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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.1 (Winter 2016)
The Orator’s Audience, the Orator, and… the Orator’s Teacher: Captives in Aristotle’s Labyrinth of Duplicity, Part I
(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.
Happiness grant me, from all-blessed gods given: grant before mortals–
All of them–always to have good reputation and fame.
Also to be honeyed drink to my friends; to my foes, bitter poison:
Held in esteem, if a friend; held, if opponent, in dread.
From the opening lines of Solon’s first surviving fragment
The first time I ever heard Aristotle’s name spill admiringly from the lips of a college composition professor was 1988. The gentleman in question nourished the misapprehension that he had single-handedly resurrected the Rhetorica in his dissertation and, subsequently, his newly published manual. I moved on (as opposed to up) in my career. The next Director of Composition along my road (leading me now through North Carolina) was much more impressive, if only because she was much less self-promoting. The word “enthymeme” littered her professional discussions without any hint of bombast. Primed with the question, “What in hell is an enthymeme?” I pored through grammar textbooks and even surfed the nascent Internet in search of answers. I came away amazed at the enormity of the ratio between uses of the word and clear definitions of it. Since any value divided by zero is an infinity… well, suffice it to say that I learned to live with a mild “Aristotle Intimidation Complex” for years. I even began to utter “enthymeme” myself on rare occasions, increasingly confident that no one would notice if I were misusing it.
This summer, at long last, I decided that at least one wrong I could right before settling into my grave would be cleaning up my language with a thorough reading of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Greek text on one side and English translation (by J.H. Freese) on the other, without any prejudicial commentary occupying the middle. I wanted to reach my own conclusions: I needed to reach them on my own. I have heard “audience, audience, audience,” and, “ethos, logos, and pathos,” for so many years in composition circles—always with the show of self-evidence that distinguishes insider jargon (and renders questions professionally suicidal)—that the investigation had become very personal for me. Exactly how big a dope was I, really, behind my protective layers of advanced degrees? Why didn’t these Aristotelian buzzwords connect with anything sensible in my mind? I annotated each passage as I read it, sometimes producing no more than a summary; an effective summary indicated to me, at least, that I wasn’t just making fanciful words out of the Sibyl’s leaves as they scattered in the air. Reading the master’s Greek, by the way, can very much lead to fanciful self-delusion. The elegant phrases often mean almost nothing at all, individually pellucid blocks strung together to create units of gibberish. Then some scholar’s arduous translation reveals that the floating adjectives are substantives (“the lurid”… “the ridiculous”) and the verbs without context technical terms for conducting business in courts of law or senate houses. I am by no means a student of Attic jurisprudence or political practice. Some day, I shall perhaps rework these notes with such scholarly support at my side.
I am aware in a general way, of course, that Aristotle undertook the promotion of rhetoric somewhat in resistance to the contempt with which his teacher Plato showered that fine art; and I also know (at an equally shallow level) that he viewed himself and was viewed by his contemporaries as honoring Plato’s contempt by refining it, so that the sophists specifically felt its barbs. Aristotelian rhetoric was (and is) supposed to disdain the use of low tricks to stir up the audience’s emotions. One of the questions which most powerfully drew me into this endeavor, though, was whether using a type of presentation coolly calculated for effect may not also fairly be called manipulation? May it not, indeed, be more manipulative than mere “rabble-rousing,” in that it toys with the mind’s eye without fully ignoring the gut’s maw?
For my present purposes, however, I decided not to dig deeply into details of setting. I feared that close attention to historical and political context would make me lose the forest in the trees. I really didn’t care how the Athenians prosecuted their trials or argued out their legislation. I wanted to understand Aristotle on rhetoric; and while I realize that such an understanding must itself be built upon some degree of context, I chose to use my own preparation in Homer and the subsequent Greek literary world for orientation. Historical studies are sometimes too “pre-digested” for my taste. I prefer to consult them after I have collected my own initial impressions.
In this case, I flatter myself that I eventually emerged with some meaningful conclusions. The reader may wish to skip to these rather than wade through the ensuing and immense volume of particular observations. Yet my notes, while perhaps interesting only to the specialist, need a full presentation, I think. Though offering their evidence may cause my personal trial of the Western rhetorical tradition’s first great philosopher to drag on interminably, some of the jury will want to examine every footprint and bloodstain.
Is Rhetoric the Handmaid of Truth or of Persuasion?
Aristotle writes early on that emotional appeals wandering off the relevant issues are not permitted in the courts of the Areopagus and other competent judicial venues, “for people of sound principles ought not to pervert judgment by steering the judge into anger or envy or pity” (1.5). He continues, “It is clear that nothing done by the advocate should stray from revealing what is or is not true or from what was or was not done” (1.6). Yet because the matters brought before such judges deal not with generalities or abstractions, but with “present and narrowly confined issues,” the arbiters must reach a determination where “love and hate and compatibility with one’s [the hearer’s] personal disposition are often involved, so that they [the judges] can no longer see the truth adequately” (1.7).
What have the Rhetoric’s opening passages just told us? Is Aristotle apologizing for his imminent descent into the fine art of manipulation—or is he manipulating his readers, instead, into believing that he counsels manipulation only as a necessary evil and last resort? Is he, perhaps, distancing himself from the abuses of Gorgias, Isocrates, and the sophists by implying that his lessons will not aim at stirring the lower emotions? His ensuing rebuke actually has a different target: he reproaches previous instructors for attending only to the argument’s organization (1.9) and not to the distinct occasions of argument presented in 1.10. So technical a correction can scarcely qualify as a spirited or principled condemnation of rhetorical abuses.
I confess that I find 1.10 almost impenetrable in some respects, its intentions only further garbled by Freese’s translation. Demegoria—rendered by Freese as “deliberative rhetoric” despite its obvious kinship to demagoguery—is apparently “better and more political” (Freese chooses “nobler” instead of “better”) because it concerns public affairs rather than private matters. The judges are least inclined to cry foul, furthermore, against oratory directed at common citizens, since on these occasions (as opposed to strictly forensic ones) they do not have exclusive say in the verdict. Perhaps the excellent Freese is right: perhaps Aristotle has already dropped his pretense of admiring the truth in abstract and equates swaying the masses with deliberation. If the audience perceives a deliberative process… then perhaps we have a deliberative process.
The whole treatise has suddenly acquired a bluntly pragmatic tone, even if certain translations soft-pedal the shift through such preferences as “nobler” for “better” (and while it seems closer to “more advantageous” here, aristos is truly a very flexible word). Consider this formulation in 1.11: “Reliability (pistis) is a sort of demonstration, for we must rely upon (pisteuomen) what we receive as having been demonstrated, and demonstration is a rhetorical enthymeme.” Since an enthymeme is something literally put into the thymos (mind, heart: Homer’s seat of the soul), the preceding formulation sounds very much as though the Master regards demonstration (apodeixis) as a kind of show that sells the audience on reliability—in one word, an advertisement. Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, is essentially composing the first guide to marketing… is he not?
The introductory evidence remains much too sparse, no doubt, to convict Aristotle of being a sophistical relativist. The man who could not see his way to disallowing physical comfort as a moral good in his ethical treatises, however, takes pains in 1.12 to show that a limber tongue brings no discredit in defending moral right. The skill of arguing propositions from either end (ta anantia), for instance, should not be cultivated because one ought ever to defend wrong or falsehood, but because one must know how one’s adversaries intend to proceed.
Still, when Aristotle finally uses the word “sophistical” in 1.14, we would be hard put to say that he intends it in any pejorative sense. Rather, in furthering his defense of including all kinds of persuasion under the “dynamic” (the word is the same in English as in Greek) or potentiality of rhetoric, he draws a distinction with the sophist. This latter deals with what is “moral” (though a better way of translating prohaereticon might be “chosen, preferred”). The sophist makes a moral choice, the quality of which (as tending toward good or bad) is not suggested by our philosopher. Aristotle’s only concern seems to be emphasizing that choice between right and wrong has nothing to do with the pure dynamic of rhetoric; and this, I would observe, can itself open the gate to sophistry.
Traditional Practice Is Moral Character
But be that as it may… Aristotle proceeds with his clinical dissection of the rhetorical art in his second chapter. Section 2.3 introduces the famous (or notorious) tripartite distinction within this art: the ethos of the speaker, the disposition of the audience (akroate: the word pathos does not yet appear), and the logos of the speaker’s argument considered abstractly from sender and receiver alike.
As Aristotle begins to break down the three constitutive elements of rhetoric, I was relieved to see that Freese had translated ethos as “moral character.” In 2.4, the Master argues that the speaker’s reputation (to use another word: by this we may understand “recognized commitment to honesty and accepted standards”) is especially needed in cases where the central issue is unclear (akribes) regarding material evidence or causal connection alone (logos). Character complements reason, in short, because to some extent it contrasts with reason. It is certainly not built upon reason’s foundation, but rather enjoys its own distinct pedigree. I shall return to this critical point: enough to say now that contemporary rhetorical handbooks render ethos rather blandly as “authority,” overlooking the critical fact that a fourth-century Athenian would still have been so traditionally minded as to associate good character with inherited ways and wisdom rather than education and expertise. Aristotle’s speaker is expected to inspire credibility not because he studied under Socrates or knows how many battleships the public coffers can finance, but because he abides by culturally endorsed principles. “Common sense” would come closer to the notion than “impressive résumé.” It’s worth footnoting that 2.7 will elucidate the phrase peri ta ethe with peri tas aretas, the word arete plainly meaning “moral virtue.” Titles like “doctor,” “director,” and “head” do not connote high regard for or strict adherence to conventional standards of probity in our culture: or, at any rate, they at least as often imply independence of cultural conditioning and unexamined prejudice.
Section 2.5 introduces the word pathos for the first time, mapping out for it the entire range of emotions: from joy to sorrow, form love to hate. Interestingly, Aristotle complains that other rhetorical manuals address this most transparently manipulative species of persuasion while neglecting moral character and logos. Does he believe, then, that manipulation lies only in the use of pathos, and did he on that basis make his opening plea for truth? Or is he impatient with his predecessors for not recognizing that there’s more than one way to skin a cat?
