Historical Rhetorics/The Big Aristotle/Berlin, James A. "Aristotle's Rhetoric in Context: Interpreting Historically."

Berlin, James A. "Aristotle's Rhetoric in Context: Interpreting Historically." A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy. Eds. Stephen P. Witte, Neil Nakadate and Roger D. Cherry. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1992. 55-65


In order to explain why there are so many differing, even contradictory, readings of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Berlin attempts to historically locate Rhetoric and to provide it with a more accurate context in which it was created. Berlin’s aim is not to contest the importance of Rhetoric, but instead to offer up Aristotle’s contemporary sociopolitical context as an explanation for its divergent modern interpretations.

Basically Berlin makes the argument that so many different perspectives are able to make a claim on Rhetoric as a source document because it represents Aristotle’s own “attempts to address the political conflicts of his own divided age” (55). As far as historical context (the title for the second section of the article), Berlin offers a portrait of Athens in the 4th Century as a nation-state in the midst of “continuous turbulence” (57) dominated by social inequity, numerous military defeats, multiple attempted oligarchian revolts, and finally the conquering of Athens by the Macedonians. These intense social conflicts were almost exclusively fought out in the assembly, “unquestionably the centers of political power” in Athens where “rhetorical accomplishment the first requirement for success” (57).

Writing to these conditions of social conflict, Berlin sees Rhetoric as Aristotle’s attempt to walk a middle ground between his own elitist tendencies and a more open democratic vision embraced by the disenfranchised majority. Of course, Berlin is quick to acknowledge that this effort is largely a failure and that, ““This mediation, however, is not achieved, so that Aristotle remains committed to an elitist politics while offering enough contradictory concessions to the democratic polis to give support to those who later appropriate him in the service of an egalitarian rhetoric” (56). As proof Berlin offers an examination of the relationship between the definitions of rhetoric and the supporting “proofs” where rhetoric’s definition (“invention – discovering – is made the center of rhetoric” [Berlin 60]) represents Aristotle’s privileging of the elite and educated classes while the “proofs” on ethos and pathos represent a sort of appeasement (or pandering to) towards the lower classes. Aristotle’s seemingly constant flip-flopping between the importance of logic or ethos/pathos is thus seen as “Aristotle’s attempt to address the class conflicts of his time, conflicts that represent important ideological differences” (62).

Because of Aristotle’s own contemporary “bi-polar” historical context, it should be expected (Berlin supposes) that Rhetoric should be utilized in such a “bi-polar” fashion today.