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Isocrates and Aristotle Views on Rhetorical Devices Essay

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Updated: Jul 21st, 2022


The following represents the hypothetical dialog that could have taken place between Isocrates and Aristotle, in regards to what should be considered the discursively sound conceptualization of the rhetorical devices of techne and logos:

Aristotle: I am quite aware of your (Isocrates’) reputation as an effective rhetor. However, I am also somewhat skeptical about whether your approach towards convincing the audiences to subscribe to whatever happened to be your stance on the discussed subject matter is thoroughly legitimate. The reason for this is that, while arguing in favor of adopting one or another course of action in front of people, you tend to do it in a rather unsystematic manner.

Isocrates: I do not presume to be fully aware of what accounts for the rationale behind such your claim, but I guess that it is being concerned with the presumption that, unlike what happened to be the case with you, I do not consider rhetoric a thoroughly epistemic pursuit. Is this correct? [Isocrates’ remark, in this respect, reflects his belief that one’s willingness to remain thoroughly observant of the technical principles of rhetorical arguing, while in the process of delivering a public speech or writing an oration, can never guarantee that the concerned person will indeed be able to prove himself an effective persuader. The reason for this is that he never ceased being skeptical towards the idea that it is possible to obtain absolute knowledge of things, which in turn caused him to doubt that the appropriateness of people’s tendency to come up with the epistemology-based rhetorical claims].

Aristotle: This is exactly what I had in mind. I find it hard to believe that such an accomplished rhetor as yourself, would doubt that the main rules and principles of rhetorical persuasion are universally applicable, and that it is specified by the mean of ensuring the techne-related integrity of one’s line of rhetorical argumentation, that he will be able to appeal to the audiences.

Isocrates: Could you please explain to me what do you mean by techne?

Aristotle: This term refers to the artistic means of rhetorical persuasions, such as paradigms and enthymemes, which are being commonly utilized within the context of how a rhetor goes about defending his point of view on whatever happens to be the debatable issue in question. As I pointed out in my treatise Rhetoric: “I call a rhetorical syllogism an enthymeme, a rhetorical induction a paradigm. And all speakers produce logical persuasion by means of paradigms or enthymemes and by nothing other than these” (Aristotle 1356b).

An enthymeme is best defined as an ‘incomplete syllogism’ – a rhetor comes up with the deductive conclusion, as to what can be deemed one or another qualitative feature of the discussed phenomena, in regards to the dialectical causes that have brought this phenomenon into existence. In its turn, the effectiveness of the rhetorical enthymeme is a thoroughly measurable category – the more this enthymeme is being concerned with the explicit and implicit references to the well-established ‘facts of truth’ (pisteises), the higher would the likelihood for the targeted audience to find it fully convincing. What it means is that it is indeed possible for a particular rhetorical speech to prove a complete success – for as long as, while working on it, the affiliated rhetor remains thoroughly observant of this provision. Consequently, this means that there is nothing phenomenological about rhetoric, as the instrument of persuasion – its emergence was predetermined by the people’s natural desire to have their intellectual horizons being continually broadened. In other words, it is indeed fully appropriate to strive to formulate the main principles of rhetorical reasoning.

Isocrates: I will dare to disagree with you on that, my idealistically minded friend. The main reason for this is that, in my opinion, you underestimate the role of purely subjective (psychological) factors within the context of how listeners are being prompted to form their attitude towards the argumentative stance, assumed by a rhetor. As I once pointed out in my oration On the Peace: “You (citizens of Athens) do not hear with equal favor the speakers who address you… in the past, you have formed the habit of driving all the orators from the platform, except those who support your desires” (Isocrates 9).

Apparently, it never occurred to you that one’s willingness to be exposed to a rhetorical speech is itself desire-driven, which in its turn presupposes that your idea of techne is not altogether valid. This simply could not be otherwise – the above-mentioned suggests that, contrary to what you believe happen to be the case, the high epistemic soundness of paradigms and enthymemes does not necessarily imply that they are, in fact, practically effective and circumstantially appropriate. In its turn, this sheds a certain doubt on the validity of your understanding of what the notion of techne stands for.