Half-Explanations and Labyrinthine Meanders
Section 2.8 defines the crucial term enthymema, used earlier but not explained. To be more precise, it implies a definition. Aristotle insists upon a distinction between the paradeigma, or illustrative example, and the enthymeme, which he notates as a “rhetorical syllogism.” The difference perhaps equates to the familiar dichotomy between induction and deduction. Whereas the paradigm argues a point by drawing a pertinent analogy, the enthymeme claims to offer a connection of ideas that cannot reasonably be challenged. Since this concept, of all those in the Rhetoric, is among the most often adapted to modern handbooks, it also will merit a much closer look later.
(And indeed, later the first word in the phrase, “rhetorical syllogism,” will complicate some of what I have written above.)
After further insisting on the objective validity of his distinctions, Aristotle usefully observes (2.14) that the enthymeme is in practice less concerned with necessary things (ta anagkaia) than with most things most of the time (ta pleista epi to poly). Since rhetoric typically deals with the acts of human beings, and since human nature is somewhat less hard and fast as a law than the nature of purely physical things, generality suffices to form the basis of an unstated major premise. In other words, wisdom such as is contained in maxims may underlie the enthymeme’s assumption.
Aristotle attempts to supply a vocabulary for distinguishing between more and less effective enthymemata in 2.18. What he calls semeia (signs, indications) may be true in particular cases but can easily be discredited as generalities; for instance, to say that all wise men are just is born out in the case of Socrates but not, unhappily, in several other cases. On the other hand, tekmeria (eye-witness testimony, hard evidence, “necessary signs”) enjoy a much more stable validity. One says that a fever is a sign of illness when one speaks in an enthymeme of this sort.
Section 2.19 reminds us somewhat desultorily that examples do not figure in this sort of discussion. They no not connect whole to whole or part to whole or vice versa, but only part to part. The cause of one particular circumstance’s resembling another is thus left highly implicit and in nowise explored. The resemblance may prove to be quite superficial and without significance.
The rather meandering motion of Aristotle’s discussion does not cease here. The next several sections wander among different types of two- and three-part division. Every speech consists of a speaker, an audience, and a subject spoken about; speakers operate either in a legislative, a judicial, or a public environment; the legislator speaks of the future in a congressional assembly, the advocate of the past in a law court, and the public speaker of the present in a forum; and so on, from threesome to threesome. These divisions seem less than enlightening, and some indeed contain an element of the arbitrary or whimsical. Aristotle himself admits in 3.4, for instance, that the public speaker may refer to past events or future prospects in praising or condemning a figure before the demos. More disconcerting is the philosopher’s self-laudatory observation that justice has no relevance to an advisor in public policy (symbouleuon) who recommends enslaving a captive city; at issue for this orator is the correct end of the expedient/inexpedient axis, and no more (3.6)
Moral questions aside, my own greatest reservation here concerns that trichotomy which has been most honored by modern linguists (e.g., Saussure): the sender/message/receiver proposition. Is not Aristotle profiting (or profiteering) from a natural human predisposition to associate threeness with plurality, and hence with thoroughness or completion? (By the fourth century, the Greek language had not entirely jettisoned the dual inflections that stressed a grammatical distinction between singular and plural.) Just because the philosopher has been able to make three fit so many situations, why should we assume that it provides us with an objective analysis? Immanuel Kant’s account of his categories in the Critique of Pure Reason explains to the logician’s satisfaction why three can be rationally compelling (e.g., absolute darkness, an abstracted maximum of light, and degrees of shade in between). This is not that: here the tripartite often seems distinctly impulsive. Is not the message (to be specific) infinitely more important than either its sender or receiver, at least if one is dedicated to discovering truth? As long as the full message is relayed fairly and accurately, the struggling listener can listen better or the ineffective speaker can speak louder or slower. By arranging all three functions at the same level, Aristotle seems to me to bestow upon two of them an importance which they do not deserve. And such lubricity runs throughout his classic little treatise…
Hereafter follow several chapters devoted to an enumeration of topics that Aristotle considers fruitful for different realms of science to explore, constitute a long digression for the modern student of rhetoric; or perhaps he simply their divisions, as he represents them, inevitable and natural. (His intent is unclear to me.) Chapter 5, however, should draw our attention briefly for this reason, if no other. In dissecting happiness into the component parts which the speaker on ethical issues might address, our teacher includes much that should remind us of his cultural proximity to the Homeric world. Along with the moral virtues, good looks, high social status, and material possessions (including slaves) contribute to the happy life. What we might designate as a clean conscience dissolves on Aristotle’s list into reputation, honor, and other blessings more dependent upon communal opinion than upon an honest, introspective examination of motives with reference to disinterested principles. Luck has a place, as well. As for doing a good deed not likely to be noticed, that admirable variety of conduct appears later on a list of things to be reckoned as inferior or useless (7.36).
The Good Is the Pleasant, and Expediency Serves Pleasure
In significant ways, this philosopher’s mind remains a world away from Immanuel Kant’s, or even from the assumptions of Chrysippus and Epictetus about goodness. His exposition, rather, reads far more like the longest surviving fragment of Solon’s poetry (some of whose first lines are cited below this essay’s title). The legendary wise man there informs us in about seven dozen elegiac couplets that people’s material circumstances always represent the just verdict of Zeus upon their tribe. The rift at issue as we ponder Aristotle is indeed a somewhat reduced version (or a cross-section taken at a point of relaxed cultural friction) of the gap between the oral and literate minds. When Giuseppe Giusti collected the sayings of his traditional, rural, semi- or pre-literate countrymen in Proverbi Italiani, he noticed precisely the same conflation of ideas in “happiness” as we see here. “In the name of ‘good,’ the consensus of humanity transmitted by the spoken word understands two things that are necessarily fused: doing good deeds and enjoying oneself” (Col nome di bene il consenso dell’ umanità, che si trasmetta per la parola, intende due cose che di necessità vanno insieme unite, il bene operare ed il godere: see chapter on “Felicità, Infelicità, Bene”).
Aristotle continues in chapter 6 to explain why the deliberative speaker (whom we would class as a political representative or counselor) argues on behalf of the fitting or expedient (to sympheron) rather than the good (to kalon); yet, as we have just seen, his understanding of the distinction between the two can be paper-thin. The catch-all noun “happiness” (eudaimonia—almost a literal rendition of what we mean by “good luck”) is said, rather incredibly, to be autarkes, or self-sufficient, in 6.8. The Stoics would never let an adversary get away with claiming self-sufficiency for such highly contingent circumstances as shapeliness and sound health. Such assertions have long secured Aristotle a reputation as a blunt sort of pragmatist; but, to repeat, it is entirely possible that his analytical obtuseness on such issues reflects a conservatism whose roots are quite observable in the ethos of the Iliad. (Achilles’ decision to die young and glorious, for instance, would never have been viewed by Homer’s audience as evidence of self-destructive egotism, but only as a highly ironic dilemma nestling in the nature of “happiness.”)
The seventh chapter is somewhat prolix in laying the groundwork for certain enthymemes (a term still only implicitly defined) in basic logic. Some things are superior to others if their existence is required to make the others possible, if their concept contains that of the other, and so forth. Life is superior to health as a good because one cannot be healthy if not alive; health is superior to pleasure because the pleasurable is temporary or fraudulent in an unhealthy state.
Many of the “exemplary” assumptions offered do not seem intended to illustrate the foibles of the unexamined enthymeme—though perhaps they should be. To most of us moderns, attitudes or notions are often not better just because more people subscribe to them. (Indeed, much ancient wisdom of a later date was equally skeptical: e.g., Seneca’s argumentum pessimi turba est.) Yet Aristotle floats such formulations frequently, and with a straight face. Sometimes his comparative propositions simply ring false, or even a little deranged. The natural or “self-formed” (autophues), for instance, is said to be superior to the acquired because it is “more difficult” (chalepoteron: 7.33)—with the Homeric autodidact Phemius offered as an example of self-instruction. But the hard part of the self-made poet’s accomplishment is precisely his dressage of a naturally undisciplined mind to a state of highly artificial rigor. Such slapdash ethical truisms are not the highwater mark of the Rhetoric’s insights.
After a tiresome exercise in listing which seems more circumstantial and random than logically exhaustive, Aristotle proceeds in chapter 8 to the question of authority. He does not at first use word ethos so often employed in the contemporary rhetoric handbook’s conjuring, but rather kuria: “power”. Species of authority or power vary with type of government: the will of the many carries no weight in a monarchy, nor does any one person’s decree hold sway in an oligarchy. Eventually (in 8.6) the words ta ethe (“the customs”) do creep into the discussion: the master’s assertion is that a good speaker must know of these politically indexed customs in order to come across as more credible.
Expediency Implies Moral Relativism
Now, I would contend that giving an argument’s authority such a political pedigree is yet again revealing of our philosopher’s value system. It is by no means clear that Aristotle still has the deliberative speaker in view—the counselor whose occasions are all political, by definition; he seems, rather, to intend his comments broadly. I find traces of a recurrent and abiding relativism in his ascribing the last word to the person or persons holding the beadle’s truncheon. How is this any different, in modern terms, from comfortably conceding that the ultimate authority for sustaining a position comes from him who pays everyone’s salary? Or if audiences in a monarchic state are conditioned to accept as legitimate the despot’s right to protect himself and secure his rule, how are we to connect such behavior to our contemporary respect for the expert or the specialist rather than to what was called brainwashing during the Cold War? I will again concede that Aristotle, viewed in historical perspective, may be manifesting the traditionalist’s reverence for received wisdom rather than a worldly cynicism. That his traditionalist turn of mind is yet so keenly aware of the variety—and the incompatibility—of human traditions, however, goes some small way toward discrediting any attempt to present him as a naïve tribesman.
