Rhetoric and spirituality

Jules Evans
12 min readMar 31, 2022

If spirituality is a new religion which arose in the 19th century, then right now feels like the Reformation. It’s a moment of disenchantment, scepticism, criticism, iconoclasm and denunciation. Within the last three years, many people within New Age spirituality have spoken up against some of the problems within the culture, from conspirituality to grifting to psychedelic abuse.

One of the leading voices in this reformation has been a podcast called Decoding the Gurus. In it, two young academics, one a psychologist, the other an anthropologist, focus on an ‘online guru’, and analyse their discourse and rhetorical techniques. What are the claims the gurs are making? How are they supporting these claims?

It’s a really interesting way to look at spirituality, and it’s perfect for this moment, when a new generation of spiritual influencers have arisen online, outside of any tradition or religion, borne aloft through sheer rhetoric. Check out this video of a conversation between Chris Kavanagh of Decoding the Gurus with David Fuller of Rebel Wisdom, where they have an interesting back and forth.

If we say that a spiritual teacher uses rhetoric, does that mean what they say is empty or deceptive? Is rhetoric always misleading and manipulative? Is there potentially an ethical role for rhetoric in spirituality? Let’s consider this, via a brief preamble on the history of rhetoric.

A very brief history of rhetoric

Rhetoric emerged as a discipline in the fifth century BC, in Athens, the first liberal democracy. Travelling philosophy teachers known as Sophists (‘knowers’) taught philosophy and rhetoric to whoever paid them.

The Sophists also brought a new worldview. According to them, truth and values are man-made, not handed down by the gods. The ultimate arbiter of right and wrong is the Public, not the gods. That means whoever can manipulate public opinion has a god-like power.

Almost immediately, this new art of rhetoric provoked a moral panic. Weren’t these Sophists teaching young men how to show that black is white and white is black? Chief among the critics of rhetoric was Plato. In his dialogues (particularly the Gorgias and the Republic), it is suggested that rhetoric only teaches people how to appear wise and good, not to actually be wise and good.

Plato set up a contrast between philosophy, which reveals ultimate spiritual truth, and rhetoric, which merely sounds good. Philosophy is like good medicine — it may not always look or taste good, but it genuinely heals the soul. It is psychogogia — words that heal the soul. Rhetoric, by contrast, is like snake oil or sugar pills. It tastes good, but doesn’t heal your soul and may make you worse.

Rhetoric: bad medicine

This is actually a brilliant rhetorical manouvure by Plato — ‘my competitors offer dodgy products with false advertising, but my school offers the ultimate spiritual truth’. Plato was a rhetorical genius.

The point is, you can criticize rhetoric as deceitful, but don’t we all use rhetoric, every day? Even Plato? Especially Plato?

Plato’s student, Aristotle, took a different approach. He was less interested in the abstract, eternal, perfect truth, and more interested in how things work here on Earth. He was also more of a democrat than Plato. Aristotle devoted a book to rhetoric, laying the groundwork for centuries. Sam Leith, who wrote an interesting recent book on rhetoric, writes:

Aristotle, to me, hit on something far more valuable than Plato. He saw that the world was compromised and imperfect, and that we don’t live among abstract forms, but among people. He saw that human beings are not actuated by abstract knowledge but by fear and desire, and that as long as there are people they will spend their whole lives trying to talk each other round. Rather than turn away in dismay, he worked to understand that. And what he found was wonderful.

In ancient Rome, the art of rhetoric was developed by Cicero — who declared the aim of rhetoric was to educate, delight and inspire — and by Quintilian, who wrote a hefty 12-volume Institute of Oratory. Quintilian thought that rhetoric could and should have a moral goal to it. It shouldn’t just be showy verbiage (something he accused the Stoic Seneca of practicing). Quintilian wrote: ‘I should like the orator I am training to be a sort of Roman Wise Man’. In other words, you shouldn’t just talk like a wise person, you should also try and be one.

The early Christians then rejected rhetoric and oratory as evil pagan sophistry. But they gradually came to realize how central rhetoric was to the religion of the Word, and they renamed it ‘homiletics’ — the art of preaching.

Quintilian laid out the five parts of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Let’s go through them and see how they come up in wellness and spirituality influencing.

1) Invention: this is where you prepare the ingredients of your speech, presentation or pitch

Aristotle spoke of the three aspects of invention: ethos, logos and pathos. Ethos is where the speaker lays out their bona fides, or why the audience should listen to them. For example, notice how YouTube marketers selling their get-rich-quick schemes always show themselves in front of a sports car or on a beach. Or how Instagram wellness influencers show themselves looking radiant with their adorable kids. The ethos is clear — listen to me because I have an amazing life, and then you could have an amazing life too. Or they might say ‘I trained with the greatest masters in this lineage’, or ‘I got my PhD from MIT’.