Aristotle: I got your point, but I think that it is based on the methodologically wrong premise. As far as I am concerned, you think of rhetoric’s ability to persuade people, as such, that represents the value of a ‘thing in itself’ – regardless of what may be the set of affiliated consequences. I, on the other hand, view rhetoric as something thoroughly consistent with the main driving force of the ongoing social, cultural and technological progress – namely, the people’s innate predisposition towards gaining a better understanding of the surrounding reality and their place in it. Since we can identify a number of the spatially preserved principles of such progress, we should also be able to adopt a scientifically sound and universally applicable approach towards defining the main rules of rhetorical argumentation.

Isocrates: I find your idealistic conceptualization of techne highly admirable – not the least because I myself believe in the full appropriateness of applying an effort into helping humanity to remain on the path of progress. This, however, does not make it less erroneous, in the methodological sense of this word. The reason for it is that, while in the process of defining this conceptualization’s main provisions, you failed to take into consideration the fact that, when it comes to addressing life-challenges, on their part, most people proceed with doing it in the manner, consistent with what happened to be their animalistic urges.

I used to stress out this in many of my public orations, such as Areopagiticus while accentuating the cyclical nature of history: “Nothing of either good or of evil visits mankind unmixed, but that riches and power are attended and followed by folly, and folly in turn by license; whereas poverty and lowliness are attended by sobriety and great moderation” (Isocrates 107). What it implies is that techne cannot be solely concerned with appealing to one’s sense of rationale, because people’s ability to think rationally (or lack of thereof) is being predetermined externally. In its turn, this means that there can be very little logic in expecting the argumentative appeals to reasonableness to be the most effective rhetorical device of all.

Aristotle: You have made an interesting point. However, I still disagree. My stance, in this respect, is dictated by the fact that as my own (and probably yours) rhetorical experiences indicate, it is specifically the logos-based arguments, which people tend to find the most convincing: “Logos is the best thing because good men are worthy not of money but of logos” (Aristotle 1401b). The reason for this quite apparent – as practice shows, one’s likelihood to attain a social prominence largely depends on his ability to pay close attention to the considerations of reason, as the main life-guiding principle.

This explains why people are naturally inclined towards considering the presence of the logos-based argumentative statements in the rhetorical oration, as the most illustrative proof of this oration’s overall legitimacy. However, this does not diminish the importanrates’tess’ce of a speaker’s ability to supplement its line of rhetorical argumentation with the appeals to ethos and pathos, as well. Moderation is the key to success in this respect.

Isocrates: From what you have stated, up until this point, I can infer that the most notable aspects of your methodological outlook on techne are concerned with: a) The assumption that the theory of rhetoric defines the qualitative essence of the most commonly deployed rhetorical practices; b) The idea that the main provisions of the discursively valid theory of rhetoric (as you define them) are universally applicable. The latter implies that the practical implementation of your theoretical insights, in regards to what should be considered the main rules of rhetoric speechmaking, should never be concerned with adjusting the would-be deployed line of argumentation to be consistent with the targeted audience’s unconscious anxieties. Can you please confirm that I understood you right?

Aristotle: Yes, I can. I think that due to being reflective of the actual mechanics of how people address cognitive tasks, and of the fact that the number of these mechanics is spatially limited, it is indeed thoroughly possible to work out an all-encompassing theory of rhetoric, which would prove an asset to rhetors. I also believe that my stance, in this respect, is fully consistent with what I mentioned earlier – techne is best discussed in terms of an ‘ordered art,’ the main characteristics of which are: objectiveness (trustfulness), methodological adequacy and representational clarity.

