aristotle’s labyrinth

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.2 (Spring 2016)


Writing, Thinking, & the Spirit
prae-206Picture courtesy of the Art Renewal Center


The Orator’s Audience, the Orator, and… the Orator’s Teacher: Captives in Aristotle’s Labyrinth of Duplicity, Part II
(a collection of personal notes)
John R. Harris

Teachers of composition have long taken their bearings Aristotle’s Rhetoric, but the Master’s values are not suitable for young minds to imbibe.

continued from previous issue


Once More, the Teacher Regrets That We Must Fight Fire With Fire

Aristotle appears to indulge himself in confidential ruminations as he begins this short third book. He explains that the delivery of a speech—the voice’s volume, harmony, and rhythm (the latter two words direct English borrowings from the Greek)—determines its success as much as the contents (1.4). Then, with a blend of regret and contempt reminiscent of the Rhetoric’s opening lines, he adds that dramatic contests are decided as much by the declamatory skills of the actors as by the artistry of the poets, and that such degeneracy (mochtheria) has carried over into the political realm. Section 5 continues the moody reflection. The degeneracy of the present time explains why earlier authors on rhetoric have neglected style. It was less important in their day, when judges were more mindful of their duty: for “justice consists of attending to nothing more than the argument’s logic.” Yet since the “audience’s degeneracy” has grown into a major factor, the conscientious teacher must address delivery.

On few earlier occasions has Aristotle shown himself so mindful of the truth as a destination independent of subjective prejudice. Indeed, the moral indignation faintly simmering at the outset of book 3 is almost sui generis. One must note, in passing, that it is also unjustified, at least by the philosopher’s own chosen standard. If the good of any man is what pleases him, and if certain men are pleased by dramatic delivery, then on what basis does one criticize their verdict as degenerate? On the basis that they may have been pleasantly duped into choosing against their own ultimate pleasure and selfish benefit? But when only varieties of self-service exist among the options, who is to say that immediate gratification is less “moral” than long-term advancement? By such reasoning, I suppose, Odysseus would have been guilty of moral degeneracy if Andromache’s shrieking and sobbing had persuaded him not throw her little Astyanax from Troy’s parapets. The Achaians would then have incurred the extreme inconvenience of having to worry about the boy’s maturing into another Hector… all because of one man’s degenerate illogic!

On the other hand, perhaps Aristotle is manifesting in this passage (somewhat clumsily) a genuine regard for that kind of objective truth whose existence his philosophy, at least in moral matters, will not permit him to acknowledge.

Making Speech Poetic While Avoiding a Poetic Appearance

The remaining sections of this inaugural chapter stress the importance of lexis in every branch of the poetic tradition; if choice of words and rhythm is so consequential there, it must scarcely be less so in prose presentations. The ensuing chapter observes that prose cannot afford the poet’s gestures in the direction of the exotic (to xenikon), for a natural choice and flow of words is sooner believed—and to be believed is the speaker’s objective (2.3-2.4). Aristotle frequently recurs to his own Poetics during the discussion, as when he applauds Euripides for integrating quotidian words into fine verse (2.5). Of the poet’s panoply of colorful tropes and devices, metaphor is far and away best suited to prose delivery, where it may introduce an appealing tinge of exoticism without seeming wholly incongruous. Yet care must be taken that metaphors “harmonize” with the situation and not prove inappropriate (aprepes: 2.9). By this, Aristotle appears to mean that they should not draw attention to the speaker in a prejudicial manner—not that they should abstain from being deviously but effectively manipulative. The examples that he offers in the lengthy section 2.10, it must be said, show concern for conceptual accuracy: e.g., a priest is not a beggar just because both may engage in supplication. The concern here, however, seems to be that the speaker may tarnish himself with the stain of impiety, and not that he has a duty to spare his audience the moral hoodwink of deprecating a holy man. The section’s first words, in fact, briefly license the speaker to draw his emphasis from the unflattering side of a comparison (apo ton cheironon) if he is on the attack against its subject.

Indeed, the remaining sections of chapter 2 stress from other directions the importance of the metaphor’s giving pleasure to hearers (as distinct from its being fair to its subject). The trope’s beauty must, as in any work of art, be cultivated from within qualities of its audible sound or its imaginative power, or from some other sensation (aisthesis: 2.13)). Metaphoric terms must not be internally dissonant: oracular pronouncements furnish good examples in their enigmas of how far one may stretch the limits of tasteful comparison (2.12). The epithets used in metaphors should not have a randomly cacophonous sound: Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” would never have been refashioned by the poet into “red-fingered dawn” (rhododaktyluos versus erythrodaktylos in Greek: 2.13-14).

Chapter 3 presents the four types of “chilling effect” (to psychron) that diction can have upon speech. By the way, not all such effects are bad, for “chill” can impose a salutary stateliness on occasion; but most risk arresting the speech’s fluidity in a brief burst of oddity that distracts the audience in no helpful manner. Our teacher examines the compound word (3.1), the coinage (glotta: 3.2), the epithet strained by its length or tortured imagery (3.3), and the ill-advised metaphor that turns painfully inept or risibly pompous (3.4). The final two of these sections are inordinately long due to a wealth of examples. Aristotle appears to be fighting a gravitational pull that draws him back in the direction of his Poetics. He obviously nourishes a fondness for the artistic trope—but in the present context, “poetic” is seldom a praiseful term. The speaker must at all costs avoid seeming stilted or unnatural to his hearers.

