Rhetoric Essay - Critical Essays




Major Works

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.

Textual History

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.

Critical Reception

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 Works

Gryllus (dialogue) c. 360 B.C.

Rhetorical [Rhetoric] (treatise) c. 336 B.C.

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


Charles Sears Baldwin (essay date 1924)

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...

(The entire section is 4578 words.)

Anton-Hermann Chroust (essay date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 9392 words.)

Theresa M. Crem (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 8371 words.)

William J. Jordan (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 6237 words.)

Keith V. Erickson (essay date 1975)

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....

(The entire section is 5958 words.)

Larry Arnhart (essay date 1981)

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...

(The entire section is 6700 words.)

Alan Brinton (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 7834 words.)

Mary Margaret McCabe (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 17761 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 594 words.)