History of Rhetoric, Weeks 5-7: Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” book 1 & Isocrates’ “Against the Sophists” and “Antidosis”

Because of my tardiness in reporting on these readings, we’ll be grouping the remaining texts of the semester into thematic groups. This week, we combine a few key readings under the heading of Plato’s successors and two major Greek traditions of rhetoric that flourished after Plato: Aristotle and Isocrates. My same disclaimer from the end of the previous post applies here and going forward – while there is much richness to explore in each of these texts, time constraints unfortunately won’t allow me to develop much more than general impressions and suggestions for further inquiries. With that said, onward to general impressions and suggestions!

Any discussion of rhetoric is bound to circle back, at some point, to Aristotle and his exhaustive cataloguing of the discipline’s capacities. While many before and after him define rhetoric simply as the art of persuasion, Aristotle’s own definition is significantly more nuanced than that. Instead, Aristotle writes that:

“The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning. The subjects of our deliberation are such as seem to present us with alternative possibilities: about things that could not have been, and cannot now or in the future be, other than they are, nobody who takes them to be of this nature wastes his time in deliberation.”

Under this conception, rhetoric is a guide and aid to public good. Aristotle, that polymath whose own works and interests touch on so many areas in philosophy, science, the arts, and more, somewhat sidesteps Plato’s problem of the rhetorician not being knowledgeable in the areas about which she or he speaks. Instead, for Aristotle, the rhetorician works in concert with experts to bring their knowledge to the public – for example, the rhetorician could be an aid to the doctor in persuading the patient to accept the medicine and treatment being offered.

Within the above definition, the other striking feature is that rhetoric and deliberation only deal with things that can be changed; the “alternative possibilities” that Aristotle alludes to are echoed by Poulakos’ claim that rhetoric moves from the actual to the possible. However, I have to wonder – once we get into more contemporary theories of representation and being, in which experience is mediated, doesn’t this in turn increase rhetoric’s domain? Aristotle is very clear on wanting to delimit rhetoric’s scope, as he further writes:

“Rhetoric has been given a far wider subject-matter than strictly belongs to it. The truth is, that rhetoric is a combination of the science of logic and of the ethical branch of politics. But the more we try to make either dialectic or rhetoric not, what they really are, practical faculties, but sciences, the more we shall inadvertently be destroying their true nature; for we shall be re-fashioning them and shall be passing into the region of sciences dealing with definite subjects rather than simply with words and forms of reasoning.”

There seems to be a tension here, between the theory and practice of rhetoric. I found Christian Lundberg’s article “Letting Rhetoric Be: On Rhetoric and Rhetoricity” to be particularly useful here. Rather than translate Aristotle’s famous definition as “Rhetoric is…”, Lundberg instead advances a translation that figures the passage as “Let rhetoric be defined as…” This different figuration emphasizes rhetoric’s contingent nature, acknowledging that under certain conditions or in certain situations, rhetoric is capable of doing and being a certain thing, and also demonstrates Aristotle’s recognition of this contingency inherent in the discipline. However, Lundberg’s notion of rhetoricity widens the scope even further to allow for the overflow and excess of meanings and possibilities of rhetoric that are not accounted for in a single definition or case of application. To what extent this rhetoricity is something that can itself be concretely defined or theorized is an open question, and one we will perhaps return to later.

If we step back and take a broader look at what Aristotle’s Rhetoric is doing, it is the first in a series of texts that will attempt to prescribe how to do rhetoric in different situations, whether that is praising someone, arguing a legal case, governing, etc. Rhetorical situation and awareness is key for Aristotle, since both at the level of individuals and governments, their qualities “are revealed in their deliberate acts of choice; and these are determined by the end that inspires them.”
Moving from Aristotle to Isocrates, we follow a very different conception of rhetoric. In both Against the Sophists and Antidosis, Isocrates seeks to distinguish his own practice and teaching of rhetoric from other contemporary schools and popular opinions surrounding the discipline. What I found most interesting was the way disciplinarity seems to be thought of in Isocrates’ writing – at a time when no clear boundaries between philosophy and rhetoric were yet established, Isocrates simply refers to what he does and teaches as “philosophy,” and conceives of that philosophy as something very different from the metaphysical leanings of Platonism or the Aristotelian categories of things. Philosophy and rhetoric, for Isocrates, is something situated in context and dependent upon circumstances: it must fit the occasion. In a similar vein, Isocrates’ proposal for education is one that is grounded in practicality rather than universality, and he encourages his readers to be suspicious of those who claim to teach universal truths for cheap.

In the Antidosis, Isocrates lays out more specifically how he understands the relationship between rhetoric and morality or good character. Likely in response to Plato’s accusation that studying rhetoric does not necessarily include knowledge of the good, he claims that:

 “I consider that the kind of art which can implant honesty and justice in depraved natures has never existed and does not now exist, and that people who profess that power will grow weary and case from their vain pretensions before such an education is ever found. But I do hold that people can become better and worthier if they conceive an ambition to speak well, if they become possessed of the desire to be able to persuade their hearers, and, finally, if they set their hearts on seizing their advantage – I do not mean ‘advantage’ in the sense given to that word by the empty-minded, but advantage in the true meaning of that term.”

Rhetoric is inherently concerned with furthering the public good, for Isocrates, and it is from this optimistic point of view that he is able to present his hypothetical defense against corrupting the youth of Athens.

Ultimately, although Isocrates is less theoretically rich than Plato or Aristotle in his writings, he is a worthy third way. Both Aristotle and Isocrates orient our work towards the good of the community, with attention to the particularity of the situation. And yet, in the midst of all of this back-and-forth in defining and designating rhetoric’s scope and power, I find myself continuing to return to Lundberg’s notion of rhetoricity and the overflow that is not contained in any given situation. In the spirit of spilling over, our next post will move us past the Greeks and into the Roman rhetoricians.


Author: Phil Choong

PhD student in the Department of English at Indiana University. Working between critical and literary theory, rhetoric, and pedagogy.

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