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Mimesis: Aristotle vs. Plato on Poetry

by August 26, 2020

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In a previous article, we discussed Aristotle’s inspiration to write the Poetics (a treatise on drama and literary theory), and the notion of catharsis that emerged as a result. As we concluded, it is highly probable that Aristotle’s treatise was written in response to Plato’s criticism of poetry.
Plato objected that poetry plays on the emotions and thus undermines the highest part of our soul, the part that should at all times be in control—Reason. Aristotle cunningly showed, using the notion of catharsis, that while poetry does indeed play on the emotions, it does so in a way that enhances our reasoning!
Along with catharsis, Aristotle developed another very important concept that uses Plato’s arguments against him. This concept is related to the intellectual side of Plato’s arguments.
We are all more or less familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave.  Roughly put, the main message is that the world detected by our senses is a “shadow”, a mere copy of an immaterial world of eternal Forms that are incomprehensible to us. This world of Forms consists of abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space, and which constitute the true nature of reality. Therefore, what is accessible to human beings is merely a misrepresentation of reality, a mimesis (μίμησις) of these pure Forms.
Allegory of the Cave

Illustration of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Source).

Now, if the world we encounter through our senses is already merely a copy or imitation of reality, then anything that imitates this imitation would be even farther removed from the truth! Poetry is one such imitation of an imitation. Because it imitates and relies on the world of the senses for its material, it takes us even further away from the truth, and thus nothing good can come from it.
“…I said that poetry, and in general the mimetic art, produces a product that is far removed from truth in the accomplishment of its task, and associates with the part in us that is remote from intelligence, and is its companion and friend for no sound and true purpose.” “By all means,” said he. “Mimetic art, then, is an inferior thing cohabiting with an inferior and engendering inferior offspring.” (Plat, Rep, 10.603 a-b)
Diplomatic as always, Aristotle accepted part of Plato’s theory, agreeing that art is a form of imitation. He even accepted Plato’s division of storytelling according to the different types of mimesis employed in it. Yet he did not agree that mimesis is bad in and of itself—quite the opposite! Aristotle argued that imitation is completely natural for human beings, and a necessary way of learning:
From childhood a man has an instinct for representation, and in this respect, differs from the other animals that he is far more imitative and learns his first lessons by representing things. And then there is the enjoyment people always get from representations. What happens in actual experience proves this, for we enjoy looking at accurate likenesses of things which are themselves painful to see, obscene beasts, for instance, and corpses. The reason is this: Learning things gives great pleasure not only to philosophers but also in the same way to all other men, though they share this pleasure only to a small degree. The reason why we enjoy seeing likenesses is that, as we look, we learn and infer what each is, for instance, “that is so and so.”
Plato and Aristotle

Fig. 7 Wallerant Vaillant, after Raphael, Plato and Aristotle, 1658–77, mezzotint Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1910-6901 (artwork in the public domain)

Thus, for Aristotle, imitation is inherent in human nature and plays an essential role in the formation of knowledge. Mimesis represents the crucial link between pleasure and learning because the audience enjoys learning while watching the results of mimesis. The thing represented to us through mimesis helps us learn and makes it enjoyable. Mimesis does not, as Plato thought, take away from knowledge and the search for truth.
Aristotle’s Poetics, small though it is, managed to shape literary theory for centuries and continues to do so. Today, we are all Aristotelians when it comes to art. I know I’m not the only one who has left a movie theatre feeling as though I’ve learned a valuable lesson, or who has watched a tv show and related some part of it to a struggle in my own life. In short, anyone who believes that lessons about life can be learned through epics, tragedies, and comedies alike is an Aristotelian when it comes to art.
Aristotle had a knack for turning the teachings of his mentor against him. We now see that he did this with catharsis and with mimesis. Judging from the fact that Aristotle’s arguments in the Poetics prevailed over Plato’s criticism of poetry, are we to think that Aristotle does indeed have the better argument? Living in an era where emotion seems to reign over reason, should we be more open to sharing Plato’s concerns about poetry and other arts that play on our emotions?
Does it lead us out of the cave and into the light, or is it just one of the many chains that shackle us to the cave wall, leaving us only with shadows?
The verdict? I leave that to you to decide, dear reader.

