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The Amorality of Aristotle's Rhetoric



The Amorality of Aristotle's Rhetoric


Segment of an article by Forbes Hill on the moral content in Aristotle, one that garnered appreciable attention in the field. In 43 years of teaching at Queens College, Mr. Hill taught chiefly on political communication and media, law, and ethics. (Selections - full volume available from Queens College archives)


Aristotle. Rhetoric--Criticism, Textual
Ethics (Philosophy)


Hill, Forbes I.




Queens College Department of Special Collections and Archives (New York, N.Y.)




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The Amorality of Aristotle's Rhetoric

Forbes Hill

Reprinted from
Summer 1981

The Amorality of Aristotle's Rhetoric
Forbes Hill

Most commentators have described Aristotle's Rhetoric as a morally neutral treatise; in George Kennedy's succinct phrase, "the art itself he [Aristotle] considered amoral."1 A minority of commentators have maintained that the work shows a positive moral commitment either in part or in whole.2 The position that parts of the treatise show this commitment was advocated in this journal by Eugene Ryan;3 that the whole takes a moral stance has recently been advanced elsewhere by Lois Self.4
Ryan argues that Aristotle regarded the ethos of a society as the ultimate ethical reality from which any philosopher producing an ethical treatise must start. Since the works of Aristotle show his desire to avoid the subjectivity of "man is the measure of all things," he must have believed in some objective process for determining the ethos of society. That process is public discourse, deliberative and epideictic. The Rhetoric, according to Ryan, was his attempt to show how the ethos of society is generated through deliberative and ceremonial address. This attempt is reflected in Aristotle's treatment of deliberation in Bk. I chs. 4-8. "Three of these chapters," Ryan states, "with the exception of a brief tech-

1 George Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton 1963) 123.
2 Some of those who have written that part of it shows moral commitment are: Friedrich Solmsen, Die Entwicklung der aristotelischen Logik und Rhetorik (Berlin 1929) 225, but Solmsen does not take this position elsewhere; and Robert J. Olian, "The Intended Uses of Aristotle's Rhetoric," Speech Monographs 35 (1968) 137-48. Whitney J. Oates, Aristotle and the Problem of Value (Princeton 1963) 335, states that "ambivalence" about questions of value is the "most striking characteristic" of the Rhetoric. Among those taking the view that the whole shows moral commitment are: W. Rhys Roberts, "Notes on Aristotle's Rhetoric," AJP 45 (1924) 351-61 ("Aristotle's object is to show how truth and justice may be aided by the effective use of public speech"); Charles Sears Baldwin, Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic (New York 1924) 9 (rhetoric like logic "is a means of bringing out truth, of making people see what is true and fitting"); Henry W. Johnstone, "The Relevance of Rhetoric to Philosophy and of Philosophy to Rhetoric," QuartJourSpeech 52 (1966) 43-55. W. M. A. Grimaldi, S.J., Aristotle, Rhetoric I, a Commentary (New York 1980) does not address the question directly, but several remarks suggest that he should be placed in the latter group (cf. infra n.7).
3 Eugene E. Ryan, "Aristotle's Rhetoric and Ethics and the Ethos of Society," GRBS 13 (1972) 291-308.
4 Lois S. Self, "Rhetoric and Phronesis: The Aristotelian Ideal," Phil. & Rhet. 12 (1979) 130-45.



nical segment to be discussed later, form a substantive Aristotelian treatise on value." Aristotle also "develops his brief account of epideictic rhetoric (Bk. I ch. 9) in a serious way, and in a way that is strikingly parallel to his study of value in Rhet. I chs. 5-7."
Self argues that "there is an association of persuasion and virtue in Aristotle's theory of rhetoric which derives from the nature of the art...itself." Aristotle conceived of an art to be used by a phronimos, a person of practical wisdom. Phronesis and rhetoric have much the same concerns: they work in the realm of the contingent and are directed toward decision-making using all the faculties, rational and appetitive, of human nature to the end of advancing the public good. Phronesis is also on of the arete listed in Bk. I ch. 9 and likewise a constituent of rhetorical ethos. It is therefore deeply interwoven in the fabric of Aristotelian rhetoric. Since it is by nature a moral quality, the Rhetoric, under its influence, must take a stance that is fundamentally moral.
Some of the passages crucial to the arguments of Ryan and Self are problematic when juxtaposed with these claims. Among the materials for deliberative speeches found in Bk. I chs. 5-7 is the proposition: "if the largest member of one class exceeds the largest of another, the former class consists of things larger; conversely, if a class consists of things larger, the largest member of that class exceeds the largest of the other, e.g., if the biggest man is larger than the biggest woman, men in general exceed women in size, and if men exceed women in size, then the biggest man is larger than the biggest woman. For members of a class usually exceed those of another proportionally to the difference in size of their largest members" (1363b21-27). The generalization here enunciated is often in our experience true, but almost as often it is false. Could Aristotle have intended it as part of a substantive treatise?
Later we encounter the proposition: "what is rarer is a greater good than what is abundant, e.g., gold than iron, though it is less useful; possessing it seems a greater good since it is harder to achieve." But the opposite may also be argued: "what is abundant is better than what is rare; it surpasses in utility, since what is frequently useful surpasses what is less frequently so" (1364a24-27). Which are we to understand is more valuable, the rarer item or the more abundant one? The text does not give a clue, but would it not necessarily do so if it were part of a work with a consistent moral stance throughout?
Finally, "whatever people wish to be are greater goods than what they wish to seem, since they are nearer to reality. Wherefore

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Hill, Forbes I., “The Amorality of Aristotle's Rhetoric,” Queens College Civil Rights Archives, accessed May 17, 2022, http://archives.qc.cuny.edu/civilrights/items/show/330.