Hence the species of metaphor called simile (eikon) is also less welcome in speech than in verse. Chapter 4 handles this subject in a mere four sections, though 4.2 and 3 again burst their seams (if I may speak metaphorically) with examples from the philosopher’s vast experience. The concluding observation that a good simile’s terms should be reversible (e.g., if Achilles is like a lion, then a lion should also be like Achilles) reminds us that Aristotle is ever in search of some objective-seeming principle of classification or measurement; for one might rather more credibly argue, I would suggest, that the terms of an imaginative simile are quite shocking if viewed in reverse. A bat trapped in a dark cellar would not make even Baudelaire instantly think of hope.

Almost as succinctly, chapter 5 treats of effectively “Hellenized” speech, by which Aristotle means speech that does not repel or distract with grammatical infractions. The five traits of a fluidly Hellenized style are these: clearly coordinated elements (as when “on the one hand” is not removed too distantly from “on the other”); apt rather than vague word choice (including the solecism that we would call a mixed metaphor); avoidance of ambiguous phrases (amphibola: 5.4—only oracular pronouncements profit from inviting various interpretations); and finally the very similar obligations to have noun and adjective agree in gender and noun and verb agree in number (5.5-6). Subsequent generations of European schoolchildren were not the first, apparently, to suffer through the misery of having to memorize and correlate proper Greek word-endings!

To ogkon could be translated “the swollen” or “the inflated,” both of which options have a pompously insincere resonance which the Greek word does not necessarily possess. Call it “the dignified” or “the grand,” then: this is the subject of chapter 7. Means of “inflating” one’s style include substituting a description for a simple name, tastefully infusing metaphors and lofty epithets into the speech, appropriating the poetic plural (very hard to replicate in English: say, “high winds” instead of “high wind”), employing asyndeton (e.g., “the passion, the rage, the fury,” without any conjunction), and adding otiose descriptors (e.g., “the raging passion, the passionate fury”). Aristotle stresses that addition or subtraction of such measures will be dictated by circumstance and desired effect. As always, the end determines the means.

The Golden Triad Makes a Modest Appearance

Humbly appearing in chapter 7 is the analytical paradigm which has received more play in contemporary rhetorical handbooks than any other Aristotelian concoction: the logos/pathos/ethos trichotomy. The first item, in fact, is more properly lexis than logos. In 7.1-2, Aristotle is not concerned with the logical concatenation of points, but rather with the degree of ogkos to be infused into the presentation. Too much pomp introduced into a trivial occasion produces a comic effect (7.2). Yet when an outrageous situation may be expected to stir anger in the audience or a miserable one to stir pity, the speaker is well advised to display these emotions in his choice of words no less than in his tone of voice (7.3). Thus diction veers into to pathetikon, or emotional appeal. Audiences trust a speaker who seems to respond to issues viscerally just as they themselves do, even when the speaker’s logical presentation is dubious (7.4). Sometimes speakers will even elevate their audible volume (thorybos: 7.5) without imparting any commensurate rise to their case’s level of reasoning!

We have very quickly returned, then, to the terrain of outright manipulation. One might suppose that the subject of the speaker’s “character” would introduce an opposing strain; but we have long since noted that ethos means something more like “adherence to tradition” than “fidelity to conscience” in Aristotle. Fourth-century Athens was still sufficiently embedded in oral-traditional notions of tribe and communal expectation to equate the virtuous with the customary, and it is to those notions that section 7.6 recurs. “An appropriate ethic goes with each class [genos] and tendency [hexis],” the philosopher muses, further explaining, “By class I mean according to age group, such as child and grown man and old man, such as woman and man, such as Spartan and Thessalian, and by tendencies I mean according to what a man is of such-and-such a type in life.” As an explanation, these words are less than crystalline. The following section offers by way of helpful elucidation that one must not appear too educated to an uneducated audience; and by 7.10, we are being counseled (again) to choose words and modulate voice in a manner that stirs a given audience to the desired state. For such insights to flow from the discussion of a word often translated as “character,” we must concede that the character in question is mere inclination or tendency expanded from the personal to the communal level: cultural conditioning, in short. At issue is not some metaphysical obligation to adhere to the truth, but rather the practical wisdom of understanding others’ prejudices.

The Golden Mean Prescribes “Goldilocks Tests”

Chapter 8 is insolubly alien to our own cultural conditioning as modern Westerners, at least in its details. The subject is rhythm, which is clear enough; and Aristotle’s contention is that effective speech must be cadenced, but not so artificially that it sounds like poetry. This, too, is clear enough, and also quite reasonable. As for the superiority of the paean to various other metrical schemes (8.4-6), we can scarcely imagine how ancient Greek in either prose or verse, with its syllabic quantities mysteriously warring against or perhaps dancing among tonal accents, must have struck the ear. All we need to know is that a good speech should sound special without sounding entirely and ridiculously staged. Its rhythms (quite apart from its content) should steer a golden mean between the quotidian and the theatrical.

