On Aristotle’s “Rhetoric”

Fig. 1: Lookin’ a little pasty there, Mr. Aristotle! Don’t get out much, do we now?

Some thoughts on my reading of Aristotle’s Rhetoric

Aristotle talks a great deal about enthymemes, and doesn’t really explain them too deeply; which is a problem for those of us unaccustomed to the term. He does, however, make clear that they are a subset of syllogism. For example, he says that “the enthymeme must consist of few propositions, fewer often than those which make up the normal syllogism.” He then goes on to point out that an enthymeme may omit propositions that are widely accepted, much like the linked-to example. 

Another point which is clearly of great importance for the Philosopher (I will occasionally affect the habit of Thomas Aquinas, who referred to Aristotle with that simplified epithet) to distinguish between the form and the content of rhetoric. This is wise, to a point. He points out that when many authors speak about rhetoric they refer to the content, the message of speeches, which is to dilute the importance of the form; and it is the form itself which is the only proper purview of rhetoric as such. So, that’s helpful. To study painting is not to be told what one ought to paint; it is to study the methods, the tools and techniques, the most popular forms of painting. But what subjects one chooses to paint are immaterial to the instructor of painting. 

And yet, Marshall McLuhan rings in my ears as I read this, crying out: “the medium is the message.” The neat distinction which Aristotle seeks to establish, while satisfying, seems hard to maintain in the modern era, as is his assertion that “Political oratory is less given to unscrupulous practice than forensic, because it treats of wider issues”. Especially in 2017, when America is grappling with a president who was helped into office by Russian hackers, who has just signed an executive order banning refugees from any Middle Eastern country where he doesn’t have any business interests; a president who got into office using the same rhetorical devices as many Latin American caudillos and even some autocrats from Europe. Times have shifted, and we now look to the courts (forensic rhetoric) to balance out the vagaries of the political sphere. 

And yet, this is no naïf writing. Aristotle openly acknowledges the importance of appealing to the emotions of one’s audience when rhetoricizing. (If you don’t think that’s a word, then you’re using a budget dictionary.) He says that the man who wishes to persuade must be able to: 

  1. Reason logically
  2. Understand human character and goodness in their various forms; and
  3. Understand the emotions. 

And I’m getting the sense that that is precisely why the enthymeme is so important; whereas with a syllogism one must be explicit and utterly logical, with the enthymeme of rhetoric, one can artfully elide that which is presumed to be understood. This is not merely a time-saving device; it creates a sense of community, of kinship. It makes the hearer one of us, the cognoscenti. This tactic, like any tool, can be used for good or ill; it can build the sense of othering and scapegoating which seems to be such an indelible part of human nature. 

The Philosopher also contends that things that are true are easier to prove and easier to believe in. I strongly disagree, although it is true that the honest man leads a simpler life than the liar; the latter has to keep up with his own lies, the former only with the truth.

An Appeal to Authority by Making Authority Appealing

While logic is generally accepted to be an empirical science, external to the vagaries of human feelings, the other two requirements that Aristotle sets for a rhetor lean on exactly those vagaries: human character, and human emotions. Both are relative, dependent on arbitrary guideposts to mark their position. But their being arbitrary does nothing to diminish their importance in winning the agreement of an audience. 

Spock Finds That Illogical
Fig. 2: Mr. Spock

That is why Aristotle spends so much time focusing on understanding human emotion; much of the first chapters in book 2 are devoted to understanding the types of emotion, and what might evoke them. 

But there is another element which, while dwelt on perhaps less, is no less worthy of note. The Philosopher is at pains to illustrate the ways in which a speaker may establish his credibility. In book 1, chapter 2, he notes that it is important for the speaker:

“to construct a view of himself as a certain kind of person and to prepare the judge…for things do not seem the same to those who are friendly and those who are hostile, not the same to those who are friendly and those who are hostile” (112). 

We then discover that there are three things which work to support a strong argument, three “reasons why speakers themselves are persuasive.” These things are “practical wisdom and virtue and good will”

It would be tempting to think that Aristotle’s sustained emphasis on the emotional disposition of the audience is cynical or manipulative, that hearers are not sophisticated enough to rationally evaluate the claims being made. And such a conclusion may be drawn from cynicism, when the Oxford dictionaries declare “post-truth” the 2016 Word of the Year. And yet, it may also come from something less dark, as well. As Mr. Spock (fig. 2) repeatedly discovers, humans arrive at conclusions through a variety of means, not just through deductive reasoning. 

There are plenty of philosophical debates surrounding argument from authority. But most of them come from an absolutist remove from the hustle of everyday life, rather than from a practical position that busy people simply don’t have time to rationally investigate every claim that comes their way.

And so, we humans regularly choose authorities in our lives whose word we are willing to accept without question or investigation. Understanding this enables a speaker to convince her audience a great number of assertions, without needing to prove most of them, so long as she can establish herself as trustworthy in the judgment of her listeners. Aristotle is right to emphasize this, as it is a humanizing corrective for those who think that the Scientific Revolution has caused real change in human perception. Whether for good or ill, we are neither software nor Vulcans; and so speakers who make us feel the truth of their words will win our loyalty more quickly than those who seek solely to convince by reason. 

What Do You Think?