Stasis Theory: Practical Rhetoric for a Liberal Education… and a Rancorous Republic

Rhetoric as taught in the classical schools tradition has added, or more accurately recalled, a great and powerful tradition to and for 21st-century writing pedagogy, reviving and re-energizing an ancient tradition that was in danger of being lost, or at least sidelined, by new pedagogical and rhetorical paradigms. The Rhetoric/Composition world–a disciplinary field created in the late 1960s by the need to help the wider franchise of college students get up to speed in college writing–did some fine work exploring the processes by which writers work, drawing attention to the draft/revision process, helping students find new invention methods, and exploring the psychology and sociology of writing and its pedagogy. It never quite completely forgot the classical tradition, and there were scholars and practicing teachers who continued to use it, teach it, and write about it.1 But as we moved from Peter Elbow’s expressivist paradigm to a process-oriented approach to a social-epistemic approach, a great deal of baby was thrown out with the bath water, and most of that baby’s body had been around since ancient Greece. If you’ll forgive me for flogging this conceit a bit more, I will say that the classical schools’ movement has helped save the baby from going down the drain with the water.2 So from the beginning, the classical schools movement has made it one of its central articles to give credence and attention to the great tradition that runs from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, through Cicero’s De Inventione (and the pseudo-Ciceronian Ad Herennium) and Quintilian’s Institutes, to great Renaissance masters (though they have, thankfully, balked at Ramus’ revisions). I have noticed in my college classes that there is a still small but growing number of students who are familiar with the terms and concepts of this tradition. Students who attended these classical schools–and a few who did not, suggesting that even non-classical schools are waking up to the recovery–know that rhetoric means “the art of persuasion,” and know about Logos, Pathos, and Ethos as the three types of rhetorical appeals. Some know that there are five parts of an oration and can name them; a few of these know the five parts of rhetoric. Even better is to see those who have gone beyond this naming of parts to actually employing the concepts as they craft their writing. Some have practiced the different inventioquestions from the classical texts. Some have an understanding from repeated practice of how to move from exordium to narratio to partitio through confirmatio to peroratio. A few have even studied a few of the rhetorical figures and enjoy trying them out in their prose.     

But there is a part of this tradition that has been neglected in the classical schools(and to some extent at the college level),3 a tradition that I have found can be enormously helpful for our students–and perhaps our Republic. Called Stasis Theory, it plays a rather small role in recent histories of rhetoric,4 but was enormously popular from late Republican Rome through at least the Early Modern period. Founded, tradition says, by Hermagoras in the 2nd century B.C., and found somewhat in Cicero and more significantly in Quintilian, it was brought to fruition by Hermogenes in the 2nd century A.D.,5 and was a major force in rhetorical instruction, as I noted, well into the Early Modern period. In my students, it has helped them in everything from finding their own topics, to refining them into theses, to helping them read more critically others’ arguments, to reading essay and essay-exam prompts with more intelligent attention. But its greatest power comes at the place where I find my students have the greatest difficulty: dispositio, or organization. Often, in my experience, students might have an idea of what to write about, and are even able to get to a thesis, but then struggle to know what to do first, second, third, and fourth in order to shape their papers. Stasis Theory teaches the students how good arguments work, or, as I say, what tasks a writer needs to accomplish, in which order, if they want to make a sound argument. 

But before that, Stasis Theory is a general theory of how arguments work–how we come to handle disputes, how we work through them, what kinds of arguments are available to us, and only then, once we have figured out what we are arguing about, how we should proceed to develop, organize, and structure our arguments. 

In short, Stasis Theory argues that there are four—or really five—different kinds of arguments:6 Factual, Definitional, Causal, Evaluative, and Policy. Each answers a different question: what are the facts? What is this thing? What caused it or what effects did it have? Is it good or bad? And finally, what should be done about it? But the theory says that these are not just random, unrelated, or disconnected; they work in a sequence. As two parties move through a dispute, they proceed from one to the next, seeing where they can agree, until they reach the point where they disagree–where they have found the nub, the problem, the core of the dispute. This is the moment of stasis: the two sides have to stop and argue this out before they can proceed any further. This can best be explained through an example.    