Chapter 9 continues in the same stylistic vein, and with the same cryptic distance from modern Western sensibilities. Among cultures whose oral tradition lingers in the collective memory (Gaelic Ireland springs to mind), the notion that prose rhythms might profitably draw upon poetic convention will not have grown alien. To the rest of us, Aristotle’s recommendation of the “tied down” style over the “rambling” style (lexis katestrammene versus lexis eiromene: 9.1-3) will make sense only in general terms. Fortunately, the more specific grammatical terms “period” and “colon” (drawn directly from Greek by our language, though “sentence” has grown a more familiar designation of the former in English) are introduced in 9.3 and employed for the rest of the chapter. Our sentences should not be of the “run-on” variety. They should be broken up into clauses, and these latter should be of manageable and fairly uniform length. The Golden Mean reappears in warnings about the unhelpful effects of excessive length or brevity (9.6). Furthermore, some sort of matching arrangement is useful for riveting the audience’s attention upon critical points, as in antithetical structuring (“Some fled the city, others held their ground”); and contrasting content may even be emphasized by repeated sounds, as when a word recurs in two cola with different inflections (called paromoiosis: see 9.8-9).

Chapter 10 need not have existed… but Aristotle loves a good metaphor, and he cannot seem to relinquish the subject. We therefore have an additional seven sections on ta asteia, or clever, urbane sayings (the French word astuces owes its origin to this term). One might suppose oneself primed for a list of especially witty proverbs—for Aristotle begins by declaring that he will “enumerate” relevant items of the greatest popularity (10.2); and indeed, we have already been informed that proverbs may be enthymemes, and we learn further in 10.4 that enthymemes imparting “sudden understanding” (mathesis tacheia) are clever. The standard for quickness here is very quick, however, and probably in excess of what most proverbs could satisfy. Even the simile is begrudged the delay of its added word that makes a comparison explicit (10.3); so the metaphor soon settles into center-stage by default. Section 10.6 advises us of another “Goldilocks test”: the expression must neither be stale and cliché nor too difficult to parse. Then one of the longest sections in all of the Rhetoric, 10.7, regales us liberally with metaphors of our teacher’s fondest acquaintance from the lips of master orators.

And the fascination with metaphor continues into a long Chapter 11, which ostensibly addresses energeia in diction. Such “energy” arises from avoiding the trite on one side and the strained on the other (a middle course whose exploration Aristotle acknowledges has already been thoroughly accomplished). Homer is cited abundantly in 11.3-4. The use of paradox to puzzle and surprise the audience pleasantly occupies much of 11.6, and the subtle jests possible with homonymy appear in 11.8. These sections pursue their subject against a backdrop of metaphor as the governing principle, with an antithetical phrasing of the trope being urged more than once: repetition, yet again, of matter already discussed. Similes were also addressed in an earlier chapter but have not departed, it turns out: we find them resurrected in 11.11-13. The proverb (paroimia), which had seemed poised to pass in review earlier, is explicitly mentioned in 11.14—but now only as a species of metaphor; and so for the hyperbole (or exaggeration, indicative of passion and hence inappropriate for older speakers) in 11.15-16. Indeed, one may scarcely realize by these final sections that energeia has not occupied the stage since the chapter’s halfway point. Metaphor has stolen the show.

Chapter 12 stresses the contrast between written and spoken lexis. The former is more precise and concentrated upon the logical merits of the case, the latter more beholden to evoking pathos and exploiting various reiterative devices (12.2-3). Arguing before a small audience of experienced judges will indeed partake more of the written style, for such hearers will respond less vigorously to elevation of voice, emotional appeal, and other histrionic strategies (12.5). The concluding chapter strikes me as quite obscure, but Aristotle appears to stress that clarity, accuracy, and other hallmarks of the written style nonetheless aim at pleasing the audience just as much as the more pathetic approaches: for as the audience changes, what pleases it changes (12.6). Was our teacher afraid that he might have come close to advocating attention to facts and logic—to truth—over manipulation?

Taxis: The Ancient Word for “Spin”?

With Chapter 13, we embark upon the arrangement (taxis) of the speech. Aristotle consumes most of these five brief sections in pleading for an analysis somewhat simpler than previous authors have provided; for they have tended to render their schemata laughable by including elements only present in certain kinds of presentation (13.3), or else by multiplying single elements into manifold complexities (13.4). To remark that every speech of any sort states its objective and then strives to fulfill it is quite sufficient.

