Most critics agree that Rhetoric was composed during Aristotle's second residency in Athens, which occurred between 335 and 322 B.C. The composition date has been placed from 336 to 330 B.C. Although there is little agreement regarding Aristotle's intention in this work, in general Rhetoric discusses methods of persuasion, logical and ethical proofs, and the style and arrangement of rhetorical arguments.
It is believed that in addition to his Rhetoric, Aristotle wrote a number of other rhetorical works which have since been lost. John Henry Freese has noted that Diogenes Laertus, in his Life of Aristotle, listed six such works, among them the dialogue Gryllus. Critical attention has focused on the extant fragments of this text and on references to it in other texts. The son of Xenophon, Gryllus died in battle in 362 B.C. After his death, elaborate eulogies were prepared for him, and some critics believe that Aristotle's Gryllus was one such commemoration. Others, including Anton-Hermann Chroust, have argued that the dialogue is actually a polemic against this obsequious style of rhetoric.
Scholars believe that Aristotle revised the work over a number of years following its composition. Some have conjectured that Rhetoric was used by Aristotle as a set of lecture notes. Keith V. Erickson has noted that despite stories regarding the loss and recovery of the text, it apparently was preserved by the Lyceum (the school in Athens at which Aristotle taught). The work may have seemed to disappear, Erickson has suggested, simply because it was not taught for many years. Although Cicero (143-06 B.C.) frequently mentioned Rhetoric in his works, there is little to indicate the extent to which the text was studied for the next approximately six hundred years. Erickson has noted that it was the last of Aristotle's works to be recovered in the Middle Ages. The text was translated into Arabic, and then into Latin from Arabic in 1256. Around 1475, the first published analysis of Rhetoric appeared, prepared by George of Trebizond. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the publication of numerous translations and commentaries on the work. After a century of little interest in the work, Rhetoric enjoyed a nineteenth-century revival, which has continued into the twentieth century and has resulted in its publication in many languages.
Modern critical analyses of Rhetoric have focused on the construction of the work, on the psychological concepts Aristotle discusses, and whether or not Aristotle proves the legitimacy of rhetorical discourse. Charles Sears Baldwin has studied the way in which Aristotle distinguishes logic from rhetoric. Baldwin has pointed out that while both rhetoric and logic are methods of "bringing out truth, of making people see what is true and fitting," rhetoric seeks to have this truth "embraced" by the people. Gerard A. Hauser has examined the two "instruments of logical proof used by Aristotle in Rhetoric: the enthymeme* and the example. Hauser has noted that Aristotle seems to present example first as an independent method of proof (in Book 1) and then as subordinate to the enthymeme (in Book 2). By exploring the logical relationship between induction and example in Aristotle's other writings, Hauser has concluded that Aristotle presents a single doctrine with regard to example, but one which is bifurcated. Theresa M. Crem has offered a similarly technical analysis of Rhetoric, stating that Aristotle approaches the subject as a logician. Crem has reviewed portions of the work as "a scientific presentation of the rhetorical method."
The psychology of Rhetoric is also a source of commentary among critics. William J. Jordan has argued that by studying the context of Aristotle's statements in Rhetoric concerning the use of metaphor, it becomes apparent that Aristotle regarded the metaphor as a psychological tool. Aristotle's conception of metaphor, Jordan has stated, identifies "semantic and structural characteristics" desigped to affect the behavior of listeners or readers. Alan Brinton has also taken up the issue of the psychology explored in Rhetoric. Brinton maintains that the psychological concepts present in the text are not the type which become dated, since they are not psychological theories "in the social-scientific 'sense."
Critics have also addressed the issue that was hotly debated during Aristotle's life—the question of whether rhetoric is legitimate, rational discourse or whether it is sophistry, a method of verbal manipulation with a disregard for the soundness of argumentation. Larry Arnhart has explained that because rhetorical arguments generally lack the strict exactness of scientific knowledge, Aristotle faced the challenge of demonstrating that such arguments were still rational. Arnhart maintains that Aristotle used the concept of enthymeme in order to distinguish rhetoric from both science and sophistry, and that Aristotle successfully demonstrated the rationality of rhetorical discourse. Similarly, Mary Margaret McCabe has studied the objections to rhetoric raised by Aristotle's contemporaries, as well as his responses in Rhetoric to such objections. McCabe has concluded that Aristotle avoids both extremes: Plato's complete condemnation of rhetoric and Isocrates's absolute endorsement of it. She maintains that Aristotle demonstrates that rhetoric is truly an art that can be practiced legitimately.
*A syllogism is an argument, or proof, used in logic, in which the conclusion of the argument is supported by two premises. An enthymeme is a syllogism in which one of the two premises is unexpressed.
Principal English Translations
The Rhetoric of Aristotle [translated by Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb] 1909
The Rhetoric of Aristotle [translated by Lane Cooper] 1932
The Art of Rhetoric [translated by H. C. Lawson-Tancred] 1991
On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse [translated by George A. Kennedy] 1991
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SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Aristotle," in Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic, Peter Smith, 1959, pp. 6-21.