Catharsis: Aristotle’s Defense of Poetry

by June 3, 2020

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Clasical Wisdom
Surely, we are all familiar with the term “catharsis.” A significant number of us have probably used it from time to time to describe an experience, such as when we leave a movie saying “That was cathartic!”
Yet, how many of us know what it really means, who came up with it, and, most importantly, why? It is quite possible that no one does, but let’s not take this pessimistic approach, and let’s try and see what we do know.
This peculiar term is what Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, discussed in his Poetics, revolves around. What is strange about it, though, is the fact that it appears only once in the entire treatise, yet is at the core of the definition of tragedy!
“The tragedy is, therefore, the imitation of a serious and completed action of a certain size, with the speech which is refined and specific for every kind in certain parts, with characters that act, rather than talk; and with the evocation of pity and fear, it achieves the catharsis of such affects.” Poetics, Part VI

You can read Aristotle’s Poetics yourself here!

Due to the scarce information on catharsis that Aristotle provides us with here, to better understand the concept we’ll need to form conclusions based on what we have from other sources. This includes the general attitude towards poetry in Athens, Plato’s condemnation of it, and the mention of catharsis in some other of Aristotle’s works.
Since it would take too long to deal with all of this in such a short space, I will focus on a sort of silent correspondence between Aristotle and Plato on this topic. Not everyone will agree with this approach, but I find it crucial in revealing the true nature of Aristotle’s notion of catharsis.
Poetry had an important place in the life of an average Athenian citizen. From childhood onwards it was an integral part of Greek education, starting with Homer’s works being read, remembered, and recited. Along with teaching children practical skills such as reading and writing, it also aimed at instilling moral and religious values.
The importance of it did not stop with children’s education. Poetry was considered to serve an important role as a kind of moral guidance for Greek adults as well.
Aristotles school

Aristotle’s School, a painting from the 1880s by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg

Today it is widely accepted that the aim of performing tragedy in ancient Athens was not just a mere aesthetic pleasure, but that tragedies had some kind of political and social function as well. This is due to the fact the plots of tragedies’ often questioned democracy, foreign policy, and other important aspects of Greek society. Also, the mythical stories used in tragedies involved universal subjects and common problems in human lives.
This brings us to Plato and his objections to poetry. Though he had quite a number of them, the most relevant for our purposes here is his attitude towards the emotions.
According to Plato, the soul consists of three parts: reason (λογιστικόν), will (θυμοειδές), and lust (ἐπιθυμητικόν). For him, the good life in an ideal society would mean total domination of reason over the emotional parts of the soul. There are three main emotions in the center of his attention and those are pity, fear, and pleasure.
In Aristotle’s Poetics, we can find an answer to every single one of Plato’s objections, each of which he diplomatically agreed with to a certain extent. The case is the same when it comes to emotions. He agrees that poetry evokes emotions, that it offers pleasure, and, most importantly, that the evocation of emotions through poetry has an influence on the spectator’s personality and their emotional behavior.
Plato and Aristotle

Fig. 7 Wallerant Vaillant, after Raphael, Plato and Aristotle, 1658–77, mezzotint Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1910-6901 (artwork in the public domain)

What Aristotle disagrees with, however, is Plato’s assumption that poetry presents a potential danger of evoking an excess of emotions in reality. With the concept of catharsis, Aristotle wanted to prove that emotions are not bad per se and that poetry has a very important place in human lives.
This brings us closer to the conclusion that Aristotle’s notion of catharsis was actually a response to Plato’s critique of poetry as interfering with our rationality. The most direct proof is the fact that, in his definition, Aristotle included precisely the emotions that Plato accused tragedies of evoking!
It is not typical of Aristotle to not provide a further explanation of a term that he places such an importance on. However, we should bear in mind that this treatise belongs to the final phase of his work, which means that he probably assumed that readers of his treatise on poetry had knowledge about his philosophy developed in some of his previous works.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, for example, Aristotle shows that adhering to the golden mean with regard to one’s emotions (such as pity and fear) can result in pleasure which, in turn, can result in perfecting the moral side of one’s character.
Aristotle's disciples

