Aristotle and the Techne of Rhetoric
Between the third and fifth centuries B.C. there existed a “golden and classical age” of thought in the ancient world, with the majority of this activity centered in the polis of Athens, Greece. Although the city is historically recognized for its legendary
conflict with rival polis Sparta, Athens is perhaps best known for the creation of democracy—that noble political experiment that laid the preliminary structure for most of the rights we Americans enjoy today. First among these rights was the freedom of speech. Each Athenian citizen (meaning male land owners numbering around five thousand) met regularly in public forums (in an open-air auditorium called the Pnyx) to discuss laws and issues. Each man had a voice in the matter, and his success in dissuading or persuading his audience meant the action Athens would potentially take. So outstanding rhetoric, and the study, teaching, and delivery of it, became the center of attention among the Athenians; democracy meant individual empowerment, and good rhetoric meant the power to make change.
The first notable scholars to take on the challenge of analyzing and teaching the art of rhetoric were Isocrates, Socrates, and later, Plato. Plato soon created an academy in Athens, appropriately called the Plato Academy that attracted men who were interested in the art. One of the first students was Aristotle, who like Plato, had a lasting effect not only on the study of rhetoric, but the discipline itself.
Aristotle was born in 384 BC at Stagirus, a Greek colony and seaport on the coast of Thrace. His father, Nichomachus, was a respected physician to the King Amyntas of Macedonia. This connection with the royal family served Aristotle well in his later years as a teacher. From a young age, Aristotle showed an interest in many different topics of study including biology, physics, politics, physiology, psychology, and rhetoric. While he was still young however, his father died, and his guardianship was awarded to a family friend, Proxenus who eventually sent him to study under Plato. After excelling in the Academy and often trying to emulate Plato’s ideas for twenty years, Aristotle began to formulate his own ideas about rhetoric. At the death of his master in 347 B.C. however, Aristotle’s ideology had become so divergent from Platonic views that he could not—in good conscience—take over the Academy; consequently, he left Athens to live and teach elsewhere. After a few travels, he was invited by King Philip of Macedonia to become the private tutor of his thirteen-year-old son. Upon the death of King Philip, and because of the wisdom imparted upon him by Aristotle, that son eventually became the well-remembered world conqueror Alexander the Great.
After his work with Alexander was through (and world domination is a good indication of such), Aristotle returned to Athens. Once there, he found that Platonism was the dominant philosophy of the...