Arguing Agreeably

Arguing Agreeably

All arguments, Stasis Theory says, run along a pattern: from arguments about Fact, to Definition, to Causes, to Evaluation, and finally to Policy. Finding where in this pattern the two sides are really arguing is the key to making a good argument.

Cicero bustArguing can be a negative word in our culture, creating images of raised voices, strained faces, and slammed doors. In our day of media wars, Facebook flames, and Twitter bashing, it might seem that the one thing we need less of is arguing. But since ancient Athens, one of the signal achievements of a genuine education was to make the student proficient in making arguments and analyzing others’ arguments in a calm, thoughtful, rational, fully human way. Becoming proficient in Rhetoric, the art of building such persuasive statements, was the crowning achievement of a liberal education. Our greatest statesmen and leaders—think Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and Lincoln— spent many years perfecting the art of rhetoric, and deployed it in service of their communities.

Recently, we have begun to re-discover a rather neglected part of the history of rhetoric—Stasis Theory. Begun by Hermagoras in the 2nd century BC, taken up by Cicero and Quintilian, and perfected by Hermogenes, whom Marcus Aurelius called the greatest rhetorician in the entire Roman Empire in the second century AD, Stasis Theory is a way of working through arguments, seeing what is at issue, and figuring out how to organize an effective argument for a particular situation.

All arguments, Stasis Theory says, run along a pattern: from arguments about Fact, to Definition, to Causes, to Evaluation, and finally to Policy. Finding where in this pattern the two sides are really arguing is the key to making a good argument.

Let’s take a situation: a man ends up outside of a convenience store lying on the ground with a bloody nose and a broken arm. Another man has been apprehended by the police for the attack. (All of ancient rhetoric starts from the law courts.)

So, is there an issue with the Facts? Perhaps, but let’s say no: five different people saw the suspect smash his nose and break his arm. Well, then, perhaps we need to Define what happened: was it simple assault, aggravated assault, or self-defense? If we cannot decide, then we have reached stasis: we know what the issue is, and what we’ll need to argue. But perhaps we determine it was aggravated assault. Now we must move on to the question: what caused it to happen? Often that will be the real issue. Or perhaps not—maybe there was a surveillance camera, and “how it all went down” is fairly obvious. Then we might want to Evaluate whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. This might seem obviously a bad thing, but perhaps the injured man was threatening a young woman, and it was a good thing he was deterred, even violently, from a worse crime. Finally, the court would have to decide Policy: what should we do about all this? Punish the aggressor, or give him a medal for stopping a crime from being perpetrated?

And here is the interesting thing. Each of these kinds of arguments is going to need a different kind of organization, and different kinds of evidence, or proof. Stasis Theory teaches us—teaches our students—to approach each kind of argument with different methods and tools and examples. Rather than one size fits all, as many classrooms tend to do with writing, Stasis Theory teaches students to tailor their work to the situation—and to analyze others’ arguments on how well they do the same.

Stasis Theory can even help us understand why so many of our arguments in modern life have become so problematic. Take global warming, or climate change, for example. One side says that the facts are clear (fact)—the earth is warming—and that we all know what it is (definition), and what causes it (causal)—human activity. We all know further that this is a bad thing (evaluation), this side says, so all we really need to do is talk about the right ways to combat it (policy). The other side says, wait a minute: we don’t agree with your facts; we aren’t sure what this is—“global warming” or “climate change” or something else—and we don’t buy your evidence that you so readily believe that this is androgenic, or caused by human activity. Thus, we aren’t so sure everything is so terrible, and we aren’t about to move towards making enormous policy changes involving massive amounts of funds. The two sides are so split because they can’t even reach the beginnings of stasis over what in fact the real issue is.

Or take abortion, or education, or immigration. Can you see, by working through Fact, Definition, Cause, Evaluation, and Policy, why the two sides are so deeply split on these issues in our culture? If we can’t even decide what it is we are arguing about—what is at issue, where we can find stasis—we are often talking past one another, not really engaging in rational argument at all. But if we can see this, we can begin to think creatively, analytically, rationally—and achieve that freedom of thought which is the hallmark of the liberally-educated person.

So, Stasis Theory can be a wonderful tool, and a helpful model, not just for teaching our students to write more clearly and effectively on their academic papers; it can be a fundamental art of the free woman or man. And for that, we should offer a big thanks to Hermagoras, Cicero, Quintilian, and Hermogenes, four ancient Romans who still have a great deal to teach us today.


Gregory Roper is an associate professor at the University of Dallas. He is the author of The Writer’s Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing, a book that educates individuals in the craft of writing by looking at some of the most influential writings in Western culture.

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