Aristotle and his disciples – Alexander, Demetrius, Theophrastus, and Strato, in an 1888 fresco in the portico of the National University of Athens

Last, but not least, Aristotle contemplates the role of catharsis in relation to music in the eighth book of his Politics. In this book, he points out that music has a mimetic character (that is, it represents or imitates the real world) and, as such, has an ethical influence on the soul. Music can also affect our emotions and cause pleasure. Thus, music as an imitation (μίμησις) can affect our emotions, which is very important for us as human beings because learning to govern our emotions is necessary for perfecting our character
“Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections, as we know from our own experience, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change.” ~ Politics, Book VIII.5
As with poetry and music, so with tragedy. The emotions evoked through these mediums are not something to be dominated by reason, but something to be disciplined or regulated. They do not interfere with our rationality, but can help us perfect it.
We see then that, unlike Plato, who casts a distrusting eye towards the emotions or passions in general, Aristotle believes they are not evils in and of themselves. It is not the feeling of anger, fear, or pity itself that is bad, but the extent to which we allow them to take control of us. And it is only through having these emotions evoked that we can achieve the catharsis, or purification of them.
Taking such a stance against Plato allows Aristotle to have a much more appreciative view of poetry, music, and tragedy, and the important role they have in our lives. The emotions evoked through such mediums need not bring the rational soul to ruin, but can help make us become more virtuous and well-rounded individuals.

Aristotle: In Praise of Contemplation

by January 24, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
What is the best, the highest, the happiest kind of life for human beings? Does it consist of sensual pleasure, the attainment of money, or finding a meaningful job?
This is just one of the many questions that the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle concerned himself with.
What was his answer to this perennial question? Well, to put it simply, that the happy life is one devoted to contemplation.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Aristotle’s view of the best life rests largely on the notion that the aim of human affairs is happiness, and that the happiest life is one in accordance with what is best in us.
Now, happiness is not some static state to be achieved, but an activity.
In Book I of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies two types of activities:
  1. those necessary and desirable for the sake of something else, and
  2. those that are desired for their own sake.
Happiness, being the aim of human affairs, must belong to the second type of activity.

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BC.

For an activity to be classified as being desired for its own sake, nothing else must be desired or aimed at beyond the activity itself.
Virtuous actions, for one, seem to be of this kind, “since doing noble and excellent actions is one of the things that are choice worthy because of themselves.” Yet, pleasant amusements—those that indulge the senses—also seem to be of this kind.
But surely, Aristotle thought, pleasant amusements do not provide happiness in the same way that virtuous actions do!
Pleasant amusements may seem to be desired for themselves because people often choose them in spite of the harms that result.
Furthermore, people often consider those who delight in pleasant amusements to be happy, “because people in positions of power,” namely tyrants, “spend their leisure in them.”
But we are wrong, Aristotle argues, to value the opinion of such people.
aristotle and alexander

Aristotle tutoring Alexander, illustration by Charles Laplante, 1866.

That tyrants and others in positions of power value pleasant amusements is no surprise, for, “being unable to taste pure and free pleasures,” they instead “take refuge in the bodily ones.”
In any case, as Aristotle notes, “virtue and understanding, which are the sources of excellent activities, do not depend on holding positions of power.”
Along with that response, Aristotle provides three other reasons as to why pleasant amusements are not to be confused with happiness:
  1. Pleasant amusements are not, in fact, desired for themselves. Pleasant amusements are a sort of relaxation from work and, because we cannot work endlessly, we require relaxation. Thus, pleasant amusements, being a type of relaxation from serious activity, such as work, are not desired for their own sake but for the sake of such activity.
  2. Happiness, as has been said, “seems to be in accord with virtue,” but virtue “involves engagement in serious matters and does not lie in amusement.” What is serious is better than that which involves amusement, and the better activity is also the more excellent. Since what is serious is better and therefore more excellent, “it bears more of the stamp of happiness.”
  3. Anyone can enjoy pleasant amusements and other bodily pleasures. Even slaves, Aristotle tells us, can enjoy such amusements. Yet no one would venture to attribute happiness to the slave who partakes in these amusements. This is due to the fact that “happiness does not lie in such pastimes but in activities in accord with virtue.”
Aristotle by Francesco

Aristotle by Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas, 1811.