[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1924, Baldwin examines both the construction and content of Books I and 2 of Rhetoric. He maintains that in this work, which should be regarded as a philosophical survey rather than a manual, Aristotle demonstrates "the full reach of his intelligence."]
The only art of composition that concerns the mass of mankind, and is therefore universal in both educational practise and critical theory, is the art of effective communication by speaking and writing. This is what the ancients and most moderns call rhetoric. More ample and exact definition, though unnecessary for elementary practise, is demanded for fruitful theory; and the theory of rhetoric has always concerned so many more people than the theory of any other art as to be part of every pedagogy. Here the practise of education not only may be guided by philosophy; it must be. For any coherence in its teaching, rhetoric must be comprehended not only in its immediate functions, but in its pervasive relations to other studies. It is at once the constant in educational schemes and the art among sciences. How we are in a given time and place to learn or teach rhetoric depends on how we understand its function and scope in specific relations.
The importance of a theory...
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SOURCE: "Aristotle's First Literary Effort: The Gryullus—A Work on the Nature of Rhetoric" in Aristotle: New Light on His Life and on Some of His Lost Works, Vol. II, University of Notre Dame Press, 1973, pp. 29-42.
[In the following essay, Chroust argues that, based on the extant fragments of and references to Aristotle's Gryllus, the work appears to be an attack on certain types of rhetoric, as well as a defense of "proper" rhetoric, and is similar in content to passages in Plato's Gorgias.]
In their respective 'catalogues' of Aristotle's writings, Diogenes Lacrtius,1 Hesychius of Smyrna (the author of the Vita Aristotelis Hesychii)2 and Ptolemy (-cl-Garib)3 include a composition entitled Concerning Rhetoric or Gryllus (generally cited as Gryllus or Grylus). With the exception of a few relatively insignificant fragments, excerpts or references, this Gryllus4 has been completely lost in the course of time, as were most of the other carliest … works of Aristotle. Assuming that they actually relate to the lost Gryllus, these few extant fragments, however, enable us to draw certain significant conclusions concerning the original form, nature and content of this composition.
When recording the various arguments made by people who denied that rhetoric is an art …; Quintilian observes...
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SOURCE: "The Definition of Rhetoric According to Aristotle," in Aristotle: The Classical Heritage of Rhetoric, edited by Keith V. Erickson, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1974, pp. 52-71.
[In the following essay, Crem examines the first chapter and the beginning of the second chapter of Book I of Aristotle's Rhetoric, arguing that he offers a scientific treatment of the subject in that he approaches rhetoric not as a rhetorician but as a logician.]
Aristotle's treatise on rhetoric is unique, in that it is a properly scientific consideration of the subject. This characteristic becomes manifest, when we compare it with other rhetorical treatises, such as those of Cicero. The works of this great rhetorician are of high value because of his wide experience in the field; nevertheless, they do not methodically treat of the nature of rhetoric. Rather, they are handbooks of practical advice on public speaking and on the formation of the rhetorician.
On the other hand, Aristotle speaks not as an experienced rhetorician, but as a logician. Rhetoric is a part of logic understood in the broad sense, i.e., taken to include all disciplines which direct the act of reason. In the order of logical treatises, the Rhetoric is placed immediately after the Topics, which is concerned with dialectic. Hence, because he is proceeding from a logical...
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SOURCE: "Aristotle's Concept of Metaphor in Rhetoric," in Aristotle: The Classical Heritage of Rhetoric, edited by Keith V. Erickson, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1974, pp. 235-50.
[In the following essay, Jordan studies Aristotle's use of metaphor in Rhetoric, asserting that the context of Aristotle's statements about metaphor indicates that his conception of metaphor was psychological in nature. Aristotle, Jordan notes, identifies "semantic and structural characteristics which affect reader and listener behavior."]
Unlike much of Aristotle's rhetorical theory, his concept of metaphor has received relatively little attention from contemporary rhetorical theorists. Traditionally, rhetoricians have either overlooked or have not been concerned with Aristotle's psychological aspects of metaphor, as Kennedy observes that "none of the later Greek or Roman accounts seem to share Aristotle's philosophical concern with the psychological bases of figures of speech."1 Osborn's recent discussion of metaphor likewise denies a psychological consideration of Aristotle's concept of metaphor. According to Osborn:
The emphasis in Aristotle remains primarily upon the linguistic character of metaphor, and the reasons for this emphasis again lie both in the natural tendency of early theory to stress the most obvious characteristics of the figure, and in the...
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SOURCE: "A Brief History of Aristotle's Rhetoric," in Aristotle's "Rhetoric": Five Centuries of Philological Research, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1975, pp. 1-20.
[In the following essay, Erickson traces 2,300 years of the history of Rhetoric, from its probable composition date, the myths regarding the loss and recovery of the text, early translations and publications, and into the twentieth century.]
