Aristotle’s Rhetoric: Summary and review

I have recently finished reading Aristotle’s ‘Art of Rhetoric’ as part of my studies. To assist with my learning and to continue producing content on this blog, I will be providing summaries and reviews of what I read. And Aristotle’s Rhetoric will be the first. In this work, Aristotle provides an analysis of not only persuasive speech, but the specific aspects of speech that makes it persuasive. This analysis is done through 3 large chapters.

Chapter 1

The first chapter in Aristotle’s rhetoric is dedicated to making clear how rhetoric should be understood. The rest of the chapter is focused on one of the three genres of rhetoric: demonstration (the other genres: emotion and character, are covered in the second chapter). Aristotle believed that rhetoric understood as the art of persuasion is too simplistic. He argued that rhetoric is the persuasive aspects of the speech. The distinction is important to Aristotle because merely judging that certain kinds of speech has persuasive power is too superficial but focusing on its persuasive parts is more helpful for educating someone on persuasive oratory. This is interesting since it seems to follow Aristotle’s metaphysics and scientific approach of understanding the world by categorizing all its parts.

Demonstration is described by Aristotle as “a proof is achieved by the speech, when we demonstrate either a real or apparent persuasive aspect of each particular matter”. Proof has multiple forms in this chapter. Aristotle uses proof both in the method of logical deduction, but also in the inductive probabilistic method. Aristotle distinguishes these as two different ‘kinds’ of proof. For the inductive method regarding rhetoric, he says that use of examples belongs to this kind of proof. For the deductive method, he says that the use of enthymemes belongs to this kind. Hence, demonstrative rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is the use of examples in argumentation or logical deductions.

Aristotle moves on to discuss the genres of rhetoric where demonstrative rhetoric can be applied. The three genres he lists are: deliberative, forensic and display. The deliberative genre he contrasts into two parts: Exhortation and deterrence. Forensic are prosecution and defense. And display are praise and denigration.

Focusing first on deliberation, Aristotle says that deliberation involves arguments involves persuading an audience towards advantageous outcomes and away from disadvantageous ones. Hence the contrast of exhortation is ‘moving towards advantage’ approach and deterrence is the ‘moving away from disadvantage’ approach. Aristotle claims that most arguments of this form are of the ethical, and therefore also political (this is where he restates his famous claim that human animals are political animals). The most common topics Aristotle believes take this form are: revenue, war and peace, the defense of the realm, imports and exports and legislation.

For the use of examples to be an effective method by the orator, Aristotle says that the orator must hold sufficient knowledge on those subjects. From how they are currently conducted in significant detail, to the history of their successes and failures. This knowledge allows the orator to produce inductive examples to produce an argument for advantages/disadvantages for a certain position on those topics. Regarding what counts as an advantage, Aristotle appeals to his eudaimonia in his virtue ethics as the ultimate goal. Aristotle believes that demonstrating advantages in the form of eudaimonia, such as virtuous living or kinds of flourishing (and of course the disadvantage of vicious living), is how deliberation should be conducted.

Aristotle now discusses the genre of display and its contrasts of praise and denigration. This reads an expansion upon exhortation by appealing to the advantage of eudaimonia by living in accordance to the virtues. Aristotle mentions that those who live virtuously are noble. So, speech that praises the nobility of those who behave virtuously acts as a demonstration of the advantage of that behaviour. And of course, blaming those who act viciously as ignoble acts as a demonstration of the disadvantage of that behaviour.

