Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Notes on Aristotle's Rhetoric


Plato’s vision of the world and humanity=pessimistic, hierarchical

Aristotle’s vision, as articulated in The Politics=optimistic, inclusive.

Aristotle wrote that the highest political good was a community that included everyone (all citizens).

Plato believed rhetoric was a malevolent kind of magic, capable of manipulating people and stirring up the masses to destructive behavior.
--opposition to the Sophists as relativists
--set up an opposition between philosophy on one side, poetry and rhetoric on the other
--Plato championed the dialectic as a method of philosophical inquiry, didn’t believe it was rhetorical; rather, he believed it teased out the truth
--but since Plato’s ideal society was not a democracy, and since all important decisions were to be made by philosophers, there was no need to “persuade,” only to reach the already-existing, transcendent understanding.

Aristotle didn’t believe truth was “up there” or “out there,” but instead was in the things themselves, capable of being brought out by study of those things. Likewise, the political community was to be inclusive.

This meant that persuasion was necessary. Rhetoric, says Aristotle, is a counterpart to the dialectic.

Thus, everyone uses both; in Book One, he writes: “all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others. Ordinary people do this either at random or through practice and from acquired habit.”

Why is rhetoric important?

Aristotle says:
Rhetoric is useful (1) because things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites, so that if the decisions of judges are not what they ought to be, the defeat must be due to the speakers themselves, and they must be blamed accordingly. Moreover, (2) before some audiences not even the possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction. For argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are people whom one cannot instruct. Here, then, we must use, as our modes of persuasion and argument, notions possessed by everybody, as we observed in the Topics when dealing with the way to handle a popular audience. Further, (3) we must be able to employ persuasion, just as strict reasoning can be employed, on opposite sides of a question, not in order that we may in practice employ it in both ways (for we must not make people believe what is wrong), but in order that we may see clearly what the facts are, and that, if another man argues unfairly, we on our part may be able to confute him. No other of the arts draws opposite conclusions: dialectic and rhetoric alone do this. Both these arts draw opposite conclusions impartially. Nevertheless, the underlying facts do not lend themselves equally well to the contrary views. No; things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, practically always easier to prove and easier to believe in. Again, (4) it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs. And if it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.

First, truth tends to prevail over untruth. Is this true?

Second, different people are reachable, instructable, in different ways (and some not at all)

Third, we must understand both sides of an issue, be able to consider opposing arguments.

Fourth, it is right to use speech and reason to defend ourselves (and, in answer to Plato, speech and reason are no more dangerous than any other things we commonly hold as good, such as strength, health, wealth, or military skills).

Philosophy as certainty, rhetoric as living with uncertainty

We discussed this in class last Thursday. Once we accept the fact that it's impossible to have perfect knowledge, then persuasion, and hence rhetoric, is a necessary part of human existence.

Think of this in application to legal rhetoric: If it were possible to know with exact and precise certainty the truth of a defendant's guilt or innocence, no trial would be necessary--we wouldn't need judges or juries. We could just feed all the facts into a computer and the computer could make the right decision.

The Definition of “Rhetoric”

“Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”

This is not to say that the rhetorician will be able to convince under all circumstances. Rather he is in a similar situation as the physician: the latter has a complete grasp of his art only if he neglects nothing which might heal his patient, though he is not able to heal every patient. Similarly, the rhetorician has a complete grasp of his method, if he discovers the available means of persuasion, though he is not able to convince everybody.

The debate about whether rhetoric is an art or a science continues today, in the form of conflicts between those who study communication quantitatively, and those who study it through analysis of rhetorical artifacts. The latter form of study is always inexact.

Kinds of Rhetoric:

Name, types, time-frame, ends:

POLITICAL (deliberative): Exhortation and dehortation, aimed to the future, expediency and inexpediency
FORENSIC (legal): Accusation and defense, aimed to past, justice and injustice
EPIDEICTIC (ceremonial): Praise and censure, aimed to present, honor and dishonor

ARISTOTLE ON FORENSIC RHETORIC: Main reading begins at Book One Chapter 10.

“Injustice” for Aristotle, is “voluntarily causing injury contrary to law.”

Accusation and Defense:

--motives of unjust acts

--state of mind of those who act unjustly

--they think it can be done by them
--their action will be undiscovered or unpunished
--the punishment will be less than the profit
--they will escape due to eloquence, business sense, trial experience, influence, wealth
--or their friends have the above qualities
--if they are friends of those wronged or of the judges
--if character out of keeping with charges
--if acts are done openly
--if acts are of such a nature no one would be likely to attempt them
--if they have either no enemy or many enemies
--they have ways to conceal stolen property or means of disposal
--they can get the trial put off or corrupt the judges
--can avoid the fine or have nothing to lose
--profit is large and immediate while punishment is remote
--there is no punishment equal to the advantages
--acts are real gains and punishmnet merely disgrace
--unjust acts are creditable (i.e. vengeance) and punishment is exile or financial loss
--they have often escaped punishment
--or have often been unsuccessful
--hope for pleasure or profit immediately (intemperate)
--or the pain is immediate but the pleasure lasting (temperate)
--acted by chance rather than intent
--hope to obtain indulgence
--need whether necessary or superfluous
--highly esteemed will not be suspected
--or will be no more suspected than they are already

