Logos Lost

Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 11/14/2022

Logos Lost

Civilization has evolved because of our ability to communicate ideas, speak, debate, and ultimately reach a greater understanding of our world and our place in it. In addition to our verbal speech, the ability to write has allowed us to record our collective knowledge and preserve it for future generations. It is easy to see what becomes of our collective wisdom when we lose the ability to exchange ideas freely and LOGOS IS LOST.

We are not always the best listeners. Remember when your teen was young and threw a fit when you told them something they didn’t want to hear. Emotions were driving their reaction. Sometimes as adults, we’re not much better. 

We have a long history that suggests we are not very good at listening to warnings, logic, or unpleasant realities. It seems to be in our nature to resist these things, and we appear to be hardwired with what is termed, “optimism bias.” Like the child, we too make emotional appeals. Whether it is immature behavior or optimism bias, perhaps we are destined to resist reality.  

For now, let’s focus on logos. The Greek word, “logos,” roughly translates to word, thought, principle, or speech, and is often used to describe an appeal to logic in argumentation. Citing facts and statistics, or using logic and common sense to convince an audience is logos in action. On the opposite end of the spectrum, one can make an argument using emotional appeal (pathos), or convey the sense of right and wrong (ethos). In doing so, one would think it is hard to argue against a set of well-constructed facts and statistics, right?

Wrong. Perhaps the best illustration of our propensity to reject logos can be seen in the historical record of scientific mavericks and heretics. In 1616, Galileo Galilei was imprisoned for asserting that the earth revolved around the sun, and it took 219 years for his vindication to come about. Despite the evidence, we just weren’t ready to accept that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. A lesser known fellow, Ignaz Semmelweis, suggested in 1847 that if surgeons disinfected their hands before procedures, it would reduce deaths. He was fired from the hospital and shunned by the medical community for suggesting that they were unclean. Louis Pasteur drew similar conclusions about microscopic bacteria around 1862, and he too was ridiculed for his outlandish ideas. Today, Semmelweis and Pasteur are hailed as two of the greats in early medicine. The list of these scientific mavericks and heretics is as fascinating as it is long. Unfortunately, no facts nor data could save them from the closed minds of their contemporaries.

Warnings and evacuations often go ignored by individuals confident that they can weather the storm—some make it, and some don’t. In 1912, the crew of the Titanic received no fewer than five radio warnings from nearby ships about heavy icebergs in their path—we know how that played out. Hurricane Katrina is a great example of optimism bias on a grand scale as the powers that be were well aware of the fragility of the levee system around New Orleans and its vulnerability to storm surges. It also illustrated how woefully inadequate our country was prepared for disaster relief. Another example we can all relate to is irrationally positive outlooks in economics and investments. The 1929, 1987, and 2008 crashes were all preceded by signs of trouble brewing. Investors tend to pile in until it’s blatantly too late, and during the good times, we all root for growth in our retirement accounts as though it is a football team that never loses.

Thinking back to childhood, I remember hearing many things I didn’t want to hear: The older kids told me Santa and the Easter Bunny were not real, I was miffed when my Jr. High School aptitude test suggested I would be a farmer and not an astronaut, and my classmates definitely had more mean things to say than kind words. Regarding the latter, every adult in my life armed me with the age-old antidote, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Of course, we also had the ultimate retort, “I know you are, but what am I?” Later, in high school and college, we honed these primal lessons in argumentation by learning how to write persuasive essays, and how to support a thesis with solid supporting details. We learned to use logos and appeal to emotion in a well-balanced argument. Some of us even took a speech course and joined the debate club to spar intellectually with our peers.

In my experience, the pinnacle of this type of activity came in my graduate level English and Law courses where argumentation was performed at the varsity level. We were well past being offended by our opponents’ words as we may have been as children. To the contrary, there is great insight to be gleaned by listening very intently, learning from opposing views, and adjusting a response that may appeal to logic or reason. Perhaps the first step to improving how you make a cogent argument is to learn the art of listening with an open mind. Win, lose, or draw, you are sure to exit more informed and enlightened. To me, this is the essence of logos. It is how humans have advanced our collective knowledge, philosophy, and wisdom over the history of mankind. Without debate and the welcoming of new ideas, even offensive ones, it is easy to see the cultural formation of an echo chamber of the same old ideas, talking points, and views.

In the last five or so years, it is hard not to notice a shift in how we and our kids share, or don’t share, our views—our logos is changing. There is a growing hypersensitivity to differing viewpoints, and predictably people are increasingly reluctant to openly share their thoughts and ideas due to the exhausting effort to be truly heard in any exchange. I haven’t lived long enough to assess if this is a normal rhythm in the logos cycle, or if such a cycle even exists. However, I have lived long enough to know that it’s not good if this dynamic continues to escalate. In any relationship, society, or system, dysfunction quickly ensues when communication and the fine art of listening stops.

So, as parents and educators, how do we teach our teens to be respectful, active listeners and hold space for other people’s points of view while still standing tall in their beliefs and values? The answer is elegant in its simplicity—it is Encouragement. To encourage literally means to instill courage and confidence. We all need to be reminded that opposing views are important to hear. When we get our fur up, that signals that it is time to pause and reflect, not time to shut down or retreat to one’s echo chamber. Listen, analyze, synthesize, and revisit your understandings. Conversely, we also need courage and confidence to speak and write our ideas. Be respectful, be tolerant, and be resolute—then communicate unapologetically. We must do this lest Logos Lost.