Humanity and Rhetoric

In his foundational work, The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the power to observe the persuasiveness of which any particular matter admits” (1355b).  In other words, rhetoric is essentially about observation.  It’s about understanding and being aware of the manner in which a particular matter is conveyed for the persuasion of an audience.  Aristotle tells us that this art “belongs to no delimited science” (1354a).  Rhetoric is a facet of all modes of communication and thought, and it may indeed be not merely this but the very most fundamental property of the human mind.  Persuasion is the derivation of a particular perspective, whether such a perspective is being imposed on a third-party or on the self, and human thinking begins with perspective, whether absolute or relative.  A human being is required to have attitudes about things in order to think.  He must find certain things important enough to think about and other things not; he must hold certain methods of deliberation to be more valid than others; and above all, he must hold the facts of reality to be somehow significant—that is, significant in a particular manner and not another.  All these things are the makeup of his perspective.  And rhetoric is the power to observe this very most primitive part of the human mind.

If we understand rhetoric in this way (i.e. we take on this perspective of rhetoric), then we find that rhetoric is the core principle of all matters that are distinctly human.  We may take the field of art as an example.  Art is often understood as being among the most humanising acts in which a person can partake.  And yet, we find that at the centre of all art is a principle of rhetoric.  After all, the purpose of art is to communicate a perspective of reality; art is the power to observe the human attitude of grief over things like death and loss and of joy over things like birth and love.  We might say that art is the celebration of creativity and the mourning of destruction; it is the power to observe a perspective that values being over nonbeing.

And indeed, I do believe this is what makes humanity what it is.  We have been endowed with the power to observe being, that is, to observe our own existence.  Hence, human morality, as we have elsewhere discussed, is the power to act in observance of one’s own existence, and love is the power to do so on a much larger scale.  More on this to come.

2 thoughts on “Humanity and Rhetoric

  1. I can’t wait to see the next installment. Rhetoric is certainly at the core of my calling as a clinical medicine and public health researcher and ‘thought leader’ (term used in the field). Current society is stuck on technical jingoism thought to be science but really ‘scientism’. Art is the true higher calling but again, current society confuses pop culture with art. Maybe this confusion isn’t all that new. That which rises to the level of true art in each generation is only filtered out and treasured by successive generations…

    • I agree; a lot of people seem to have faith in what they call ‘science’ without even knowing the facts about it. It’s not terribly uncommon for a philosophical naturalist to have precious little knowledge of nature or philosophy. Society is lead by fashion, not thought.
      I certainly hope you’re right about the developmental pattern of art over time. I feel confident as you that the fashions of popular culture (or even the common fashions of the more esoteric art world) are quick to go out of fashion in generations that follow. But we can only hope and pray that there will be something of true worth left behind from this generation when so much frivolity has been filtered.
      Thanks for the nice thoughts.

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