Chapter 9 follows a similar pattern—and raises similar questions—to all that has gone before. Here Aristotle leads us through another catalogue, this time of the various virtues. How to praise (or, in reverse, to blame) is a skill requiring cultivation by all speakers, he observes, though in some circumstances it veers into designing recommendations or predictions. Like an oralist, Aristotle appears convinced that merely filling out lists of praiseworthy qualities with great (and, for us, tedious) persistence must at last exhaust the subject’s possibilities; yet like a literate, he offers hints of logical classification. In 9.6, for instance, he specifies that those virtues are superior which do the greatest good for the greatest number. This utilitarian formula reprised from John Stuart Mill does not, of course, convey his precise words—yet it perfectly couches his intent. As with utilitarianism, his propositions admit of no quibble that one might act against the will of the many and still do good (let alone that one might have a solemn obligation so to act). The “lynch mob” mentality being very much a part of tribal existence, some of us would regard the protest against heeding the mass’s wishes as rather more than a quibble; but Aristotle’s Solonian traditionalism, yet one more time, insulates him from seeing the flaw. In the Caiaphas-like view of the clan, preserving the polis is simply common sense; and if the bravery of a Socrates threatens to divide the polis against itself, then so “brave” a display can hardly be viewed as the pinnacle of andreia. (One indeed must wonder now and then just what Socrates would have made of the common sense offered by his most celebrated pupil’s pupil.)
When there is no question of la patrie en danger, naturally, virtues revert to the clansman’s personal standard—which itself, however, remains indexed to public opinion. That vengeance should be better than unmanly compromise (9.24) follows from the traditional obligation to preserve an unblemished family reputation before the community; and that being honored publicly after or past death is the supreme fulfillment of a higher calling likewise belongs to the tribal setting’s outlook. Individual souls do not survive the body in any elevated and sentient form; the fame garnered by individual lives, rather, is channeled back into the clan, where it endures as long as mneme animates the poets.
How, then, should we process such remarks as that you praise to Athenians what is admired in Athens and to Scythians what is admired in Scythia (9.30); or that, in framing your laudation, you should make chance events look as though they flow from your subject’s virtues (9.32)? Is it an anachronism to charge such slippery counsel as playing fast and loose with the truth? As this long chapter winds down with the claim that enthymemes are well suited to handling the past because we cannot know what happened yesterday (to asaphes: 9.40), would one be wrong to smell out the suborning of perjury?
More on Ethos: Habit’s Mysterious Fusion with Fantasy
Aristotle turns his attention to forensic circumstances in chapter 10, where speakers must accuse one of a crime or rebut the accusation. Another tripartite distinction crops up, and its justification is again prima facie suspect. The claim is made that we must inquire into the defendant’s motives, his character, and his state of mind. The dividing lines are at once blurry, and further explanation scarcely makes them less so.
It is worth noting that the word ethos is used several times in this section—e.g., 10.15—to mean simply “habit.” Indeed, such usage is typical throughout the Rhetoric. As already noted, one of my points of discomfort with the contemporary rhetorician’s Aristotelian references is precisely his or her interpretation of this word: specifically, its transformation into “authority,” as in “academic credentials.”
As chapter 11 inaugurates a discussion of the pleasant, it goes so far as to ascribe to habit (ethos) much of what we enjoy: “for if necessity belongs to nature, frequency belongs to habit” (11.3). We moderns would mildly adjust the insight to read that cultural conditioning produces taste. Now, any successful appeal to virtually any sort of audience has probably played upon the reigning tastes of time and place: so far, so good. Aristotle proceeds from a promising overture to catalogue that which pleases, either because of its essential nature or because habit has made its practice second-nature (i.e., tasteful). Section 5 explains that natural pleasures—the satisfaction of hunger, thirst, sexual appetite, etc.—are unreflective (alogoi) because no consideration goes into their genesis. In our terms, they are drives. Reasoned pleasures (meta logou), in contrast, emerge from some process of deliberation—which would include conditioning; yet habit has little to do with the kind of pleasure about to be described. Our catalogue is about to lead us on another long excursion
Aristotle next establishes in 11.6-7 that recollection and hope both inhabit the realm of imagination (phantasia). If present pleasures belong to the “now” of the senses, then remembered or anticipated pleasures belong to “fantasy”. To be sure, real sensations may be recollected; but because the fantastical mechanism is free to operate upon them, even those that were not very pleasant during the actual experience may be gilded. The authority of Euripidean and Homeric verse is cited to drive home the point (11.8). The ensuing section projects this creative element into the future, where hope constructs delights based upon pleasant experiences present and past. Love and lovesickness are analyzed in these terms (11.10-11), as is the pleasure of grieving, of revenge, of victory, of competition, and of several other complex delights in which present pain is leavened by past or anticipated joy, past misery by present joy, and so forth.
One could examine the “pleasures” of honor and friendship, as represented in 11.16-17, with a magnifying glass if one wished to find further evidence of Aristotle’s Solonian value system. Though the philosopher concludes section 17 by opining that friendship is good for its own sake (di’ auton), the surrounding discussion suggests an intricate dance of calculation: is the prospective admirer or friend a clansman or an alien, a solid citizen or a vagabond, in good or bad repute within the community? Even if the recipient of such attention does not plan to cash in on it materially, his ego is flattered or not flattered, apparently, in accordance with the strength of the currency offered. “For its own sake,” therefore, may be no more than a convenient notation for investments rather than liquid assets.
After meandering among the pleasures of novelty and the like, Aristotle scrutinizes the giving and receiving of gifts in a manner redolent with the same egotistical calculations (11.22). Assisting someone down on his luck appears to make the benefactor happily aware of his abundance of possessions, almost as if it were an occasion for ostentation. Nothing is said about the possibility of giving one’s last drachma to help the same unfortunate. The resultant straits in which one would set oneself through such generosity would, presumably, not be pleasant at all.
The remainder of this long chapter appears to me to complete an implicit theory—in rather explicit terms—of human nature and the kind of pleasures which it is capable of recognizing. In section 11.26, Aristotle asserts that all men are naturally selfish and hence enjoy flattery; and in section 11.27, that, because they love honor, they also enjoy finding fault with their fellows (so as to elevate their own appearance of merit). We find not the inkling of any quasi-Stoical principle that would promote living by an impartial standard and free of passion. This will be consequential in assessing the role assigned by Aristotle to ethos in oratory.
So important is the correct determination of our teacher’s true value system, in fact, that I hesitate to point out retrospectively how many loose ends chapter 11 has left behind. Though it began with a contrast between nature and habit, that dichotomy immediately began to dissolve when the distinction shifted to one between directly sensed pleasures and imagined pleasures. It was never retrieved thereafter. Aristotle, like his happy rich man who loves to give, seems to have more distinctions in his bag than he knows what to do with.
Beneath Good and Evil: Self-Interest and Conditioning as Moral Referents
Chapter 12 proceeds to consider the motives for wrongful or unjust behavior. It presents still another catalogue broken down into component parts with a subjectivity apparently viewed by its author as logically objective (i.e., induction clothed deductively). What remains particularly interesting with regard to our emerging picture of Aristotle’s assumptions is the absence of what we might call “interiority” or conscience from the discussion of human motivation. People do bad things because they expect to get away with them for various reasons (money, friends in high places, skill at persuasion or deception, etc.) or because the foreseen gain outweighs the risk: the introduction offered in 12.2 states this succinctly. The entire section accepts implicitly that the human being, in both good and bad moments, is motivated by a, “What’s in it for me?” ethic. Nowhere in the chapter is there any hint that men err because their hearts are swayed by a shallow, carnal world to desire unworthy or unnatural ends: the sort of argument that a Stoic might make. (In fairness, 12.10 does raise the case of a man of character like Zeno who commits a crime [avenging his father] because honor outweighs punishment; but honor has more to do with communal perception than with individual conscience.)
The philosopher, then, steadily and consistently preserves his extroverted, empirical focus—one which we might classify as behaviorist or, somewhat less anachronistically, oral-traditional. Wrongdoing is all calculation about whether one can “get away with it”; the tribal worldview dominates. (Sections 12.20 and 23 even cite the authority of traditional proverbs.) A perverse motive in the sense of an internal blindness to the contemplated act’s abstract villainy never makes an appearance.
Chapter 13 invites our analysis still further down the same corridors. It opens by proposing what seems a deductive, logically compulsory division of justice and injustice using two criteria twice applied: the general and the particular (to koinon and to idion: 13.2). General laws might be described (in a term more familiar to us) as self-evident; they are sometimes not reinforced by the particular laws (or, as we might say, the codified cultural norms) of a society because no one thinks to call them into question—though they may also, indeed, be contradicted by accepted, formalized practice, as when Euripides’ Antigone vows to violate Creon’s law in burying her brother to obey a higher principle (13.2). The Euripidean formula actually carries us into universal law, which is truly self-evident. Why does Aristotle content himself merely with the general? One answer is that he can re-apply the same term in analyzing particular laws. For instance, a malefactor may trespass against a single party (as in adultery) or against the entire community (as in refusing military service: 13.3): particular versus general. This presumptuous couching of the issues—for such it is—creates a neat spareness of analytical terms that would have appealed to William of Ockham; but I believe its deeper roots nestle in the philosopher’s persistent suspicion of any universal value. Antigone’s law that preexists any specific person’s knowledge is too abstract, too metaphysical. So tightly bound to his traditional heritage (or to his relativist convictions) is Aristotle that his highest grade of validity continues to dwell in the realm of the fully perceptible. This “A+” grade falls to what most men in all known societies may be seen to do, and hence lies a step beyond any certain culture’s code—but a step short of moral metaphysics. (In fact, Aristotle implies in 13.2 that its provenance is more oral than written, giving us a glimpse of the traditionalist’s superior respect for word of mouth.) His highest of laws is decidedly not, in conclusion, a secret voice that speaks from the individual’s heart.