The Divine Within Us
With happiness now disassociated from pleasant amusements and placed instead in accord with virtue, Aristotle argues that happiness must be in accord with the highest virtue.
The highest virtue must involve the element that is best in us. What is best in us—what is most divine—according to Aristotle, is the understanding, or reason. It is the understanding that distinguishes human beings from other animals. The understanding may either be considered divine or as being the most divine thing within us. In either case, “the activity of it, when in accord with the virtue that properly belongs to it, will be complete happiness.” And this activity, according to Aristotle, is contemplative activity.
Aristotle’s argument as to why the activity of the understanding—contemplative activity—will be complete happiness, is because the attributes assigned to happiness are the same attributes assigned to contemplative activity.
Like happiness, contemplative activity is the most excellent, the most continuous, the most pleasant, and the most self-sufficient activity. Furthermore, contemplative activity, like happiness, is loved for its own sake and involves leisure.
Aristotle at Freiburg

Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915.

Contemplative activity is the most excellent because the understanding is the most excellent element in us and because, “of knowable objects, the ones the understanding is concerned with are the most excellent ones.”
It is the most continuous activity because we can pass our time in contemplation more continuously than in other activities.
It is the most pleasant activity because the pleasures it entails, those that are derived from philosophy and theoretical wisdom, are of a pure and enduring nature and because “those who have attained knowledge should pass their time more pleasantly than those who are looking for it.”
It is the most self-sufficient activity because, though even the philosopher or “theoretically-wise person” requires the necessaries of life, he/she does not need others in order to engage in contemplation; though they may of course benefit from the company of others, one can contemplate in solitude.
Contemplative activity is loved for its own sake, “For nothing arises from it beyond having contemplated.”
Plato and Aristotle

Fig. 7 Wallerant Vaillant, after Raphael, Plato and Aristotle, 1658–77, mezzotint Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1910-6901 (artwork in the public domain)

Finally, contemplation, like happiness, involves leisure. However, not leisure in the sense of lounging around. It is serious, it involves activity, it involves a rigorous dedication of the mind to study.
Dear to the Gods
But someone might be skeptical and object that the contemplative life is too high to attain for human beings. Perhaps it is a life only fit for the gods!
Yet, the element of the understanding is divine, or is at least the most divine element within us. Thus, according to Aristotle, there is no excuse to concern ourselves only with human and mortal things. We should, instead, “as far as possible immortalize, and do everything to live in accord with the element in us that is most excellent. For even if it is small in bulk, in its power and esteem it far exceeds everything.”
Rembrandt's Aristotle

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt. Oil on canvas, 1653.

So, we should not let the enormity of the task deter us. It is our happiness—true happiness—that is at stake!
“Now he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods. For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have, it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason) and that they should reward those who love and honour this most, as caring for the things that are dear to them and acting both rightly and nobly. And that all these attributes belong most of all to the philosopher is manifest. He, therefore, is the dearest to the gods. And he who is that will presumably be also the happiest; so that in this way too the philosopher will more than any other be happy.” ~ Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, ch. 8
Perhaps such a life is difficult if not impossible for human beings to attain. Yet, with Aristotle, we should respond that, we must “do everything to live in accord with the element in us that is most excellent.” And, along with the seventeenth century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, we should acknowledge that, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