Tracing the history of Aristotle's Rhetoric logically begins with its "completion" or "publication" date. Although numerous scholars have attempted to date the Rhetoric there is little conclusive evidence to confirm a particular date. Edward M. Cope, a century ago, summarized research concerning the Rhetoric's completion or publication date: "As is usual in these cases the result is meagre and unsatisfactory: no certainty is attainable; we have to content ourselves with sufficiently vague and indefinite conjecture as to the time and mode of the composition of the work."1 Cope's remarks are echoed by contemporary investigators such as Paul D. Brandes,2 who concludes that the Rhetoric's exact completion date remains unknown. There are several reasons for the confusion.
Book publishing as we know it, of course, did not exist in ancient Greece. To "publish" a work held a quite different meaning for Aristotle and his counterparts....
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SOURCE: "The Rationality of Political Speech: An Interpretion of Aristotle's Rhetoric," in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 9, Nos. 2 & 3, September, 1981, pp. 141-54.
[In the following essay, Arnhart maintains that Aristotle uses the concept of enthymeme (a logical argument, or syllogism, in which one of two conclusion-supporting premises is unexpressed) to defend the legitimacy of rhetorical discourse and to distinguish rhetoric from both science and sophistry.]
Is rhetoric some form of rational discourse about the intelligible reality of politics? Or is it merely a means for verbally manipulating men through fallacious arguments and appeals to irrational impulses? In short, can rhetoric be distinguished from sophistry?
One might say that the rhetorician—by his use of public speech to interpret, evaluate, and deliberate about political action—maintains somehow the rule of reason in political affairs. Does not rhetoric require political men to talk about and thereby to think about what they have done, are doing, or will do? Does not rhetoric thus elevate politics by bringing thought to bear upon action? "We weigh what we undertake and apprehend it perfectly in our minds," Pericles declared in his funeral oration, "not accounting words for a hindrance of action but that it is rather a hindrance to...
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SOURCE: "The Outmoded Psychology of Aristotle's Rhetoric," in Western Journal of Speech Communication, Vol. 54, No. 2, 1990, pp. 204-18.
[In the following essay, Brinton examines the canonical status of Rhetoric, defending it against those who would reject the text as dated due to the "emergence of the social-scientific study of communication in the twentieth century." Brinton argues that the psychological conceptions found in Rhetoric are, unlike some psychological theories, "not the kind which perish …" and that the text remains relevant to students of rhetorical theory.]
However rhetoric ought to be defined, the great rhetorics of the past have, whatever their defects, at least some claim to the name. They may also deserve respect as relics of the past. But how importantly, if at all, ought they to figure in the education of students of rhetorical theory? And to what extent, if any, is it appropriate for contemporary rhetorical theorists to work from, say, Aristotle's Rhetoric as a basic text, to address questions in rhetorical theory for modern readers in its terms? However (and whether or not) rhetoric ought to be defined in conceptual terms, during any given period certain texts help to define it for the student and for the scholar, if not always for the practitioner. That is to say, there is for students and scholars, for good or ill, a sort of de facto...
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SOURCE: "Arguments in Context: Aristotle's Defense of Rhetoric," in Aristotle's "Rhetoric," edited by David J. Fuley and Alexander Nehamas, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 129-66.
[In the following essay, McCabe defends the structure and the content of Rhetoric, arguing that both support Aristotle's view that rhetoric is indeed an art and that it can be practiced in a legitimate manner.]
Is the opening of Aristotle's Rhetoric a muddle, an agglomeration of two versions of the text, haphazardly assembled? Or is there a coherent strategy to be found here? It has been persuasively suggested that two different strands of argument within the Rhetoric correspond to two stages in the development in Aristotle's logic (an earlier, Topics-based stage, and a later one that uses the theory of the syllogism put forward in the Prior Analytics).1 But I shall argue that the Rhetoric is not ill-knit after all. For the appearance of fracture derives from Aristotle's standard practice of considering the views of the many and the wise to arrive at a coherent theory of his own. In this case, I claim, Aristotle explicitly confronts the opposed theories of his predecessors: Plato, who denied that there could be an art of rhetoric, and the tradition of the rhetors and sophists which maintained that rhetoric is the overarching science because the practice of rhetoric is...
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Benoit, William Lyon. "Aristotle's Example: The Rhetorical Induction." The Quarterly Journal of Speech 66, No. 2 (April 1980): 182-92.
Responds to critical interpretations of Aristotle's use of example offered by Gerard Hauser and Scott Consigny and provides a different interpretation and explanation.
Brandes, Paul D. A History of Aristotle's Rhetoric with a Bibliography of Early Printings. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1989, 222p.
Traces the composition, preservation, and manuscript history of Rhetoric through the twentieth century.
Consigny, Scott. "Transparency and Displacement: Aristotle's Concept of Rhetorical Clarity." Rhetoric Society Quarterly XVII, No. 4 (Fall 1987): 413-19.
Examines Aristotle's statements regarding rhetorical clarity found in Book 3 of Rhetoric, demonstrating that while many understand Aristotle to be advocating clarity as "a virtue, and indeed a criterion of the accurate, undistorted transmission" of ideas, Aristotle actually goes on to state that such clarity is "achieved through artifice."
Cooper, Lane, trans. Introduction to The Rhetoric of Aristotle. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1932, 259p.
Introduces the text of Rhetoric by placing it within the context of Aristotle's other writings, defining special terms used in the...
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