Further subdivisions (introduced in 13.7) appear objectively valid. These have to do with whether the criminal subject knew of and intended the evil in his deed or was acting from ignorance and did not intend harm; and also whether he acted with premeditation or in a surge of passion—a distinction very consequential in the sentencing phase of our own judicial process. Indeed, starting with 13.13 and continuing for the rest of this chapter and into the next, Aristotle’s attention comes very close to addressing exclusively the determinations made by judges of the guilty party’s knowledge and intent. The philosopher’s awareness of an invisible (may we say spiritual?) component’s importance in deciding the moral quality of an act is so keen that one must question why the same component made no significant appearance in earlier portrayals of virtuous behavior.
And yet, to claim that the brief chapter 14 at last acknowledges the inward disposition of the individual human will toward right or wrong, good or evil, as the ultimate measure of a criminal mind would go too far. The formulations here quickly reoccupy the perspective of the collective, the shocked community. Unheard-of crimes deserve greater punishment (14.4); so do crimes whose victim does damage to himself as a result of his suffering (as in a suicide born of despair) or whose evil is tainted with disgrace (as when a man harms his benefactor: 14.6). Such calculations once more concern themselves with outward perception rather than inward intent. In 14.5, Aristotle even volunteers the rhetorical observation (a species of commentary he seems to have abandoned for several chapters) that heaping upon the defendant’s head a congeries of outrageous acts can be highly effective in securing a conviction. One wonders at this point if items in the tumbling heap of charges have to meet any rigorous standard of truth.
The Unwritten: Verbal, Communal, Traditional—Not an Inner Voice
As if a desultory mention of rhetorical effect had reminded him of the treatise’s purpose, Aristotle initially dedicates chapter 15 to the proofs of forensic oratory: formal law, testimony, contract, evidence given under torture, and evidence given under oath. The list is not without wrinkles for the modern reader, who will be puzzled at the differentiation of mere testimony from statements under oath and shocked at the admissibility of forced confessions. More relevant to the present analysis, however, is the distinctly “oral” manner in which the philosopher once again loses his renewed focus in a flurry of digressions. (I intend “oral” in what Fr. Ong would call the “psychodynamic” sense, wherein strict logical hierarchy yields to lateral association.) Aristotle again lists, rambles, cites Sophocles, and draws analogies. He again flirts with a transcendent concept of right and wrong in comparing the judge to a silversmith who must distinguish between counterfeit metal and the real thing (to kibdelon and to alethes) when deciding whether to honor the law’s letter or its spirit (15.7). Yet the latter is again equated with the unwritten (15.9)—and we must always remember that, to Aristotle and those of his day, the unwritten would represent word-of-mouth ancestral wisdom, as opposed to an “inner voice” of conscience. In fact, it is unclear in 15.10 whether thoughtful interpretation of a vague law should be guided predominantly by justice (to dikaion) or to sympheron (translatable as “expediency” or “appropriateness to its surroundings”).
Along the same lines, section 15.12 encourages the orator to extol conformity to written law when doing so is in the case’s interest (pro to pragma); later, in 15.20, he will say the same of contracts—to show respect for them, that is, when they support one’s cause. Volunteering a slippery rationale, he suggests advising the judges that “no one chooses the purely good but rather the good with respect to himself.” The implication here is apparently that unwritten law would carry the judges into naïve abstraction from hard reality, whereas written law keeps their feet fixed in present circumstances. Without missing a beat, our teacher proceeds in his section on witnesses to recommend the use of the “ancient” testimonial as well as living witnesses who can speak directly for themselves (15.13). The latter, however, have the disadvantage of being susceptible to cross-examination; the former, being the product of poets and legendary wise men like Homer and Solon, cannot be so pressured. (The claim is floated in 15.17 that this inaccessibility makes them more reliable!) Such esteem for the authority of tradition naturally extends to proverbs (15.14), although Aristotle lends one of these (“Don’t kill the father and leave the sons alive”) to a morally opprobrious literal interpretation without a hint of irony.
One would be very taxed to say, in short, whether Aristotle is so traditional that he cannot conceive of a higher authority than custom, or instead so unscrupulously pragmatic that he will eagerly embrace customs for their arbitrary judgments when these judgments happen to promote the speaker’s selfish ends. The two alternatives, of course, are not clearly distinct, for a vein of traditional wisdom holds that every man is out for himself. (Every folk tradition seems to have its version of the Irish An fear lag mar a fhéadfidh, an fear láidir mar a santóidh: “The weak man how he must, the strong man how he will.”) Yet the ease with which the philosopher can discard traditional formulas suggests that his occasional regard for them has little real reverence.
As was remarked above, contracts are treated with the same disquieting and relativistic indifference to absolute truth as we have seen elsewhere. Sections 15.21-25 essentially advise the orator to stress a contract’s foundation in written law if his personal ends are thereby served, but to stress its violation of unwritten law if he would prefer for the piece of paper to go away. The final section, especially, offers options for how to disparage contractual validity.
So for torture. Though Aristotle is all too well aware of its shortcomings, and indeed very clearly states in 15.26 why testimony procured under duress is wholly unreliable, his last word on the subject is not to discard such testimony but to advance or discredit it as the circumstances of one’s own case dictate. The philosopher fully understands the practical flaws of this evidence (and hence, one may suppose, grasps the immorality of the means used to obtain it); yet his exclusive concern as a rhetorical advisor is that the audience be finessed in the desired direction.
And so, finally, for oaths. It appears that these were taken routinely in cases involving financial dispute. One party would initially step forward to give the oath (horkos); and the other, in a response that must have resembled accepting a dare, would then have the option of taking it. The refusal of one or both parties to swear, says Aristotle, is possible, leading to four varieties of situation: given and taken, given but not taken, not given but taken, and neither given nor taken. The final sections of chapter 15 (27-33), which concludes book 1, make it clear that the clever advocate will choose among the four alternatives so as to advance maximally his own purpose. In the event of critical refusals that may shift the case into the hands of the judges, he is to calculate whether or not such a move might be best for his cause. Aristotle quotes a verse from the philosopher-poet Xenophanes (to the effect that a just man’s credit shouldn’t be called into question by an unjust man) and then interprets it variously so as to show how it might support either putting oneself under oath or not doing so. Even the unimpeachable authority of the ancients, in other words, can be bent so as to suit the orator’s self-interest. Such is the final word of this first book on the subject of rhetoric.
More of the Same: Traditionalism, Expediency, Relativism
In the first sections of the second book’s opening chapter, Aristotle turns his attention to the speaker’s audience. Significantly, the verbs “to appear or seem” (phainesthai) and “to be disposed” (diakeisthai) keep cropping up in various forms. The objective is plainly for the speaker to put his best foot forward and win over his hearers by whatever subtle means are accessible: an approach that the single word “manipulative” would characterize bluntly but quite accurately. It is particularly recommended that the ambitious speaker project good sense (phronesis), virtue (arete), and a fair disposition (eunoia), for listeners are more apt to trust the judgment of a sensible person not susceptible to bias (1.5 ff.). At the same time, this paragon of trustworthiness is to calculate what emotions in his audience might be tapped that could overrule a purely rational verdict upon the case’s merits. Anger, pity, and fear (1.8) are especially to be explored.
As Aristotle embarks upon this new dissection of motive forces, he subsides into his old quasi-digressive (and perhaps residually oral) habits. Chapter 2 inaugurates a series of long ambles through the nature of the emotions named above without any apparent concern for how to connect each winding road with the work of the orator. Of course, in the investigations we also see the same expediency—one is tempted to say cynicism—as was so visible in book 1. The philosopher analyzes contempt and insult, for instance, as reflecting an assumption of their recipient’s powerlessness, for otherwise the aggressor would be restrained or moved to make friendly overtures by self-interest (2.4-5). Our teacher’s imagination does not conceive of a person who might think, “To hell with caution—I’m going to insult him to his face, though it may cost me my life!” Aristotle’s world, despite being roiled by so many thoroughly parsed emotions, is strangely dispassionate: all is calculation.
The irrepressible dedication to cataloguing is scarcely less impressive, however. Chapter 2 does not return explicitly to the orator’s craft until its final section (27), at which point Aristotle advises his readers to avoid angering their audience in any of the dozens of ways just listed. What Walter Ong has called the “copia” of oral delivery seems a far more plausible generative force for the previous meandering than any kind of logical rigor. While the work’s content, then, often seems to indict its author’s lapsed faith in arbitrary traditional values and his natural progression to ethical relativism, style continually reminds us that this same author has more than a touch of Homer and Hesiod in his measurements of reality.
From this perspective, chapter 3 makes perfect sense: more meandering among the ways to lure the audience into a mild frame of mind (prautes) and more quasi-behaviorist estimates of how the human mind works in generating emotion. For instance, section 3.10 asserts that fear and respect will dissuade one person from insulting another yet offers not the slightest distinction between the two, as if a shared observable behavior inspired by both could justify their fusion; and the philosopher continues his reflection with the shocking claim that fear is wholly incompatible with anger. (Others have insisted that it is a major motive of anger: Tiberius’s Oderint dum metuant was endorsed vigorously by Caligula and cited with only minor qualification by Machiavelli.) The excursive catalogue of ways to calm anger winds up with 3.17, which reiterates that the canny speaker can settle his audience down by stressing either the irksome subject’s power or his pitiable state. We close as we began, then, on observed behavior. Essentially, audiences can be managed either by intimidation or by exploitative sentimentality: same goal, no noteworthy distinction in methods.
