Rhetoric and Happiness

Did I say already that I am in the Literature segment this semester? We are starting with Homer’s Iliad in one class and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the other. For my elective class, I chose to study Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Without a doubt, I am enjoying Homer and Chaucer, but, as usual, I am loving Aristotle. That guy is good at what he studies, which is…basically…everything.

As a little introduction into that text, I’d like to cover what he says rhetoric is. It is the art of persuasive speech, which he says is “a sort of demonstration.”  In another place he defines it as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” It has three modes of persuasion: establishing the credibility of the speaker, putting the listeners into an emotional state, and the argument or proof itself. Rhetoric’s subject matter is that about which men deliberate, that “present us with alternative possibilities”; it’s assumed audience is that of people who are untrained in formal logic. Because it deals in things about which men must make decisions, rhetoric’s arguments do not follow from necessary truths, for if that were the case then there would be no deliberation to make.

Regarding its audience and use, he asserts that rhetoric has three distinct classes of listeners that then relate to its three divisions of use: 1) the member of an assembly, representing political use 2) the judge, implying forensic use, and 3) the observer, for ceremonial display. For each of these three kinds, there are three distinct ends. The political aims at the acceptance or rejection of a proposed course of action, the forensic at the justice or injustice of an action, and the ceremonial at honoring or dishonoring someone or something.

I’ve just distilled for you the first few sections of the book, which set the stage for some very interesting lists of the kinds of knowledge that a skilled rhetorician would need in order to persuade effectively in those three contexts. At the heart of all of these, he sets a requirement for an understanding of human actions, which serve a common end he labels as “happiness.” But what is happiness? Is it “prosperity combined with virtue?” Or “independence of life?” Or “the secure enjoyment of the maximum pleasure?” Or “a good condition of property and body?” He gives all of these as possible definitions of happiness, and says it could be one or more than one.

So at the root of the art of rhetoric, properly practiced, is a concern for and understanding of human happiness, but those various definitions of happiness seem like they could lead to very different conclusions about how to actually achieve it. For example, could seeking “independence of life” ever conflict with “a good condition of property and body?” If happiness included both, which one ought to be given more weight in decision making? Do you think that every effort to persuade us of something is really appealing to our desire for happiness, in any of these senses?

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