Aristotle, rhetoric and modern media culture

Squeeze a slice of today’s society into a Petri dish, stare at it for a while, and you’ll inevitably realize that most of those bright little clusters of color fluttering in the slime are powered by a powerful, barely visible drive from to dominate. Turn the lens up another notch or two and you’ll notice that these same, now larger-looking, multi-motivated groups spend virtually all of their time trying to penetrate, twist, and manipulate the minds of every one of millions of fools. free-floating cells contained in the same great gray gelatinous slime that clouds the dish.

(Dispensing with the metaphor for the sake of clarity: interest groups, political parties, and corporations, to influence legislation/obtain funding/attain power/generate revenue, need to present their positions and messages persuasively to attract public support/maintain customer loyalty).

Turn back the time machine 2,500 years and you’ll see that while the technology isn’t quite what it is today, most of the best pervasive and devious tactics have stayed the same for millennia.

That is why Aristotle’s Rhetoric should be required reading for all well-rounded modern professional communicators.

The introduction of a novel way of running society, democracy, in the 5th century BC. C. placed political power within the reach of all those who could influence and kill juries and assemblies. Ergo, the demand for media training, the art of speaking and presenting persuasively, exploded (as, I imagine, did sales training when humanity first became aware of the barter/trade business). Over the next century, textbooks on argumentation, methods of arousing emotions, and choice figures of speech flew off the shelves as fast as papyrus stalks are pulled from the ground.

According to former University of Toronto classics professor GMAGrube, many of these works, particularly Rhetorica Ad Alexandrum, exhibited completely cynical and amoral attitudes, caring only about how to use arguments and rhetorical devices to best effect, regardless of the intention. It is as an attack against this amoral backdrop that Aristotle’s Rhetoric must be appreciated.

Plato, before Aristotle, said that if rhetoric was to be an art, its practitioners required knowledge both of the human soul and its different parts and functions, and of different kinds of arguments and their appeal to different kinds of men. Aristotle offers this in the first two books of the Rhetoric. In the third, he deals with style, a very important topic, on which the rest of this article will dwell, citing with some freedom, a series of selected examples of the advice offered:

These three things should point to: the metaphor (ie, the loss of the youth of the cities during the war was as if spring had been removed from the year); antithesis (i.e. crossing the Hellesport and digging through Mount Athos, they sailed on land and marched on sea); and liveliness.

The style and delivery, although really superfluous, must be displayed due to the depravity of the audience. The power of the written word depends on style rather than content.

The first principle of style is to use good Greek (English, French), also to use specific rather than general terms, and to avoid ambiguity, unless one deliberately seeks it out (ie, has nothing to say). What we write should be easy to read and easy to talk about.

Speech does not fulfill its function unless it is clear. Current nouns, adjectives, and verbs contribute to clarity.

One must appear to be speaking in a natural and unstudied way, because what is natural is convincing, what is studied is not. People are as wary of rhetorical tricks as they are of adulterated wine.

Epithets add something. They can emphasize the worst or shameful side of things, or their best side. Orestes, for example, can be called matricide or avenger of his father.

An audience always shares the sentiments of an impassioned speaker, even when there is nothing in what he says.

Metaphors, antithesis, humor, parody, clarity (or lack thereof), style, epithets (‘Branding’), passion, action, movement, music, rhythm, repetition, name recognition, shaping your message to your audience , all play an important role in the business of persuasion, they were all originally identified by Aristotle. And while he may not have anticipated how technology now allows us to create worlds of competing Boorstinian pseudo-realities, much of his wisdom about rhetoric is at play in the media culture we live in today.

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