- Aristotle’s Rhetoric: Philosophical Essays
Scholars will find Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Philosophical Essays fascinating both for what is present and what is absent. As Alexander Nehamas states (pp. xi–xiv), this volume attempts to rectify the neglect by philosophers of Aristotle’s Rhetoric in particular and rhetoric in general. While the volume’s introduction and eleven essays are erudite, readable, and well-argued within their own logical and philosophical disciplinary traditions, the absence of reference both to contemporary rhetorical scholarship and ancient rhetorical traditions is somewhat disappointing.
M. F. Burnyeat’s essay typifies both the strengths and weaknesses of the collection. Burnyeat presents a reception history of the Aristotelean enthymeme [End Page 361] in the logical tradition, and argues convincingly for reading the enthymeme as a relaxed rather than truncated syllogism. Missing, however, is a sense of how the enthymeme changed in response to large scale movements in ancient rhetorical theory and reference to contemporary rhetorical scholarship on the enthymeme, which covers much territory Burnyeat treats as unexplored.
Several contributors compare the Rhetoric with Aristotle’s other works. Jacques Brunschwig claims that the Rhetoric and the Topics contextualize rhetoric differently and address different audiences. Glenn Most argues quite persuasively that Aristotle constructs a hierarchy of argumentative precision, with logic using the most precise, ethics and politics somewhat less precise, and rhetoric the least precise arguments. He shows that Aristotle’s treatment of endoxa (opinions) in the Rhetoric, Nichomachean Ethics, and Politics reflects this hierarchy. John Cooper points out that rhetoric looks to ethics/politics for its subject matter, but his argument applies only to one of the three genres of oratory and overlooks the heuristic potential of the topoi. Both Most and Cooper, though providing solid philosophical analyses of endoxa, do not discuss the rhetorical use of endoxa as gnômai, and thus useful premises for enthymemes. Stephen Halliwell also reconciles the Rhetoric with Aristotle’s ethical works by showing how the advantageous tends to, rather than opposes, the good.
Alexander Nehamas builds a coherent theory of the emotions as amenable to reason by investigating fear and pity in the Rhetoric and Poetics. André Laks, drawing on the work of Paul Ricoeur, discusses two traditions of metaphor, ornamental and transformative, in the Poetics and Rhetoric. Jean-Louis Labarrière contributes a solid and highly original comparison of painting and oratory in Plato and Aristotle.
Jürgen Sprute sees rhetoric not only as a solution to a Platonic impasse, but as a necessary and effective tool for Aristotelian political philosophy. Mary McCabe argues that Aristotle refutes both Phaedrus and Gorgias by showing that rhetoric is a technê and consequently a legitimate political tool. Eckart Schütrumpf presents the compelling and original suggestion that Aristotle’s Rhetoric should be read as extending the framework of the late Platonic Laws rather than as refuting earlier Platonic dialogues.
Many of these essays share two serious flaws. The first is an unstated tendency to read the Aristotelian corpus as unproblematically systematic and polished, and all apparent contradictions as susceptible to reconciliation. More explicit attention to interpretative assumptions, as is commonplace in Platonic scholarship but rare in Aristotelian, might be desirable. The second flaw is disciplinary insularity. As Nehamas points out (pp. xi-xiv), rhetoric and philosophy were not clearly demarcated in antiquity. To respond to Aristotle’s Rhetoric adequately, scholars need to transcend contemporary disciplinary divisions, and attempt to synthesize rhetorical, logical, philosophical, and literary scholarship, something this volume, despite its many strengths, fails to do.