In the final section of chapter 1 Aristotle discusses litigation and its contrasts prosecution and defense. As the terms suggest, this focusses on arguments surrounding crime and punishment. Aristotle begins with a sociological approach to why people commit crimes. He gives numerous examples, but he generally explains that people commit crimes either because they think they will get away with it or are in a situation where the benefits of committing the crime outweigh the punishment. Aristotle treats the concept of crime as injustice, which he defines as “voluntary illegal harm”. The arguments between the prosecutor and the defense surround mostly on persuasion on whether the offender acted voluntarily. Similar to the legal philosophy of mens rea. Once again, Aristotle appeals to the demonstrative methods of example and enthymeme to argue for or against the guilt of the offender. For instance, once could produce examples that provide inductive evidence that the person acted voluntarily, or provide a logical deduction to argue a similar case.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2  moves the discussion to the use of emotion and character. Aristotle does not intend emotion to be employed as a method of distraction, as the sophists do. But by understanding why people do feel particular emotions, rhetorical arguments can contain premises that would result in certain emotions experienced by the audience. Aristotle seems to legitimize the use of emotion when the orator is stating a proposition that is true, and the audience would rightly react with such an emotion. Aristotle mentions 10 emotions and gives exhaustive lists of examples where people would legitimately feel those emotions. These emotions are: anger, calm, friendship, enmity, fear, confidence, favour, indignation, shame and jealousy.

Throughout the chapter, Aristotle gives a wide range of reasons why people experience these emotions and that the orator either mentions premises that would produce such emotive reactions or arguments that result in a conclusion that would also do so. Aristotle also contrasts some of the emotions in tension with one another: anger with calm, friendship with enmity, and fear with confidence. In these cases, Aristotle says that the orator produces one emotion by drawing them away from the other. For example, persuading someone to be calm is to persuade them not to be angry, and vice versa.

Aristotle then discusses character. Character is the attributes possessed by the speaker that gives him credence. This follows the similar logic of appealing to authority. The first attribute Aristotle puts forward is to be of prime age. Prime age sits between youth and old age. Aristotle describes youth as in the excess of emotion, desire and ambition, whilst the old in the other extreme as weary, pessimistic and cynical. This approach echoes Aristotle’s ‘doctrine of the mean’, where he treats virtue as behaviour that lies between two other extreme kinds of behaviour. For instance, courage for Aristotle is the mean between being timid or rash.

The next attribute is fortune. Fortune, according to Aristotle, are aspects brought about by chance. The three he mentions are: birth, wealth and power. Birth is the inheritance of family repuatation and social standing, wealth is the property inherited, and power is the class position (economic, political or social) one is in. Aristotle mentions the character flaws brought about by being too rich or too poor. Too rich being drawn to life of debauchery, whilst too poor not focused on public concerns and only trying to become one of the rich. Aristotle leans towards those with good fortune to be of the best persuasive character only if they “love the Gods” and appreciate the fortune the Gods have given them. This seems to be a flavour of the contemporary expression of ‘checking one’s privilege’.

Chapter 3

In the final chapter, Aristotle takes a more practical turn. This chapter reads remarkably like instructions for essay writing. The first part is dedicated to what Aristotle calls ‘common topics’. In this section, he explains the different topics not as particular subjects being argued about, but the general argumentative approach. Once again, Aristotle begins with enthymemes, but treats them as any deductive argument. For instance, the first common topic he lists under enthymeme is the distinction between possible and impossible situations. Here he gives a list of examples where things can either be shown to be incoherent or self-contradictory. He also gives examples where certain concepts, if true, make other things necessarily true. One example he gives is if we accept that man has been ‘cured’, then it is necessarily the case that he must have been ill. Aristotle further splits the enthymeme into two kinds: demonstrative and refutational. Demonstrative are arguments that use the logical form of Modus Ponens and refutational are ones that uses Modus Tollens/Reductio ad absurdum.

The next common topic Aristotle mentions is example. Example is contrasted into two kinds by him: Mention of facts and comparison. Mention of facts are illustrative examples of events that have occurred in real world situations. Whereas comparison is when examples are imagined situations and are not necessarily real world situations (similar to thought experiments and arguments from analogy). Aristotle claims that mentions of facts are useful to give the argument more force, since these events are more conceivable than imagined situations. However, he also claims that comparisons are useful since they are easier to be made to fit when arguing from analogy. Aristotle also mentions Maxims, which he describes as a proposition without the supporting argument. He treats them as fundamental to his enthymemes because for an argument to be forceful, the premises need to involve maxims to avoid either a skeptical regress or outright rejection of the premises the argument depends on.

