Aristotle’s Rhetoric: A Brief Summary

Book I
Rhetoric is the antistrophos (counterpart, counter-turn, or even correlative) of dialectic and can be treated systematically. Argumentative persuasion involves pisteis, which are a kind of apodeixis (demonstration). The rhetorical form of apodeixis is enthymeme. Although rhetoric is often misused, it should be used to promote truth and justice. Rhetoric is the dynamis to see in any given situation the available/possible pithanon (typically, this sentence is translated as saying that rhetoric is the ability/power/faculty to see the available means of persuasion in any given situation). The pisteis entechnoi are ethos, pathos, and logos, which involve the character of the speaker, the emotions of the audience, and the logos of the speech. Hence, rhetoric is an offshoot of dialectic and ethics. Paradeigma in rhetoric corresponds with epagoge in dialectic, and enthymeme corresponds with syllogism.

There are 3 kinds or types of rhetoric: deliberative (or political), forensic (or legal), and epideictic (or ceremonial oratory or display). The political speaker will appeal to the good of the hearers and show that he is interested in their happiness. The epideictic speaker is concerned with virtue. The forensic speaker should study wrong doing, law, and motives. All voluntary actions are good or apparently good, pleasant or apparently pleasant. (In other words, I take this to mean that people don’t do things because they think they’re bad or unpleasant; Aristotle makes a similar statement in the Nicomachean Ethics.)
The pisteis atechnoi are 5 in number and pertain especially to forensic oratory: laws, witnesses, contracts, tortures, oaths.

Book II
A speaker must seem to be a good sort of character in order to persuade an audience. He must also put his hearers into the right frame of mind. Hence, the necessity of discussing human emotion: anger and calmness, friendship and enmity, fear and confidence, shame and shamelessness, kindness and unkindness, pity, indignation, envy, and emulation. Then, Aristotle presents generalized characters of the old and prime, then comments on good birth, wealth, power, and the ability to see backward and look forward.

Two general modes of persuasion (koinai pisteis) are paradeigma (example/paradigm) and enthumema (enthymeme). Maxims are a part of the enthymeme. Paradeigma are either historical or invented, which invented are either parabolai (illustrations) or logoi (fables), like those of Aesop. A maxim is an incomplete enthymeme. Maxims invest a speech with moral character. Enthymemes are either demonstrative or refutative.

There are 28 Topics, or lines of proof or argument, that can be used to make enthymemes. The most effective enthymemes are those which the audience foresees the conclusions from the beginning, as long as it’s not totally obvious. Part of the pleasure we feel is at our own intelligent anticipation.

Book III
It’s not enough to know what to say, but one must be able to say it effectively and in the right way. Style is a small thing with real importance, and has much to do with poetry, though ideally our bare facts should be enough to persuade. Style must be appropriate and clear. It cannot be overblown, but should appear natural.

Correctness in style is discussed under 5 heads: right use of connecting words, use of special, and not vague general, terms, avoidance of ambiguity, observance of gender, correct indication of grammatical number. Impressiveness is given 6 heads: description instead of simple name, metaphors and epithets, plural for singular number, repetition of the article, connecting words, description by means of negation. The appropriate style adapts itself to the emotions of the hearers, the character of the speaker, and the nature of the subject. There is power in setting things before the eyes of the audience through metaphor. Rhythm is also useful and influential.

To arrange a speech, first state the case, then prove it. To these can be added introduction, which should indicate the aim of the speech, and epilogue. An argument attempts a conclusive proof, but it does so differently in forensic, epideictic, and judiciary speeches. The epilogue (peroration, conclusion) has 4 parts: make the audience well-disposed towards yourself and ill disposed towards your opponent, magnify or minimize the leading facts, excite the required kind of emotion in your hearers, and refresh their memories by means of a recapitulation. In closing, Aristotle writes, “make sure that hearers know that you’re letting them decide for themselves: I have spoken, you have listened. You have the facts before you. Now you be the judge.”

“Aristoteles Louvre” by After Lysippos – Eric Gaba (User:Sting), July 2005.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

3 thoughts on “Aristotle’s Rhetoric: A Brief Summary”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *