Here and there: Aristotle’s Rhetoric

The difference in world views between empirical England and rationalist Europe may be mirrored in part by the difference between  Plato and Aristotle.  While England and Europe were developing their laws, they subscribed to a church that sought to apply the teachings of those two Greek philosophers.  The German poet, Heinrich Heine, thought that Plato was the idealist full of vagueness and mysticism, whereas Aristotle was clear and intelligible and stood for everything certain, the model for all empiricists. 

Plato and Aristotle!  They are not merely the representatives of two systems, they are the types of two different species of humanity, which since time immemorial, under every variety of garb, have stood opposed to each other in more or less hostile attitude…..Dreamy, mystical, Platonic natures find revealed in the depths of their being the Christian idea and its corresponding symbols.  Practical, methodical, Aristotelian natures construct out of this idea and its symbols a definite system, a dogma, and a worship.

Augustine and Aquinas may have seen it that way.  Plato may have been ethereal – if you forget his politics in The Republic – but the strait-jacket of Aristotle would stand in the way of science and nearly kill Galileo.

Shakespeare was taught rhetoric and it shows.  It is no longer taught in schools or universities – and that shows too.  Our omission feeds the capacity of demagogues to serve up tripe unchecked.  Therefore, while reading Aristotle may often be as entertaining as reading a phone book, it is worth our while to consider his teaching.  He says there are three divisions of oratory – political, forensic, and ceremonial.

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion…..Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible…his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses…persuasion may come through the hearers when the speech stirs their emotions.  Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile…..

Advocacy is about persuasion, but the references to character, including personal character, seem to me to be spot on.  And character bears on the next point.

The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts, but is merely a personal appeal to the man who is judging the case.  Consequently, if the rules for trials which are now laid down in some states….were applied everywhere, such people would have nothing to say.

Would that judges were more strict, and the press were more critical.

A member of the assembly decides about future events, a juryman about past events.

Both parliament and the jury stand for government by the people for the people – and both involve matters of judgment.

Honour is the token of a man’s being famous for doing good…We may define a good thing as that which ought to be chosen for its own sake.

This looks more like a substantive issue.  It may leave a lot of work for the word ‘ought’ – without invoking what is good – but very few get this right – if any.

For all men are persuaded by considerations of their interest, and their interest lies in the maintenance of the established order.

That is hopelessly wrong.  What about Philadelphia on 4 July 1776 or Paris on 14 July 1789?  (That is what the author calls ‘arguing by example’.)

Particular law is that which each community lays down and applies to its own members: this is partly written and partly unwritten…..For there really is, as everyone to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other…..There are two kinds of right and wrong conduct…..written and unwritten….The second makes up for the defects of a community’s written code of law.  This is what we call equity; people regard it as justice; it is, in fact, the sort of justice that goes beyond the written law…..Equity must be applied to forgivable actions; and it must make us distinguish between criminal acts on the one hand, and errors of judgment, or misfortunes, on the other.

The reference to ‘errors of judgment’ and ‘misfortune’ is sensible and decent.  Whole books have been written about ‘natural justice’ and whole careers have been devoted to practising what we call Equity, but are we to be ruled  by laws or by people – by judges who seek to apply the law, or by judges who want to do what they think is a fair thing?  And how do you apply these broad conceptions to the maxim given by Aristotle on the second page of this book?

In general, then, the judge should, we say, be allowed to decide as few things as possible.

Our judges used to be better at this restraint than many with an eye to a headline are now.  And our great jurist, Sir Owen Dixon, referred with relish to the remark of Aristotle in this work (1.15): ‘The effort to be wiser than the laws is what is prohibited by the codes that are extolled.’  (My translation has, pleasingly, ‘cleverer’ for ‘wiser’.)  And indeed this part of Rhetoric carries reminders that the ancients were very far from our conception of civilisation.  The oath of the juror to ‘give my verdict according to my honest opinion’ would be a form of anathema for us as applied by Aristotle.  He says that while witnesses are concerned with past events, we can appeal to soothsayers.  Or voodoo?  We, now,  would much prefer the following.

….not to use the laws is as bad as to have no laws at all…as in other arts it does not pay to try to be cleverer than the doctor; for less harm comes from the doctor’s mistakes than from the growing habit of disobeying authority.

What a bull’s eye in a time of pandemic!  But ‘disobeying authority’ is what we flirt with when we appeal to natural justice, innate fairness, or our conscience.  That’s the issue that gave rise to the maxim that ‘hard cases make bad law’ – a simple proposition that gets forgotten by too many appellate judges, or ambitious souls at first instance.

That the orator’s own character should look right is particularly important in political speaking: that the audience should be in the right frame of mind, in lawsuits.

Well, lawyers should show character to the client – why not to the court?  The one thing that is incandescently clear is that bad character is fatal.  Sir Owen Dixon knew the truth that candour in advocacy is a weapon.  Its opposite is lethal – and remembered.  And it is both dumb and rude to go to court dressed like a bum.

The use of persuasive speech is to lead to decisions…we may say, without qualification, that anyone is your judge whom you have to persuade.

This is a very interesting perspective – at either end.

We will treat of argument by example, for it has the nature of induction, which is the foundation of reasoning.

If the driver of a coach and four owed a duty of care to other road users, why should not the driver of a car?  Is it not a fortiori?  This is as elemental to the common law as any other exercise in logic?

The first thing we have to remember is this.  Whether our argument concerns public affairs or some other subject, we must know some, if not all, of the facts about the subject on which we are to speak and argue.

This too is elementary – and elementally flouted.  When we say that people do not accept the science on a subject – like climate change, a pandemic, or a vaccine – what we mean is that they are ignorant both of the empirical evidence and the learning that tells what are the correct inferences to be drawn from that evidence.  One follows ineluctably from the other.  It is not like a question of whether you choose to accept some form of religious dogma that has to be taken on faith.  It’s about what happens when you change gears in a car.  You may not have the knowledge – the expertise – to explain what is going on mechanically, but you have a justified faith that the car will operate in the manner for which it was designed and built.  You can extend that to heart surgery, atomic physics, astronomy – and the climate.  The point about, say, vaccination is that its worth can be demonstrated by the application of logic to evidence of facts that is not in doubt.  People who should know better are getting away with bullshit that puts both people and the planet in danger.

It is plain that delivery has just as much to do with oratory as with poetry….Style to be good must be clear, as is proved by the fact that speech which fails to convey a plain meaning will fail to do just what speech has to do.

This is not just another bull’s eye – it is time for the Halleluiah Chorus.  And we have just seen how vital it is by looking at the proposition that some do not ‘accept science.’  Some people – millions and millions of them in the U S – do not accept the account of evolution that historians and geologists and astronomers and other professional people have put beyond doubt.  They prefer to rest on their faith in their chosen branch of religion.  That may not do so much harm, except to the minds of those choosing to follow them, but it is an exercise in irrationality that it is not always easy to distinguish from dementia.

The last quarter of the book gives detailed instructions on style.  Problems of translation here become paramount.  I mention only three things.  The author reminds us that fortune tellers (‘diviners’) use vague generalities because it is harder to say that they were wrong.  The oracle at Delphi is still notorious for this – hence our word ‘Delphic’. It is the same with all people who don’t have the answer and won’t admit it.  Aristotle asks us to remember what the man said to the baker who asked whether he was to make the cake hard or soft: ‘What, can’t you make it right?’  And he closes the book with a sample peroration.  ‘I have done.  You have heard me.  The facts are before you.  I ask for your judgment.’  It is indeed a solemn moment.

It is a matter of comfort to me, and I hope to you, that after 2,500 years we can still hold on to some truths by which we like to live.

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