Scholars of rhetoric consider the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, one of the great contributors to our present understanding of this art which, since its early origins and until present, has been a controversial field of study because of its association with persuasion and influence. However, an examination of ancient rhetoric and its development by the Sophists and then a study on Aristotle’s theory on rhetoric and how he concluded his findings direct our attention to whether this Greek philosopher only included in his theory what he described as inadequate and non-fundamental Sophistic teachings, or actually built up his theory on their techniques, long bashed and overlooked. In this essay, I consider Aristotle’s rhetoric is an evolution of the Sophists’ discredited methodology. I assert that the sophistic contribution to Aristotle’s theory is more than a partial inclusion of their teachings disdained by ancient orthodox philosophers and some modern scholars. Examined readings of his theory on the art of rhetoric demonstrate his elaborate use of many of sophistic perspectives. Thus, the Aristotelian rhetoric, at heart of the development of our modern studies in this field, can be considered an evolution of the Sophists’ rhetoric, which has lately been the center of study by many scholars who called for a re-evaluation of the Sophists’ long disdained and overlooked techniques.
In order to explain my argument, I will briefly review the main tenets of the sophistic rhetoric and why Plato condemned such rhetoric “foul” and “ugly,” but later retracted and stated that there was a “good rhetoric.” Finally, I will justify why the Aristotelian rhetoric can be perceived as a systemized evolution and progression of the sophist rhetoric.
Scholars noted that rhetoric as a systematic study was developed by the Sophists, a group of travelling teachers and orators who prospered in Athens about 467 B.C., a time that witnessed democratic reforms which required a skill in persuasive public speaking at assemblies, courts, and other gatherings. Herrick (2009) explained that such a political change offered the Sophists a distinguished role as they offered teaching of rhetoric and persuasive speaking to any Greek who could pay their high fees. According to Herrick, teaching of this important skill to middle class Greeks reshaped the political and social atmospheres in the polis where class and nobility of birth were no longer factors of power and influence.
The Sophists also claimed they could teach their students more than persuasive speaking; they offered teaching in arête, a term that refers to a wide range of themes: virtue, excellence, superiority, and the ability of managing personal affairs and holding a political power. Accordingly, the Sophists professed that arête was a skill that can be acquired and taught, not a born talent as the Greeks earlier assumed. Herrick (2009) noted that the sophistic rhetoric changed assumptions and reformed beliefs of the...