Aristotle and Ethos: The Course and Consequence of Rhetoric
Aristotle’s Rhetoric detailed the components of persuasion, atomizing a form of communication that he recognized as indispensable to the Democratic process. He concluded that rhetoric in the hands of well-educated and trained philosophers could attain the status of art. Based on an understanding of human nature, the practice of rhetoric came to serve the purposes of men who understood human nature only too well. Today, the practice of politics has given rise to the cynical use of a rhetoric aimed at manipulating public opinion through superficialities.
Aristotle’s conception of rhetoric was based on – among other things – notions of intellect and ethics. Aristotle’s great teacher, Plato, originally considered rhetoric a dangerous, fundamentally unethical discipline but gradually came to a different understanding. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle set down what makes oratorical and written persuasion so important to the deliberative process and what characteristics the skilled speaker must have. The study of debate and deliberation encouraged Aristotle to regard rhetoric as an art form and an applicable and practical means of persuasion. This is the doctrine in which America’s founders believed and the basis for thoughtful discourse upon which the Constitution was developed. More than two centuries later, American politics no longer resembles the forum for civil debate in which the likes of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe engaged. Aristotelian principles of ethics and intellect have succumbed to the harsh reality of money, influence, media and the deleterious effects of day-to-day political expediency. If any vestige remains of the noble discipline Aristotle envisioned and which great orators from Antiquity practiced, it is a wan pastiche governed by “spin” and the overwhelming desire for power.
In The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric From George Washington to George W. Bush,” Elvin Lin provides telling commentary on the status of rhetoric in the modern-day American political scene, setting it within the framework of Aristotle’s core principles. Lin said Aristotle believed that a demonstrably good person has far more credibility than the rhetor who has compromised his ethics (2008, 68). In Aristotle’s view, it was ethos that ultimately won the day for an orator, the impression that he gives of being well-intentioned and serious-minded. The Romans would alter this idea somewhat, calling it gravitas, but the meaning was the same – the rhetor must appear trustworthy and truthful (Ibid). America’s founders adhered to this ethic, and it remained a guiding virtue of American political life for hundreds of years. In the 20th century, meaningful rhetoric has been supplanted by the sound bite, the one-liner and vapid, pithy quotes tailor-made for mass consumption. Lin cites the example of “linguistic mimicry,” in which the anti-intellectual politician’s oratory approximates that of his audience (Ibid). In other words, if he sounds like the people, they will believe he is one of them.
It is difficult not to see this disturbing trend as a betrayal of the promise of American Democracy. A nation founded on revolutionary principles of compromise and representation grew and came to power amid the eloquent rhetoric and prose styles of the likes of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. Responsible and considered rhetoric was considered vital to the proper functioning of Democracy. As such, learning the art of rhetoric was critically important to the education of a gentleman and aspiring politician. America’s founding fathers were firm in the belief that those who govern must be able to deliberate substantively and convincingly (Wood, 2006). Aristotle’s deliberative rhetoric is what the authors of The Federalist Papers would have considered indispensable; in particular, the kind of deliberative rhetoric aimed at advising a legislative body as to the best course of action to take on a specific policy question, or in debate over a proposed law (Miller, 1985, 36). Modern practice is vastly different. Witness the use of the word “freedom” in the speeches of George W. Bush, a term sprinkled liberally throughout his rhetoric because speechwriters and advisers found that the word carried simplistic and positive associations. The aim was to manipulate, never to advise or invite meaningful debate.
This is contrary to Aristotle’s ideal; it is much closer to the negative role Plato originally envisioned in which skilled manipulators would play on base fears and prejudices. In its modern guise, rhetoric has drifted far from Aristotle’s model of an empowering art form (Parry-Giles and Hogan, 2010, 2). It is worth noting that Aristotle believed that happiness can be achieved by living according to the dictates of one’s human nature. In so doing, the individual achieves a state that motivates him to want to learn. As such, he would be motivated to seek out education. The acquisition of further knowledge, then, would make the individual a more responsible citizen, fully prepared to take part in public discourse and to consider matters of importance to the state. Diminishing returns at the polls would seem to indicate that for Aristotle’s “political animal,” the concept of happiness has changed radically.
