Aristotle's Rhetoric (Ancient Greek: Ῥητορική, romanized: Rhētorikḗ; Latin: Ars Rhetorica) is an ancient Greek treatise on the art of persuasion, dating from the 4th century BCE. The English title varies: typically it is titled Rhetoric, the Art of Rhetoric, On Rhetoric, or a Treatise on Rhetoric.
Aristotle is generally credited with developing the basics of the system of rhetoric that "thereafter served as its touchstone", influencing the development of rhetorical theory from ancient through modern times. The Rhetoric is regarded by most rhetoricians as "the most important single work on persuasion ever written." Gross and Walzer concur, indicating that, just as Alfred North Whitehead considered all Western philosophy a footnote to Plato, "all subsequent rhetorical theory is but a series of responses to issues raised" by Aristotle's Rhetoric. This is largely a reflection of disciplinary divisions, dating back to Peter Ramus' attacks on Aristotelian rhetoric in the late 16th century and continuing to the present.
Like the other works of Aristotle that have survived from antiquity, the Rhetoric seems not to have been intended for publication, being instead a collection of his students' notes in response to his lectures. The treatise shows the development of Aristotle's thought through two different periods while he was in Athens, and illustrates Aristotle's expansion of the study of rhetoric beyond Plato's early criticism of it in the Gorgias (c. 386 BC) as immoral, dangerous, and unworthy of serious study. Plato's final dialogue on rhetoric, the Phaedrus (c. 370 BC), offered a more moderate view of rhetoric, acknowledging its value in the hands of a true philosopher (the "midwife of the soul") for "winning the soul through discourse". This dialogue offered Aristotle, first a student and then a teacher at Plato's Academy, a more positive starting point for the development of rhetoric as an art worthy of systematic, scientific study.
The Rhetoric was developed by Aristotle during two periods when he was in Athens, the first, from 367–347 BCE (when he was seconded to Plato in the Academy); and the second, from 335–322 BCE (when he was running his own school, the Lyceum).
The study of rhetoric was contested in classical Greece: on the one side were the sophists, and on the other side were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The trio saw rhetoric and poetry as tools that were too often used to manipulate others by appealing to emotion and omitting facts. They particularly accused the sophists, including Gorgias and Isocrates, of this manipulation. Plato, particularly, laid the blame for the arrest and the death of Socrates at the feet of sophistical rhetoric. In stark contrast to the emotional rhetoric and poetry of the sophists was a rhetoric grounded in philosophy and the pursuit of enlightenment.
One of the most important contributions of Aristotle's approach was that he identified rhetoric as one of the three key elements—along with logic and dialectic—of philosophy. Indeed, the first line of the Rhetoric is "Rhetoric is a counterpart (antistrophe) of dialectic". According to Aristotle, logic is concerned with reasoning to reach scientific certainty while dialectic and rhetoric are concerned with probability and, thus, are the branches of philosophy that are best suited to human affairs. Dialectic is a tool for philosophical debate; it is a means for skilled audiences to test probable knowledge in order to learn. Conversely, rhetoric is a tool for practical debate; it is a means for persuading a general audience using probable knowledge to resolve practical issues. Dialectic and rhetoric create a partnership for a system of persuasion based on knowledge instead of upon manipulation and omission.
Most English readers in the 20th century relied on four translations of the Rhetoric. The first, by Richard C. Jebb, was published in 1909. The next two translations were published in 1924. John H. Freese's translation was published as a part of the Loeb Classical Library while W. Rhys Roberts' was published as a part of the Oxford University series of works in the Classics. Roberts' translation was edited and republished in 1954. The 1954 edition is widely considered the most readable of these translations and is widely available online. The fourth standard translation, by Lane Cooper, came out in 1932.
Not until the 1990s did another major translation of the Rhetoric appear. Published in 1991 and translated by George A. Kennedy, a leading classicist and rhetorician, this work is notable for the precision of its translation and for its extensive commentary, notes, and references to modern scholarship on Aristotle and the Rhetoric. It is generally regarded today as the standard scholarly resource on the Rhetoric.
Modern translations are still being produced, such as the ones published in 2008 by Joe Sach and the 2019 one by Robert C. Bartlett.
Main article: Neo-Aristotelianism (rhetorical criticism)
Rhetorical theory and criticism in the first half of the 20th century was dominated by neo-Aristotelian criticism, the tenets of which were grounded in the Rhetoric and were traditionally considered to have been summed up most clearly in 1925 by Herbert Wichelns. However, Forbes I. Hill argues that while Wichelns traditionally gets the credit for summing up neo-Aristotelian theory, Hoyt Hopewell Hudson is more deserving of this credit instead. The dominance of neo-Aristotelian criticism was "virtually unchallenged until the 1960s" and even now is considered not only as one of many approaches to criticism, but as fundamental for understanding other theoretical and critical approaches as they "developed largely in response to [its] strengths and weaknesses."
The Rhetoric consists of three books. Book I offers a general overview, presenting the purposes of rhetoric and a working definition; it also offers a detailed discussion of the major contexts and types of rhetoric. Book II discusses in detail the three means of persuasion that an orator must rely on: those grounded in credibility (ethos), in the emotions and psychology of the audience (pathos), and in patterns of reasoning (logos). Book III introduces the elements of style (word choice, metaphor, and sentence structure) and arrangement (organization). Some attention is paid to delivery, but generally the reader is referred to the Poetics for more information in that area.
Many chapters in Book I of Aristotle's Rhetoric cover the various typical deliberative arguments in Athenian culture.
Book II gives advice for all types of speeches. Aristotle's Rhetoric generally concentrates on ethos and pathos, and—as noted by Aristotle—both affect judgment. Specifically, Aristotle refers to the effect of ethos and pathos on an audience since a speaker needs to exhibit these modes of persuasion before that audience.