The next part Aristotle focuses on is style. Style, either written or verbal, is discussed by Aristotle in the form of virtues of style. And these virtues are clarity, purity, amplitude, good rhythm and syntax, and wit. Clarity is to depend on speaking/writing in way that the audience will understand and to avoid what he calls ‘outlandish expressions’ or ‘inappropriate metaphors’. Purity is application of correct grammar and spelling. Amplitude is increasing the detail of a word to add emotional effect. For example, replacing ‘murdered’ to ‘brutally murdered’ would be practicing amplification. Rhythm and syntax is Aristotle basically advocating for a speaking/writing style that has a clear beginning and end, whilst also striking the right balance of each section being of appropriate length. And being witty is valuable to Aristotle since they tend to give a lasting affect on the audience and demonstrate an understanding from the audience.

The final section, called composition, is virtually instruction on how to organize an essay structure. Aristotle stresses the importance of a good introduction, body and conclusion. The introduction must include a summary of the argument. The body must contain the detailed arguments and responses to objections/anticipated objections. However, Aristotle advocates for the use of amplification to be applied in the conclusion to make use of the emotional response at the end of the argument.

Personal thoughts

Although this was an interesting read, it was surprisingly difficult. A potential reasons for this, which can occur when reading original texts from ancient philosophers, is the language used does not always mean the same today as it did back then. Aristotle’s use of enthymeme is a prime example. In contemporary understanding, enthymeme is an argument that is invalid when said explicitly, but where there is a suppressed premise that is already assumed. For example:

“I am human, therefore I am mortal”

This argument is invalid because it is missing the necessary premise “all humans are mortal“. The missing premise is the enthymeme. However, Aristotle seems to conflate enthymeme with any logical deductive argument. This makes reading very difficult since he appeals to enthymeme as a rhetorical device consistently throughout the book. So, if we replace ‘enthymeme’ with ‘deductive reasoning’, this makes understanding much easier. Aristotle’s use of the word ‘proof’ creates similar confusions. This is since he treats both logical deductions, which imply certainty and necessity, and inductive reasoning, which imply probability, both as kinds of proofs. In contemporary use, proof is normally designated to mathematics and deductive reasoning, not probabilistic inductions.

One thing that was pleasing to see was Aristotle’s use of examples. With each category of rhetoric he mentions, he typically gives pages of bullet point examples. Although at times this can get tiresome to read, by the end of the section it greatly assists understanding what he is trying to explain.

There was difficulty in understanding when Aristotle is merely explaining what is good rhetoric in contrast to merely persuasive to an audience and in contrast to how we ought to persuade. Aristotle was, like Plato, against sophistry. Aristotle does mention not to appeal to emotions that distract, but to make arguments where a rational person would react with the anticipated emotion. For example, if I make an argument that leads to the conclusion that someone got away with murder, then the emotional reaction of anger is legitimate. This is far as a distinction I have been able to explicitly get out of Aristotle on the difference between legitimate and illegitimate rhetoric.

Aristotle’s appeal to the character of the speaker is, as I have read it, defended implicitly on the speakers ability to react with the appropriate emotion relevant to the argument they are making. His argument for those not too young or too old as the ideal age reflect this. Similar can be said on his arguments for wealth and status of birth. Much of this reflects his politics and ethics. Although one can produce many counterexamples to refute this view (Greta Thunberg, Noam Chomsky, Malala Yousafzai, and so on), one can dig deeper and find usefulness out of this view. It is not so much the age of the person that influences the ideal character, but typical traits correlated with age groups (at least in Aristotle’s time). Instead of focusing too much on the age of the person, one could instead focus on the vices of ambition or pessimism. Of course, since it is ultimately an appeal to authority, it is a fallacious approach to the subject, hence I found it to be the less interesting section of the book.

The composition section was interesting insofar as it reflects an essay structure similar advice given in modern academic education. Although I walked away without a clear distinction between legitimate rhetoric and deceptive sophistry, it is a good start for those interested in the discussion between philosophy and rhetoric.

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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