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Aristotle’s Definition of Rhetoric

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    The purpose of this study was to determine Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric and identify the role rhetoric plays in the judicial process. Therefore, analysis focuses on origins of rhetoric, basic means of persuasion, controversy between different rhetorical schools and essence of Aristotelianism. Moreover, the findings insist on great importance of Aristotle’s rhetoric for the times we live in.

    The history of rhetoric is its origins. According to Corbett, Aristotle is the foundation of all future rhetorics: “With his philosophic treatise, Aristotle became the fountainhead of all later rhetorical theory” (1990, p. 543). Aristotle defines rhetoric as “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion” (1991, p. 14). First handbooks of rhetoric were published in the second quarter of the fifth century B.C. They were helpful for the Greeks, as they outlined techniques for effective public speaking in the law courts. Not only were there no professional lawyers in Greece, there were no professional judges, so litigants had to persuade the jury take the decisions they wanted with no outside help. And Aristotle wrote his Rhetoric as he thought existing handbooks were unsatisfactory, because they concentrated on judicial situations to the neglect of the other species of rhetoric (Kennedy, 1991, p. 9).

    His primary interest was in the logical side of persuasion. Aristotle identifies three basic pisteis, or means of persuasion, available to a speaker: “Ethos means the character of a person, not the rhetorical presentation of that character; and pathos means an emotion felt by someone, not the awakening of emotion by a speaker. Logos, however, does mean “argument,” or what is said in a speech; and a speech as a whole is also called a logos” (1991, p. 8). Rhetoric grounds itself in, at least as Aristotle conceptualized it, “not with what seems probable to a given individual like Socrates or Hippias [particular], but what seems probable to men of a given type [universal]; and this is true of dialectic also” (Aristotle 1954, p. 33-35). This fundamental philosophical position of universality — arising out of Platonic-Aristotelian metaphysics and cemented by the Cartesian ego cogito — already knows what Being (Truth) is, a knowing that obligates all aspects of life, including rhetoric, to an organized unity or system. Within it, each part of life and all aspects of its relationships get to be represented. This outcome for rhetoric is signified in the words: “Proof by logos is the only true constituent of the art” (Aristotle 1954, p. 14). For some of the pre-Socratics (who were hysterics) logos  was, on occasion, the ambivalence/confusion of both physis and doxa. With Plato and Aristotle, however, logos is reconceived, with physis as privileged and doxa as supplement. It’s the place of a physis that has not been placed under negation, as Plato and then Aristotle have placed not only logos (as I previously discussed) but also physis under negation.

    Applying the idea of teleology (teleos) — meaning achievement of perfection — to rhetoric’s past, Aristotle indicates the art is not perfect. Rhetoric needs to be developed further since past rhetoricians, as Aristotle (1954) points out, “have constructed but a small portion of [the] art” (1354a13). For example, as Aristotle ( 1954) represents rhetoric’s past, the earlier version of the art is discourse by pathos (1354a10-15) and needs to be made right with argument or proof by logos (1355a1-30), something that the Sophistical version lacked. And then, Aristotle (1954, 1402a17, 25) attributes a method of argument to Protagoras (a Sophist). Kennedy describes how Aristotle transcended the serious problems of the ancients’ use of eristic techniques and stylistic devices by systematizing and conceptualizing the theory of rhetoric: “Aristotle is trying to create a systematic art of eristic to replace this unscientific approach; the beginning is difficult, he says but once stated the theory of the art will grow in bulk” (Kennedy, 1959, p. 171).

    Because the Sophists have “little or no conscious conceptualization” (Kennedy, 1980, p. 27), their contributions are minimized by contrasting them to what is more complete, Aristotle’s Rhetoric. As such, it is Aristotle and his Rhetoric that are being fully restored rather than rhetoric. Second, the argument that Aristotle’s Rhetoric is the completion of the art blinds the history of rhetoric: It cannot see another perspective even when the story of the Sophists eternally returns, though it returns in different forms. The argument — Rhetoric as the completion of the art — starts with the belief that a theory of rhetoric moved from inadequacies, when humans had not yet achieved consciousness, to maturity epitomized by rational thinking. Aristotle confronts discourse as a productive art as well as an analytical art. While he focuses on the analysis of discourse in Book I of the Rhetoric, he does not exclude its applicability to the production of spoken or written texts.

    Barthes observes “a kind of stubborn agreement between Aristotle (from whom Rhetoric proceeded) and our mass culture, as if Aristotelianism, dead since the Renaissance as a philosophy and as logic, dead as an esthetic since Romanticism, survived in corrupt, diffused, inarticulate state in the cultural practice of Western societies” (1988, p.  92). Aristotelianism survives today — politically, through democracy and, culturally, through an ideology of the “greatest number,” through the majority-as-norm, and through the ideology of common sense — and defines a “trans-historical Occident,” which is that of “the endoxa,” or current opinion. Barthes sees an agreement between the ideology of common sense and Aristotle’s Rhetoric of probability and argues that although Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a rhetoric of reasoning and proof, it is a “deliberately diminished logic” because it is adapted to the level of the “public,” which subordinates an ethical/ aesthetic rhetoric to the psychology of the public and to a rhetoric of public opinion. Aristotle’s Rhetoric of probability survives in the products of mass culture — in films, pulp novels, commercial articles — the production and marketing of which follow the Aristotelian rule: “Better an impossible probability than an improbable possibility” (1988, p. 22).

    To conclude, it should be borne in mind, Aristotle’s writings are of high interest at this time. Aristotle reveals the inevitably probabilistic nature of political decision making and the centrality of the polis in the decision-making process, while simultaneously preferring the wisdom of the wealthy and educated over the judgment of the ordinary citizen. In his complex divergence from us, then, Aristotle can underscore our own distrust of communal decision making, as well as our denial of contingency in favor of scientific certitude even in areas where such certitude is simply not possible. Aristotle, the great defender of reason and the democratic polis, was convinced that some of us are born slaves and that all women are inherently inferior and incapable of citizenship. Dying one of the richest three hundred men in Athens, his politics favored an educated and wealthy elite, and his rhetoric teaches this elite to dominate and control their inferiors (Berlin, 1992). Indeed, his very reading of Aristotle is conducted through the terministic screens of his own historical conditions; just as when we today attempt to recover Aristotle, we focus on those features that most reinforce our desires for our own society — his privileging of the rational appeals and his apparent endorsement of democracy, for example — while conveniently overlooking what we find less admirable — his class and gender bias and his advocacy of the wealthy.

    Reference List

    Aristotle. (1954). Rhetoric. (W. R. Roberts Trans.). N.Y.: Modern Library.

    Aristotle. (1991). On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. (G. A. Kennedy Trans.). N. Y.: Oxford University Press.

    Barthes, R. (1988). The Old Rhetoric: An aide-mémoire. (R. Howard Trans.). N.Y.: Hill and Wang.

    Berlin, J. A. (1992). Aristotle’s Rhetoric in Context: Reading Historically. In S. P. Witte, N. Nakadate & R. D. Cherry (Eds.), A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

    Corbett, E. P. J. (1990). Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

    Kennedy, G. A. (1959). The Earliest Rhetorical Handbooks. American Journal of Philology 80: 169-78.

    Kennedy, G. A. (1980). Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

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