A Theory of What Makes People Tick: Hard-Boiled Peasant vs. Bitter Courtier
Having undertaken the explanation of how to win over audiences, Aristotle considers a discussion of what people like, and why they like it, to extend the subject quite logically. Chapter 4 is this elaboration. The catalogic format is preserved; yet at first we appear to be in for a surprise, for 4.2 defines a friend as someone whose good we seek without specific regard to our own advantage (cf. 1.11.17). Such a hint of altruism is rarely heard in the Rhetoric: in Aristotelian formulations, people are usually seeking their own interest even when they seek others’. (One is apt to recall La Rochefoucauld’s L’altruisme se perd dans l’interêt comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.) And so it turns out here: for 4.4 reassures us that people in fact seek friends only among those who share their values resonantly, so that to serve another’s good in such cases is indeed to serve one’s own. Though innumerable romantic novels have been written about one party’s passionate devotion to another whose values seem diametrically contrary, Aristotle’s world has none of the psychological complexity of Manon Lescaut. Its landscape is almost Darwinian—especially if the human world suggested by Darwin could be called neo-tribalist. People, we are told here, embrace others who are clean either in reputation or in person, who are not censorious or excessively demanding, who will wink at little trespasses, who make and receive jokes with equanimity, who don’t interrupt important business… on so forth, and so on. Nothing of the terribly insightful there. Yet we are also, and more interestingly, advised that people like another of their same values or habits as long as this party does not represent competition or involve them in some sort of risky venture (4.21-22, 25). The first of the foregoing citations contains a reference to the ancient poet Hesiod, where the old rustic himself cites a yet more ancient proverb about potters nursing a hatred for other potters (Works and Days 25).
Once again, then, we face the enigma of a peasant’s hard-boiled provincial pragmatism that looks very like a courtier’s wry Pyrrhonist misanthropy. Is Aristotle an inveterate traditionalist or a post-traditional nihilist? Perhaps what he shows us is that the latter can narrowly resemble the former, since, in the new relativity to which all values have been reduced (from the nihilist’s perspective), a posture copied from one’s forefathers imposes no more commitment than any other gesture while preserving a certain theatrical effect.
Chapter 4 closes with a brief definition of “non-friendliness”, or varieties of dislike (as if chapter 3 had insufficiently performed this service). In passing, we might remark that 4.31 distinguishes between anger and hatred (orge and misos) solely on the basis of observable behavior, reprising yet another favorite stratagem in the Aristotelian technique of analysis. The distinction’s terms are extravagantly tendentious (the angry man directly perceives a specific object of his emotion, the hater doesn’t) and—typically—show no interest in exploring psychological elements.
A Behaviorist Analysis of Fear, Shame, Envy, et Alia
Soon we are carried into chapter 5, however, where we proceed to read about the different species and motives of fear. These are cast in equally behaviorist shapes. By now the modus operandi is predictable. Men fear what appears likely to hurt them, especially if it imminently threatens… but out of sight, out of mind. The phenomenon lies all in the behavior. Then another catalogue: those who are feared. People fear the powerful, the unjust, the vindictive; or, if among these latter, they fear the plots and reprisals of the victimized and oppressed. Section 5.8 apprises us that men will almost always (epi to poly) use power if they have it. Hence he with less power must always fear him with much, while the powerful must always fear that the persecuted may attack them en masse. A warning against the mild-mannered appears in 5.11, for one never knows when they may be hatching a plot beneath their feigning exterior. Still again, we may parse this cynicism either as long-inherited peasant wisdom or as a decadent, urbane relativism. Either way, it offers no prospect for fine analysis of neuroses: those of us moderns who fear peace for inflicting upon us the “danger” of relaxation must seek consolation and treatment elsewhere.
In fairness, section 5.11 promises to probe more deeply into the fearful state of mind; yet of this, Aristotle simply seems incapable, if one is expecting a shift from behaviorism to spirituality; for it is scarcely a subtlety to remark that the wealthy and the arrogant have little fear in their power and bluster, or that the hopeless have none in their utter despair (5.14). Readers are encouraged, nevertheless, to ply audiences with this new understanding of fear as the need may arise (5.15).
The counter-image of a fearful mass of men is then explored: the bold or daring or confident (tharraleoi [5.16]). Yet again, we are not to suppose that men reach such heights by drawing upon something as mystical as true courage. They must be persuaded, rather, that practical advantage has shifted to their side, whether in terms of pure might or of raw numbers or of immediate accessibility. They grow confident, for instance, if they have seldom or never harmed others, or if those they have harmed are incapable of harming them in return (5.20: a full spectrum of moral distinctions whose differences interest our philosopher not in the least). The very curious and highly laconic section 5.21 even implies that angry men are confident because they believe themselves to enjoy the support of the gods, whereas in wronging others they do not grow angry and hence give little thought to divine signs and manifestations. Machiavelli could scarcely have described the hypocritical inspiration of the human heart with a finer reserve—or have shown less interest in denouncing its hypocrisy.
Shame is the subject of chapter 6. A new catalogue is launched. Shameful acts include cowardice on the battlefield, displays of sexual impropriety, and also more verbally based conduct: servile flattery, ingratitude, boastfulness (kolakeia, micropsychia, alazoneia), and the like. Violating the expectations of one’s tribe, community, or (as we would call it) peer group is shameful (6.12)—a sentiment that may again either suggest a traditional side to Aristotle or, more likely, a complete separation from all values that allows him to assess and manipulate the tradition-minded. For a bare cynicism returns in 6.14: shame is a species of dishonor (adoxia: lit., “not proper-seeming”). Hence it is felt before those from whom we want something, but not before those whose opinion we set at naught (e.g., children: 6.23). Subsequent sections reiterate this notion. Section 6.18 cites a proverb about shame residing in the eyes (i.e., if no one sees the act, then no foul is done). Such trespasses, apparently, are to be measured entirely in terms of how many obstacles they raise between us and the things people have that we want.
Chapter 7 examines gratitude (charis). The granting of sexual favors, lending money to someone down on his luck, extending protection to an exile… these examples and others are stirred indiscriminately into the same behaviorist brew. With an implicit softening of those Machiavellian assumptions so familiar now that one may begin to suspect the philosopher of self-contradiction, Aristotle adds in 7.5 that qualifying favors must not serve the benefactor’s profit. How, we should ask, might they do otherwise, if the human animal seeks his advantage only and always? The disinterested benefactor must either be a fool or… or he must only appear disinterested to those who receive his favors. That appearance, after all, would advance his cause twice as well as an obvious pay-off. The following and final section of this brief chapter proposes so many fine calculations in determining an apparent favor’s true quality—the benefactor’s awareness of what he has done, his timing, his frequency of extending similar favors to others, etc.—that we may well walk away concluding charis to be an illusionist’s creation.
Chapter 8 addresses pity (eleos). The ensuing catalogue of pity-worthy people appears to bleed into an enumeration of pity-capable people at times. In 8.3, for instance, those who have lost everything and those who have gained everything are posed as the pity-spectrum’s polarities—probably because they sit beyond pity for opposing reasons, but perhaps because they lack the ability to pity for the same reasons. Either way, the formulation is curious and disturbing. Would not the utterly destitute strike most of us as preeminently qualified for pity, or would not the fabulously prosperous be uniquely positioned to show pity? Yet all is pragmatic calculation in Aristotle’s moral world. Once any future gain whatever is deemed negligible due to the magnitude of preceding loss, the sufferer no longer derives profit from having his affliction pitied; and once good fortune has endowed one with prosperity beyond imagining, a show of pity to others brings no advantage worth reckoning. Whichever of these two formulas applies to the eighth chapter, the sum in the column that tallies satisfaction obtained from self-sacrifice is zero.
Conditions that excite pity are listed in 8.8-11. The enumeration hides no surprises, as Aristotle himself admits. The extended observation in 8.13 that we are more prone to pity those closest to us in years, status, appearance, and so forth because we sense ourselves more likely to be struck by the same dart continues to build upon the axiomatic assumption of self-interest. Likewise, pity is stirred by “visuals” like tattered clothing and tears because yesterday’s or tomorrow’s misery gives a less immediate and visceral shock than what is happening before our eyes. Apparently, any compassion capable of being stirred by imaginative and humane reflection is undetectable. Carnal beings that we are, we register in significant amounts only those feelings that pound at our front door.
What might best be called indignation (nemesis, a kind of “justified grudge-bearing”) is undertaken in chapter 9. Aristotle observes that, as an emotion properly complementary to pity, indignation reflects the good character (ethos chreston) of those who register it. Here we find, by the way, one of the rare employments of the word ethos in book 2 before the twelfth chapter: it once again clearly hearkens to traditional, accepted standards. Indeed, as the philosopher proceeds with his explication of nemesis, he contrasts it with envy (phthonos: 9.3) by noting that the former aims its disapproval at undeserved prosperity while the latter directs ill will at deserved prosperity. The notion of desert is unexamined (and, as some might say, enthymematic). What else can it signify, in this context, but customary, inherited expectations? The enigma that is Aristotle continues: our La Rochefoucauld once again morphs into a Solon.
As of section 9.5, at any rate, the cynic seems to have regained the upper hand. Here Aristotle declares that indignation and envy, whatever the distinction between them, may both be exploited to deny a given subject pity before a given audience. Throughout the rest of the chapter, the boundary between these two varieties of repulsion indeed blurs almost to nothing. New wealth is said to excite indignation more readily than old wealth, for instance (9.9)—yet the discussion neglects to specify that the newly wealthy in question have somehow done wrong. The word “worthy” (axios) appears frequently in the closing sections with a similar indifference to its justification. The virtuous are naturally indignant when those whom they consider unworthy receive an equal or greater reward to that bestowed upon themselves… but might the envious, then, not claim to be virtuous? A couple of Homeric citations and various references to accepted social norms (such as the right of established nobility over the newly wealthy to royal marriages) represent the only standard for making a distinction: a traditional, uncritical standard, obviously. Yet lest we seem to veer too far back in Solon’s direction, section 9.16 closes by reprising that any doubt raised about an adversary’s worth may deprive him of the judges’ pity. The cynic has returned.
