Aristotle, _Rhetoric_

Aristotle. Rhetoric

[The following is an SRR from Yancey’s Rhetorical Theory and Practice course, Spring 2015]

SUMMARY: Aristotle’s Rhetoric begins with the argument that rhetoric is the counterpart to dialectic. Whereas dialectic is focused on creating knowledge within disciplines through systematic generation of syllogism and induction, rhetoric is concerned with the “modes of persuasion” in public demonstrations. Aristotle’s rhetoric is one that is focused on probable truths—as he explains, rhetoric’s “function is not simply to succeed in persuading, but rather to discover the means of coming as near such success as the circumstances of each particular case allows” (181). In other words, rhetoric is that which takes into consideration the needs of the audience; in doing so, one will have more success in the probable. Like Plato, Aristotle is also interested in what is considered “good” or “pleasant”; however, Aristotle’s understanding of such concepts are much more situated depending upon the constituent factors involved at any given moment, particularly, the needs or historical situated-ness of the audience being addressed. Where Plato sees ambiguity of terms as a necessary evil that a speaker must overcome for the sake of goodliness and Godliness, Aristotle sees ambiguity as a resource that a speaker must be attuned to and anticipate.

REACT/REFLECT: While reading Aristotle this time around, I had a whole other network of terms to discuss Aristotle that—for good or ill—peppered my reading. For example, I read with a set of key concepts that I would keep an eye out for, but the concept, I feel, most addressed was an approach to ambiguity and heteroglossia that Plato also mentioned, but in different sorts of ways. In particular, where Plato sees this as obstacle to truth, Aristotle sees as resource. Through this, I was better suited to see how Aristotle is the antecedent to modern rhetorical scholars such as Burke and Bakhtin. But, a bit more subtly, I saw some hints to rhetorical/literacy scholars who specifically take into account difference such as Anzaldúa or Elaine Richardson. I was drawn to this particular passage from Aristotle: “It is useful, in framing laws, not only to study the past history of one’s own country, in order to understand which constitution is desirable for it now, but also to have a knowledge of the constitutions of other nations, and so to learn for what kinds of nation the various kinds of constitution are suited” (188). To theorize a rhetoric that accounts for difference, we would need to recognize—as Aristotle is—that people come from different places and by extension, operate with different kinds of history in mind. But more, those different places in fact impart different ways of thinking and perceiving (hence, their constitution). We might, then, see the canon of memory as going beyond mnemonic devices and expanding to include a person’s epistemology: what are a community’s narrative of their history? And how does this collective memory influence their constitutions? These questions, I find, are interesting ones discussed in the 20th century, prompted first by Aristotle.

Aristotle, overall, does seem more concerned about the people in discourse more than I would say for Plato. Plato—it seems to me—sees humanity as being generally an obstacle to truth and, because truth is the ultimate goal, basic humanity is essentially flawed. Plato places more value on the abstract, unattainable Truth that exists beyond this physical world. Aristotle, on the other hand, is paying particular attention to how a person and people interact with one another through language and discourse. While Aristotle does still hold on to an ethic like Plato, but Aristotle is a bit more flexible and to an extent is more complex. I’m hesitant to say it’s complex because his classification system—while helpful—seems to at time flatten complexity, but his idea of rhetoric goes beyond the established binaries postulated by Plato: “good” is not so much tied to Godliness—and thus transcendent—but can be situated within a given group or identity of people.


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