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Rhetoric: Its Parts and Pieces

Aristotle’s Rhetoric attempts to classify, subdivide, and define the various parts of rhetoric, offering a systematic outline of what is included within this conceptual field.  Sections One and Two of Book I each begin with statements that are often recalled about Rhetoric via Aristotle: “Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic” and ”Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (179, 181). These two statements, positioned near the beginning of Rhetoric, serve to position rhetoric in relation to dialectic and to define what rhetoric does or is. Rhetoric does not “belong to any definite science” but rather, like dialectic, is “within the ken of all men” (179). Additionally, while rhetoric may be seen as the counterpart to dialectic, it is apparently different. Its purpose is to persuade an audience about a probable or likely truth, rather than to arrive at (near?) certain knowledge, and as such it can be applied to any other field of knowledge.

Aristotle breaks the appeals into the three common categories that are still taught today: ethos, logos, and pathos. He privileges logos over the others, and believes that the character of the speaker should be established “by what the speaker says, not by what people think of this character before he begins to speak” (182). He likewise introduces the syllogism, offering it in opposition to the example, which are the only two ways offered as means of persuasion (182). Further, there are three arenas for the use of rhetoric – the deliberative (political), forensic (legal), and epideictic (ceremonial). In Book II, Aristotle discusses the different emotional states of a potential audience, showing how an orator can incite the proper emotion for the desired outcome, then pairing that with its opposite, e.g. anger versus calmness. Further, there are different characters that people may have and various predispositions that are prevalent at various stages of life. While audience is clearly in the forefront of Aristotle’s presentation of rhetoric, he does not detail how one decides whom one is addressing, nor how to deal with rhetorical appeals directed at a mixed audience, which may be comprised of diverse people.

Overall, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, while comprehensive and attempting to include all of the areas and subcategories that he saw pertaining to rhetoric, is reductive in many regards. In the attempt to differentiate terms, he may state that there is a difference (e.g. dialectic versus rhetoric) but then only comments upon their similarities while somewhat disregarding what he ostensibly views as their differences.

It is important, I think, to consider the conditions under which Rhetoric arose, that this is a collection of notes from students, rather than a text that was composed with the purpose of being a comprehensive work, read all at once and in a particular order, as it is presented in the form we read today. I often wonder if the somewhat tedious order lent itself well to lecture and teaching at the time and/or if students simply recorded it that way for the ease of note taking. This harkens back to the warning put forth by Plato that “he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful… will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot reach the truth effectually” (Phaedrus 166). Would Aristotle have presented this work in this manner if he had consciously written a work about rhetoric? Or did he follow the teachings of his (somewhat paradoxical) teacher and refuse to write down words that would ostensibly lose some of their meaning if inscribed materially and for all time? The downside of this is that others were then left to do the inscribing, thus it is hard to say if the explanations and words attributed to Aristotle would be the same or similar as those he would have chosen himself to describe his theory.

In this categorization of rhetoric and its constitutive parts, there is very little shown in the way of overlaps between categories. Rather, they are viewed as distinctive parts that make up a whole, consistent with Plato’s advice in truth-seeking where a man “must be able to define everything separately; then when he has defined them, he must know how to divide them by classes until further division is impossible” (Phaedrus 166). Aristotle appears to have taken this advice to heart, and it is interesting to note that in his epistemic framework, these categories tend not to overlap. Though he does not always adequately explain the differences, he seeks to distinguish and divide classifications of knowing into their own distinct area. This way of approaching knowledge indicates an underlying ideology of objects being distinct unto themselves, whereas I am more in alignment, epistemically speaking, with the Burkean idea of examining “the logic behind various cuts that can be made in the [insert dual terms] pair” (306). My view is that there is more overlap and less concrete certainty in these pairings of concepts, and while Aristotle’s work as a whole tended to categorize concepts into distinct classes and sub-classes unto themselves, he seems to do so at the cost of recognizing the relationships between and within them or the instances where these classes, which often include generalizations about people, cannot be accurately reduced to fit a particular categoric heading.


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