Isocrates: I was expecting you to come up with a positive reply – to my delight, it exposes you as an individual who does not understand that the overall quality of just about any algorithmically functioning system, is something qualitatively different from what happens to be the sum of the qualities of this system’s individual elements. Let us take the city-polis of Athens, for example. As I used to point out in many of my public orations, throughout the course of this city’s history, there have been a number of instances when Athens’s reputation, as the most powerful polis-state on the Peloponnesian peninsula, stood in a striking contradiction with the fact that the majority of its citizens (at the time) accounted for degenerates.

The reason for this that while functioning in a highly systemic manner, the system’s elements (in our case – Athenian citizens) never cease interacting with each other. This, in turn, has a strong effect on this system, as the entity of its own: “The soul of a state is nothing else than its polity, having as much power over it as makes the mind over the body; for it is this which deliberates upon all questions, seeking to preserve what is good and to ward off what is disastrous; and it is this which of necessity assimilates to its own nature the laws” (Isocrates 113).

In light of this observation, your idea that the cognitive ways of a crowd can be deduced from what appears to be the cognitive predispositions of most of its members is not quite valid. After all, as I have shown earlier, there is a clearly defined phenomenological quality to what accounts for the relationship between a rhetor, on the one hand, and the audience members, on the other. Consequently, this prevents orators from being able to ensure the success of their publicly delivered speeches by the mean of adjusting the line of their rhetorical reasoning to be fully consistent with your techne-related theoretical insights.

Aristotle: Even though many of your suggestions sound reasonable enough, I cannot agree with the idea that rhetoric cannot be considered the legitimate subject of a rationale-based epistemological inquiry.

Isocrates: I never said that. I merely pointed out to the fact that your idea of techne presupposes that the theory of rhetoric transcends its historical context. This, however, cannot be the case, by definition. The reason for this is that, as time goes on, the subject matter of rhetoric remains in the state of a continual transformation, which in turn suggests that it cannot be properly addressed within the conceptual framework of your spatially inflexible theory of rhetoric.

Aristotle: In this case, maybe you could enlighten me on what techne is all about?

Isocrates: I will. However, allow me to highlight yet another deficiency of your theory – it claims to be universally applicable and irrespective of the affiliated circumstances, even though this cannot be possible, by definition. In order to prove the validity of my suggestion, in this respect, you should come up with a logos-based speech on the evils of drinking hard liquors in front of the crowd that consists of alcoholics. It will not take you too long to realize that your rhetorical effort to help these people to change their ways was in vain. The reason for this is that the rational workings of one’s psyche are fundamentally irrational, which in turn suggests that, before deciding to address a particular group of people, a speaker must assess what happens to be these people’s ‘quality.’ Moreover, he may never cease being aware of the spatially fluid (transformational) essence of this quality.

Aristotle: I am beginning to understand the conceptual premises of your view of techne. I would still appreciate if you provided me with your definition of the notion of techne, because as of right now, it is still not quite clear to me, as to what you mean by their term.

Isocrates: I sure can. Techne is, in essence, the measure of intellectual quick-mindedness, on the part of a rhetor. Its integral components are purpose, content, and style, with the latter being the most important of all. What it means is that the purpose of a rhetorical speech is always concrete. As such, it can only be occasionally concerned with the betterment of humanity as a whole.

Aristotle: Why do you assign so much importance to the issue of style? In my opinion, the stylistic finesse of any oration comes into being as a result of the rhetor’s decision to stick to my theoretical insights as to what rhetoric is all about. For as long as a particular speech features a rationale-based line of argumentation and is thoroughly comprehensible, it can be defined stylistically refined. The latter refers to the measure of the delivered oration’s semiotic clarity, which in turn is a thoroughly technical category. On Rhetoric, I outline a number of different methods of how a rhetor can go about ensuring the cognitive appeal of his speech.

The main of them has to do with the application of the so-called ‘dialectical’ approach to developing a rhetorical line of reasoning: “The first principle of lexis is to speak good… (that is) to use connective particles, when a speaker preserves the natural response between those that are prior and those that are posterior to each other” (Aristotle 1407a). This, of course, does not mean that I underestimate the role of the clearly emotional factors in the process. I fact, I have applied a great effort into promoting the idea that, when it comes to public speaking, a rhetor must be capable of attuning the emotional tone of his speech to be consistent with the emotional state of the would-be addressed audience.

