How Special was Aristotle Really?

Aristotle is widely considered to be one of the “big names” and a key player in the history of classic rhetorical theory. He, Cicero and Quintilian comprise the major works, at least in classic rhetoric. And there certainly is some good reason that Aristotle and his theories have lasted so long. He was one of the first to formally systematize and record certain rhetorical theories, and many of his ideas continue to be relevant in many contemporary contexts. That said, I think that there is a need to approach Aristotle (and frankly the rest of the “classics”) with a grain of salt, and to resist the urge to universalize his work. Rather than think of him as the inventor of rhetoric as we know it, I argue that we should reframe and decenter his work somewhat. Instead, we should think of Aristotle s one of the first to describe one version or facet of rhetoric. As George Kennedy explains:

Some might argue that “rhetoric” is a peculiarly Western phenomenon, a structured system of teaching public speaking and written composition, developed in classical Greece, taught in Roman, medieval, renaissance, and early modern schools, and, with some revisions, still in use today. Nothing exactly like this has existed in other cultures, though there are some partial parallels in Aztec schools and in literature cultures. This, however, is only one meaning of “rhetoric…”[1]

However, before I explain my views on how we might go about decentering Aristotle and his work, a bit of background is necessary. Aristotle was born in 384 B.C.E. to a wealthy family, and had become a student in Plato’s Academy. He has since been regarded as Plato’s most well-known student. During his time in the Academy, he produced countless works in a wide variety of fields, including ethics, biology, physics, politics, and more. For the purposes of this class, we are primarily interested in his work on rhetoric, though it is worth noting that his other interests would have heavily influenced (and can be seen within) his teaching of rhetoric. Aristotle also was a teacher himself, and one of his students was in fact Alexander the Great.

Aristotle’s way of thinking was heavily influenced by Plato, and that he was Plato’s student is largely evident in much of his writing. But he did not merely parrot his teacher’s ideas; Aristotle had a somewhat evolved view on many of Plato’s ideas, particularly in terms of the nature of truth. The sophists generally viewed truth as merely probabilistic, and something that did not exist in an absolute form. Plato, by comparison, was sure of the existence of an absolute truth, and believed that philosophy was the means to access this truth; rhetoric was mainly used to explain the truth to someone who could not possess it. Aristotle, however, had a more pragmatic view. For him, truth was “…grounded in nature (physis) and capable of apprehension by reason.”[2] Put another way, there was some natural basis for truth, but people could be taught how to reason and understand it.

Aristotle had a much more practical worldview, and wanted to present his theories in a way that could also be useful and actually practical in day to day life. This is a significant departure from Plato’s hypothetical notion of philosopher kings and other unrealistic ideas. I think that this is a reason that Aristotle is still worth studying in our contemporary classes. Many of his ideas and techniques, because they were written to have practical applications, still have much utility for students of rhetoric in 2019. His conception of the artistic pisteis—ethos, pathos, and logos—still adequately covers broadly the means of persuasion. And there is a reason that even modern textbooks continue to describe Aristotle’s notion of “evidence that the speaker can create in the course of giving a speech to support their own claims.”[3] And it’s not just Dr. Dunn’s book—many public speaking books continue to include Aristotle and his theories.[4]

That said, there is value in approaching Aristotle with a grain of salt. This is not because his theories are bad or poorly written, but simply that we ought to consider how we treat and position him. Raka Shome advocates for scholars of rhetoric to engage in postcolonial self-reflexivity to consider how this historically west-centric and white dominant field often reproduces patterns of intellectual domination when it centers only one type of scholarship.[5] When we say that Aristotle is the inventor of rhetoric and that the only origin of (big-R) Rhetoric is in Greece and Rome, we position all other theories and worldviews as alternative or even inferior. There are many cultures and worldviews that are not adequately covered by Aristotle’s work, such as indigenous cultures that don’t view time linearly or East Asian cultures that are less individualistic.

