Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 22, 2018, from

29. Rhetoric and poetics

In Aristotle’s classification, rhetoric and poetics (poiētikē; literally ‘productive’) count as ‘productive’ rather than ‘practical’ disciplines; they are concerned with ‘production’ (poiēsis) – purely instrumental action aiming at some external end – rather than with ‘action’ (praxis) – action that is also an end in itself. Rhetoric is a productive discipline in so far as it aims at persuasion in public speaking, and seeks the arguments, diction, language, metaphor, appeals to emotion and so on, that are most likely to persuade different types of audiences. Hence Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric contains sections on these different topics. Dialectic and logic are useful to a student of rhetoric, even though rhetoric does not aim at the truth; for true or plausible claims tend to be persuasive. Rhetoric II deals with another aspect of rhetorical persuasion, by describing the different emotions; the student of rhetoric must know how to arouse emotions in an audience.

Aristotle also takes his moral and political theory to be relevant to rhetoric, for two main reasons. (1) Rhetoric is concerned with the moral and political issues discussed in public assemblies or in courts, and the orator needs to be familiar with the convictions of a given audience. (2) Even more important, the orator should be guided by correct moral and political convictions (without necessarily grasping their philosophical basis). Aristotle does not endorse the conception of oratory as a technique of persuasion that is indifferent to the moral and political aims that it serves. This conception of oratory arouses Plato’s criticism in the Gorgias (see Plato §7) Aristotle replies to such criticism by arguing that the orator should learn, and should be guided by, correct principles. He sets out some of these in the Rhetoric.

Moral and political principles are also relevant to Aristotle’s treatment of literary criticism in the Poetics. The surviving part of this treatise deals mainly with tragedy. Some of it is similar to the Rhetoric, in so far as it discusses matters of technique and psychology; Aristotle describes the various sorts of plots, characters, and dramatic devices that affect the audience in different ways. He is also concerned, however, about the moral aspects of tragedy; in this he may be responding to the criticisms of tragedy in book X of Plato’s Republic. He argues that tragedy achieves its appropriate effect when it directs pity, fear, sympathy and revulsion at the appropriate sorts of people and situations; and he examines the plots and characters of various tragedies from this point of view (see Katharsis; Mimēsis).

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Rhetoric and poetics. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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