Nevertheless, our teacher proceeds in the next chapter to examine somewhat lengthily the various kinds of beginning (prooimion). The speaker who has a specific proposition to defend or prove starts from a specific range of perspectives, such as approval or rebuke or accepted wisdom (14.2-4). When the speech is intended to move a wider audience on matters of general interest, a Homeric-style invocation announcing, as it were, the story’s purpose works well (14.5). The ensuing section is in some ways the chapter’s heart. Discussing lengthily how the placement of summary comments differs according to whether one wishes to create a strong first or final impression (roughly corresponding to a defender’s and a prosecutor’s role), Aristotle reminds us that the ultimate objective is to predispose the audience in one’s favor (to akroaten ek tou eunous poesai). This will determine what degree of shock or amusement or indignation or other emotion should be created by the overview (14.7). Yet if the audience is a canny one, manipulation should be minimal, lest it backfire by becoming transparent (14.8; and cf. 1412). The final four sections further advise us how to run an effective rhetorical finesse. A bad case, for instance, is best prefaced by a powerful opening that distracts hearers from the central issues (14.10).

One would have thought that so narrow a crack in the door opening upon bad cases and guilty defendants would not lead us entirely from the edifice of taxis. One would be wrong. The fifteenth chapter’s digression consumes ten sections, all of them advising us of how to deflect a charge back upon the accuser when the evidence alone creates extreme vulnerability. The charge may be denied or trivialized, the accuser may be impugned as a liar or guilty himself of the same or worse crimes, the offender may be represented as unwitting or having had to stray in pursuit of a more noble end, etc., etc. Many such attacks upon credibility, acknowledges Aristotle, may be launched equally well by the accuser. For instance, minor points in contention may be conceded so as to create an appearance of fairness, or even generosity, before building an indictment based upon the only point of any consequence (15.10). Digressive as it is, chapter 15 is far from interesting. It provides us a glimpse into some of the master orator’s most soiled laundry.

We now return to the second essential element of taxis: the story, or narrative (diegesis). This element is not to be confused with a story in the more artistic sense. It is, rather, an effective concatenating (as we should say, an “editing”) of relevant events into a sequence that advances one’s case. Indeed, Aristotle is at pains to clarify that the whole unedited story may bore or digress or perplex (16.1-3): hence the skillful speaker carefully selects highlights. Yet he must not be too stinting in his selection, for excessive brevity risks burying the critical points (16.4). Once again, the principle of the Golden Mean is invoked. And again, too, advantage is the objective, not truth. A “critical” point seems not necessarily to be one that establishes the facts at issue unless these are favorable; it may, as well, present the speaker or client as exceptionally virtuous (16.5), categorize certain incidents as irrelevant or trivial (16.6), paint an event in poignant colors (16.7), and so forth. If the vector of any such discussion appears to us skewed to the insistence in 16.8-9 that the story is always moral, then we have forgotten Aristotle’s understanding of to ethikon. He means only that the speaker’s recounting of past deeds goes to motive or character, and not that the speaker incurs any responsibility to do such recounting in a way that strictly preserves the truth. Prejudicial descriptive language that doesn’t lend itself to verification (e.g., “He then scowled and slunk away”) is even encouraged in 16.10.

The Enthymeme Exits Enigmatically

As this long, meandering, protean opus draws very close to its conclusion, chapter 17 displays no inclination to tie loose ends together or underscore major points. Instead, it is surely one of the Rhetoric’s most complex units, and its shuttling back and forth among minutiae concerned in different types of delivery is apt to leave one’s head spinning. The subject is pistis, or persuasion… or perhaps it is amphisbesis, or contention. Since the prooemion and the diegesis both aim at persuasion, Aristotle obviously has a particular variety of argument in mind (though he has already pronounced that these two constitutive elements occur in all presentations); and, apparently, that variety deals with matters in hot dispute. He reiterates in section 17.1 that one may dispute whether or not something happened at all or happened as was reported or was a significant and injurious happening or happened to the greater good while incurring a little grief. (I say “reiterates” because we have been over this ground several times in various circumstances.)   The second section briefly but curiously reminds us that one’s adversary plays the scoundrel (poneros) only in disputing evident facts and not in disputing the proper allocation of justice—a magnanimity on the philosopher’s part born (one must suppose) of his agnosticism regarding objective moral principles. Does 17.3 not build upon that theme? It extols exaggeration (auxesis) as a means of selling facts “in need of trust” to be proved: questions of motive and character, we may assume. Issues of material fact, in contrast, call for open contradiction or (when one’s adversary speaks truth) the kind of soft-pedaling disparagement mentioned above (17.4). At what point the speaker himself becomes poneros in taking this advice is not specified.

My personal nemesis, the enthymeme, rears its elusive head over much of what remains in the chapter. Enthymemes are contrasted with examples (paradeigmata) in 17.5, where the smaller, more judicious body of hearers appears better suited to narrowly focused illustrations than to sententious declamation. Section 17.6 vaguely hints that the enthymeme (belonging to the less focused, more sententious category) may leave the audience puzzled if overused; and 17.7 comes close to stating openly that the enthymeme’s conclusion is plainer to people than its premises. An immense challenge is posed by the continuing, even thickening obscurity of 17.8. Here the enthymeme is restricted from circumstances where the speaker seeks pathos because, in some way, the former neutralizes the latter. I presume Aristotle means that ill-timed generalization does not favor the capture of listeners in poignant details. Sensible enough; but what, then, is his intent in adding that enthymemes likewise should be avoided when one pursues an ethical effect? Is not the enthymeme a syllogism (a “true” syllogism) bearing upon human conduct, and apparently—as we now see—one whose premises are somewhat overshadowed by its conclusion? Unless the Greek text is corrupt here, I would only be able to offer a series of equally uninformed guesses about our teacher’s meaning, for this entire section consumes scarcely thirty words.

