Persuasion in Literature

Persuasion In Literature

Consider now how “persuasion” appears to poets, dictionary editors, thesaurus writers, and the prophets of the Word of God.

Word Thesaurus

persuade – influence convince sway argue plea

influence – pressure sway weight control

convince – induce encourage

sway – bend lean wave

argue – quarrel dispute row squabble bicker

plea – appeal request supplication prayer

New Oxford Dictionary

advise – counsel direct recommend warn

recommend – advocate suggest urge propose

attract – draw focus pull invite magnetize catch

lure – entice tempt ensnare

entice – inveigle beguile persuade charm tempt attract

inculcate – instill beat pound hammer indoctrinate

advocate – support back sponsor believe promote campaign

prove – show establish confirm verify attest “demonstrate by arg”

The Old Testament and the New Testament

Here’s the scene.

Ahab, an evil King of the ancient Israelites, has sinned greatly and unforgivably against God. Through his carnal love for his disbelieving wife, Jezebel, Ahab has turned against God and begun to worship the false idols of his woman. Furthermore, Ahab’s sins have caused other Israelites to sin similarly against God. God decides to punish Ahab in a way that will also demonstrate to others that they should keep their faith and respect the covenant with God. God will cause Ahab to die in battle, but he wants Ahab to chose to fight and lead his sinning people into a disastrous war. God gathers His angels about Him and solicits their recommendations. At least two unnamed spirits speak and their ideas are not accepted. Then, one, most probably Satan, suggests a plan that he thinks will work. The evil angel will cause Ahab’s prophets to speak falsely to Ahab about the war and Ahab’s chances of success in it. Satan will become a “lying spirit” who will speak through the mouths of the prophets, thus deceiving Ahab and encouraging him to rash action that will cause his death and the death of many other sinners.

Here’s how the King James Bible describes this.

And the LORD said, `Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead?’ And one said in this manner, and another said in that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the LORD and said, `I will persuade him.’ And the LORD said unto him, `Wherewith?’ And he said, `I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And He said, `Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also. Go forth, and do so.’ 1 Kings 22:20-22.

“I will be a lying spirit in the mouths of his prophets.” Satan has a lot of great lines, doesn’t he? (For a fabulous fictional representation of Satan, John Milton’s epic masterpiece, “Paradise Lost,” is unexcelled in showing his exuberance of evil.) Please note two important persuasion angles in this quotation.

First, observe that God does not persuade, but rather permits Satan to use persuasion on humans. Even if you are not a believer, it is interesting to imagine a god concept that is all knowing and eternal. How could something as uncertain, conditional, and incomplete as persuasion be of any use to anything that already knows everything? This suggests an important limitation to the concept of persuasion and to human nature. It is unworthy of God or god as a concept, but most useful to humans.

Second, note how Satan decides to use persuasion. He becomes a lying spirit that lies in the mouths of prophets who then tell the lies. Thus, Satan cloaks himself in the cloth of credibility, perhaps the oldest persuasion tactic in human history. Again, regardless of whether you are a believer, the concept of a “prophet” suggests an operatic scale of competence and character, the two prime elements of credibility. Whether the prophet is possessed of Satan or merely just a human prophet with human limitations and frailties, Satan certainly chooses well and human-wisely when he lies in the mouths of the most credible sources in the Old Testament.

If you know anything about Biblical texts you realize that the books of the Old Testament are among the more ancient, verified manuscripts existing in human possession. Regardless of religious beliefs, we still accept them as part of the historical record and realize that these words were written by people thousands of years ago. Thus, in one of the earliest books one topic mentioned in it is persuasion. How that story is presented speaks volumes to me about our current point of view on persuasion. So even in this extremely old and authentic text we learn almost everything we need to know about a definition of persuasion. It uses communication. It works best with credible sources. It can be used to deceive.

No wonder so many people feel so uncomfortable with persuasion.

Side Bar: The term, “persuasion,” is used several times in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Interestingly, the term is never used in reference to the speech of God, but primarily used when describing human interaction. There is that one case with Satan and the lying spirit. However, Satan is an angel and angels, like humans, were created by God and by definition are less powerful than He. This is a helpful in understanding the limitations of persuasion. God does not persuade because He is omniscient and omnipotent. With that kind of power, God does not need a limited tool like persuasion. Only those of us who are not omniscient and omnipotent need another kind of tool to move others: Persuasion. And only those who are not omniscient and omnipotent could be moved by something as limited as persuasion.

Consider, too, persuasion in Genesis, there at the beginning.

Genesis 3

1 Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”

2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”

4 Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate . . .

11 And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?” 12 Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” 13 And the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

This passage from Genesis illustrates three powerful persuasion concepts. First, note that Satan takes the central route with Eve. He uses Reactance to stimulate higher WATT Biased Processing with his taunting observation that God said you can’t do this, nay-nay-nay. Second, he provides arguments that compel Eve to break a Law of God. As described here, there is no doubt in my mind that this exchange is a harrowing example of central route persuasion. Eve is clearly “thinking” about the Serpent’s arguments and she elaborates on those arguments – gee, the fruit of the tree is good for food (the first nutrition argument in recorded history, notify the folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest that they’re on the same side as Satan here), the fruit of the tree is pleasant to behold, eating this fruit will make me wise, and finally, I’ll be like God (Mommy and I are One). The third persuasion variable comes from Adam’s sorry performance. When questioned by God about his actions, what does Adam come up with: my wife made me do it. Thus, we see the first record of external attribution deployed to justify bad behavior. And this is not just a man thing: Eve blames her attitude change and behavioral choices on the Serpent.