Logos is your rational argument and evidence — the beef in your hamburger. And pathos is how you want your audience to feel. You can analyse a speech for its constituent ingredients — does it have so much pathos in it that it drowns out the logos? Is it pure emotion without much fact?

2) Arrangement: this is where you turn your ingredients into a recipe and decide what order they should go into the pan.

The classic structure of a speech is narration (where you introduce the topic), proof (where you support your argument), refutation (where you bring up possible criticisms) and conclusion.

For example:

Narration: Bad sleep can ruin your life, but I promise that with my new sleep-tech, you can get the best sleep of your life. Proof: My new technology has been tested by the best scientists in the world, and has received thousands of five-star reviews. Refutation: You might think it’s too good to be true, but this is genuine and there’s a money-back guarantee. Conclusion: Don’t settle for bad sleep. Order now, and get a free pillow.’

3) Memory: how you train yourself to deliver your speech

The best speakers seem to deliver long, structured and fluent speeches without any notes. This is always impressive. I remember seeing Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, give a 45 minute talk on mysticism, and it was more polished than anything I could write, let alone speak. Orators trained themselves in memory techniques like the ‘mind palace’ — you visualize a room, street or building, then attach the information you’re trying to remember to parts of the room or street. Then, as you deliver your speech, you visualize yourself walking through the room. It works, apparently: my friend Ed Cooke taught himself the technique one summer when he was convalescing, and he subsequently became a memory grand-master, capable of memorizing the entirety of Paradise Lost!

4 & 5) Style and delivery

These are, in a way, the same thing. The Athenian orator Demosthenes was asked what is the most important thing to remember for a good speech. He replied ‘delivery’. And the second most important? ‘Delivery’. And third? ‘Delivery’.

Think about some of the most famous spiritual teachers of the last few decades. They all developed their own particular style and delivery. For example:

Alan Watts: incredibly fluent, mellow-voiced, and musical — listen to how he raises and lowers his voice and uses pauses, it’s no surprise people put his speeches to music (something that wouldn’t really work with, say, Aldous Huxley). Watts also uses humour to build rapport with the audience and to deprecate himself.

Ram Dass: his style is like a psychedelic rabbi, using folksy humorous anecdotes to illustrate spiritual points. He’s a comedian as much as a spiritual teacher (indeed, most gurus are at least one tenth stand-up comedians, as are many Christian preachers).

Osho: You could say Osho was the Lenny Bruce of gurus, mixing up an intellectual style with occasional obscenities to shock his audience.

Jordan Peterson: an Old Testament prophet, weeping at the sins of Israel and calling us back to Order.

Oprah Winfrey: Oprah is a genius at mixing up different styles and registers, from the folksy to the African-American sermon to the intellectual book club to the therapeutic dialogue. She is capable of multiple registers, which means she can connect with multiple different audiences.

And so on. Tony Robbins, Eckhart Tolle, Brene Brown, Sam Harris, they all have their different rhetorical styles and deliveries. Sam Harris’ style, for example, is to be so straight, so high on Logos and low on Pathos, that he appears to be beyond rhetoric altogether. This is a great rhetorical strategy.

Rhetorical tropes

In the middle ages and the renaissance, there were thousands of rhetorical handbooks which would teach you techniques or ‘tropes’ to use in your argument. Techniques like alliteration, or anaphora (repeating a phrase like ‘we will fight them…’), or occultation, which is when you say you won’t bring something up and thereby bring it up (for example, ‘I’m not going to dwell on the weakness of my competitors’).

What rhetorical tropes do modern spiritual and wellness influencers use? Here are some:

Flattery (known in classical rhetoric as comprobatio)

For example, Russell Brand begins his podcast, ‘hello you 5.4 million awakening souls’. This is similar to the classic New Age technique of saying something like ‘the reason you picked up this book, or came to this event, is because you are awakening, and thus magically are drawn to the wisdom you need to continue your awakening’.

Originality

Claiming your teaching is utterly unique and radically different to all previous techniques. 95% of self-help is basically reheated Stoicism, but you need to repackage it to re-sell it. Hence, for example, Landmark Education, which declared (in a seminar I attended) ‘humanity has been messed up for millennia, until Landmark arrived’, or Gurdjieff, who announced ‘I have no rival as the teacher of the Fourth Way’.

Ancient Wisdom

Alternatively, a classic strategy for New Age spirituality is to hide the fact you were invented yesterday by claiming lineage to an ancient tradition — the Mayans, Atlantis, Hermes Trismegistus, the Rosicrucians, or whatever.

