On Rhetoric by Aristotle

On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic DiscourseOn Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse by Aristotle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not Aristotle’s clearest or best organized work, but still part of the core curriculum of a liberal education.

Why read Aristotle today? Because he is one of the greatest minds in Western history, and such a person’s well-considered thoughts are inherently worth reading, if anything is.

In addition, this book was deliberately aimed at those seeking to play an active role in a democratic society, to help them fulfill their function as citizens of a free society. We in the West imagine ourselves (mostly) to be members of a free society, and in fact take this for granted. But we tend not to participate in the political functioning of our society, and in general are not encouraged to do so. Most particularly, we are not educated to do so.

In the ancient world the idea of the liberal education was formed: an education fitting for a free man, that is, one who was a participating citizen of a democratic state. In ancient Greece the citizens themselves formed the government of their city-states, and every citizen might expect to hold a government post at one or more times in his life. What knowledge did such a man need to fulfill his role in the best way? Which faculties should he cultivate and which suppress?

Liberal education came to be envisaged as training in the seven “liberal arts”: logic, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. By medieval times these were split into two groups: a higher trivium consisting of the first 3, and a lower quadrivium consisting of the latter 4. As Sister Miriam Joseph explains in her excellent book The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, these arts remain as relevant today as they ever were. For the art called logic is simply the art of how to think accurately about reality; the art of grammar is the art of expressing one’s thoughts accurately in symbolic form, such as words; and the art of rhetoric is the art of persuading others of the validity of one’s thoughts. Aristotle’s book is probably still the most important text on this third art of the trivium.

In broad strokes, Aristotle analyzes rhetoric and finds that it has 3 main applications, namely judicial, or talking about past events; deliberative, or talking about future courses of action; and so-called epideictic, or talking about the present, which Aristotle says is mostly connected with formally praising and blaming people. Facing one of these three tasks, the speaker or rhetor has 3 basic strategies of persuasion: logical argument, or persuasion via facts and logic; emotional argument, or finding language to arouse certain feelings in the audience; and the so-called moral argument, which consists in winning the audience’s trust and good will through one’s own character and demeanor. Interestingly, Aristotle regards this last “argument” as the most persuasive element in a speech. In terms of persuasion, how we say things is more important than what we say.

There are further detailed breakdowns of how to achieve these various aims, illustrated in many cases with examples.

The translator, George A. Kennedy, provides a summary of the main points of each chapter, along with interesting historical material and some notes about how Aristotle fits in with the flow of ancient teaching on rhetoric generally (for it was a subject keenly studied in both Greece and Rome). For my taste there is perhaps more attention drawn than necessary to academic issues like the question of whether certain sections were later additions and other minutiae of translation. In many cases he puts the original Greek term in brackets by the English word, which again is aimed at an academic reader. In general though I found the translator’s comments useful and illuminating.

Like all of Aristotle’s surviving works, this is a technical manual (all of his publications for the general reader have been lost), and so you need some determination to get through it. But our society is becoming ever less free, and it’s not going to become more free unless each of us takes responsibility for training ourselves to be free. It won’t happen by itself; and our society—governments, schools, institutions—isn’t doing it.

A free society settles its differences through dialogue, not violence or fraud. This book is still a major text on how to do that. As such, it’s well worth our time and attention all these centuries after it was first written.

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