The Illogic of Contradiction – Metaphysics by Aristotle

by September 1, 2019

by Joel Bowman
Don’t tell the politicians, Classical Reader, neither on the left, nor on the right. In the non-trivial jurisdiction of the metaphysical, there’s simply no such thing as a contradiction. At least not for Aristotle. The Father of Logic even went so far as to propose a law (more about which below) expressly forbidding it. But first, let us take a step back in order to afford ourselves a wider, grander view of the “world” of metaphysics.
We might begin our inquiry in the following manner: What is metaphysics and what is it like? Indeed, one would be hard pressed to conduct even the crudest analysis of anything without the service of these two, basic questions. And, in a way, it is precisely these questions which metaphysics itself seeks to answer…what is there? (what exists, the fundamental nature of the world and of being) and what it is like? (the characteristics that help us to describe these very natures).
Metaphysics by Aristotle
Although the prefix “meta” actually means “beyond,” leading many scholars to misinterpret its meaning as the study of what is “outside of” or “beyond” nature, Aristotle himself used the term to describe what he saw as the “first philosophy.” For him, it was physics, then the basic questioning of and about them: metaphysics. The subject, to which Aristotle referred to as “Queen of the Sciences” was, and in many ways still is, the primary means by which we delve into both the existence and essence of all that is.
Kindly, and with the fastidious scientific exactitude for which he was known, Aristotle divided the study of metaphysics into three distinct (at least they remained so at the time) categories. They were:
1. The Universal Science – The study of first principles, the very method of inquiry itself and the correct procedure by which would be illuminated;
2. The Ontological – The study and (again, meticulous) classification of beings and entities, including those of both physical and mental nature, and the changes these beings and entities undergo and;
3. The Study of Natural Theology – All things germane to religion, creation, the divine and the endless and, perhaps, ultimately unknowable workings and motivations of the gods.
Having not ourselves confidently progressed past the first of the first (of the first…) of these principles, we shall confine our comments to that of the Universal Science category. By way of introduction, let us examine Aristotle’s three Laws of Thought, the basis of what is often called Term (or Aristotelian) Logic.
Painting of Aristotle

Aristotle and the bust of Homer by Rembrant

In the first such law, Aristotle gets what ought to be obvious out of the way with the Law of Identity (A = A). Of course, the question “why is an apple an apple?” is, in itself, meaningless. By being an apple, it cannot, logically, be something other than such. That a something is what it is – and not something else – ought to be apparent from the outset, says Aristotle. “The fact that a thing is itself is the single reason and the single cause to be given in answer to all such questions as why the man is man, or the musician musical.”
The second rule, as we’ve discussed, is the Law of Non-Contradiction, which holds that opposing statements cannot be both true in the same sense and at the same time. Eg. The claims “X = Y” and “X ≠ Y” are mutually exclusive. Indeed, Aristotle himself reasons, “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.”
Complement to this second law of thought is Aristotle’s Law of Excluded Middle. Here the mighty inquirer sets out to eliminate compromise – at least in the metaphysical sense of the word. Simply put, something must either be…or not. A proposition is true, in other words, or its negation is.

Confused yet?

Of course it may be the case that a fleck of ambiguity of terms muddies the waters. This is not the point, however, but rather an underscoring of why precise definitions matter from the outset.
Aristotle, here from Metaphysics:
“It is impossible, then, that “being a man” should mean precisely “not being a man”, if ‘man’ not only signifies something about one subject but also has one significance….
…[It] will not be possible to be and not to be the same thing, except in virtue of an ambiguity, just as if one whom we call “man”, and others were to call “not-man”; but the point in question is not this, whether the same thing can at the same time be and not be a man in name, but whether it can be in fact.”
And from the sturdy moorings of these three Laws of Thought, Aristotle sets off into the oceanic philosophical undertaking ahead of him.
What is? he wonders, And what is it like?
We can’t say for sure why the Greeks took it upon themselves to embark on such a formidably exhaustive examination of all things under – and including – the gods, but we are certainly glad they did so. Without Aristotle’s Heraclesian efforts in paving the way in this, the first of all philosophies, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be so very confused by the subsequent minds who have tackled the subject.
Indeed, the ever insightful Voltaire put it thus: “When he to whom one speaks does not understand, and he who speaks himself does not understand, that is metaphysics.”
But again, Classical Reader, we must do all we can to keep these historical insights from our politicians and their mischievous ilk, lest we deny ourselves their incessant pursuits of circular logic and self-contradiction. If such public figures begin to make sense, any sense at all, they will surely lose all comedic value. And who will make the gods laugh then?

