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  • On the Term "Dunamis" in Aristotle's Definition of Rhetoric
  • Ekaterina Haskins

The term dunamis, by which Aristotle defines rhetoric in the first chapter of The Art of Rhetoric, is a "power" term, as its various meanings in Aristotle's corpus—from vernacular ones like "political influence" to strictly philosophical ones like "potentiality"—attest.1 In the Rhetoric, however, dunamis is usually translated as "ability" or "faculty," a designation that, compared to other terms that describe persuasion in ancient Greek poetics and rhetoric (such as "bia" ["force"] or "eros" ["seduction"]), marks rhetoric as a neutral human capacity rather than the use of language entangled in the vagaries of violence and desire.2 John Kirby calls Aristotle's definition "one of the boldest moves in the history of the philosophy of language: to redefine rhetoric, not as the use of peitho but as the study of peitho" (1990, 227). The presumption of rhetoric's ethical neutrality implied by dunamis has indeed become commonplace in interpretations of Aristotle's treatise itself and of rhetoric as a social phenomenon. As George Kennedy puts it in his authoritative translation of the Rhetoric, "Aristotle was the first person to recognize clearly that rhetoric as an art of communication was morally neutral, that it could be used either for good or ill" (1991, ix). In this article, I would like to probe another, perhaps not so reassuring, implication of dunamis as a term for rhetoric—that as "an ability to see all available means of persuasion," it does not need to become (or emulate) practical oratory. In what follows, I suggest that Aristotle's terminology, however neutral it may appear, constitutes an intellectually and politically motivated act of naming that severs rhetorical knowledge from historically specific rhetorical practices and thereby erects a protective barrier between practical rationality and discourses of democracy. [End Page 234]

Defined as a capacity, rhetoric occupies a peculiar position with regard to existing practices of oratory and rhetorical instruction. In Metaphysics 9, dunamis describes "potentiality" of substances and nonrational animals and "ability" of humans. Among human dunameis, some are innate (such as the senses), some come by practice (such as flute playing), some are acquired through learning (such as the capacities of the crafts, technai) (see 1047b 33-35). Art "comes into being when out of many notions from experience we form one universal belief concerning similar facts," and while experienced persons "know the fact but not the why of it," those who possess a techne "know the why of it or the cause" (Aristotle 1979, 13). Accordingly, master craftsmen "are considered wiser not in virtue of their ability to do something but in virtue of having the theory and knowing the causes" (Aristotle 1979, 13). We see a similar logic at work in the opening chapter of the Rhetoric. As a rational capacity, rhetoric seems to be present among the general population, since most people are able to engage in verbal self-defense or attack. But their ability is often the result of random chance or habit rather than of a systematic art (Rhetoric 1354a). While one is unlikely to gain rhetorical dunamis through sheer experience, Aristotle insinuates that studying other currently available arts of rhetoric is even less preferable, for these arts give disproportionate attention to "matters outside the subject" ("ta exō tou pragmatos") (Aristotle 1991a, 5, 7, 11). By offering a systematic investigation of "available means of persuasion" (Aristotle 1991a, 13) and stressing proofs (pisteis) and arguments (logoi), Aristotle sets up his version of the art above those purveyed by writers of rhetorical handbooks and other master teachers.

Admittedly, the text of the Rhetoric disavows the first chapter's attack on other technai's treatment of emotions and matters "outside the subject" as it proceeds to furnish an extensive discussion of human emotions in book 2 and addresses style and delivery in book 3.3 However, the manner in which it presents rhetorical proofs and stylistic devices is detached from practices of oratory. Whether Aristotle considers rhetorical genres or emotions, his method of exposition is characterized by "surgical detachment and description" (Dubois 1993, 125). So, for example, he investigates the causes of anger without actually examining how this passion...


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