Monday, August 29, 2005

Reading :: The Art of Rhetoric

Originally posted: Mon, 29 Aug 2005 10:10:23

The Art of Rhetoric

by Aristotle

It's been a while since I read excerpts from this book, the first to attempt to systematize my discipline. Aristotle was the student of Plato the student of Socrates, the smug absolutist on whom we generally blame rhetoric's bad reputation. (See Latour's evisceration of Plato's Gorgias in Pandora's Hope). Fortunately Aristotle was much more broad-minded than Plato, and his sympathetic, systematic treatment of the subject serves as the basis for innumerable first-year composition textbooks as well as scholarship.

Oh, you know what I'm talking about. Aristotle is the source for our argument that rhetoric is the probabilistic counterpart to logic and that its enthymeme is the counterpart to the syllogism (pp.66-70); that rhetoric's genres are deliberative, forensic, and epideictic (pp.80-81); and that rhetoric's proofs are the appeals to emotion, character, and reason (Ch.6-8). Having just taught first-year composition using an excellent textbook along these lines, I've found it pleasant to go back to this source material.

Of course, most of the material involves seemingly endless lists of examples -- much more boring than that comp textbook. But some of it is really fascinating. Take Aristotle's discussion of how rhetoric fits in: like dialectic, it treats subjects that everyone can grasp (p.66). But in rhetoric, proof is central, and enthymemes are the "flesh and blood of proof" (p.67). An enthymeme is a type of syllogism (p.68). And Aristotle is careful here to say that rhetoric is not persuasion, it's "the detection of the persuasive aspects of each matter" (pp.69-70); it's analysis. Notice how this discussion serves as an implicit rebuke to the Gorgias.

As Latour argues, Socrates has no interest in politics and consequently no respect for rhetoric. Aristotle characterizes rhetoric as a political offshoot of dialectic and logic. Whereas logic is inductive and relies on the syllogism, Aristotle says, rhetoric is deductive and relies on the enthymeme (p.75). But rhetoric also has induction in the form of examples (p.77). Unlike logic, rhetoric considers groups, not individuals, and its premises are matters for deliberation rather than settled (p.76).

I haven't read Aristotle to any extent since grad school, so it was refreshing to come back to this text and see what I could get out of it this time. Although many of the particulars are tedious, the overall discussion of rhetoric's place still seems fresh to me. Certainly Aristotle made a place for the despised art in his taxonomy, and although that place seems a little cramped to me, it's a good start.

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