The Goal of Happiness: A summary of Nicomachean Ethics

by August 5, 2019

The achievement of happiness, according to Aristotle, is the end goal of every man.
His reasoning is thus: All human activities are done in order to attain something that is good. We don’t do something because we think it will be bad for us. In addition, most of these activities are not the main objective, but rather a means to a higher end. Consequently, the activity that is an end in itself, writes the prolific philosopher, is the highest good, and that good is happiness. We aim at happiness for its own sake, not because it will achieve something else. Happiness, therefore, is our greatest mission.
Supposing this to be our aim, Aristotle then proceeds in his Nicomachean Ethics to figure out how best to achieve this goal.
Aristotle starts with the claim that happiness is dependent on virtue. He describes virtue as a disposition, rather than an activity. The individual needs to be naturally a ‘virtuous’ person, rather than just acting accordingly. This exemplary man finds doing virtuous acts pleasurable, which is presumably why he does them.
But then, what is ‘virtuous’?
At this moment our scientific philosopher is uncharacteristically vague. Virtue exists somewhere in the mean, and therefore is subjective. The right path lies between excess and deficiency. The man should not be a coward nor rash. He shouldn’t be wasteful, nor stingy. He shouldn’t be described as boorish nor acting as a buffoon. The pattern is quick to reveal itself.
Plato’s student then clarifies that one’s actions can only be judged as praiseworthy or blameworthy if they are voluntary. Oedipus sleeping with his mother unknowingly, therefore, was not sinful. The decision to act must come from the rational and deliberating agent who executes the action, and not from some outside third party. This definition does get a little tricky, unfortunately, when considering actions committed under duress or severe threat.
summary of nicomachean ethics by aristotleIn true Aristotelian fashion, he then proceeds to outline and categorize all of the virtues and vices as he sees them. It’s good to be patient, for instance, when facing anger, but every now and then, it’s advisable to display a small amount of wrath yourself. It’s recommended to have the social virtues of wit, amiability and sincerity. Modesty is most appropriate among the young, and so on.
We now come upon the issue of Justice, which Aristotle comments, encompasses all of the other virtues. This is because we need to exhibit the full range of proper behavior in order to be deemed ‘just’. This term is further examined and dissected into two primary forms of justice: distributive and rectificatory. The former, which at first appears socialist, addresses the need to distribute wealth and honors among the people… but only according to merit. The latter justice is concerned with the exchanges between two or more people. It aims at maintaining a sense of balance and equality among those involved.
The philosopher then asserts that it is impossible to treat oneself unjustly or to suffer injustice willingly. Afterwards he concedes that while the law is a suitable guideline, it is by no means exhaustive. At times men must discuss the issue and come to an agreeance.
Moral virtues, unfortunately, aren’t quite enough. The ideal man also needs the intellectual virtues. These are described as calculative reasoning, such as art or technical skill and prudence. There is also contemplative reasoning, which is detached from from human affairs. This includes scientific knowledge, intuition, and wisdom. With these abilities we can rationally choose what is the most virtuous thing to do.
What about the people who know what is good, some might ask, but lack the self-will to do anything about it? Aristotle assigns them the special category of “incontinent”. Incontinence is not desirable, but it is also not quite as bad as actual vice. This is because it is deemed partially involuntary.
Nicomachean Ethics - Book IIIAristotle’s investigation then takes a huge right turn into the arena of friendship. While it is realm of ethics not usually explored in modern times, our ancient greek philosopher took it very seriously. He began by separating out the different types of friendship: Those based on utility, on pleasure and on goodness of character. Not surprisingly, the latter is the most preferable. Friendship based on goodness will last because it is between two people who love each other for who they are, not for what they can gain from each other.
Justice and friendship are closely connected, says Aristotle, because the state needs its citizens to be friendly with each other. He proceeds then to outline the three different types of political institutions based on friendship, nominating monarchy over aristocracy and timocracy as preferable.
Aristotle then employs what we now think of as the ‘oxygen mask first’ principle. When we are on a plane, we need to apply our own oxygen mask first, before assisting others. Likewise, we have to love ourselves before we can love another. Therefore self-love, argues Aristotle, is considered higher than friendship. While a fully self-sufficient person can technically be happy, he will have with a better, more contented life if he has true friendship.
Finally Aristotle advocates a life with as much contemplation as possible. This is because doing good things will make good people happy and rational thought is the highest good. The practical sciences, therefore, should be pursued. They will enable us in finding the right path in life, as well as help with the practical issues that consume our time and attention. Essentially, go to a park… but remember to take a book.
It is here that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics ends, and as many argue, his Politics begins.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric: The Philosophy of Persuasion

