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.