On the other hand, section 17.10 is quite wordy in exploring (again) the differences between speaking to the mass and speaking to judges; and I acknowledge (once more) my own inadequacy to parse the fine distinctions, often probably understood by the book’s original audience without prompting, between demegoresis and apodeixis. The latter, however (whose literal meaning suggests “to show clearly”), is represented as compatible with the enthymeme in 17.12 as it was in 17.8; yet a final ten-word sentence posits in Pythian intricacy that the speaker seeking to sell his or his client’s upright image to the audience is better off showing his regard for propriety than his precision with words.

Is the enthymeme, then, “precise” (akribes)? Are its premises not, rather, somewhat obscure? Is the impression of exactitude conveyed by the gesture toward the apothegmatic: that is, does the enthymeme have a somewhat pedantic taste that smacks of insincerity? At the very least, Aristotle assumes a far greater knowledge of the relevant issues in his audience than his explanations provide.

Like a traveler hastily cramming articles into a suitcase that already bulges, chapter 17 adds three sections (13-15) about refutation, then devotes a final two (16-17) to the speaker’s need of projecting a modest, respectful character. The enthymeme makes one more appearance in the last section, where shifting it into a moral maxim (gnome) is recommended as a means (I can only assume) of sounding less pompous, more humble. The example offered takes an “if… then” formulation and expands it into something less concentrated. I volunteer my own example, in reverse: “A good person acts not to procure self-centered material gain, but to conform to a principle equally binding upon all sane adult human beings; Glaucus stole and hid the temple offering not to profit from it himself, but to prevent a war. Therefore, Glaucus is clearly a good man, not an impious thief.” I could enthymatize this syllogism by writing, “If Glaucus stole the temple offering to prevent a war and not to increase his personal wealth, he is clearly a good man.” Why is the second version more pedantic than the first, and not less so? Why is it more precise than the mere narrative of Glaucus, and not less so?

I find that I have arrived at a faint understanding of the enthymeme not because of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, but in spite of it.

A Hasty Departure: Last-Minute Grabs

The penultimate chapter continues to stuff the suitcase. Though primarily about when and how to pose questions during a speech, chapter 18 closes with a section on when and how to crack a joke (18.7). Somewhat more appropriately, chapter 19 wraps up by reviewing quickly the elements of a wrap-up: the epilogos. Since he has already remarked that anything beyond the prooemion and the diegesis may prove dispensable in certain circumstances, Aristotle may perhaps be forgiven for treating the epilogue as an afterthought; yet, in a poignantly ironic way, this last chapter is indeed a summary (a thoroughly unconscious one) of his treatise’s deeper significance. Three of the epilogue’s four essential elements, it turns out, are overtly manipulative. The first involves predisposing the audience to view one favorably and one’s adversary unfavorably (19.1); the second concerns a calculated shifting of emphasis so as to highlight points in support of one’s case (19.2); the third is to evoke in the audience a strong emotion, whether love or hate, pity or jealousy (19.3); and the fourth, at last, is to encapsulate the facts of the case (19.4)—which, of course, may also be selected and ordered quite prejudicially, though Aristotle never says as much in blunt terms. Rather, in 19.5, he suggests ways for the speaker to show that he has “kept his promise”: i.e., that he has vanquished his opponent’s evidence and logic. The dramatized point-counterpoint style of summation recommended (best couched in a breathless, no-nonsense asyndeton style, as 19.6 advises) certainly seems an apt vehicle for oversimplication.

Win the case: that’s the thing. Say what must be said in a way that attracts the listeners; leave unsaid what might prove disastrous, if known. Disparage the importance of damning facts if they cannot be avoided—or else tar the accuser with the same stick. Herein consists the fine art of rhetoric.


1) Dyads, Triads, Catalogues: The Faux Analysis of Traditionalism

It would be unfair to chide Aristotle with putting up a false front of analytical precision and objectivity. In retrospect, we of the scientific age are tempted to admire his classifications and taxonomies: his method looks as though it must surely be the forerunner of Cartesian reasoning. With such preconceptions, readers of the Rhetoric may be equally tempted to find betrayal in the work’s casually inductive lists, its capricious applications of the Golden Mean, and its threesomes whose members flit across one another’s boundaries like phantoms. The bitterness of this disillusionment in unjustified: no one has been betrayed, and Aristotle is no Judas. We must remind ourselves, rather, that his textbook for rhetorical training was most likely, in some large measure, a compilation of notes taken by students. Everything we have of Socrates is owed to Plato’s recollections, and everything we know of Epictetus’ teaching flowed from the stylus of Arrian.

