Last modified on 5 December 2011, at 00:27

Historical Rhetorics/The Big Aristotle

Chapter Four: The Big AristotleEdit

  • Aristotle's Rhetoric, Books One and Two

Aristotle. On Rhetoric / A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy. Oxford UK: Oxford UP, 1991.

Notes on Kennedy's IntroductionEdit

Of interest in Kennedy's introduction--mention of Isocrates' "Letter to Alexander" (6). Kennedy argues that while Aristotle found Isocrates' rhetoric wanting for depth and too focused on style, Isocrates found Aristotle's rhetoric, with its underlying emphasis on dialectic, too agonistic (mere wrangling) (12).

Kennedy's definition of rhetoric: "Rhetoric, in the most general sense, is the energy inherent in emotion and thought, transmitted through a system of signs, including language, to others to influence their decisions or actions" (7).

A tension I find in Kennedy's depiction of Aristotle--while Kennedy acknowledges that Aristotle's primary emphasis rests on metaphysics, he also remarks dialectic and rhetoric are tools for Aristotle. However, one must ask whether dialectic and rhetoric belong in a sense, to different metaphysical systems, whether the designation of rhetoric as a tool already suggests we are operating within a Platonic metaphysics.

Understanding the BasicsEdit

Rhetoric is the art (techne) dedicated to seeing (and perhaps using) the available means of persuasion. The art is composed of three primary forms of artistic proof (pisteis) (as opposed to non-artistic proof such as witnesses or contracts, Aristotle cites the difference as pointing to things that exist or bringing things into existence):

  • Logos: the use of reason / argumentation. This is showing something to the audience, and dominates Aristotle's discussion of rhetoric (for instance, the topoi below all correspond to logos).
  • Ethos: the character of the speaker. But note for Aristotle this should not include what we know of the person previous to the speaking occasion. In an early move to kill the author, the authority of a speech should descend from the quality of its logos.
  • Pathos: While we usually consider this an appeal to emotion, Aristotle frames it in a quite peculiar way (more of this below). Kennedy translates pathos as "disposing the listener in some way." I like to think of Aristotle's treatment of pathos as almost a precursor to Heidegger's articulation of mood. Suffice to say for a quick exposition, he is suspicious of over-dramatization as a part of oratory.

There are three major species, or branches, of rhetoric. Each branch draws upon all three of the appeals, although some are more important than others for particular branches. I have a grid.

While each branch has specific knowledges pertaining to it, they also share a number of common topics (topoi, Greek for place, hence "inhabiting a common place"--also, note that spatiality was core to Greek theories of memory, if you wanted to remember a speech, then you mapped part of the speech onto objects around you). There are 28 topics in general; <a href="http://crab.rutgers.edu/~wfitz/28%20lines%20of%20argument.html"here is a handy breakdown (w/ examples) by William FitzGerald.

In terms of arrangement, Aristotle advocates a very simplified, two-part structure (one that inherently reflects dialectical argument):

  • Proemium (Intro-to dispose the audience, set the pathetic mood)
  • Prothesis (Proposition)
  • Pistis (Proofs)
  • Epilogue (which itself breaks into four parts- renewing the disposition, amplifying evidence, rendering [pathetically] the ramifications, reminding of key evidence)

How Do We Resolve the Dissonance Between Aristotle's Largely Platonic Introductions and His Rather Sophistic (in the Platonic Sense) Rhetoric?Edit

This is something common to all three books, each contains an introductory section that rails against the kind of practices details in its following chapters.

Kennedy argues that, by charging rhetoric as the counterpart to dialectic in the opening of Book 1, Aristotle is using rhetoric (which would be more familiar to an Athenian audience) to argue for the importance of dialectic (which we now from a number of places, including Plato's Apology, Aristophanes' The Clouds, and Isocrates' Against the Sophists and Letter to Alexander, to have been viewed suspiciously). As a reduction, we could say that Aristotle argues that rhetoric produces nomos, philosophy physis.

While I appreciate the nuance of Kennedy's suggestion, a number of other passages in the Rhetoric cast some serious suspicions on this idea. I.1.11-12 is one point where Aristotle clearly seems to favor syllogism over enthymeme. Though it is subtle at this point, Aristotle implies that some audiences are unsophisticated enough to handle "teaching" (syllogism, logos, truth, exact knowledge), and thus are easily persuaded. Also interesting at I.1.12 is Aristotle's implicit response to Plato's Socrates in the Gorgias (his lack of caring about the crowd, his preferred audience of one, his sense of transcendental justice); commenting on why dialectic alone is insufficient, he writes:

Further, even if we were to have the most exact knowledge, it would not be very easy for us in speaking to use it to persuade some audiences. Speech based on knowledge is teaching, but teaching is impossible [with some audiences]; rather, it is necessary for pisteis and speeches [as a whole] to be formed on the basis of common [beliefs].

As Kennedy notes, Aristotle is far more pragmatic than either Plato or Socrates. Also in defense of rhetoric, he points out something that none of Socrates' opponents in the Gorgias do: that dialectic and rhetoric are equally(?) discursive arts. The question: the extent to which they are equal--at many places it seems that Aristotle would prefer we live in a dialectical world.