Secret wisdom (also conspiracies)

Even better, claim that the product, technique or idea you are offering was hidden for millennia, that the Elite don’t want you to know it or possess it, but now you are offering this incredible Secret to the special few. This is the appeal of many conspiracies: the ignorant masses think this, but I can tell you special few what’s really going on.

Us / Them and Light / Dark

You can then build the pathos of your pitch by evoking a sharp dichotomy. We, the special few, are joined together in Light and Love. We few, we happy few, we stand for Justice and Goodness and Togetherness and Home. But They, the Evil Ones, the Elite / New World Order / Jews, they want to separate us and even take our children. This sort of Us / Them dichotomy is the easiest way to galvanize an audience.

‘I was lost now I’m found’

This sort of trope is extremely common in wellness influencing. You start with the story of how you were near death’s door, and then you discovered this amazing new diet.

Fully Awakened / Galaxy Brain

You may claim in your rhetoric to be a highly evolved soul, a 5D Light Warrior, a fully Ascended Master, a Galaxy Brain. If you say this with enough certainty, some people will believe you.

Non-rational / hypnosis

You may also say that your words can’t be understood rationally, that your audience need to stop using their minds and open their hearts or their third eye. You may try to scramble their rational thinking, for example by contradictions, or meaningless ‘word salad’, or hypnotic indoctrination techniques like eye-gazing or sleep deprivation.

The Big Promise

At the core of almost all spiritual, religious and wellness rhetoric is the Big Promise. You tell your audience: ‘right now you’re dissatisfied, you’re not completely fulfilled, you know there could be more to life.’ This, of course, is how everyone feels all the time. ‘Why settle for this? Your life could be so much more. You could be living a life beyond your wildest dreams. All you need to do is believe, and sign up for my course.’ This is more or less what a famous vicar told me when I was flirting with Christianity. ‘Jesus has such great plans for you.’

Group dynamics

Once you get the person to come on your course, you then can use group dynamics as part of your persuasion. Get everyone in the room super-excited, like Tony Robbins does, then have people perform their epiphanies to the cheers of the crowd. ‘Everyone around you are having breakthroughs. Aren’t you also having breakthroughs? Of course you are.’

Confrontation / tough love

If a person on your course expresses any scepticism about you or your teaching, or complains that they’ve tried something similar before without success, then take on the Big Daddy or Strict Mummy role. ‘Aren’t you tired of making these excuses your whole life? When are you going to start taking responsibility for your life?’ This sort of tough love, whether it’s from Jordan Peterson or Byron Katie, goes down great. Some gurus discovered the ruder they were to their followers, the more the followers committed to them.

Parasociality

Influencers can also build intimacy by vulnerable sharing and professions of love for their audience. ‘We are one beautiful family’. This enhances what sociologists call ‘parasociality’ — which is when an audience feels like they know an influencer intimately and have a relationship with them, even though this relationship is totally one-sided. Oprah was the queen of parasociality, although Russell Brand isn’t far behind. It helps if you have affectionate nicknames your audience can use — Russell, Rusty, Ol’ Russ, and so on — and if you take them on a journey through the highs and lows of your personal life. Social media has massively developed the possibilities for parasociality.

All-in / Urgency

Above all, emphasize urgency. This is an incredible opportunity, for one week only you’re offering this amazing package. If there’s one book you read or course you go on this year, make it this one. Isn’t it time to start living your best life? Are you in? But are you all-in? The more you charge your audience, the more likely they will be hyped and primed to go all-in.

So these are some of the rhetorical tropes one comes across in wellness and spirituality online influencing. And the way I’ve written this may make you feel these are all dodgy manipulative techniques.

But they’re not confined to New Age spirituality. The history of religion is, from one point of view, the history of rhetoric. Jesus’ teachings were psychogogia — rhetoric to educate, delight and inspire. The teachings of St Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther King, would not have inspired so many millions if they weren’t soaked in rhetoric.

We always use rhetoric. The question is, when does spiritual or wellness rhetoric become unethical and manipulative?

Perhaps when there is a big distance between what you claim in your rhetoric, and what you actually offer or who you actually are. For example, if you claim to be an enlightened saint, but are actually a sex pest. If you claim to be offering the most original teaching ever, but it’s actually warmed-up Stoicism. If your teaching isn’t empowering a person, but actually infantilizes them and befuddles their critical faculties.

There’s no hard and fast rule. You can try and test a person’s claims with evidence-based science. Does Ivermectin really heal people of COVID, for example. But ultimately the true test of rhetoric is, does it inspire people to go where you want them to go, and is it worth it once they get there? And only the audience can answer that, once they’ve arrived.

They may never arrive. The Promised Land may never come. But you can be sure people will keep promising it.

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