Though one might have thought the subject laid to rest, Aristotle devotes the next chapter exclusively to envy. He concedes that much of what has been said before (about indignation) should clarify the issue. Some of the usual enigmas, nevertheless, keep the discussion here from flowing unobstructed. The claim is made in 10.2, for instance, that all men who achieve high goals are envious because they see others as taking aim on their success—a formulation that must surely imply more than it says. Perhaps Aristotle means that a kind of transferred envy (to borrow a term from modern psychology) haunts these worthies because they recall it from their own ascent to the ranks of the enviable. In general, of course, the philosopher’s view of the human animal as self-interested, bluntly materialistic, and chastened somewhat by a quasi-superstitious regard for tradition and status (as in the worshipful admiration of honors) finds ample room to expose itself in the unfolding discussion. (10.5 aptly adduces a proverb about the tendency of brother to envy brother: all too true, alas.) Yet the puzzling point about successful men somehow envying—or imagining the envy—of less fortunate men recurs in the final section (10.11). The judges’ sympathy, we are told, may be alienated from a certain plaintiff if we skillfully tap into the ample resources of such envy. I do not see how this can mean anything other than that the highly esteemed judge will be brought to associate the plaintiff with some vilely jealous detractor of his own acquaintance.
In the word zelos lies the etymological origin of our “zeal” and “jealousy”; yet it would be a travesty of translation to say that Aristotle proceeds from envy to zeal or jealousy, so the word in question is usually rendered “emulation.” This is clearly what Aristotle has in mind. He writes in chapter 11 that the two emotions differ in that the envious direct their ill will at one of their approximate state who has harvested greater rewards than they, whereas the “jealous” or emulous concentrate their attention upon the rewards exclusively and desire to claim similar prizes. Hence the latter are inspired to good behavior. They strive after wealth and honor, for instance, especially in their youth (when zelos is particularly wholesome). That the philosopher is here bluntly equating honorable achievement with the uncritical courtship of communal applause (see 11.4 specifically) should no longer surprise us, for Aristotelian “behaviorism” has repeatedly demonstrated a disbelief in any significant hidden motive of the spiritual sort (viz., conscience). Yet perhaps the utter absence of disinterested devotion in “the good life” is nowhere more apparent throughout the Aristotelian worldview than it is here. To round out the point, the chapter’s final section contrasts emulation sharply with contempt. We are reminded that even the highly successful become objects of contempt rather than emulation if they are seen as violating communal standards and expectations—and that the skillful speaker can excite a contemptuous response to a powerful adversary by such means (11.7).
Vox populi, vox dei: is this god of public opinion truly Aristotle’s, or does he leave an offering at the altar only because he knows (in Machiavellian fashion) that he may thereby sway the people, and their god be damned? The question continues to thrust itself forward… and it increasingly appears indeterminable.
The Youthful Dream
Chapter 12 begins the examination of various human ethea, or character types. Nothing could be instantly more transparent than that ethos here does not refer to “authority,” as it is commonly parsed in contemporary rhetorics. Instead, what follows is a series of short essays on the different stages of life that would have left Hesiod proud. The twelfth chapter turns out to be devoted almost exclusively to youth. Young men are rash because their passions run high and are difficult to control. They are full of ambition and hope because their memory of life is so brief and their expectation of it so ample. They tend to be generous and bold because they have yet to encounter severe setback and grinding hardship. Much of the matter here has already been discussed, as Aristotle concedes; his intent is to assemble comments about various qualities and emotions into a sequence of portraits that reflects the relative prominence of psychological elements at different points of the typical human experience. The result is sometimes quite poignant when compared to the dry dissection of previous chapters.
In fact, the language of the brief 12.12 puts me in mind of Machiavelli’s “Roman Dream”—The Prince’s concluding chapter where history’s most jaundiced political eye wells with tears at the prospect of a coming age when men will love their leader and trade their lives for freedom. Our philosopher writes of the young that they prefer doing good things to advantageous ones since they live according to principle rather than according to calculation. In this unique passage, ethos is equated with arete and to kalon. It is not merely custom and habit, that is, but something that appears to spring eternal from within (even though age erodes it in every specific case). It is that dream of a higher—a transcending—authority that emits a glimmer nowhere else in the treatise, as far as I can tell… and it belongs uniquely to youth: to the idealism of youth, as we might say. Aristotle, in a lapse of only a couple of dozen words, has undermined his entire value system.
This contradiction sheds an afterglow over chapter 13, where the philosopher’s attention turns to old men. Their state is the opposite of the young man’s, claims Aristotle with more appearance than substance of reason; for he proceeds to characterize the aged in a manner with which the Homeric and Hesiodic precedent would often strongly disagree. Old men “think but know nothing” (13.2), for instance—a charge that not only implies a rebuke of Socrates but reduces the cautious wisdom of Homer’s Nestor to tedious, perhaps cowardly vacillation. (The “loquacity in recollecting the past” mentioned in 13.12 might have been framed with Nestor in mind; but Homer’s senior hero, by the way, also gives excellent advice.) Old men, furthermore, are small-minded (micropsychoi) in their lack of ambition and contentment with necessities (13.5), a view that would disparage the rugged self-sufficiency espoused by the Stoics and descended from Socrates’ classic exclamation in the agora, “How many things there are of which I have no need!” Old men are ungenerous, pusillanimous, and self-centered (13.6-9), a proposition defying much contrary evidence offered by the sacrifices that the aging make for their children. Section 9, in fact, stunningly trots out the assertion that “the expedient is his [the old man’s] good, while the noble [to kalon] is absolutely [haplos] good”; and 13.13 reiterates that the aged act only with attention to selfish gain (to kerdos).
When has the Rhetoric ever before suggested the possibility of absolute good liberated from selfishness? Aristotle invokes this god so alien to his universe only, it seems, to wage a private war against a life (or perhaps a culture) that chastens and blunts youthful spirits. He appears to have an axe to grind against a worldly experience that has taught him that “most of what happens is tawdry [phaula] and turns out for the worse” (13.11). Youth is romanticized as that repository of all the energy, hope, and trust which he cannot afford to embrace uncritically—and age is that oppressive weight which has suffocated the Dionysiac vigor of youth. Truly, these passages are our teacher’s Roman Dream, where he reviles the necessity of self-seeking cynicism with a spiritual ardor whose grounds his own materialism has ruled impossible. In a crowning irony (if not a deliberate anticlimax of acid subtlety), Aristotle returns quickly to this cynicism in reminding his audience to manipulate the foregoing portraits appropriately after assessing the average age of those to be persuaded (13.16)!
Could the Rhetoric, at some level, have been a rhetorical ploy to allow its author the luxury of venting such self-contradictory frustration?
The Displacement of Youth’s Virtue into an Imaginary Maturity
In this light, the extreme brevity of chapter 14 (at a mere four sections) becomes suspicious. We are told that the prime of life (acme) is that space which harmoniously blends the two previously explained polarities. Men in their prime, between the ages of thirty and thirty-five, are courageous without being rash and mindful of goodness without being heedless of personal advantage. They are the golden mean between either variety of excess… which dispenses, apparently, with their having to be defined in any detail. Might they not, indeed, be a pure abstraction, and even a fantasy—the less specified the better, a mathematical compromise rather than a moral reality? In them, Aristotle seems to me to have triangulated his way (in a purely rhetorical gesture of which he himself is the primary dupe) out of the impasse in his value system. Now he is not required to defend his abandonment of moral principle—implicit in the types of manipulation extolled by his manual—from the charge of being overtly cynical and corrupt; for his science of rhetoric is that acme of learning represented by a man in his prime, neither foully deserting good behavior nor rashly dedicated to it in all circumstances. Somehow, so packaged, the equivocation seems “right.” Let no intruder point out that the period of acme is in fact the briefest of the three and, as a mere stage of biological passage like any other, has no superior claim to authority or admiration. Honni soit qui mal y pense.
The Fusion of Age’s Fanciful Acme with a Fanciful Socio-Economic Group
As if having flushed something inhibitive from his intellect, Aristotle rushes into the next chapter with a new standard of brevity in effect. He announces that he will now review various types of “goods produced by fortune” (tyche: 15.1) and their consequences for the formation of character, by which he appears to mean what we would designate as socio-economic circumstances. Aristocrats are summarily dealt with in a mere two sections. Their pride in remote evidence of high worth essentially immobilizes them with regard to pressing enterprises; they often degenerate either into insane or dull-witted and indolent habits. Chapter 16 handles the wealthy with the same rude generality. In four sections, we learn that their riches render them arrogant: contemptuous of the wise, presumptuous in political endeavor, luxurious and arrogant in their social life. Theirs is a character of fortunate folly (anoetou eudaimonos ethos: 16.3). Though the esteemed ancient poet Simonides gloomily opines that they have philosophers fawning at their doorstep (16.2), our philosopher showers them with scorn in passing.
The final of three very brief portraits of men who enjoy eutychia is not in the least represented as a golden mean between aristocrats and plutocrats, and indeed seems quite desultory: the powerful. Why does chapter 17 distinguish those who wield dynamis from both the rich and the well-born, when both of the latter succeed to power as a result of their happy condition? What other sort of power is there? Political, to be sure; but in fourth-century Athens far more than in the contemporary West, political power falls to those who enjoy wealth or inherited privilege. Aristotle’s intent in creating this category out of thin air, then, remains unclear to me. Might he be summoning up a virtuous alternative for those of the noble and the wealthy whom he does not wish to alienate, having already and most resonantly condemned the majority of their class? For we are told that the powerful incline to dignity more than pomposity, to energy more than arrogance, and generally to a mentality that strives rather than one that sits on its laurels (17.3-4).
Aristotle concludes the brief chapter 17 by remarking that the fortunate of all classes are keener in religious observance (philotheoi) than most men, even in their arrogance, because they sense that they have been specially favored. He confirms them in this suspicion, as if the gods had indeed patronized them with inscrutable fondness; and in this, I observe in passing, our philosopher yet again narrowly resembles Machiavelli, whose equivalency of success in one’s ambitious enterprises with enjoying the favor of God is total and absolute.