by June 28, 2019

How to persuade someone
In this life, whether you are a philosopher or not, you will need to know how to persuade people.
Aristotle tells us as much within his work on rhetoric, aptly titled Rhetoric.
This was one of old Artie’s books that I only glossed over in my formative years. Depending on whom you read in your introductory to philosophy class as an undergrad, you might be of the belief that philosophy and rhetoric are mutually exclusive. They are as incompatible as cats and dogs, cops and robbers, Giants and Jets fans. You get the picture.
Plato was one such chap who despised rhetoric. He describes it, not as an art form, but as “a type of flattery”, within his dialogue Gorgias.
Illustration of Plato Gorgias

Gorgias is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC. The dialogue depicts a conversation between Socrates and a small group of sophists at a dinner gathering.

Plato’s distaste for rhetoric is perhaps not surprising. The rock stars of rhetoric during the age of classical Greece would have been the Sophists, the ancient equivalent of personal injury attorneys.
The Sophists were a series of wandering lecturers, skilled rhetoricians who would happily use their abilities to argue on behalf of anybody or any cause, so long as the price was right. Plato viewed them as the anti-philosophers. They did not care for objective truth or wisdom, only in convincing others through dubious and questionable means. To Plato, the Sophists, as well as rhetoric in general, was something of a disease that infected the minds of citizens and distracted them from the noble pursuits of philosophy.
Aristotle, on the other hand, was a bit more realistic about the state of human nature. He did espouse that through contemplation and rigorous study, we could come to an understanding of that which is virtuous and noble. However, it does little good if we are unable to convince others to believe us!

Plato and Aristotle

Rhetoric then becomes something of a necessary evil, a means to convince people who don’t already agree with us about the virtuous and noble lessons that we discover through philosophical contemplation.
Aristotle also makes the claim that rhetoric is not only essential to the field of philosophy, but to every other field of study as well. For in medicine it is crucial for the physician to persuade his patients to pursue the proper habits for health. A political scientist must be skilled in rhetoric so he can convince the lawmakers to enact laws that are beneficial for the polis. This goes for all crafts and art forms, Aristotle says.
Rhetoric, additionally, is also a means of defense for us. Just as we must be physically fit and strong in order to protect ourselves form physical violence, we must also be skilled rhetoricians so as to defend ourselves against discourse aimed at harming our reputation.
In short, the stakes are actually pretty high. So, what is rhetoric and how do we be better at it?
Rhetoric, Aristotle says, is in many ways similar to dialectic, or philosophical argumentation. It can be said that both rhetoric and dialectic are concerned with answering questions that are the concern of everybody. Both practices can be applied to any topic, and both are incredibly useful.
Painting of Aristotle

Painting of Aristotle

Dialectic, however, is more clinical while rhetoric, out of necessity, is more emotional. Dialectic demands that we arrive at a conclusion by virtue of the plausibility of the argument. Rhetoric, however, cares only that we arrive in close proximity to the truth by any means necessary. Dialectic, therefore, is the best method for teaching, while rhetoric is used as an art form for getting people to agree with you.
Pivoting momentarily, we can see the difference between dialectic and rhetoric within Plato’s The Apology. Within the dialogue, Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, is defending himself in court against charges of impiety and corrupting the youth.
Rather than make use of the tools of rhetoric, Socrates leans heavily on what we might consider a philosophical, or scientific argument to make his case. He does not appeal to the emotions of the crowd. He does not parade his children before the jurors. He does not flatter or appeal to the emotional proclivities of his jurors.
Socrates is interested in convincing others of his position via the merits of his arguments. He has his own reasons for this. As a man who championed wisdom and understanding above all, it would have been slightly hypercritical for him to make use of rhetoric, which relies heavily on emotional appeals, to win his case.
Socrates teaching