It is also interesting to contemplate that Aristotle may have anticipated such a change when, in his Rhetoric, he asserted that man is inclined toward bad behavior (Aristotle, 2010, 25-26). The will to do good does not necessarily prevail in human nature. In other words, given the opportunity, man will submit to negative impulses. In the case of 21st century America, this may be symptomatic of the modern version of representative government. In ancient Athens, representation was literal, meaning one vote for one man. Contemporary American politics, with its electoral college, is far more complex. A lack of clarity in the political process leads to confusion among the electorate and, worse still, to apathy. Where apathy prevails, rhetoric can be made to serve nefarious purposes, as Plato feared it would. Rhetoric becomes twisted and falsehood thrives amid a landscape of legalistic parsing. Debate and political action in the interest of community service may have been endemic to the ancient Greeks, but rhetoric serves a different purpose in the present.
It is difficult to trace the evolution (or degradation) of rhetoric. We begin to see Aristotle’s construct, in which rhetoric would be wielded responsibly by educated men, changing as circumstances in the Greek world changed. Rhetoric was a powerful tool for the likes of Pericles and Demosthenes, who exhorted their countrymen with purpose prose to overcome external threats to their very existence. Rhetoric would come to be the medium through which the business of the state was transacted. As such, the successful orator was much more than a formidable debater. The persuasive speaker had to embody a number of important traits, including humor, knowledge, intuition and a comprehensive understanding of the law (Murphy, Katula, et al, 2003, 165). The gifted orator who possessed such skills might come to be seen as an entertainer rather than a deliberator.
Aristotle asserted that a speaker taking part in public debate must be credible and knowledgeable since most subjects that come under consideration in a public forum are not clear but are usually complex. Even speakers seeking to communicate straightforward matters need to be skilled at utilizing rhetoric (Aristotle’s Rhetoric, 2002). Aristotle argued that it is important because even the most logical presenter of the facts will be unsuccessful at persuading an audience that is not emotionally disposed to listen sympathetically. Therefore, intelligence is not enough. It is as important to be able to appeal to the listener on other levels, even a visceral level. Recent history abounds with examples such as Pericles’ funeral oration, or Winston Churchill’s “blood, sweat and tears” speech, which were intended to elicit an emotional response and rouse its listeners to action.
But in their use of what Aristotle called forensic, or judicial, rhetoric did greater orators like Pericles and Churchill trivialize what Aristotle intended? Did they as rhetoricians pander to negative social impulses and manifest a dangerously unethical use of the power of oratory in societies that prized skilled orators? There is no doubt that in their time, and in ours, satire and “attack” humor can be effective in persuading others to act according to the aims of the speaker, and the best speakers have certainly succeeded in this vein. But can negative rhetoric ever be a healthy thing for the society by which it is affected? In the United States, voters constantly complain about the negative tone of campaign rhetoric, which too often descends to the level of personal attacks, insinuation and innuendo. There is surely nothing of the philosopher in it, no moral responsibility or restraint. It is part of the moral dichotomy of which Aristotle wrote that men have in them the impulse for good but, given the opportunity, will choose to be bad.
The tendency in modern politics to accede to the lowest common denominator would seem to render prophetic Plato’s concerns about what would happen if rhetoric rose to the status of art. The spirit of his assessment was that the artful and responsible rhetorician should have a philosophical understanding of human nature and of the arguments that motivate people. He was correct but perhaps not in the way he intended. Modern practitioners of rhetoric certainly understand human nature and are practiced in the art of motivation, but too often in a negative form. The fact that emotion drives it, and that style trumps content, is stark proof that Aristotle’s idea of an intelligent, considered and responsible use of rhetoric in the forum of public debate is as pertinent today as it was in the age of Pericles. In fact, given the prevalence, power and immediacy of the news media and the Internet, the need for informed and conscientious rhetoric goes hand in hand with the need for an educated and informed electorate.
Aristotle, Ross, W.D. and Roberts, W.R. (2010). Rhetoric. New York: Cosimo, Inc. pp. 25-26.
“Aristotle’s Rhetoric.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2002. Web.
Lin, E. (2008). The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from
George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 68.
Miller, S. (1985). Special Interest Groups in American Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, Inc. p. 36.
Murphy, J.J., Katula, R.A., Hill, F.I. and Ochs, D.J. (2003). A Synoptic History of Classical
Rhetoric. Mahway, N.J.: Lawrence J. Erlbaum. p. 165.
Parry-Giles, S.G. and Hogan, J.M. (2010). The Handbook of Rhetoric and Public Address.
Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 2.
Wood, G.S. (2006). Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different? New York: Penguin Press.