Isocrates: I do not deny the fact that you understand perfectly well that one’s emotional state does affect that manner, in which the concerned individual perceives logos. However, I doubt whether it is fully justified to assume that the emotional intensity of a public speech is the matter of techne. One of the reasons for this is that, in my opinion, the foremost purpose of rhetoric is to serve the cause of social betterment. And, as practice shows, it is specifically the individuals capable of operating with abstract categories, who by virtue of being intelligent to have what it takes to be able to attain prominence within the society and to consequently find themselves being in the position to exercise much influence upon how this society actually functions. There is even more to it – one’s ability to indulge in the abstract philosophizing positively relates to the measure of this person’s ability to keep its animalistic urges well suppressed.

Thus, the lesser a particular individual appears to be affected by his ‘monkey from within’, the more likely it will be for him to appreciate the emotionally and dialectically neutral, but stylistically refined rhetoric appeals. This, of course, implies that the extent of a person’s effectiveness, as a rhetor, positively relates to his talent in appealing to this type of person. After all, it is they who exercise control over the society – regardless of what appears to be the technical format of the deployed form of governing. What it means is that a high-quality rhetorical speech is necessarily the intellectually advanced and stylistically witty one. Partially, this explains my affiliation with epideictic rhetoric.

Throughout the course of my life; I remained a firm believer that democracy is not merely the ‘rule of people,’ but the ‘rule of better people’: “And how, pray, could one find a democracy more stable or more just than this, which appointed the most capable men to have charge of its affairs but gave the people authority over their rulers?” (Isocrates 121). I hope that this will help you to understand my stance on the issue.

Aristotle: I am not sure whether you realize it or not, but your statement presupposes that people are not ‘cognitively equipped,’ in order to be able to make inquisitive inquiries and to use the obtained insights, as the mean of improving the quality of their lives. What kind of a social virtue can emerge out of your epistemic pessimism? Yet, while promoting what can be deemed as the form of ‘rhetoric defeatism,’ you claim to be driven by the consideration of a common good.

I think that this exposes you as a sophist, my friend. After all, just as it is the case with sophists, you tend to assess the value of a rhetorical oration, solely in regard to its ability to serve as the instrument of intellectual stimulation. I, on my part, do not prescribe to this point of view, because in my mind there are only a few doubts, as to the full objectiveness of historical progress, as such that is being made possible by one’s ability to understand the dialectical essence of the relationship between causes and effects. In its turn, this makes possible the conceptualization of the theory of rhetoric, as such that suggests the appropriateness of applying a fixed set of principles within the context of how a rhetor proceeds with striving to appeal to the audience.

Isocrates: I never considered myself a sophist. The reason for this is that, as opposed to what it is the case with sophists, I do not think that one’s rhetorical eloquence should be seen as something disjointed from this person’s quality, as the representative of humanity. That is – yes, I do believe that style is the ‘heart of oration.’ However, this does not mean that I idealize style, at the expense of depreciating the importance of other rhetorical elements.

Aristotle: What do you mean by the ‘heart of oration’?

Isocrates: I actually refer to the fact that, in order to be able to win the audience’s favor, a rhetor must be able to sense the so-called ‘poetic anxieties’ in people, and to turn its awareness, in this respect, into the instrument of rhetoric. Because it is in people’s nature to seek melodic and rhythmical subtleties in the surrounding reality’s emanations, it will only be natural for a rhetoric oration to be rhythmical and melodic, as well. This, of course, once again emphasizes the importance of ensuring the stylistic sounding of a publicly delivered speech, as the main precondition for this speech to have the anticipated effect on the audience. In its turn, this can be achieved by the mean of making an oration to have the properties of a song in the rhythmic and melodious senses of this word. The rationale behind this suggestion is that once implemented; this initiative will result in adjusting the would-be delivered oration to be consistent with the workings of one’s unconscious psyche. Apparently, the actual format of a speech is just as important as its content.

Aristotle: I think that your position, in this respect, is rather elitist and somewhat self-contradicting. I do agree with you that just about any rhetor strives to appeal to primarily the society’s most influential members. This, however, cannot be seen as an excuse for legitimizing the elitist outlook on rhetoric, as the instrument of entertainment. In other words, rhetoric is not really about allowing people to attain more knowledge about the surrounding reality. Rather, it is the tool of influencing opinions – the society’s upstanding members use it for ensuring the popular support of the proposed social and political initiatives, on their part. Whereas my conceptualization of techne is meant to help to promote knowledge throughout just about every social strata, your outlook on the notion in question implies that knowledge is the privilege of a few.

Isocrates: I think you misinterpreted the significance of my view on the role of rhetoric. One of the reasons for this is that, unlike what it happens to be the case with you, I believe that rhetoric (and consequently techne) should not be solely seen as the instrument of making this world a better place to live, but also as the facilitator of the orator’s own existential well-being. This suggestion is fully consistent with what I mentioned earlier – the rhetorical engagement between a rhetor, on the one hand, and the audience, on the other, results in affecting both. Yet, the measure of the audience’s cognitive compatibility with a particular line of rhetorical argumentation is hardly the subject of a rational inquiry.

After all, it does not represent any secret that, as practice shows, the audiences often do not allow a rhetor to open his mouth; simply because this person’s physical appearance did not resonate well with the would-be addressed listeners’ initial expectations of him. What it means is that, contrary to what you seem to believe, the purpose of rhetoric is not solely concerned with ‘enlightenment,’ but also with allowing people to experience the sensation of aesthetic pleasure. I believe that the latter makes it much more likely for them to be able to find a consensus on the debatable issue, as opposed to these people’s would-be exposure to the pisteis-based line of rhetoric reasoning.

Aristotle: Thus, it will be fully appropriate to suggest that, if anything, your outlook on techne and logos is rather socially irresponsible, because it denies the possibility for orators to act as the active agents of social change. This simply cannot be otherwise, because what you have mentioned up until this point, suggests that you do not believe in the objectiveness of the notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ upon which our value-based judgments are based. Will you be so kind as to confirm that this is indeed being the case?

Isocrates: You do have a talent for thinking in a straightforward manner, but sometimes it does not do you any good. Just like right now – you hypothesized that I do not perceive the mentioned notions as being thoroughly objective, while remaining arrogant, as to the fact that I am capable of providing you with two seeming incompatible and yet mutually supplementing answers to this question. That is, I do think that the semiotic signifiers ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are fully legitimate.

However, I disagree with the notions’ conceptualization, as such, that implies the de facto qualitative significance of the affiliated objects of reference. The reason for this is that the value-based referrals reflect a personal point of view of those who come up with them. In plain words – applying the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (as well as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) is the matter of one’s opinion. Yet, as we are well aware of, it is specifically one’s presumed ability to tell the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ which serves your theory as its discursive foundation.

Aristotle: While stating this, you have again proven yourself being a ‘secret sophist.’ What good may ever come out of admitting that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are simultaneously both: existent and non-existent? How can it possibly contribute toward the society’s overall betterment?

Isocrates: I will not be able to provide you with any definitive answer, in this respect – not the least, because I do not believe in the existence of this type of answer. However, it may suffice to say that the more the participants of a particular rhetorical discourse are aware of the qualitative ambivalence of just about everything, the higher would be their chances to choose in favor of a proper course of action, while dealing with one or another life-dilemma.

Aristotle: It is very unlikely for us to be able to reach an agreement on this. However, I do believe that our perspectives on the role of logos in rhetoric are somewhat similar. Is it not so?