Let us imagine a simple example: a couple discussing adding a swimming pool to their back yard. They might want to discuss first certain facts: they live in a hot climate; having a pool put in will cost in a certain range of dollars, and this is a major expense; etc. They might easily agree about the facts of the case. But the next question might be definitional: what is a pool, anyway? Is it a place for recreation? A space, even a tool, for exercise? A lure to bring the grandchildren over to the house more often? If these things are not clear and decided between them, the couple might have very different views of things, and continue to dispute well into the process. But let us say they agree on defining the pool and its status. The next question is, how will it happen? How will it be paid for, and how will the construction take place? Perhaps just as importantly, what will be the effects, near and long-term, of the pool? A fence will be required; supervision of the grandchildren will be necessary; there will be costs for chemicals, future repairs to equipment, and other upkeep; insurance costs might increase. On the other side are the positive effects: a place to cool off from the hot southern summer, laughing grandchildren, relaxed, contented, happy hours (and Happy Hours) poolside. The resale value of the home might be affected. Next, we move to evaluation: is this a good or bad thing? By what criteria do we decide this? If one member of the couple is not persuaded it is a good thing, grumbling will continue. Finally, there are issues of policy, that is, what is to be done. One could call these “problem/solution” arguments: what is the problem, and will the pool solve the problem?7 Will it solve the problem better than other solutions? Only then, after working through the previous arguments, is the couple ready to sign with a pool contractor and begin paying for the pool’s construction.   

Stasis Theory, then, shows not only that there are different kinds of arguments, but suggests that there is a rational sequence by which disputants work through an issue.It suggests that if a more fundamental issue is not solved, there is no point in moving on to later, more complex issues that are dependent upon the earlier ones. Think of so many disputes in our American republic, and we can see this operating. As I write this in early May, 2020, my state (Texas) is just beginning to open its businesses again after a “shelter in place” order. But the Covid-19 pandemic has been a source of contention from the time it first hit public consciousness in late February. The first dispute was definitional: is this a truly dangerous kind of pathogen, or is it, as a friend said to me, “going to be seen when this is all over as just a bad flu year”? At this point, there are strong divisions in our culture, almost completely on ideological lines, on this fundamental question. Next, what caused it? Where and how did it come about? We can address the biochemical causes, the social, cultural, and political causes of its spread, and more. And what are its effects? Have the effects been worse than a typical influenza? To what extent? Have the shelter-in-place orders mitigated these effects, and if so, how much?  How have the quarantine orders affected the economy, animal life, pollution? Have the medical effects been disproportionate on different classes or ethnic or racial groups? If so, what are the causes of the disproportionate effects? So many of these questions simply at this writing have not been decided, because the data is still pouring in, and the data on those infected but asymptomatic is so tricky to discover and track. But let us imagine a day when these questions have settled into some kind of agreement. Was the pandemic a good or bad thing?  Well, here the answer seems obvious: thousands have died, many more have had lives, incomes, businesses deeply and terribly wrecked. And yet I have already read personal essays, often by religious and spiritual writers, but also thoroughly secular commenters, arguing that there are silver linings in this enormous cloud: pollution is vastly reduced, people are slowing down and rediscovering family and neighbors, others have taken time to re-examine fundamental values, etc. How you answer the question, “Has the pandemic been good or bad?” has one obvious answer—it has been horrible, and wrecked many lives, businesses, whole industries—but can also have more nuanced, subtle, even paradoxical answers. Finally, there is a whole host of questions, some immediate, some still far in the future, with regards to policy: how and when should we reopen our society, our economy? How quickly? How do we care for those hardest hit by this crisis? What plans need to be in place for future pandemics, on a personal and national level? Should Sweden be a model in the future? What should we do about policy toward China and other countries that are not open and transparent? But of course, anyone would struggle attempting to address those questions until the prior questions have been explored, at least engaged with. 