On the other hand, such pedigrees themselves indicate an essential fact about pedagogical aids or records of lectures in classical antiquity. The notion of a renowned teacher’s physically manuscribing his doctrine for posterity needed patient centuries to take shape. Well into the cultural era when literacy was a prerequisite of study in any area of formal learning, the teacher’s side of the equation remained oral. The biographies of famous philosophers encapsulated for us by Diogenes Laertius will often include a few treatises left behind; but it is no less clear that aspiring students would learn by traveling to a desired philosopher’s school and sitting at his feet to listen (as opposed to acquiring and poring over a rich library of manuscripts). Cicero’s copious writing is often our only source of detailed information about Greek thinkers; yet this erudite Roman, whose name would be synonymous with written eloquence for a thousand years, describes how he and his fellow students had a peripatetic discussion after a morning spent listening to their master, the great Antiochus, in Athens (De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, beginning of book 5). Of course, “Tully” grew even more legendary for the eloquence of his speech, and would author his own treatises about oratory. Over three hundred years after Aristotle, he was still writing about talking, not talking about writing.

The literary habit, then, was a long time elbowing oral practice from the scene. (We have the further examples of Jesus and Confucius to suggest that the literate teacher’s preference for oral communication characterized other cultures at approximately the same phase of shift.) Classification is not in and of itself literate. Pre-literate peoples do not think in cloudy jumbles; their manner of triage is simply not that of a Newton or a Darwin. As for literates surrounded by a rich and yet vibrant pre-literate tradition… should we be surprised if they have a foot in either world?

What I mean to imply here is that Aristotle would not likely have composed a work with the Origin of Species’ objective intricacy of classification even if he had been solely responsible for the undertaking.   To characterize him as a scientific thinker is an anachronism: his method of arranging material has many analogues in the oral-traditional style of recording. The genesis of the Rhetoric, let us not forget, nestles firmly in the primacy of oral communication throughout the political and cultural life of fourth-century Athens. Like Cicero’s De Oratore, this is a written work (or at least a collection of written notes) about how to speak effectively. The idea of extrapolating its lessons to contemporary classes in written composition doesn’t seem very presumptuous, but neither must we overlook the slight presumption involved.

I will observe briefly and specifically (for those who do not share my enthusiasm for early-literate narratives) that doubling, trebling, and cataloguing all feature prominently in oral traditions. The organization of plot elements into twos and threes allows the teller to complicate his tale pleasantly without risking a loss of orientation in proliferating details. Celticists know this full well. Classicists generally scoff at it. My own attempts to publish evidence of mnemonic dyads and triads in Homer’s Odyssey were not indulgently received, though the triadically clustered adventures of the hero related in books 9-12, the poignant doubling of the Odyssean and Telemachean “odysseys,” the doubling of characters and events on Scheria and back on Ithaca, the two faithful servants (Eumaeus and Philoitius) who treat the disguised stranger hospitably, the two rude ones (Melantheus and Melantho) who treat him rudely on three occasions, the three hurled objects that the brutal suitors launch at the beggar, the three days at the palace leading up to a sublime day of revenge… all of these, as the French say, “leap to the eyes.” The predilection for such twos and threes is not simply Mediterranean, either, or even Indo-European: it is not a cultural construct. Native American cultures venerate the number four, and five has a special place in Chinese tradition. Yet when the lore of these cultures needs to implicate the hero in a complex sequence of events, he is apt to encounter a prophetic buffalo or a talking fish three times, and perhaps to have three more encounters on a return trip.

As for the rambling lists known as catalogues, the succession of Achaean ships related in Iliad 2 or of heroes and queens among the dead related in Odyssey 11 scarcely holds a candle to Hesiod’s rosters of gods great and small in the Theogony. (One section names almost fifty Nereids within a couple of dozen verses.) The anonymous author of the medieval Welsh Dream of Rhonabwy undermines the convention of listing by inserting rare fabrics of unique shades among the items catalogued and then boasting editorially, as he concludes, that no oral teller could ever remember all the colors. Another kind of game may be ongoing in Culhwch and Olwen, the earliest of the Welsh Mabinogion’s tales to be recorded. Culhwch faces an incredibly long list of impossible challenges to overcome before he may wed Olwen, and the cyfarwydd must revisit each of these in the proper order as the hero checks it off; but then again, if one had slipped out in the actual telling before the manuscript version, who among the audience would have been keen enough to notice—and how would any such obnoxious auditor have gone about proving his case?

There is something of the juggling act’s mesmeric quality in these traditional catalogues. At the very least, the teller must have attracted the audience’s admiration for being able merely to manage such a burden. Is Aristotle making a bid for the same sort of admiration when he regales us with his long lists where, however, no logical principle has generated the items in an exhaustive fashion? Who can say? The catalogue is an acquired—and very traditional—sort of taste; but for Aristotle and his readers (or hearers), Homer had most certainly not lost his savor.

