The two things that stuck out most to me from reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Isocrates’ “Against the Sophists” and “Antidosis”: (1) the role of style v. something deeper when it comes to rhetoric and (2) the role of “nature” and the link between speaking well and having a good character.
When reading Gorgias and about Gorgias last week, we discussed the value of style, like the role of meter and the poetic quality of language and how this can almost bowl over an audience. In English, I often come back to Swinburne and Tennyson: for me, regardless of whatever content lies in the poems, a certain musicality permeates their language. The ending of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” for example, has always stuck out to me for its elegance, despite being a (dangerous) poem about imperialism:
“. . . and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Its almost marching rhythm, its careful alliteration, the uses of breaks and pauses, and the balance and repetition of the final line carry a certain rhetorical power. Or as Jacobson argues about the slogan “I like Ike,” its “poetic” quality has a potent power. Today, I think we may say this capacity of the sound and feel of language can lend to its virality.
So I appreciate that Aristotle melds views on the style (lexis) and arrangement (taxis) in Book III of Rhetoric with the more psychological and purpose-driven advice in Book I and II. The role of psychology, particularly through ethos and pathos, as well as Aristotle’s grounding and insistence on proof (logos) through enthymemes provides a backdrop that can then further (and be furthered through) style and arrangement. And his taxonomy of speaking purposes–deliberative, epidictive, and forensic–can also have a similar relationship. To me, a certain core toolkit or meta-scaffolding informs the content or brunt structure of a speech, while leaving a range of possible variation and polish, though I can see how Aristotle discusses the role of style more in Poetics. I can almost see a similarity with Aristotle and genre theory, in that one can apply a core of possible considerations to a variety of recurring situations.
Moreover, with Aristotle, his grounding on persuasion, while limiting, also felt gratifying. Drawing on the centrality of proof in his rhetoric, Aristotle early on says, “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (I, 2). Reading this, I was initially thinking about rhetoric as a sort of modality or mood, in that one is trying to persuade regardless of context. Persuasion becomes the purpose or characteristic of a particular moment, as opposed to comfort or inform, for example. These other elements–like comforting or informing–may be part of what one is doing or saying, but ultimately one wants to persuade, making this the ultimate end (or telos) of the language one uses.
Thinking about Aristotle’s Categories, for example, I ended up considering more of what Aristotle next says: “Every other art can instruct or persuade about its own particular subject-matter. . . But rhetoric we look upon as the power of observing the means of persuasion on almost any subject presented to us” (I, 2). Although the particular of medicine may have its own means of proof or persuasion, the general category of persuasion itself, as the telos of the situation, fits under rhetoric. But I am still thinking through this. For the most part, though, I found Aristotle’s moving between particulars and larger, more abstracted concepts, like pathos or deliberation, helpful, as well as his inclusion of style and arrangement.
Moving to Isocrates, though, I found the concern with nature and rhetoric interesting, albeit a bit contradictory in my (admittedly fast) read. In “Against the Sophists,” he writes:
all wise men, I believe, will agree with me, that many, studious of philosophy, have led a private life; but that some others, tho’ they never were the scholars of sophists, were skilled both in eloquence and governing the state; for the faculty of eloquence, and all other ingenuity, is innate in men, and is the portion of such as are exercised by use and experience.
He goes on to say that educating them can improve them, polishing their ability to draw from this “great store,” but a certain innateness seems to be important. And I am not clear how universal innateness is here. In this quote, it feels more inclusive–though some may have it more–but later on, he writes:
Let no one think, that I imagine justice can be taught; for I do not think there is any such art which can teach those who are not disposed by nature, either temperance or justice; tho’ I think the study of popular eloquence helps both to acquire and practice it.
Here, latent abilities feel less secured–or that the virtue acquired through training is not as inclusive. Reading the piece as whole, I get the sense that training does need to draw on some innate skill or abilities, though these may be fairly widespread. One can’t simply implant ability into someone, or at the very least, a sound understanding of eloquence beyond a parroting of forms requires extensive and thoughtful training. Moreover, Isocrates seems to place increased emphasis on the instructor, who must be a master of this art, and shows skepticism toward the large and financially motivated promises of the typical sophist.
But in “Antidosis,” I found he was a bit more inclusive about the power of learning to speak well, which is where I felt the potential contradiction. For example, he writes about how someone wanting to convince others of his character may strengthen his character–which Aristotle does say may make things easier, though it is not necessary. He also notes how people learning rhetoric would study great deeds and heroic exploits, likely absorbing them–a sort of connection I see with belletristic rhetorical theory. He also argues that such people will likely want “speak or write in discourses which are worthy of praise and honor,” furthering their conversion into a positive character.
In Isocrates, perhaps to defend his own teaching and distance it from the Sophists, I get stronger sense of rhetoric’s connection to character or nature. Phrased another way, I see a stronger link between how one speaks and who one is–what sort of nature of character they are. And his rhetoric, unlike the Sophists, with their own dubious character, is the most self-improving. In Aristotle, though character and nature may be a variable, rhetorical method seems more neutral and applied, though this may be more about how they are presenting their views on rhetoric.
Still, I think, these readings evoked in me a stronger sense of some of the ongoing conversations that continue up to today, somewhat evoked by Plato, particularly this question of rhetoric/speaking and character or nature.
4 thoughts on “CCR 634: Aristotle & Isocrates”
This reminds me of the raging debate about style and content, and of course, we’re generally at the stage where we feel we can talk about these two things separately, but we see them as inextricably linked.
It sounds to me like the ancients saw these things as quite separate, except that those in the know—the philosophers I suppose—would be able to spot fine language that’s actually empty. Or, conversely, terrible style obscuring great content.
Another thing to consider is how the act of writing changes the way we experience. Somehow, in articulating things, we learn to experience articulately. In this sense, character could become an important matter, because those who aren’t genuine in their desire to articulate clearly, but merely want to dazzle, they won’t experience anything differently or learn from the process.
Alas! I totally missed this! Sorry. Yes, I totally agree that this style v. content debate is still around today, and I think your final point is particularly important. Style can really amplify the impact of content or be “full of sound and fury, signfying nothing.” Thanks for the comment and sorry for totally missing this!
No problem! Yeah, I think that’s a big part of what some of the ancient philosophers were concerned with, the sound and fury, the emotional draw, devoid of content or worse.
Definitely. And I think that “or worse” is particularly apparent: what could happen with powerful yet potentially amoral or unmoral rhetoric.