The point of Stasis Theory is to allow people to discover where the dispute is, so the two sides can rationally argue, that is, explore and debate, calmly and prudentially, the issue. So often in our culture rancor and polarization happen when the two sides are arguing completely different parts of the issue: think abortion, or global warming/climate change, or taxes and deficits and social policies. Stasis theory allows a method to work through disputes by finding where exactly that place of stasis, that nub of disagreement, exists, so rational men and women can engage thoughtfully on a specific issue, resolve it, and move on to the next. 

The texts of a classical education provide almost endless examples for practicing this process. Take just one text, for example: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. This text foregrounds any number of disputes that would allow students to practice Stasis Theory work. Was Athens an empire? Was Sparta? Was Alcibiades a traitor? (definitional) How did the war begin? How did early decisions affect later stages of the war? (causal) Was the Athenian policy towards its client city-states a good one or a bad one? Was Pericles a good leader? Was Pericles’ defensive strategy of waiting inside the walls a good one? (evaluative) What should Athens have done instead of heading out on the Sicilian Expedition?  (policy). One can easily find many more examples (the Oresteia, Antigone, Macbeth, Hamlet, Augustine’s Confessions, Crime and Punishment, Moby-Dick) that allow students to practice the Stasis Theory method of working through the complexities of an issue, helping themto see how leading from one type of question to the next allows one to find the nub of an issue, work through it, and move on to the next. 

But how can this method help students’ writing?   

Well, first, students often need help just realizing where their entry into a disputed subject lies. They find a general topic, and might have some sense of their position, but often struggle finding a particular angle into the topic, finding where an argument lies; they need to sharpen their sense of the issues within and about a topic. By taking students through the Stasis Theory process, they often discover where their thesis lies: they are not defining World War II, nor looking at its causes, but at its immediate effects on post-war Europe (or perhaps its long-term effects on American military culture). They are not arguing for particular action, but only determining the value of a particular phenomenon, in foodie culture. Or perhaps they think they want to argue for a solution to Title IX athletic gender imbalances but need to see that the real dispute is over defining athlete in this particular situation. Every writing teacher knows that articulating a good question, then answering it, is the way to arrive at a claim–and thus a thesis.  Since each of the four kinds of arguments answers a different question(again, they are “What is this thing?What caused it/what effects did it have? Is it good or bad?” And “What should be done about it? —students have a framework for asking good questions and seeing then the implications for their theses. Stasis theory, then, provides a clear and helpful on-ramp in the Invention process. 

At the next stage, as they develop their drafts, students often struggle to see the shape of their arguments. Stasis Theory shows that the four different kinds of arguments each has a given set of tasks that need to be accomplished in order for the argument to succeed in persuading an audience. A teacher can show, and a student can quite quickly learn, that a policy argument, for instance, has two parts: the writer must establish the problem and then argue for the solution. If the writer does not complete these two tasks, there is no way for the argument to succeed with thoughtful readers. So, students can quickly see that the fundamental structure of this paper will be two large blocks of thought. Each of these two blocks has its own tasks, its own needs, if it is to be successful. And when you break down the solution part of the argument, you find that there are four sub-tasks that will need to be accomplished there; a solution must solve the problem, be better than other proposed solutions, be feasible, and be able to withstand any other counterarguments against it.8 These are, of course, essential tasks for persuading an audience of a solution, and students intuitively know this but need help to make these tasks conscious and their addressing of them clear. For instance, students do not often immediately consider that a solution must be feasible; that is, that there must be adequate financial, physical, and human resources to implement the solution. Yet once I teach them about this crucial task, they sheepishly acknowledge that “this is only common sense”and they commit to developing this part of their argument. So much of Stasis Theory, I find, works this way: it is a matter of bringing to the students’ attention what students already know how to do—merely helping them do it more carefully, precisely, forcefully. And I find that speaking of “tasks that need to be accomplished” revolutionizes the way students see their writing. It appeals to their common sense; it appeals to their sense that they have already tried to accomplish these tasks in discussions with parents, teachers, coaches, and others. Most importantly, it obliterates the notion that writing is a game of figuring out what this particular teacherwants and satisfying her in a different way from satisfying him last year. Once students see that persuading others–something they attempt to do all the time– is a matter of accomplishing certain rhetorical tasks, in a certain order, supported by the right kind of evidence delivered at the right time and in the right way, writing is no longer alienated from their ordinary lives. Writing becomes what we always want it to be for our students: a human act of communication. Every piece of writing admittedly, is shaped by the peculiar needs, and more stringent demands, of communicating with another human who is not physically present before us, but those are problems of this fascinating technology, this medium, not an essential difference in what the communicative act is. When I get students to cross over this shift–from seeing writing as some kind of strange game imposed upon them by teachers to a mode of sharing their thoughts, ideas, dreams, and yes, arguments with another human being–half of my battle is won. Now the teaching effort lies in helping them get better at what they want to do–what they do all the time. Soon even that semicolon (or is it a comma?) matters to them, because they see it as part of the task of communicating effectively. 