2) Traditional Values Hanging in Limbo

Though I have passed most of my professional life following a trail from Homeric literary scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord into much broader theories about the oral/literate dichotomy set forth by Walter Ong, Jack Goodie, and others of a more anthropological turn, I sometimes catch myself in the throes of significant skepticism. The oral mind is supposedly more extroverted and communal, the literate more introspective and individualist; the oral mind more associative in its deductions and more atavistic in its tastes, the literate mind more insistent upon objective criteria and more receptive to novelty. All of this, I believe, is true… but true only in a very general and highly conditional sense. We human beings are not inflexibly programmed, either as sentimental or as ratiocinative creatures, by our circumstances. Some of us are more sensitive than others, and some more profound; not only that, but many of us have moments when we can be keenly sensitive and others when we are bluntly unfeeling, and surely we have known times when we were especially insightful and others when we were as dull as water. Ruth Finnegan has made a formidable reputation out of embarrassing excessively trenchant assertions in this area with contradictory facts from her vast stock of field work and experience. A pre-literate tribesman may have a very active conscience, while the proud possessor of an MBA from Harvard may live his life only to garner the esteem of his neighbors. A stoical Huron warrior who tells one lie may feel guilt even though no detection forces shame upon him, and a professor of economics turned senator may comfortably tell lie after lie unless he is shamed by public exposure.

To magnify the complexity of the situation, cultures that operate upon the seam of the oral/literate divide may develop value systems with little deep coherence as a result of drawing upon one mentality and the other, in no particular order. Certainly individual members of such cultures may become thus enigmatic. In remote areas of the American South, for instance, people may still be found who believe that placing another book on the Bible brings bad luck. A scholar who somehow emerges from these rural circumstances to become a celebrated brain surgeon may subliminally flinch if he sees Newsweek covering a Bible on his way to surgery. Perhaps he will pause to “correct” the arrangement.

Has Aristotle not something of this figure in him? His mind awash in Homer and Hesiod (and in Euripides’s infinitely subtle allegorizations of mythic matter), he sees the inadequacies of the old ways that judge a man by his clan and equate honor with the community’s praise—yet he hasn’t quite decided how else to judge a man or to define honor. He deplores the degeneracy that has allowed theatrics to carry the day where only the facts should have drawn consideration; but a man’s good character is a fact to the maestro if everybody in the neighborhood thinks it so. He laments the loss of youth, with its disinterested dedication to right and its indifference to self-interest; yet he accepts as self-evident that men should regard as good whatever advances their pleasure or profit. He views those who have inherited status and privilege to suffer from a distinct inclination to laziness and ineptitude; simultaneously, though, the understanding of propriety transmitted by the same tradition is the origin of whatever moral values he manages to enunciate.

One could say generously that this is the snapshot of a typical human being: perfectly harmonized with his culture on the surface, shackled in inconsistencies when and if he tries to justify his positions independently. Fair enough. Yet Aristotle, that philosophical demigod of the Western tradition, was not supposed to have been typical in any way… and perhaps he is not so here. I cannot resist seeing him more as a Machiavelli or an Ariosto: a frustrated intellectual, that is, who finds himself condemned ever to flail about in the troughs created by noisy swells of bluster, incompetence, and corruption. Italy in the first generations after the printing press was indeed not unlike Aristotle’s Athens in several relevant ways. Its glory days of imperial supremacy were behind it thanks to political squabbling and squandered resources; its prospering commercial class was subtly threatening old social hierarchies and unwittingly importing alien ways and ideas along with luxurious novelties; and the belief system of the past, most significantly, looked more and more like a body of superstition revered only by unlettered farmers and woodcutters. The world was being turned upside-down.

In such a setting, telling the naïve what they want to hear—what their forefathers had taught was immutable truth—in order to have one’s way would perhaps not be the most vicious of acts. Zeus (or the Church’s God) simply did not hurl thunder any more, if he ever did; yet challenging the masses over such fairy tales, far from introducing enlightenment, could cause one’s personal sun to set in very short order. (Look at Socrates… or Pico della Mirandola.) Besides, there were others—ruthless nihilists, wolves in sheep’s clothing—who would exploit the vulnerabilities of the demos to the maximum if one abstained from the fray on principle: sophists, old and new. In such circumstances, to deceive the people in their own interest lest they be deceived far worse and to their ultimate disaster might even be represented as a moral duty.

The progressive politician was perhaps born when these formulations were first hatched. If Machiavelli, in all his faithlessness (in all his faith that Lady Luck was the only god), has any redemptive moment, it must surely hide somewhere in his Roman Dream; and if Aristotle’s Rhetoric, likewise, knows any moment when accusations of utter cynicism can be firmly repelled, this is undoubtedly the work’s short “romance” about the altruism of youth. Whether redemption of such a sort can seem very convincing to our own fallen era, when utopian dreams have inspired so many concentration and “reeducation” camps, is another matter.

3) The Enthymeme and Its Dangerous Implications

Improbable though this will surely strike some at first, the “moral issue” sits right at the heart of the Rhetoric’s essential failure, in my view. Perhaps the best way I can explain my misgivings is to return to the enthymeme. This white unicorn in my personal Dark Wood of Rhetoric turns out to embody everything that can go wrong when using Aristotle as a model for teaching composition. Let me explain.

