Lecture 1: Aristotle on Rhetoric.


I. Rhetoric, in the most general sense:


comprehends all those elements in communication apt or meant to achieve a determinate effect at the receiving end of communication by using means other than the truth. That effect is called persuasion and can consist in a belief (believing the truth), a confirmation, a decision, an appreciation and many more.


Communication: a message from a sender to a receiver. ‘Sending out’ at the sending end, ‘uptake’ at the receiving end. What is sent is the message. Usually thought to consist in a meaning and a signifier, something that carries that meaning.


Why exclude truth and, more generally, normative validity, from the rhetorical means? If the sender tries to persuade me by, simply, the truth, then he does not try to persuade me via specifically rhetorical means. If I accept what the other is saying simply because I am convinced that it is the truth, then I am not persuaded by rhetorical means. Rhetoric is concerned with ‘how’ something is expressed or put. Truth concerns a ‘what’-question. Rhetoric concerns a ‘how’-question. Or does it?


Two radically differing opinions about rhetoric:


One says: there is no such thing as truth independent from how things are expressed and held. Just before Aristotle the Sophists thought exactly that. The Sophists said: Whatever is held as true is true. We can persuade anyone of everything, using the right means of persuasion. Aristotle opposes them. 


The other opinion says: Rhetoric is or ought to be unpersuasive under all circumstances. The only thing that counts is ‘the fact of the matter,’ truth, the ‘best.’ Truth and the best are independent from the way they are being expressed and the same however they may be expressed. Wherever people accept things because of the specific ways in which they are presented to them (the ‘how’), there that acceptance is inadequate. They hold what they hold for the wrong reasons. All rhetoric is perturbation and deception. Aristotle does not agree with this view of rhetoric, either.


Aristotle thinks rhetoric is indispensable and a useful tool to get things across. But because of its deceptive potential, it needs to be handled with care. There is some such thing as independent truth. But not all questions find answers in just one ‘fact of the matter.’ And it may sometimes be difficult to decide what is true or right. Most importantly: truth and the best may receive help from adequately used rhetoric – i.e.: good argument (compare Rhet 1355a, I.1.14).


Rhetoric, in the comprehensive sense of persuasive communication, is ubiquitous. It is not confined to speech, which is just the verbal form of communication, and even less to public speaking. Pictures use and have their own rhetoric. Ads. Gestures, expressions, ways of dressing, make-up . . .







II. Zooming in on Aristotle:


Narrow scope: public speech. But significance way beyond that scope. Rhetoric already there. An art/craft (tekhne;): A good speaker has specific goals (persuasion), and knows how to use the means towards that goal. Where there’s an art, it can always be performed in better or worse ways. But no systematic theory of the art.


Aristotle writes a practical treatise: How to be a good public speaker, how to evaluate speech at the receiving end. For that purpose he analyzes the practice. Note how Aristotle thinks about things: He analyzes them.


Analysis: He finds things in a state, in which they appear “clear and plain to us,” also because we know how to go about it. But things are really “compounded” in everyday use. Which means: we do not have a clear conception of them, of their significant elements, and how they work together. Analysis – a form of thinking – takes these things apart into their essential elements. The undifferentiated will then be differentiated in the right way, the item will be known only after analysis (Compare Physics, 184a).



Rhetoric is an art. Arts are defined by their function. Rhetoric is the art: “to see the available means of persuasion in each case.” As a consequence Aristotle sets out to analyze rhetoric in such a way that he helps us ‘see the available means of persuasion.”


Why is the function of rhetoric not described as ‘to persuade?’ Because Aristotle distinguishes the analysis and teaching of the art (‘know-how’) from the purpose of the craftsman who uses the art (‘what for’). Arts are defined by function. But they consist in the things one needs to do and can do, in  order to fulfill that function.


What is it ‘to persuade?’ To change or otherwise influence the attitude of a hearer by using communication (speech, images, sound, gestures; expression and personal presentation).