He follow this with a defense of eristic ability:

Further, one should be able to argue persuasively on either side of a question [...] not that we may actually do both (for one should not persuade what is debased) but in order that it may not escape our notice what the real state of the case is and that we ourselves may be able to refute if another person uses speech unjustly. (I.1.12)

I think this passage, and a few others which I will mark out below are central to understanding the Platonic-Sophistic tension running throughout the Rhetoric. Rhetoric isn't necessarily a good thing; rather it is a necessary evil, a form of self-defense. In fact, The final lines of I.i explicitly state that the aim of rhetorical study is not persuasion:

That rhetoric, therefore, does not belong to a single defined genus of subject but is like dialectic and that it is useful is clear- and that its function is not to persuade but to see the available means of persuasion in each case is true also in all the other arts; for neither is it the function of medicine to create health but to promote this as much as possible; for it is nevertheless possible to treat well those who cannot recover health. (I.1.14)

He goes on to frame rhetoric as the art by which one determines the philosopher (who knows from ability) from the sophist (who deliberately chooses specious arguments). The much celebrated line in the Rhetoric--that rhetoric marks the "ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion" (I.2.1) masks the fact that--despite all his later elaborations of techne, Aristotle initially frames rhetoric as a critical, rather than necessarily productive art (or, at least, he varies in places in the Rhetoric between casting it as critical or productive). Kennedy notes in his closing essay to the Rhetoric that Aristotle frames rhetoric as an "evaluative tool" and a productive art(309)--I would simply point out that different sections of the Rhetoric make very different claims.

My own feeling on Aristotle's Rhetoric is that it is a collection of myriad texts (some of which might not actually have been written by Aristotle) to produce a (rather) coherent, and much more philosophically rigorous, handbook for his students. I.1 reads very much like a piece that might stand alone--akin to Isocrates' Against the Sophists--an advertisement for his school and its teachings.

Aristotle's Treatment of Audience (Is He Logocentric?)Edit

I find Aristotle to be at his most Platonic when characterizing audiences. Already above I noted the subtle skepticism toward "some audiences" and there resistance to teaching. In other parts of the Rhetoric, Aristotle's skepticism isn't so subtle.

Another subtle moment occurs before the "some audiences" passage in I.1 (this is part of his condemnation of the sophistic handbooks, see below); he notes how the sophistic handbooks concentrate on the development of pathos:

...they give most of their attention to matters external to the subject; for verbal attack and pity and anger and such emotions of the soul do not relate to fact but are appeals to the juryman. As a result, if all trials were conducted as they are in some present day states and especially in those well governed, [the handbook writers] would have nothing to say [...] for it is wrong to warp the jury by leading them into anger or envy or pity (1.1.3-5)

Shortly thereafter, in I.2, Aristotle is very careful in how he describes the appeal of pathos:

Of the pisteis provided through speech there are three species: for some are in the character [ethos] or the speaker, and some in disposing the listener in some way, and some in the argument [logos] itself, by showing or seeming to show something.

Notice how pathos here isn't simply described as an appeal to emotion (which might include dramatic displays), but as a form of disposition. I like to think of this in anticipation of Kierkegaard and Heidegger's phenomenological analysis of "mood." It is quite rhetorical (and in direct opposition to logocentrism) to argue that reality (or, in this case, T/truth) is relative to mood.

While this possible interpretation of Aristotle's treatment of pathos suggests that he is opposed to logocentrism, his discussion of law calls into question just how kairotic he conceptualizes truth and justice (and, at the same time, casts some doubt on his optimism toward human judges):

It is highly appropriate for well-enacted laws to define everything as exactly as possible and for as little as possible to be left to the judges: first because it is easier to find one or a few than [to find] many who are prudent and capable of framing laws and judging; second, legislation results from consideration over much time, while judgements are made at the moment [of a trial or debate], so it is difficult for the judges to determine justice and benefits fairly; but most important of all, because the judgement of a lawmaker is not about a particular case but about what lies in the future and in general, while the assemblyman and the juryman are actually judging present and specific cases. For them, friendliness and hostility and individual self-interest are often involved, with the result that they are no longer able to see the truth adequately, but their private pleasure or grief casts a shadow on their judgement.

Now, many of us might be inclined to say that Aristotle is right, and that "the judge should have authority to determine as little as possible"--but we should also be willing to admit that this reflects a rather pessimistic view of humanity, since "friendliness and hostility and self-interest" can also be respect, compassion, and generosity.

Aristotle's Condemnation of SophistryEdit

As I have mentioned before, the classical rhetoricians all play a shell game I like to call "he's the sophist." Each seeks to cast his rivals in the garb of the sophist--and for each, sophist can mean different things. So what does sophist mean for Aristotle?

First, we learn early (I.1.10) that Aristotle has a particular disdain for the rigidity of the handbooks--they overemphasize juridical rhetoric. This comes up again in Book III's discussion of arrangement, where Aristotle chides the handbooks for attempting to force juridical components (such as diegesis, or statement of facts relative to the case) onto all types of speeches.



Relevant Secondary Sources

Professor Lee Honeycutt has compiled an extensive collection of secondary sources pertaining to Aristotle's Rhetoric