Isocrates: I would not be so sure. The reason for this is that, within the conceptual framework of your theory, the notion of logos implies value-neutrality. For example, according to your theory, even though one’s decision to refuse to land money to another person (who happened to be in need) may be seen as ethically repugnant, this will not have much effect on the decision’s evaluation as having been thoroughly logical – especially if the needy person in question has had the history of not-returning debts. I; on the other hand, consider the notion of logos being synonymous with the notion of ‘virtue,’ which is why many of my orations imply that the appropriates of a particular course of action, cannot be discussed outside of what happened to be the moral character of those who decide in favor of undertaking it. As I have noted in the oration On the Peace: “Some have gone to such an extreme of folly as to hold the view that, while injustice is reprehensible, it is, nevertheless, profitable and advantageous in our lives day by day, and that, while justice is estimable, it is for all that disadvantageous and more capable of benefiting others than of helping those who practice it” (Isocrates 27).

I am sorry to say this, but you Aristotle can be referred to as one of these ‘fools’ – something that can be illustrated, in regards to the fact in the treatise On Rhetoric, you have suggested that testimony, obtained under torture, falls into the category of the ‘non-artistic’ (and therefore the most effective) means of rhetoric persuasion. Was it not you who said: “Tortures are a kind of testimony and seem to have credibility because some necessity [to speak] is involved” (Aristotle 1377a)? Therefore, our views on logos cannot be considered perfectly compatible – it is rather the other way around.

Aristotle: You do need to be given credit for defending your point of view rather convincingly. However, I still consider your approach to rhetoric; as such, that represents very little practical value. Moreover, it appears utterly misleading because the notion of ‘virtue’ is the natural subject of numerous interpretations. Therefore, even though I did benefit from having had this dialogue with you, I cannot confirm that it affected my view on the purpose of rhetoric in any significant way.

Isocrates: I feel similarly – even though I did learn what can be considered the hidden weaknesses of my outlook on the discussed subject matter, I still adhere to the idea that there can be nothing formalized about the artistic means of rhetoric persuasion.

Discussion and Conclusion

As it can be seen from the above-provided hypothetical dialogue between Aristotle and Isocrates, it was indeed rather unlikely for them to be able to agree on what should be considered the discursively sound conceptualization of rhetoric, in general, and on what the notions of techne and logos stand for, in particular. The reason for this is quite apparent – the concerned theoreticians of rhetoric differ rather substantially in their attitudes towards epistemology. Whereas Aristotle used to believe that the process of humanity remaining the path of progress was dialectically predetermined, Isocrates preferred to regard people’s ability to operate with the abstract categories of logic (the main driving force behind progress), as something that comes and goes – hence, the clearly defined phenomenological quality of his techne and logos-related insights.

As far as my personal opinion about the mentioned theoreticians of rhetoric is being concerned, I find Isocrates’ point of view more appealing than that of Aristotle. One of the reasons for this is that the approach of the former to ensuring the rhetorical soundness of a speech appears to be consistent with the realities of today’s living in the West. The logic behind this suggestion is that, unlike what it appears to be the case with Aristotle’s conceptualization of rhetoric, as the instrument of persuasion, the one of Isocrates implies that the actual objective of rhetoric practices is enlightenment.

Whereas, Aristotle’s model of techne and logos is based upon the euro-centric assumption that, regardless of what happened to be the specifics of their ethnocultural affiliation, people are equally predisposed towards the rationale-driven forms of cognition, Isocrates’ theory of rhetoric is concerned with exposing this assumption, as being utterly arrogant. Because of this, there can be only a few doubts that for as long as delivering an oration in front of the multicultural audience is being concerned; one would be much better off remaining observant of the provisions of Isocrates’ rhetorical paradigm. At the same time, however, this does not imply the lessened value of Aristotle’s stance on the subject matter in question – especially given the fact that his treatise On Rhetoric continues to be referred to in terms of a fully legitimate guide to the practical deployment of a variety of different rhetorical techniques. I believe that this conclusion correlates well with what can be deemed the provided dialogue’s discursive implications.

Works Cited

Aristotle. On Rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print

Isocrates. Areopagiticus. 2015. Web.

Isocrates. On the Peace. 2015. Web.

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