Book Review

The Rhetoric of Aristotle
by Bernard Sadler

reviewed by J Ziegler

Some might think, with regret, that the term ‘rhetoric’ has become degraded in our day to mean ‘speech persuasive by trickery’. Thus, one politician will accuse another of using ‘mere rhetoric’. It is interesting to note that it had also become degraded in that way in Aristotle’s time, so that, as he says, the term ‘rhetorician’ can mean either a skilful speaker or a tricky speaker.

But persuasion very often needs to be done, and without much knowledge of how to do that, many flounder. Aristotle’s work is meant to fill that need. As Bernard Sadler says in his Introduction: "Anyone entering corporate or public life of any kind soon discovers that one of the most important requirements for success is skill in persuasion."

Aristotle speaks of there being a group of arts concerned with the work of reason. These arts, as he points out, are distinguished by the fact that they are not restricted to any particular subject. This group includes, but is broader than, what today we might call communication. These arts are, first, Logic – which Aristotle calls Analytic – which is about how to reason correctly; secondly, Dialectic, which is about how to win arguments; thirdly, Rhetoric, which is about how to urge an opinion; lastly, Poietic, broader than what we call Poetry, being about how to convey meaning by good use of language itself. Aristotle wrote works on each of these arts.

Bernard Sadler’s book is a presentation of Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric. As he says in his Introduction: "The present book is not offered as a new translation of The Art of Rhetoric, nor as an exhaustive study of the subject. It is more of an introductory paraphrase. Its purpose is to provide a simplified restatement of the original that is accessible, readily understandable and practical." It is certainly that, and it conveys the quite evident intention of Aristotle to write a practical manual.

There are several translations of the Rhetoric in English. All take as a major source the Bekker edition of Aristotle’s works published about 150 years ago. Variously, the translators comment that this text, taken as it was from the best known sources, seems to lack a good logical order; and that this is doubtless due to editors in antiquity. Bernard Sadler has done some rearrangement, on the good ground that the father of Logic would hardly fail to order his own work logically. The result is very effective.

The book takes the liberty of transferring some of Aristotle’s examples – and there are many – into modern ones that would better make the point today. Thus we have (p 6) : "That car is dangerous: it has faulty brakes." And again, on P 38: "He is immune to cholera; he has had the inoculation". Translators usually think of themselves as translating the words: in these cases, it is not the words but the meaning that is rendered. Then, too, there are some sparkling examples of rendition into modern idiom. Thus (p.7) "An especially useful kind of sign is the necessary sign, or clincher, which puts the argument beyond question." (My emphasis).

Aristotle’s work has two distinct levels; as a practical manual of oratory indeed, but one illuminated by the insight of the great philosopher he was. Thus, it is from Aristotle’s treatise on the emotions in the Rhetoric – albeit one admirably suited to the practical character of the work – that later philosophers drew so much. In this treatise on the emotions Aristotle contrives simultaneously to satisfy the philosopher’s requirement to know the very nature of an emotion, but to do it in a way completely suited to the needs of a practical orator. Bernard Sadler captures this practical character. For instance, this is how he renders Aristotle’s definition of Anger (p 45): "Anger is a desire for revenge arising from the pain of a real or apparent undeserved slight. It is directed against an individual who has done or is about to do something against us or against one of our friends. Anger is always accompanied by the pleasure of the thought of revenge."

Aristotle confines his work to the realm not of what is utterly certain – the realm of Logic – nor to that which is to be assented to beyond reasonable doubt – the realm of Dialectic – but to that which is a matter of opinion, the probable. Accordingly, his treatise on proof in the Rhetoric is not to be understood as if he were dealing with Logical proof, but rather as it is a means of gaining agreement to an opinion. Nevertheless, he notes that there is a counterpart in Rhetoric to what a logician calls proof, but that also, to gain agreement to what is merely probable, the orator has to convince the audience of his own integrity and competence so it will believe him, and if necessary he is to arouse emotion as a ground from which the audience will judge. It is in this sense, clearly set forth, that the present book renders these notions under the titles of Logical Proof, Moral Proof, and Emotional Proof.

The sheer pleasure of reading Aristotle’s work is not lost in this rendition. For instance, there is, on the character of the young (p 59):"The young are full of hope because hope is concerned with the future, as memory is concerned with the past; and for the young the future is long and the past is short. In the morning of their life it is not possible for them to remember anything, but they readily hope for everything, and this makes them easy to deceive. And they are full of daring as well as hope. Daring prevents them fearing, and hope gives them confidence. No one fears when he is daring, and the hope of some advantage makes one confident." And again, as part of Aristotle’s advice on the use of metaphors: (p 68): "Metaphors are especially pleasant if they set things before the listeners' eyes. It is more pleasant to see something actually happening than to see only the result. We set things before the eyes when we use words that signify activity. For example, if we say that someone with all his faculties is 'the full bottle' we are using a metaphor, but not one that signifies activity; if we say 'he is firing on all cylinders' then we are expressing some activity. Even more active and lively is the metaphor that speaks of lifeless things as living. For example, ‘The arrow flew eagerly towards the crowd’ creates the impression of activity and life."

In verdict upon it, it must be said that the present book brings out admirably the fundamental practical character of Aristotle’s work. As its author says in his Introduction, it is indeed ‘ a paraphrase’, but not one that does any violence to the original in that respect. Those who would expect to find here a completely practical manual on oratory, or indeed of persuasion under any conditions, will find it. Those who might expect to find a full rendition of the Art of Rhetoric with its many allusions to Greek literature will not. However, as is characteristic of Aristotle’s works, his great insight is everywhere found in the Art of Rhetoric, and this is also visible in Bernard Sadler’s book.


Bernard Sadler, The Rhetoric of Aristotle, A5, 91pp, A$15 plus $2 p&p,
available from B. Sadler, 7 Kambora Avenue, Frenchs Forest, NSW 2086, Australia.

John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted July 2000. It was published in Universitas, Number 8 (2000).
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the
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