These non-dominant world views are not wholly represented within higher education, and I believe that this inequality is exasperated by the centering of only one type of rhetorical theory as the definition of (big-R) Rhetoric. When I look at my surroundings (both locally, as well as more broadly within the discipline), I am hard pressed to find people that look like me and who share similar backgrounds. It is incredibly difficult to find support and mentorship from faculty and more senior colleagues, and I have generally witnessed a lack of willingness to ask critical questions and self-reflect on how our dominant scholarly paradigms may disparage or marginalize people of certain backgrounds. Communication Studies broadly has a dismal track record of diversity in its membership.[6] Only a single person of color has been named as one of the National Communication Association’s Distinguished Scholars.[7] And the discipline of rhetoric specifically has been “disturbing silent,” a silence characterized by “not rereading (and problematizing) our dominant rhetorical paradigms, our theories, our critical tools, and our research agendas, against a larger backdrop of racial and neocolonial politics.”[8] How is a person from a minority background to make a place for themselves when even the curriculum itself does not include them? In my time as an M.A. student, I have on various occasions felt marginalized and sometimes spotlighted because of aspects of my own background and identity that I have no control over; at times I have seriously questioned whether there is a place for people like me in this department, in this field, and in academia more broadly. The structure of the system is hurtful, discouraging, and must be challenged. This means questioning all the possible sources of this structural inequality, which includes questioning the way that we teach our most basic foundational courses.

To be clear, this does not mean that we should throw out the classics entirely. Aristotle, and the rest of the “classic theories” are still important and still have value. But we must be willing to rethink the pedestal that he, and others like him, have been placed upon. Echoing Lisa Flores’ call to engage in racial rhetorical criticism, Sara Baugh-Harris and Darrel Wanzer-Serrano explain, “canonization can only perpetuate static traditions and a modern/colonial episteme.”[9] For a study of the history of rhetorical theory, this means carefully contextualizing and positioning the work of Aristotle and the other so-called classics. He described one system of rhetoric, as it existed in the Western world, but we should be cautious to universalize this as a description of all rhetoric for all cultures.

It is inaccurate, and at times hurtful, to claim that Aristotle “invented” rhetoric. To do so is to diminish indigenous, African, Asian, Latin American, and essentially any non-European work. It positions certain work (and by extension certain people) as normative, and anyone/anything else as deviant, alternative, or inferior. Carol Lipson and Roperta Binkley explain, “If classic Athenian rhetorical principles continue to be reified as the rhetorical principles, then those whose grounding involves differing approaches remain seriously disadvantaged.”[10]

Also, centering the Western notion of rhetoric might suggest that Aristotle’s system represents the others preceding it, and that other early cultures followed the same approaches that Aristotle described, analyzed, and began to theorize. It suggests that cultures that had differing approaches to communication were perhaps primitive, and lacking interest or importance. Speaking more generally than just rhetoric, Min-Sun Kim explains that many theories of communication an inadequate outside of Western worldviews. She explains that “[the] vast majority of theory and research in social science, including human communication … assumes that people have individualistic notions of the self,” and that this tendency limits fuller understandings of communication phenomena.[11]

Aristotle is important to study because he was one of the first people to formally systematize and record a rhetorical theory. We cannot overlook this fact. But we must be careful about how we frame his work so as to avoid implying that he alone somehow was the inventor of rhetoric. As Kennedy notes, more than 1,000 years before the Greek tradition, Eyptians were already writing about systems that could be viewed as rhetoric.[12] Centering the discussion of rhetorical theory on ancient Greece has largely been a convenient and practical beginning point. But Lipson and Binkley write that by doing so, “we lose our ability to see the early rhetorics, and especially to see the early history of rhetoric and culturally situated and embedded.”[13] Again, there is absolutely value in studying Aristotle. But we must be cautious about how we position him, and consider the possible damage being done if we say that he (and only he) was the inventor.

[1] Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric, 2–3.

[2] Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George Alexander Kennedy, 2nd ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 35.

[3] Dunn, Public Speaking Now, 54.

[4] Teri Kwal Gamble and Michael Gamble, The Public Speaking Playbook, Second edition (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2018), 346; Cindy L. Griffin, Invitation to Public Speaking, 5th Ed (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013), 258.

[5] Shome, “Postcolonial Interventions in the Rhetorical Canon.”

[6] Chakravartty et al., “#CommunicationSoWhite.”

[7] “Distinguished Scholars.”

[8] Shome, “Postcolonial Interventions in the Rhetorical Canon,” 49.

[9] Sara Baugh-Harris and Darrel Wanzer-Serrano, “Against Canon: Engaging the Imperative of Race in Rhetoric,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 15, no. 4 (October 2, 2018): 337–42,; See also: Lisa A. Flores, “Between Abundance and Marginalization: The Imperative of Racial Rhetorical Criticism,” Review of Communication 16, no. 1 (January 2, 2016): 4–24,

[10] Carol S. Lipson and Roberta A. Binkley, eds., Rhetoric before and beyond the Greeks (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004), 2.

[11] Min-Sun Kim, Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication: Implications for Theory and Practice (Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, 2002), x–xi.

[12] Aristotle, On Rhetoric, 7.

[13] Lipson and Binkley, Rhetoric before and beyond the Greeks, 3.

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