117. The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

117. The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  The science of persuasion, or more precisely, the identification of persuasive aspects (‘ammunition’), to prepare the orator for the ever-increasingly important role of speech making in Athenian public life.

My copy is the Penguin Black Classic The Art of Rhetoric, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (ISBN 0140445102)

My thoughts:  Just as with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I found parts of Rhetoric completely over my head, while other parts (with the assistance of the editor’s introduction and notes), reasonably straightforward.

Aristotle presents a structured approach which at least gives the inexperienced modern reader a handle on his explanations. There are three ways to speak persuasively, (i) by logical argument, (ii) by appealing to the character of the audience (their age or fortunes), and (iii) by appealing to the emotional state of the listener. These three rely on an understanding of logic and psychology.

The first part outlines these approaches, then looks in more detail at the reasons and key points   for persuading by logical argument : (a) to establish justice (or injustice) of a subject, a forensic or judicial approach to either prosecute or defend, and deals with past events, (b) to present the admirability, virtue or nobility of the subject (or the opposite : to denigrate a subject), usually in the present, or (c) to promote the advisability or inadvisability of a subject, which is the deliberative or political approach, to exhort or deter future action. For each of these, various examples are listed where a speaker might adopt one or more to use in their rhetoric to persuade more strongly e.g. acts which might be considered more noble (because they are more memorable or more beneficial to others) or crimes more serious (more brutal, or repeated, or fill the jury with fear)

The advice to litigants is basically to take whatever tack is best suited to their argument, from the nature of the law itself ….

“if the written law is contrary to our position, we must use the general law, and the principles of greater equity and justice …. but if the written law should be favourable to our position, then we must say .. that seeking to be wiser than the laws is what is forbidden by the most reputable legal systems”                                                                                                 pages 130-131

to the strict legality of one’s own contract versus the higher call of justice against someone else’s contract, or the unreliabilty of evidence acquired by torture when it doesn’t meet your case’s needs, etc.   One can almost hear the ghost of Aristophanes mocking.

The next section describes the characteristics of human emotions which influence decisions, and thereby ways of turning an audience to or from feelings of anger or calm, fear or confidence, friendship or enmity, shame or pride, pity or indignation or jealousy, without regard to the specific subject matter. Naturally gifted orators probably do this by instinct, identifying what will sway a crowd.

The nature or composition of the audience is also discussed, albeit briefly, with youthful audiences hot-tempered and slaves to their desires, confident, optimistic, intense and naive; while old men are the opposite in all these.

The third part of Rhetoric deals with themes common to all speeches, including the style of speech (the way of speaking) and the composition or structure of a speech. Again my concentration lapsed and I took in little of the discussions.

Favourite lines/passages:

“… unbuttonedness, leisure, lack of worry, games, relaxation and sleep are among the pleasant things … ”                                                                                                                           page 115

“Winning is also pleasant .. for it produces the imagination of superiority…”    page 117

“… in misfortune men never want to be seen by their rivals – for our rivals are our admirers”   page 160

“men who will envy … are small-minded, for all things seem great to them”       page 169


Some more new words :

Banausic : mundane, manual (particularly with regard to employment)

Knout : a heavy scourge-like multiple whip, usually made of a bunch of rawhide thongs attached to a long handle, sometimes with metal wire or hooks (Wikipedia definition)

Pancratiast: athlete who uses boxing, wrestling, choking and kicking moves to defeat their opponent, in a sporting event called a Pankration, sometimes held at the ancient Olympic Games

Veridical: truthful (you know, like everything in my blog! 😉  )

Personal rating: People who regularly make speeches or are required to speak persuasively would benefit from reading this work, or a careful repackaging with more familiar and modern examples; and taking from it what they find useful or interesting. I enjoyed some parts but found myself flagging in others, so for me it is a 4.

The sanity in between:  Ozma of Oz (book 3 of the original The Wizard of Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum) as part of the Read-along hosted by Lone Star on a Lark (http://lonestaronalark.com/2017/04/oz-read-along-3/ )  – surprisingly enjoyable!

Next : My interest and endurance quota for Aristotle is dwindling, yet I am loathe to give up on another author yet, especially one of such influence. So my fallback is to resume my stop-start progress with the Protestant Old Testament , starting with the Book of Isaiah.


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