The purpose of these three exceptionally brief chapters remains enigmatic. They are by no means an exhaustive list of fortunate people generated by compelling logic. (For instance, what of parents who are fortunate to have healthy and responsible children? What of a generation fortunate enough to live in a time of relative peace?) As usual with his lists, the mere appearance of logical objectivity is created. Behind that appearance, he seems to have unleashed a virulent attack upon those born into social privilege and those who have inherited or have acquired great wealth; and within this attack, he has conserved a “safe zone” for the powerful, a comparatively virtuous third member of the triad whose existence, however, is not necessitated by the other two in some disjunctive manner. Possibly, the ruse (for such it is, whether intended or not) aims at providing a pedigree of legitimacy for those who do not currently have power (due to lack of wealth or inherited position) and who would seize it; and possibly, the implied coup is to be staged on behalf of “youthful virtue” that serves unconditionally, unselfishly good ends in its naiveté—but its standard now securely assumed by mature “realists,” men whose defense of principle is unfettered by any ruinous resolve never to violate principle.
Or perhaps the Machiavellian project is beginning to preoccupy my interpretation; but if the Greek’s trail is far less clear than the Italian’s, they both persist toward the same destination through turn after turn.
A Retreat—Possibly Staged—Into Further Classification
Chapter 19 resumes an explicit discussion of rhetoric. It reiterates another pair of threesomes: the directing of speech to the past, the present, or the future, and the identification of these directions with giving counsel in a legislative context (symboule), expounding upon a subject or candidate in forensic oratory (epideiknysis), and weighing evidence in a criminal trial or other court proceeding (amphisbesis). It is not clear at this remove, with the Rhetoric more than half completed, how any of the foregoing discussion has broken up evenly according to the triads just reiterated; and indeed, we can now appreciate more than ever just how dubious they are in some ways. An advocate of a new law, for example, might well refer to the past in warning of or recommending likely consequences, and a eulogist lauding a candidate would naturally refer to the subject’s previous conduct and perhaps to his vision of things to come. As he did earlier, Aristotle somewhat circumvents the fallibility of his triangular logic by announcing a review of strategies that apply in all three cases. Of course, this does not explain to us why the tripartite division was ever presented as useful, to begin with… but we were likely not meant to notice that it has no use, and instead to be impressed by an appearance of order.
It seems odd to this observer, frankly, that Aristotle would not have begun book 3 upon redirecting his attention from the human condition (and the misanthropic notions that it has elicited from him) to the fine art of stitching words together. Perhaps the gambit represented by chapter 19 is intended precisely to conceal—before our eyes or his own—that the author has lately strayed too far toward social protest and utopian theory while seeming to speculate about human nature; for not only is the new chapter inordinately long, but it is also otiose and tedious. The subject is supposed to be the possible and the impossible: what later philosophers often refer to as modality. We are told that an event’s beginning is possible if its end is so, and that the parts are possible if the whole is so. In the interstices of such insights, we are assured that what we humans desire by nature is possible (9.14) and that what a weak or dull person may accomplish is possible for a stronger or brighter person to accomplish (9.14). The Rhetoric hardly scintillates at these moments.
Along about 19.17, the variables of the highly abstract equations above are substituted with events in time, as in “if the less likely has happened, then the more likely has probably also happened.” The shift is significant. It prepares the ground for reducing human conduct to the behaviorist calculus which Aristotle so affects elsewhere. By section 19.21, we are told that as thunder follows lightening, so a criminal act follows criminal intent. Of course, this is the “means, motive, and opportunity” talk with which the law enforcement agencies of our own culture have familiarized us. If only because of our familiarity with the game, we may fail to notice how directly the philosopher runs to a mechanistic view of human behavior in order to reorient himself in his somewhat meandering discussion. Now Aristotle’s feet have reached that ground again which they find most firm. As smoke announces fire, so the presence of a motive announces a foul deed: orators, take note.
For some reason, the final two sections of chapter 19 (26 and 27) close with Aristotle’s explaining that any further treatment of greatness and smallness of size would be “empty speech” (kenologein). Having raised desultorily an irrelevant subject only to dismiss it (what ancient poets referred to as a “priamel”), he proceeds to the paradigm and the enthymeme in chapter 20. First the paradigm, or example: this can belong either to the inductive category (epagoge) or the parabolic category (parabole), the former drawing inferences from historical precedent and the latter creating imaginary but instructive situations (20.2-4). The animal fable, curiously, is not denominated a “parable” but rather a logos. Aristotle recounts two instances of it ascribed to Stesichorus and Aesop (20.5-6). Apparently the parabole is drawn more rigorously from real life, yet with certain details adjusted for special effect. All varieties of paradigm, says the summation of 20.9, are better offered at the speech’s conclusion, where they have the appearance of evidence: a formulation which seems to favor slight-of-hand virtuosity over a more logical justification of the placement… but what else would one expect of the Rhetoric?
I have no ready answer for why Aristotle would launch into so dry, objective, and clinical an exposition without introducing a major division in his opus. It seems a strange act to follow upon the heels of his provocative, often moody character sketches. I can only repeat that perhaps the aura of objectivity is precisely what he wishes to retrieve, with no overt admission that it has ever evaporated.
Maxims: Ready-Made Treats for “Drive-Thru” Audiences
The clinical dissection continues in chapter 21, with the maxim (gnome) now on the autopsist’s table. With ample recourse to Euripides, the second and third sections argue lengthily (and rather opaquely) that the maxim is an enthymeme without a syllogism. If the enthymeme itself is a syllogism one of whose premises has been suppressed (or, as 21.2 would now have it, “the enthymeme is a syllogism concerning such things [human actions]”), then explaining the maxim as a further-truncated enthymeme begins to smack of obscurantism. Does Aristotle really have something objective in mind, or is he, rather, trying to dazzle us in abstraction? Let us persist before reaching a verdict. The philosopher affirms that four kinds of maxim exist. The maxim may or may not have an “epilogue,” which appears in his judgment to be a clarification of what might otherwise prove too cryptic a generality (rather as a clue might explicate the gnarled terms of a tough riddle). The epilogue, for its part, may be “enthymematic but not part of an enthymeme” (21.6), whatever in the world that means.
So far we appear to have seen two of the four types of maxims. Sections 7-11 discuss the appropriate rhetorical design and occasion for their deployment (e.g., the epilogue must be short, younger men should beware of looking sententious, and oft-used maxims are often effective). Section 12 distinguishes between the maxim and the proverb—a non-existent distinction to us in many of the examples offered, since the Greek paroimia has no English equivalent and is only approximately captured by “proverb.” (One might gloss it as a conventional turn of phrase, perhaps an idiom.) Sections 13-16 conclude the chapter by reviewing more circumstances for the maxim’s effective use (e.g., how a maxim may be contradicted with profit, how one may win favor with the masses by larding speech with maxims, and how—most interestingly, with respect to Aristotle’s previous tendencies—how one may shed a highly ethical aura upon one’s speech by choosing time-honored maxims. Chapter 22 proceeds to enthymemes, if we may not be said to have waded through them already.
The remaining two types of maxim, then, are… somewhere hidden in what has just been discussed. Are they maxims closer to common experience, with and without epilogue? Maxims not drawn from Euripides, with and without epilogue? Maxims that are also proverbs, with and without epilogue? Has Aristotle simply neglected to clarify the division… or has he deliberately obscured it to leave us awkwardly questioning our perceptiveness, our intelligence, and—therefore—our right to interrogate him in other matters? If the latter, then he would have pioneered one of the oldest academic tricks in the book.
The Enthymeme, At Last… Maybe
And speaking of tricks… the enthymeme, at last. Yet Aristotle begins chapter 22 by reminding us that he has already explained the term “as a syllogism, and how it differs from dialectical varieties” (22.2). With this grudging overture, uncharitably disposed to those of imperfect memory, he proceeds in the manner of Shakespeare’s Polonius, elaborating that good enthymemes are not too much of this nor too much of that. The conclusion should neither be buried in the argument nor be made too explicitly (22.3). What is explicit for the educated, however, may not be so for the masses: hence conclusions drawn before a general audience ought to be somewhat explicit. To this end, they should build upon such of the speaker’s experiences as are widely shared; and their premises may hold as true a mere tendency (what we would call statistical probability) rather than being pressed to start in logical necessity (22.3).
The importance of appealing to the audience from a firm basis of knowledge is stressed throughout 22.4-10. At the very least, this empirical grounding suggests to me that the enthymeme is an emotional sort of argument in Aristotle’s presentation. Upon contemporary teachers, indeed, it has likely exerted a powerful magnetism precisely because it accommodates so well the worldview that all values (i.e., non-empirical truths) are relative, the exclusive product of cultural conditioning. I will hazard to propose at this point, therefore, that the Aristotelian enthymeme, so much celebrated and so seldom and vaguely defined, is an argument that advances a moral conclusion (that is, a conclusion couched as a moral principle) based on presumptions and prejudices common in a given audience: and that these presumptions, furthermore, are implicit rather than clear premises in the actual statement. (Such is the sense in which I have heard “enthymeme” used by the more knowledgeable educators of my acquaintance.) Menander’s, “He whom the gods love dies young,” might be an enthymeme, the suppressed premise being that a blessed afterlife awaits us; and it might equally be so if the suppressed premises were that life is constant misery followed by harmless nothingness (though I may now have suppressed one premise too many for qualification). The proper “spin” depends upon the audience’s mood and its composition. After all, at the root of this term lies the word thumos, viewed by Homer and his generation as the seat of courage, virtue, and other spiritual qualities. The enthymeme must appeal to the soul rather than to reason. That, as far as I can tell, is the essential idea.
As is his wont, Aristotle approaches the analysis of the enthymeme by proposing divisions. We have the commonplace and the peculiar variety. The former is to be preferred in analysis by reason of its accessibility, and a further division of enthymemes into common topics will therefore ensue (22.12-13). First, however, we must also note that enthymemes fall into the demonstrative and the refutative varieties (deiktika and elegktika: 22.14-15). Now we are prepared to delve into enthymematic topics (22.17)—an undertaking which will at least afford the puzzled the luxury of numerous examples.