An ancient Greek couplet launches the jibe (which every language has probably replicated in some form) that a snake once bit a Cappadocian… and died. This cannot be an enthymeme, by Aristotle’s definition, because it is a flawed syllogism. The complete syllogism would run something like, “Villainy can be a stronger poison than venom; a venomous snake bit a Cappadocian and perished; therefore, Cappadocians are villains of the most poisonous sort.” The flaw, of course, is that villainy is not a nerve toxin or a virus: you don’t catch a dreadful disease by touching a serial killer.

Now let us proceed to a legitimate enthymeme. “There is a higher law than man’s written laws, because Antigone willingly died in order to bury Polynices.” The complete syllogism might look like this: “A person knowingly commits a capital offense without hope of evading capture only in order to obey an even higher imperative. Creon decreed that anyone attempting to bury Polynices would be executed. Antigone buried Polynices. Therefore, Antigone was obeying an authority higher than Creon’s law.” The terms of this syllogism nowhere appear to be logically absurd; so if we contract it by suppressing a premise or two, we have an enthymeme.

But why should we consider the latter proposition any less absurd than the former? Antigone is going to die. She has given her life for nothing: Polynices’ corpse will once more be uncovered and desecrated. What law could possibly compel her to enact such an absurdity? What kind of “higher law” requires the pointless self-destruction of a person?

Or let us come at the syllogism from another direction. There were truly no higher and lower laws in this case: there was the law acknowledged by all men everywhere—i.e., that the dead should receive burial—and then there was the hubristic decree of a tyrant. Creon’s impetuous pronouncement does not qualify as a law. Antigone obeyed the only law that men know, and Creon exposed to all the illegitimacy of his reign in executing her.

This version of the proposition could also be shredded, however. The combative Polynices was subverting the conventions that ensured stable political power in assailing Thebes, and Creon decreed that his corpse be left to the vultures only to impress upon the populace the importance of observing political decorum. He broke one law in order to reinforce a much more important one—for preserving the state from civil war is more important than giving a decent burial to an insurrectionist.

My intent here has been to show that logic, in any Aristotelian sense, cannot arbitrate morality. No moral proposition is really much safer from absurdity than the snake that suffered death-by- Cappadocian. If every enthymeme, then, is a proposition about human behavior and is also a valid proposition untainted by illogic… then there can be no such thing as an enthymeme, since no value statement about human behavior can be made which cannot be brought to appear logically absurd.

To be sealed within the labyrinth in this manner reminds me irresistibly of my graduate-school readings in deconstruction. And of Aristotle I will say the same as I said of Deridda after that baptism of fire: the exit is indeed closed if you allow for no metaphysical reality in the universe. All values are presumptions founded, eventually, on absurdity.

My good friend, the director of composition in the North Carolina college where I worked early in my career, clearly meant to evoke with the word “enthymeme” an unexamined assumption at the basis of a piece of writing. She was no nihilist, nor even anything remotely close to a cynic. Seeking out the bias in a paper whose author supposes him- or herself to have none can be a thoroughly salutary exercise. What worries me about prosecuting that exercise within an Aristotelian context, however, is the implication that (to paraphrase King Lear) “all do offend.” No one can possibly write without bias on any values-related subject (or perhaps on any subject at all—for to assume the absence of values in a methodology may itself be presumptuous); and while the teacher may remain as gentle, humane, and well-grounded a person as was my friend, the rationale of her teaching can only lead to a relativist aporia if pressed to its logical conclusion.

This is not a good destination, in my opinion, for a course seen as foundational in the young person’s college experience. The “higher law” is ever elusive in logical terms, but it is not the empty center which Peer Gynt (that deconstructionist-before-his-time) discovered within his onion’s layers. Aristotle himself admits the higher law—but he does not know how to handle it without ruinous abuse; and those of us who submit value assertions to the newfangled lens of oral/literate transition, too, are apt to make every moral proposition seem a product of time and place. Consider a case from the most celebrated work of a contemporary novelist who grew up on the fringe of the oral universe. When Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo participates in the ritual execution of his adopted son Ikemefuna, he is indeed conforming to tribal tradition; for the boy was a hostage, and his tribe of origin violated the terms of the truce. Yet Okonkwo’s clansmen are distressed, and even outraged, that he insists on having a hand in the killing. Custom can be satisfied without his violating the law natural to any human heart. The stoning was “barbaric,” from our perspective, but the boy’s culturally conditioned executioners were not necessarily barbarians—or only one of them was: the one whom even the tribe would have excused from abiding by the tradition.

Why do our literary scholars no longer know how to handle masterpieces with respect for their embedded values; why, instead, are such dilemmas as Okonkwo’s treated merely as insoluble meanders through a labyrinth without exit? Could it be because contemporary literati have been reared all too effectively within the Aristotelian tradition of rhetoric?

I find that, having finished my conclusions, I have drawn only and exactly three. Old habits die hard.

John Harris is the president and founder of The Center for Literate Values.  He earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, and currently teaches English in that state system.