Crop of Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, by Marcello Bacciarelli c. 1776

Still, it might have been in the best interest of the philosopher to utilize some of rhetorician’s tools. Socrates’ dispassionate argument is insufficient. He is found guilty and subsequently shuffled off of this mortal coil.
But now back to Aristotle.
A good persuasive argument often appeals to commonly held beliefs. Depending on your opinion on the state of humanity, this might be a very bad thing indeed. However, Aristotle is insistent that human beings have a tendency to lean towards truth and that they mostly arrive at truth on their own. Appealing to popular beliefs, therefore, will often land us in close proximity to the truth.
“Moreover human beings have a sufficient natural tendency toward what is true, and they mostly reach the truth. Hence the one who is good at aiming at the truth is also the one who is good at aiming at what is commonly believed.” –Aristotle (Rhetoric)
To craft a good persuasive argument, we must consider three things.
  1. The character of the speaker
  2. The condition of the listener
  3. The strength and plausibility of the argument itself
The character of the speaker is defined by the speaker’s intelligence, virtue, and goodwill. An intelligent, virtuous man will be deserving of confidence, and he will inspire confidence quickly within the listeners.
While Aristotle is speaking of virtue within the context of making a persuasive argument, this small bit of information also supplements Aristotle’s ethical philosophy. Namely that the best life is one that actively expresses virtue.
We must also consider the condition of the listener in order to craft a persuasive argument. We must recognize and soothe people’s fears. We must identify the emotional side of the argument. Is somebody’s pride on the line? Are they feeling embarrassed? Are they fearful that retracting their position will make them look weak?

We must also consider the condition of the listener in order to craft a persuasive argument.

We must recognize and acknowledge these possibilities and edge around them accordingly if we hope to be persuasive. We must also recognize that people’s attention spans are notoriously short! Consider inserting witty remarks within your argument to grab people’s attention. I like to consider myself a good student of Aristotle in this regard.
How many philosophers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Four- one to screw in the light bulb and three others to say “Most assuredly Socrates!” “Excellent point Socrates!” “I believe you are correct Socrates!”
Finally, a good persuasive argument must still lean heavily upon the same rules that make a good philosophical, or scientific, argument.
Identify premises that are true and demonstrable. Construct these premises in such a way so that they naturally support a final, previously unknown supposition that we call a conclusion.
Ask yourself, “Are my premises plausible?” “Do they naturally follow and support the conclusion?” “Are their any lapses in my logic that could leave room for implausibility?”
Aristotle’s insistence that a good persuasive argument must still be founded upon a good logical argument is demonstrative of his idea of rhetoric in general. Rhetoric is not some unwieldy weapon that we can use for our personal glory or interest.
Illustration of Socrates and Gorgias

The Philosopher Socrates with the Sophist Gorgias

The sophists were guilty of such a crime. They used a bastardization of rhetoric to convince people of a position no matter the truth-value contained within that position. They were self-serving in this regard and were subsequently damaging the souls of their fellow citizens.
It is likely that Aristotle had it in his mind to combat such dangers when he laid out his philosophy of rhetoric. He wanted to equip thoughtful, serious, well-intentioned people with the intellectual ammunition that would allow them to cut through the infuriating malarkey of public debate.
He was something of a realist in this regard. He recognized the infuriating tendency for convenient nonsense to win out over logical arguments, and he set about to discover a way to correct such an injustice.
The reason I find Aristotle’s Rhetoric to be of such interest is because he wrote on the topic not for his own curiosity or even for the sake of knowledge itself. In many ways Rhetoric is very much a public service announcement. It is the philosopher’s attempt to better humanity by equipping us with the tools to guide our fellow man away from ignorance, away from prejudice, and toward the light of understanding.