Rhetoric Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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.