Species of attitudes: beliefs, held values, what one thinks is right or wrong, feelings and dispositions towards things.


Presupposition: Hearer neither already persuaded, nor immune to persuasion.


The factual and normative aspects: Hearers actually respond to these means. They are persuaded because the speaker is credible, succeeds in making them feel good about the issues, present convincing arguments. But Aristotle also thinks that it is right to let oneself be influenced by someone who presents the right qualifications for being followed in a given subject matter. He even thinks that the right kind of feeling about an issue is a reason for being favorably disclosed towards it. He certainly believes that a good argument represents a good reason. Think about possible misuse of the normative assumptions, and how to counteract them!


The means of persuasion is  ‘speech’ – short for the medium of communication used to persuade. Now we may be able to recognize a good speech when we hear one. But this is “compounded” in our mind and in that of the speaker. So analysis is necessary. Analysis distinguishes those elements most important for the attainment of the goals of speech, i.e. persuasion. The “means” of persuasion attach to these elements.


Elements of speech: Speaker, hearer/audience, subject matter, spoken language, ways of expressing subject matter in spoken language. The means of persuasion in general are ways of fashioning some of these elements in an effort to persuade the hearer/audience.

Those that are anchored in the speaker are ethos, the character of the speaker. Those that attach to the audience affective disposition towards the issues are pathos, try to influence the emotional state of the hearer. Those that attach to the way of presenting the subject matter as rationally motivated are logos, arrangement and presentation of subject matter.


III. Pisteis/Means of Persuasion



Ethos (1356a; I.2.4): Positively: character traits, personal representation that persuade people to adopt or accept or endorse the speaker’s opinions, proposals or evaluations. Which traits will undermine a speaker’s appeal to character?   Credence/credibility is the general trait: the speaker is a person who is worthy of credence (as concerns this subject.) Aristotle: practical intelligence (phronêsis), a virtuous character, and good will. My examples: experience, honesty, expertise, thoughtfulness, authority, previous good advice, authoritativeness (?), determinacy (?), be loved by audience (?). And the opposites: inexperience, dishonesty, rashness, insecurity, hestitation, disagreeable, hated by audience, . . . Important: different qualities of speaker will be differently significant for issue: political decision, personal advice, expert witness, estimate, etc.


An example from Bacon, The Great Instauration, “Preface:” Suppose you were proposing a revolutionary break in the way of doing science to your readers. Many of the things scientists believe and methods they follow would not be valid if your proposals were adopted. You need to count on extraordinary resistance to you proposals. How would you present yourself, to increase the credence of your proposals? What kind of perception might damage your credibility? You will not be able to claim expertise or experience in the subject matter ‘new science.’ It will not do to present you as honest. Nor will it be good insist on your successes in different domains, like statesmanship, martial skills, proven leadership. You may want to insist on the care that characterizes you; on your own initial hesitation to deviate from common paths, you may want to emphasize your lack of ambition.


Pathos: “Hearers are led to feel emotion by the speech” disposing them favorably or unfavorably towards a subject matter or issue (1356a, I.2.2 and I.2.5).


Some examples from Aristotle: anger/calmness (of speaker, towards others or issues); belittling/aggrandizing (of him-/herself, others, issues and problems); feeling friendly towards/feeling inimical; fear of/confidence (in speaker or issue); pity; indignation; envy.


Example from Bacon, The Great Instauration, “Preface:” Suppose, again, you were proposing a revolutionary break in the way of doing science to your readers. Many of the things scientists believe and methods they follow would not be valid if your proposals were adopted. You need to count on extraordinary resistance to you proposals. What emotions would you like to arouse in your reader? Which emotions would you like to avoid? Avoid, perhaps, fear of uncertainty, love for tradition and the gradated, comfort of familiar. Use, perhaps, curiosity, disappointment with failures of what you want to replace, depict or promise grandiose achievements of the new ways; belittle the old; etc.