Aristotle's Rhetoric Theory

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Rhetoric

Rhetorical Theory centered on the 4th Century BC writings of Aristotle. Aristotle’s Rhetoric

was the seminal work which was later revised by others including Kenneth Burke (dramatism)

and Toulmin (argument model). George A. Kennedy (2004) wrote the most respected,

authoritative and explanatory translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric but an older translation by W.

Rhys Roberts (1954) is available online for free. Aristotle’s mentor, Plato (385 BC), reacted

to the unjust rule of Athenian culture, first defining rhetoric in negative terms as a dangerous

form of flattery and the persuasion of uneducated mobs of people in courts and assemblies.

Aristotle re-defined rhetoric in positive terms as the ability to identify the appropriate means of

persuasion in any given situation.

Mary P. Nichols (1987) states, “In his Rhetoric, Aristotle defends rhetoric against the charges

that it permits injustice and distorts truth – charges made by Aristophanes and Plato. He presents

rhetoric as a bridge between private and public, passion and reason, individual interest and

common good, and equity and law. Rhetoric thus appears as a means for statesmanship rather

than a tool of despotism... In his Rhetoric, Aristotle divides rhetoric into three kind: deliberative

rhetoric deals with the advantageous or the good, epideictic rhetoric with the noble, and forensic

rhetoric deal with the just (I. iii. 5)…Aristotle teaches rhetoricians how to incorporate into their

speeches the variety of goods that men seek, as they are revealed in their opinions and implied in

their passions. Because it is based on a comprehensive understanding of human nature, their

rhetoric will be persuasive. And because of that same comprehensiveness, it will be both true

and just, to the extent that human affairs permit… Aristotle points out the limits necessary for

successful persuastion – from the logical rules that underlie thought to the diverse elements of

common opinion that rhetoric must accommodate…Aristotle indicates the extent to which

rhetoric involves refining opinions and modifying desires in light of more comprehensive

goods…He therefore defines the art of rhetoric not as the ability to persuade, as others had done,

but as “ther ability to see the possible means of persuasion in particular cases.”

The first rhetoric genre Aristotle classified was deliberative which concerned future situations

like choosing a course of action. The second rhetoric genre was forensic which concerned the

past and often involved justice and injustice. The third genre was epideictic which was situated

in the present and might involve honor or dishonor and praise or blame. Because these terms

were originally written in Greek, their names can seem confusing and are often translated into

various synonyms which are difficult to consolidate for the rhetoric neophyte.. Modern

theorists continued the ancient rhetoric controversy between neo-Aristotelian and neo-

Sophistic with question whether rhetoric consists of “the container” or “the contents” which are

limited by the container?

Some sources assert that all rhetoricians subsequent to Aristotle only translated his ideas or

dressed them in new clothes. Rhetoric is all about the speaker considering how to ethically

present persuasive ideas with trustworthiness while appealing to audience emotions and reason.

Richard West and Lynn H. Turner (2010) listed two assumptions of rhetoric: “Effective

public speakers must consider their audience” and “Effective public speakers use a number of

proofs in their presentations” (p. 313). The first assumption advised the public speaker to engage

in audience analysis. This involved considering the anticipated audience as specific individuals

evaluating their anticipated viewpoints in light of the context of...
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