator and thus extrinsic to the speech.
The Rhetorica ad Alexandrum, usually attributed to Anaximenes of Lampsacus (fl. 380– 320 bce), specifies: “There are two types of proof: there are those drawn from the deeds and persons and words [logôn] themselves, and those supplementary to the things said and things done” (1428a17), a distinction similar to the one Aristotle makes between intrinsic (entechnos) and extrinsic (atechnos) proof.
In Hellenistic and later rhetoric, the derivative terms logismos (rare in the sixth century, but widely used in the fifth and subsequently) and logikos (only becoming common in the fourth century) are used to indicate reasoned argument, with logos most often referring to either a speech as a whole or a distinct unit of speech, e.g., an enthymeme being defined as a type of logos (Anonymous Seguerianus 157–159).
Another important use of the term logos found throughout antiquity is the antithesis between words (logoi) and deeds (erga). The best known Homeric instance of this contrast does not actually use the term logos; Phoenix describes himself as having taught Achilles to be a speaker of words [muthôn] and doer of deeds [ergôn]” (Iliad 9.442– 443). From the classical period through late antiquity and beyond, this distinction appears in rhetorical theory (and often in oratorical practice) as the logoi-erga topos, which contrasts (mere) words (logoi) with deeds (erga).
Logos as a rhetorical term was not carried over into Latin or vernacular rhetorics to any great degree until the revival of Aristotelian rhetoric and logic in the nineteenth century. It became increasingly important with the separation of Communication departments from English in the United States in the early twentieth century, with the concomitant self-definition of Communication Studies as a field rooted in the classical traditions of oral communication and argument. Argument from “logos”, in the sense of logic or reason, is clearly distinguished from that from “ethos” (the character of the speaker), and “pathos” (the emotions of the audience) in twentieth and twenty-first-century American neo-Aristotelian speech and writing pedagogy, and the three Greek terms are routinely used in Anglophone rhetorical theory and instruction.
- Dilts, M. S., & Kennedy, G. A. (eds., trans.) (1997). Two Greek rhetorical treatises from the Roman Empire. Leiden: Brill.
- Kennedy, G. (1994). A new history of classical rhetoric. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Olbricht, T., & Eriksson, A. (eds.) (2005). Rhetoric, ethic, and moral persuasion in Biblical discourse. Harrisonburg, PA: T & T Clark.
- Sprague, R. K. (ed.) (1972). The Older Sophists. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.