Preliminary Reflections on the Rhetoric of Aristotle’s Rhetoric

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Although there has been a renewed interest in Aristotle’s Rhetoric during the last decade or so, very few scholars have directly addressed what might be described as the most basic or obvious question concerning the work: what sort of rhetoric does Aristotle himself employ? To rephrase this question in slightly different terms: to whom is the book addressed and what did he hope to convey or teach? This essay contends that Aristotle’s rhetorical strategy is aimed at convincing two different audiences—both practicing statesmen and potential philosophers—of the inherent limits of rhetoric as a field of study and way of life. In the former case, Aristotle wishes to set forth all of the clever rhetorical ruses aspiring statesmen may have to employ against sophistical demagogues in order to promote and sustain a decent political order as well as to remind them that they must eventually turn to the architectonic study of political science if they wish to comprehend most fully the nature of politics. In the latter case, Aristotle wants to demonstrate that although rhetoric and dialectic share striking similarities, rhetoric contains a necessarily sophistical—and therefore unsatisfying—character because of its focus on persuasion rather than instruction. In sum, the rhetoric of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is intended to make rhetoric, properly understood, a prolegomena to both political science and philosophy.

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