--character of those exposed to injustice

All of these require speculative, inferential, descriptive rhetoric, rather than any kind of exact science. Moreover, all these are EMPIRICAL in nature—in order to know what injustice is, we have to see these particular acts. And more importantly, in order to convince others (judges, jury) that those acts are unjust, we must describe them in a certain way.


according to Aristotle, the places in the mind where one finds material for a speech.

topos (Greek) = locus (Latin) = place
topoi = loci = places
loci communes (Latin) = common places

"Topoi are usually constellations of motifs, themes, images, or arguments that are common within the texts of a a specific age and place (say, enlightenment, post-war Germany) or a specific discourse (say, anti-feminism, neo-conservatism). They can but don't have to be cliches."

topics are "commonplaces," that is, concepts, subjects or maxims that are widely shared in the culture or are associated with the wisdom that has been distilled into common sense.

In forensic (legal) rhetoric, there are certain topoi:


Read all this in 1:15

Some questions for reflection:

--Do you agree more with Plato, or Aristotle, on the nature of truth and the resulting ideal society?

--Do you agree that, all else being equal, truth tends to triumph over untruth?

--Would it ever be possible to try a criminal defendant and return a verdict with absolute certainty?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Aristotle says that truth tends to triumph over untruth, if you take a simple example such as a 2 year old, if they break something, the truth is most likely to come out because it is alot more work to hide the untruth.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Holly said...

I think that truth almost always prevails over untruth. it might not alway come out at first, or maybe not for many years, but when it doesn come out, watch out. then that leads to all of aristotle emotions. being lied to causes a person to become quite angry and spiteful along with being sad and wanting to get revenge on that person who wronged them.
Being able return a criminal verdict with complete certainty would be a really great invention in science. There is always someone out there that has a doubt, no matter who small it is, that won't agree with the verdict given. science is trying to get to absolute certantiy, but there are too many variables and different situations that could arise that a person would have no prior idea about. so no, i don't think you could return a verdict with complete certainty.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also agree with Aristotle in that truth tends to triumph over untruth. It always seems, that no matter what, somebody ALWAYS finds out when you lie...even though it doesn't happen right away, the truth still tends to come out. It can never stay hidden. I think this is especially true when other factors come into play...when you lie once about something, it seems that to keep the truth hidden, more lies must be spun around the original lie or untruth. Eventually, when one proves to be an untruth, the other untruths or lies tend to come right back to the first untruth, allowing truth to triumph over untruth.
Carol Cottle

7:18 PM  
Blogger matt said...

Everyone's points about truth triumphing over untruth are well-taken. However, the context in which we should evaluate Aristotle's claim is rhetorical, not historical. By this I mean that he is talking about the tendency of truthful arguments to triumph over untruthful arguments IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE. Remember, he goes on to say that the failure of truthful arguments to win over an audience is the fault of the speaker. How does this change our evaluation of Aristotle's claim that truth wins out?

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think truth always triumphs in a rhetorical context. Aristotle says that you have to be able to argue both sides of an argument - I think this is so you can effectively counter any claim the opposition makes and refute their argument. Therefor, truth doens't necessarily have to win - and it would be the fault of the orator if the opposition prevails because they didn't do a good enough job of refuting their arguments (or the lies/untruth).
- Justina

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the idea that there is a certain pleasure invlolved with being angry and if a person naturally seeks pleasure there must be pleasure in anger. I think that this is why people get angry when cartain things happen and will continually let the same things make them angry. After all there is something satisfying about getting mad as hell and taking out your agressions sometimes.


7:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dont think that truth always triumphs over untruth. If two people are pleading a case of any kind. the person who does a better job of arguing their side and has the trust of the audience and makes them see his points better is going to win. as long as it sounds logical and the speaker is seemingly knowledgable on the topic is going to win.


7:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that truth doesn't always prevail because people can manipuate the truth in many different situations. Through rhetoric, someone could adjust the facts to make the outcome they want desireable. Also, people seek pleasure and avoid pain, and people manipulate the truth in order to avoid pain. Many people will do whatever they can to look out for number one, even in a religious society. Futhermore, speakers use every means available in order to persuade an audience one way or the other, even though the arguments may not be truthful. It depends on the way the speaker conveys the message and how it appeals to others that makes it powerful and believable. So, the truth can go unheard for years or decades and could possibly even go unheard forever if the speaker was good enough to persuade his side of the argument.
Stacey Cottle

7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In any argument if you know what your talking about (or act like it) then most of the time if you seem to have legitimate eveidence or backup, you might be able to persuade people your way, and if you keep doing it, then like stacy said, it could go on forever if you are good enough. In the court of law, like someone said too, whoever has the best argument and wins the audience over will will, wheather it is truthful or not.


4:48 PM  
Blogger Chip Thrasher said...

Thanks. The explanation of Aristotle's points on rhetoric helped me a lot.

4:38 PM  

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