In Chapter 1, Aristotle notes that emotions cause men to change their opinions and judgments. As such, emotions have specific causes and effects (Book 2.1.2–3). A speaker can therefore employ this understanding to stimulate particular emotions from an audience. However, Aristotle states that along with pathos, the speaker must also exhibit ethos, which for Aristotle encompasses phronesis, arete, and eunoia (Book 2.1.5–9).
Chapters 2–11 explore those emotions useful to a rhetorical speaker. Aristotle provides an account on how to arouse these emotions in an audience so that a speaker might be able to produce the desired action successfully (Book 2.2.27). Aristotle arranges the discussion of the emotions in opposing pairs, such as anger and calmness or friendliness and enmity. For each emotion, Aristotle discusses the person's state of mind, against whom one directs the emotion, and for what reasons (Book 2.1.9). It is pertinent to understand all the components in order to stimulate a certain emotion within another person. For example, to Aristotle, anger results from the feeling of belittlement (Book 2.2.3–4). Those who become angry are in a state of distress due to a foiling of their desires (Book 2.2.9). The angry direct their emotion towards those who insult the latter or that which the latter values. These insults are the reasoning behind the anger (Book 2.2.12–27). In this way, Aristotle proceeds to define each emotion, assess the state of mind for those experiencing the emotion, determine to whom people direct the emotion, and reveal their reasoning behind the emotion. The significance of Aristotle's analysis stems from his idea that emotions have logical grounding and material sources.
George A. Kennedy in a note to On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse remarks that ethos predominantly refers to the "moral character" of actions and mind. On page 148, Kennedy reveals the purpose of chapters 12–17 as a demonstration to the speaker of "how his ethos must attend and adjust to the ethos of varied types of auditor if he is to address them successfully." As seen in the chapters explaining the various emotions, in chapters 12–17 Aristotle focuses on the necessary means of successfully persuading an audience. Yet, in these chapters, Aristotle analyzes the character of different groups of people so that a speaker might adjust his portrayed ethos in order to influence the audience. First, he describes the young as creatures of desire, easily changeable and swiftly satisfied. The young hate to be belittled because they long for superiority (Book 2.12.1–15). According to Aristotle, the old are distrustful, cynical, and small-minded for unlike the young their past is long and their future short (Book 2.13.1–5). The old do not act on a basis of desire but rather act for profit (Book 2.13.13–14). Those in the prime of life represent the mean to Aristotle, possessing the advantages of both old and young without excess or deficiency (Book 2.14.1). One of good birth, wealth, or power has the character of a lucky fool, a character in which insolence and arrogance breed if these good fortunes are not used to one's advantage (Book 2.15–17).
Although Book II primarily focuses on ethos and pathos, Aristotle discusses paradigm and enthymeme as two common modes of persuasion. There exist two kinds of paradigm: comparisons, referencing that which has happened before, and fables, inventing an illustration (Book 2.20.2–3). Maxims, or succinct, clever statements about actions, serve as the conclusion of enthymemes (Book 2.1–2). In choosing a maxim, one should assess the audience views and employ a fitting maxim (Book 2.21.15–16). Amplification and deprecation, although not elements of an enthymeme, can contribute to refuting an opponent's enthymeme or revealing a falsehood by exposing it as just or unjust, good or evil, etc. Aristotle also mentions the koina, fallacious enthymemes, and lysis (the refutation of an opponent's enthymeme). In all of these techniques, Aristotle considers popular wisdom and audiences as a central guide. Thus, the speaker's effect on the audience serves as a key theme throughout Book II.
Book II ends with a transition to Book III. The transition concludes the discussion of pathos, ethos, paradigms, enthymemes, and maxims so that Book III may focus on delivery, style, and arrangement.
Book III of Aristotle's Rhetoric is often overshadowed by the first two books. While Books I and II are more systematic and address ethos, logos, and pathos, Book III is often considered a conglomeration of Greek stylistic devices on rhetoric. However, Book III contains informative material on lexis (style) which refers to the "way of saying" (in Chapters 1-12) and taxis, which refers to the arrangement of words (in Chapters 13-19).
Scholars are turning to Book III once again to develop theories about Greek style and its contemporary relevance.
Amélie Oksenberg Rorty discusses the structure and characteristics of deliberative rhetoric in her research. She cites Aristotle to persuade her audience of the characteristics of deliberative rhetoric's influential nature. "Aristotle marks as central to deliberative rhetoric: considerations of prudence and justice, the projected political and psychological consequences of the decision and the likelihood of encouraging—or entrenching—similar rebellious attitudes amongst allies." The outstanding characteristic of deliberative rhetoric is practicality. Rorty argues, "the deliberative rhetorician who wishes to retain his reputation as trustworthy must pay attention to what is, in fact, actually likely to happen." Additionally, Aristotle focuses on deliberative rhetoric so heavily because "it most clearly reveals the primary importance of truth as it functions within the craft of rhetoric itself." A path to action is determined through deliberative rhetoric, since an individual following practical means is likely to foresee likely events and act accordingly.
In interpreting Aristotle's work on use of rhetoric, Bernard Yack discusses the vast need for public discourse and public reasoning. He states: "We deliberate together in political communities by making and listening to each other's attempts to persuade us that some future action will best serve the end that citizens share with each other ... It is this shared goal that distinguishes deliberative rhetoric, and therefore public reasoning, from the other forms of rhetoric and political judgment that Aristotle examines." Shared goals are of utmost importance when deliberating on an issue that affects the common good. Without such a version of deliberative rhetoric, arguments would unfairly favor the interests of power and neglect the rights of the common people.