Examples of Enthymeme
Demonstrative enthymemes may topically be classed as ta enantia, or opposites. (Like a Russian babushka doll, classes inexorably yield sub-classes in Aristotle. No indication is given, furthermore, that the sub-classes of topic cover a logically limited range: the named items seem, rather, an arbitrarily arranged queue.) The opposition in two theses may be more apparent than real. By analyzing such structures, the shrewd speaker will discern whether their polarization is sound or flawed, and hence better suited to become the basis of a reliable argument or of a successful counter-argument. Aristotle offers several examples (e.g., since falsehood is often accepted by the masses, the truth may be generally disbelieved)—without, however, suggesting whether their contraries are valid (23.1).
The next section handles a clumsily labeled construction that might be termed “tumbling associations” (from Aristotle’s ptosis). These appear related (in some unexplored manner) to oppositions, but involve almost or perhaps interchangeable predicates rather than propositions viewed from reverse angles. The brief example is offered of justice and goodness—how justice might demand a villain’s execution, yet to be executed would not be considered good by the condemned man though he acknowledge his own crime (23.2). In these few words (far fewer than my English rendition), Aristotle seems to me unwittingly to have shown how far his topics are from any logical compulsion; for a strong-willed man might indeed desire his own death after being detected in a humiliating crime. Declares Shakespeare’s Angelo, “And so deep sticks it in my penitent heart / That I crave death more willingly than mercy. / ’Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.” The philosopher has no objective basis, ultimately, upon which to determine the quality of his moralistic assertions. The parade to which we are being treated is as much self-delusion as an exposure of others’ delusions on display.
Next among the topics, we have the even more cryptic (and awkwardly titled) pros allela, or “differently inclined.” The example precedes, and indeed usurps, the explanation. Several cases are described wherein a rightfully condemned criminal may nonetheless be wrongfully executed if the executioner is not of a certain sort. The latter may be the culprit’s near kin, for instance; hence we cannot meld the two assertions together and conclude that killing capital offenders always serves the cause of justice (23.2). I observe in passing only that this analysis, once again, relies heavily upon cultural conditioning at the very moment when Aristotle appears to consider himself firmly on the ground of reason. The Romans celebrated the legendary execution of Titus Manlius by his father when the brave young man disobeyed orders in taking up an enemy’s challenge. Whatever these enthymemes are showing us so far, it isn’t that moral assertions can be objectively picked apart by our teacher’s method.
Other enthymemes: the “more and less,” as in, “If the gods do not know everything, then still less do mortals” (23.4); and the “neither more nor less,” as in, “If Hector did not act unjustly in slaying Patroclus, then neither did Paris in slaying Achilles” (23.5). Another involves an overview of time, as in, “If Philip had asked leave of the Thebans to pass through there territory before assisting them against the Phocians, he would surely have had it… so having rendered them such assistance already, how can they refuse permission?” (23.6). Still another, “turning what one’s adversary says back upon him,” as in, “If you would not have sold out your comrades in arms, then neither would I”—a strategy which must never be attempted, however, when the speaker’s character lies more in doubt than his detractor’s (23.7). Another topic involves remarking a limit (orismos), as when one might point out that dismissing the spirit world as merely the gods’ creative force in nature nevertheless entails a belief in the gods (23.8). Then we have an insistence on the clear explanation of words, so similar to the foregoing as to need no further example (23.9); and also the drawing of clear distinctions (diairesis), as when one observes that the remaining option of three must be true if the other two have been eliminated.
Two unusually long sections follow, rich in examples. The former of these is the inductive species of topical enthymeme (epagoge). The steps involved in such a case are not complex, but Aristotle seems eager to trot out particular instances: if Athens prospered under Solon and Sparta under Lycurgus, then Thebes should do well under the leadership of philosophers… and so on (23.11). Then we have a topic which somewhat corresponds to what we know of as legal precedent: i.e., indexing a case to the verdict applied in a very similar previous case, or at least to the authority of such figures as render respected verdicts. If Plato does not behave as Socrates did in certain circumstances, then Plato is at fault; and if Theseus declared Helen a virtuous women, then we should not reproach her (23.12).
More than enough has been said here to verify that Aristotle’s list of enthymematic topics has no logical sequencing or revelatory crescendo. Homer’s Catalogue of Ships is not more random (is, indeed, probably less so). We are introduced to every sort of truncated syllogism from exploiting an opponent’s inaccuracies to playing upon a subject’s name (23.28-29: name play is very easy in Greek, by the way, since most names are clearly compound words). My using the verb “introduce” is perhaps inappropriate. The philosopher repeats often that he has reviewed this or that species in his Topics (begging the question of why he lengthily offers them now). Also recurrent is the suggestion that a certain approach may be carried in either of opposite directions, depending upon the effect desired and the audience at hand (e.g., 23. 14); and the behaviorist estimate of human nature as magnetized toward material self-interest, of course, does not disappear (e.g., the essential hypocrisy of motives identified in 23.16). I might note, in regard to the latter, that some translators render a passage in 23.26 as, “No one willingly, knowingly chooses the bad.” This lofty resonance of Socratic optimism involves a careless mistranslation of ta phaula as “bad” in an apparently ethical sense. What no one deliberately chooses, according to Aristotle, is the foolish—the disadvantageous.
Bogus Enthymemes, and Heaps Upon Heaps of Enthymeme
The final section of chapter 23 (30) appears to forge a transition into refutative enthymemes, remarking that they are more popular with audiences because their drift is more readily identified. Yet not so: refutation, as a subject, has come and gone with that brief mention. Instead, chapter 24 immediately launches into an investigation of pseudo-enthymemes, whose syllogistic reasoning turns out to be an artful illusion. Section 24.2 explains that conclusions may feign a logical compulsion that they do not possess (which is enthymematically disqualifying, we must assume). Along the way, Aristotle casually notes that two such fraudulent constructions may be attributed to diction. One follows the paradigm, “Not X, therefore Y,” where Y is only one of several alternatives. The second type plays upon words, as when one asserts that the mouse (mus) is an important animal because his name appears in the sacred “mys-teries,” or that dogs are worthy beasts because of the Dog Star.
More false syllogisms (yes, we have begun a new Catalogue of Ships): fallacious assumptions based on a crude association, such as supposing that he who knows the alphabet can understand all words composed by letters (24.3); also excessive emphasis (auxesis), which can make the effusively penitent culprit appear innocent or the hyperbolically enraged accuser appear unjustified (24.4); and also what Aristotle sketchily calls “signing” (to semeion), whereby all scoundrels become thieves just because all thieves are scoundrels (24.5). Our teacher stresses in presenting the latter two fallacies that such an argument is “by no means an enthymeme” because it is “not a true syllogism” (asyllogiston). By this, he appears not to mean that an enthymeme must assert a valid moral proposition, but only that it must have a validly syllogistic appearance.
Several examples follow of propositions that are logically invalid, therefore syllogistically flawed, and therefore failed enthymemes. We have things somewhat randomly juxtaposed (to symbebekos, 24.6: somehow distinct from 24.3). Example: attributing the anger of Achilles to a feast rather than to the dishonor of his not having been invited to said feast. Another fallacy: the “false consequence” (para to hepomenon: 24.7), as when paupers are said to be happy because they sing and dance in public spaces. Naturally, we should also save a space for the falsely causative (para to anaition: 24.8), as when the policies of Demosthenes are charged with causing war just because war followed Demosthenes’ term in office. Add to this the garbling of significant chronology (24.9), as when someone pleads the right to self-defense though guilty of having struck the first blow. Finally, two sections are devoted to the deceptive shading of the universal (to haplos) into the particular, and vice versa; for instance, when sophists argue that the improbable does sometimes occur, they are apt to generalize the specific occurrence into a rule and conclude that the least probable reading of the evidence in a case is therefore likely. (The slick technique of sorites, much discussed in Cicero’s writings, belongs to this family.) Aristotle does not conceal his scorn for Protagoras and one Korax in regard to such argumentation (24.10-11). He plainly finds an objective distinction between such open abuse of logic and the kind of finessing that his lessons recommend.
If the treatment of refutative enthymemes appeared to have been brushed under the rug a chapter earlier, it abruptly occupies center-stage in chapter 25. Back we go to analysis by sub-division. Refutation (lysis) may be accomplished either through “anti-syllogism” or through raising objections. Section 25.2 declines to explore antisyllogismos on the ground that it simply involves forming a contrary formulation patterned after other members of the syllogistic species. In 25.4-7, we very briefly (for Aristotle previously discussed them in his Topics) review varieties of raised objection: the type drawn from the original material itself, from the original syllogism’s contrary, from a syllogism similar to the original, and from a syllogism formed by respected judges. Also partaking of the reiterative is the philosopher’s examining refutation through the fourfold lens of probability (eikos), example (paradeigma), direct testimony (tekmerion), and signification (semeion), all of which categories have been visited before in other contexts. The gist of 25.9-14 is that an argument from probability can be refuted by diminishing the degree of the probable in the judges’ eyes, an argument from example by mounting counter-examples, and an argument from signification by providing alternate interpretations of suggested parallels. Tekmerion is sometimes translated as “necessity” because, to Aristotle, it appears to be irrefutable (though one may still wonder if he views it as so because of logical compulsion or because of its “eyewitness” quality). In any event, the defense’s best resource against such an argument is to reduce it to a merely probable level.
The brief Chapter 26 concludes a very long Book 2. Here we are informed of rhetorical considerations that do not properly belong to any kind of enthymeme. Magnification and diminution are more genus than species: they, like the good and the bad or the just and the unjust, comprise countless particular enthymemes (26.1). Curiously, 26.3 also declines to delve into refutation, since the type of enthymeme involved here does not vary from assertive types—but Chapter 25, of course, has just passed refutation in review! The objection (enstasis), furthermore, is not an enthymeme, because it insists that an existing syllogism be clarified rather than proposing a rival syllogism (26.4). Onward, then, to matters of style and syntax (lexis and taxis: 26.5)!
continued in next issue
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.