The great next benefit is that seeing arguments as a sequence of tasks–and the four different arguments as having these specific tasks that must be accomplished– creates a quantum leap in students’ ability to read others’ arguments critically. That oft repeated, but often far too vague, goal of “critical thinking” now has a concrete, specific grounding. If students now think of arguments as a series of tasks to be accomplished, they begin to, are able to, read others’ arguments much more forcefully, critically, and with proper skepticism, holding the authors to these same tasks. Did he articulate sensible criteria for that evaluative judgment about the new restaurant in town? No? Then I am not going to be persuaded by his review. Did she assume we would all agree this is a problem and fail to establish that? If so, I am not likely to bother with her “solution,” or at least be very skeptical of following her through the rest of her argument.    

Let me emphasize that nothing I am saying here is particularly new.9 This theory, this method of teaching rhetorical skill, is at least 2000 years old, and in the contemporary composition texts I mentioned above, one can find some useful guidance to the fourarguments. But what teachers and students need is a slimmed-down, clear guide that lays out in a succinct way not just the four arguments, but the way they are sequenced, and the helpful way working through the sequence allows one to discover precisely where the issue lies. We need a guide that can speak to the students in terms of tasks to be accomplished, so they build papers out of accomplishing these tasks, and thus understand their writing as an extension of their face-to-face communication with others. And in the classical schools world, it would be nice to have some examples of each of the four arguments from great moments in the grand conversations–literary, philosophical, historical–from the past. I hope to have such a guide ready for students and teachers soon.  

But let us move out of the specific needs of students to the needs of our communities.  Though Stasis Theory, like all ancient forms of rhetoric, was born in the needs of the ancient legal system–a system that, not unlike ours, was quite contentious–this way of conceiving argument could provide the means of overcoming bitterness and rancor. What Stasis Theory offers is a way to begin to talk more calmly, more rationally, about any dispute, by uncovering the ways we are talking past one another, and helping us actually address the real issues. What might it be like if we could thoughtfully discuss with others in our polarized, bitter political polity, saying, “Wait? I’m sorry. Could we go back and just get clear on our definitions here? I think we might have gotten ahead of ourselves, and if we just work on that, we might be able to move on to whether this is a good thing or not without so much rancor.” Even in our families: “Honey, I apologize. I leapt ahead to solving this problem, but now I realize we are not on the same page as to what led to this situation. Maybe we should slow down and discuss that first.”  Perhaps this is an idealistic hope, and I have no naïve notion that Stasis theory will magically transform us into a society where we“just get along.” But if we begin to train our students in it, and such a method becomes widespread, it might just have a wider effect on our communities, our families, our Republic. There’s a thought–liberally educating a generation for a republic where real disagreement need not become uncivil contention, rival ideas need not lead to rancor. 

© Retained by author and Institute for Classical Education 2020