The New Testament provides many examples. Here are three.

Acts 26:28, Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.”

Acts 28:24, And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved.

Colossians 2:4, Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words.

Suras from The Qur’an

2:249 When Talut set forth with the armies, he said: “God will test you at the stream: if any drinks of its water, He goes not with my army: Only those who taste not of it go with me: A mere sip out of the hand is excused.” but they all drank of it, except a few. When they crossed the river,- He and the faithful ones with him,- they said: “This day We cannot cope with Goliath and his forces.” but those who were convinced that they must meet God, said: “How oft, by God’s will, Hath a small force vanquished a big one? God is with those who steadfastly persevere.”

16:125 Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.

27:14 And they rejected those Signs in iniquity and arrogance, though their souls were convinced thereof: so see what was the end of those who acted corruptly!

78:37 (From) the Lord of the heavens and the earth, and all between, (God) Most Gracious: None shall have power to argue with Him.

While I have no doubt about my faith, I am dubious about my skill as a theological scholar. If you have done a serious analysis of other books and traditions of faith relevant to persuasion, please share your knowledge with me.

Shakespeare and Dante

Shakespeare uses “persuade” 29 times in his plays and also in his poems. My favorites are from King Henry V and from Lucrece. Dante uses the term only twice in the Divine Comedy.

Othello, V,ii

Othello: [Kissing her.] Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade Justice to break her sword! One more, one more. Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, And love thee after. One more, and this the last: So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep, But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly; It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

Othello, II, iii


Touch me not so near: I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth

Than it should do offence to Michael Cassio; Yet, I persuade myself, to speak the truth

Shall nothing wrong him.

Hamlet, IV, v


Hadst thou thy wits, and didst persuade revenge, It could not move thus.

Tempest II, I


Thus, sir: Although this lord of weak remembrance, this,

Who shall be of as little memory

When he is earth’d, hath here almost persuade,–

For he’s a spirit of persuasion, only Professes to persuade,–the king his son’s alive,

‘Tis as impossible that he’s undrown’d

And he that sleeps here swims.

King Lear, II, I

EDMUND: Persuade me to the murder of your lordship; But that I told him, the revenging gods ‘Gainst parricides did all their thunders bend; Spoke, with how manifold and strong a bond The child was bound to the father; sir, in fine, Seeing how loathly opposite I stood To his unnatural purpose, in fell motion, With his prepared sword, he charges home My unprovided body, lanced mine arm: But when he saw my best alarum’d spirits, Bold in the quarrel’s right, roused to the encounter, Or whether gasted by the noise I made, Full suddenly he fled.

King Lear, II, iv


Return to her, and fifty men dismiss’d?

No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose

To wage against the enmity o’ the air;

To be a comrade with the wolf and owl,–

Necessity’s sharp pinch! Return with her?

Why, the hot-blooded France, that dowerless took

Our youngest born, I could as well be brought

To knee his throne, and, squire-like; pension beg

To keep base life afoot. Return with her?

Persuade me rather to be slave and sumpter

To this detested groom.

King Henry V, V, ii

King Henry (Harry): [Kissing her.]

You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French council; and they should sooner persuade Harry of England than a general petition of monarchs.

Sonnet XXII.

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,

So long as youth and thou are of one date;

But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,

Then look I death my days should expiate.

For all that beauty that doth cover thee

Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,

Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:

How can I then be elder than thou art?

O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary

As I, not for myself, but for thee will;

Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary

As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.

Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;

Thou gavest me thine, not to give back again.


Beauty itself doth of itself persuade

The eyes of men without an orator;

Dante’s Inferno Canto XXX

Io son per lor tra sì fatta famiglia:

e’ m’indussero a batter li fiorini

ch’avevan tre carati di mondiglia».

For them am I in such a family;

They did induce me into coining florins,

Which had three carats of impurity.”

Dante’s Purgatorio Canto XXXIII

E forse che la mia narrazion buia,

qual Temi e Sfinge, men ti persuade,

perch’a lor modo lo ‘ntelletto attuia;

And peradventure my dark utterance,

Like Themis and the Sphinx, may less persuade thee,

Since, in their mode, it clouds the intellect;

Hollywood Persuasion – the Godfather

And now a scene from The Godfather by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Here, the Don promises his godson, Johnny Fontaine, a part in a movie that will restart Johnny’s fading career. Of course, the Don has to persuade somebody else to hand over that part. How does it do it?


All right, Hollywood . . . now tell me about this Hollywood Pezzonovanta who won’t let you work.


He owns the studio. Just a month ago he bought the movie rights to this book, a best seller. And the main character is a guy just like me. I wouldn’t even have to act, just be myself.

The DON is silent, stern.


You take care of your family?




You look terrible. I want you to eat well, to rest. And spend time with your family. And then, at the end of the month, this big shot will give you the part you want.


It’s too late. All the contracts have been signed, they’re almost ready to shoot.


I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.