Book Review (Book 2) – Rhetoric by Aristotle

This is a continuation of the books I challenged myself to read to help my career - one a month, for year. You can read my first book review here. The book I chose for July 2011 was Rhetoric, by Aristotle. You can read it here for free:

Why I chose this Book:

I read this long ago, but I would like to re-read it to learn how to more clearly formulate my arguments and help my writing skills to improve. This book is the foundation for arguing a point - which we all do, or at least need to do, every day. Arguing does not imply an adversarial relationship; it merely means you’re trying to persuade someone to see your point of view.

What I learned:

Even though this work is thousands of years old - boggles the mind to think of what has occurred in that time - people are largely still the same. During this work Aristotle talks about everything from psychological motivations for good and bad to politics and power. And it seems his observations are still dead-on. What that taught me is that people deep down have very common descriptors, even across cultures. Knowing those motivators gives you an “edge” in a discussion. If you know someone’s position in war, a game, or in a negotiation, you have a powerful tool to help them understand your position, potentially getting what you want.

This all sounds rather manipulative, but it isn’t. Aristotle starts out by stating that your own motives and positions need to be evaluated before you even attempt the argument to ensure you’re on solid footing. And he states that your argument should be to change behavior for the better, not for evil. He even defines what those things mean.

It’s all done in a very syllogistic (logical argument, A+B=C kind of thing) fashion, which is very direct if not a little too black and white. And of course he is a bit chauvinistic in places and some of the examples are not easily translated - but if you can overlook those things you can learn to be a better communicator, whether that is at a 1-1 level or speaking to large crowds. A very recommended read.

Raw Notes:

I take notes as I read, calling that process “reading with a pencil”. I find that when I do that I pay attention better, and record some things that I need to know later. I’ll take these notes, categorize them into a OneNote notebook that I synchronize in my account, and that way I can search them from anywhere. I can even read them on the web, since the has a OneNote program built in. Note that these are the raw notes, so they might not make a lot of sense out of context - I include them here so you can watch my though process.

(There are actually three books in this one work, but I’ve only posted the notes from Book 1 here)
1. An interesting read overall – but I think it deals mostly with the speaker, and not enough with the medium and methods to influence the receiver. It does, however, explain the motivations of the listeners, so you can form your own way of dealing with this.
2. I often read about the book before I read the book – (How to Read a Book - definitely check this one out)
3. Considered a series of notes by his students more than a purpose-written book
4. Reading it because it is considered the foundation of persuasion, one of the many goals of communication
5. In fact, persuasion is touted as the only goal of debate.
6. Learned more about enthymemes, which are aimed more at persuasion than demonstration.
7. Beginning was a definition of terms – very nice. (Book 1)
8. In defining an argument, “non-essentials” should not be allowed. This avoids many logical fallacies.
9. Wow – he prescribes that the law should be carefully defined, and not left to judges to interpret. Objectivity is the goal, and is not entirely possible with human beings.
10. The discussion of judges at the fore seems to indicate that the argument’s decider is the most important decision. Good take-away.
11. Reading with a good dictionary is essential. Do not skip over any part of a word you do not understand.
12.  He teaches that speakers are the representative of truth – if truth does not prevail, it is the fault of the speaker.
13. Not everyone learns in the same way, so studying rhetoric is a way of obtaining multiple ways of teaching.
14.  You must understand both sides of an argument in order to fully argue your position.
15.  Great good, and harm, can come of skill in speaking than in skill at arms.
16.  Medicine is not just to make you healthy again, it can also be used to make you as well as possible.
17.  Three influencers of persuasion: personality, audience preparation, and proofs.
18. There are many divisions of topics into numeric orders – I do this a great deal as well. Not sure of the meaning of that, if any.
19. Reading classical works is interesting – the breakdown of sentences is like a syllogism itself.
20. Amazing – in chapter four, he details the effects of political speech, and even details some of our current systems by name, such as “Ways and Means” and “National Defense”.
21. Chapter four deals with political knowledge required to argue effectively, but this can be extended to all facets of life. Basically he says “know yourself, know your enemy, know your environment.” Sage advice indeed, and far too often ignored by the dim lights we continuously put into office.
22. Chapter five says that happiness is “prosperity with virtue” – and further defines it as “independence”. Amazing how much of that we are willing to give away.
23. Definitely some elitism espoused.
24. Chapter 6 deals with what is "good", or "right". This is a foundation for arguing a position, since your argument is easily lost if it is not deemed within the realm of "rightness". Aristotle seems to base what is good on what is found in nature, although it is interesting that fairness, which most consider good, is not a natural construct.
25. In Chapter 7 Aristotle makes good use of building logical arguments, classically using syllogisms to do so, as you might expect
26. In Chapter 8, Aristotle continues the theme that the more knowledge you have, the better your arguments will be. In fact, it seems to follow that perhaps you will settle your own internal arguments as you learn more, and perhaps not need to argue a particular point at all.
27. He states that the impetus of most arguments is no impetus at all - that is, most of the time the primary goal is the continuation of the established order.
28. He explains the various forms of government to complete Chapter 8.
29. Chapter 9 begins with a discussion on how to be empathetic in your arguments, that is, to make the other person agree with your point, so that it is as much their idea as yours.
30. To accomplish this goal, Aristotle feels that your argument should be noble and virtuous, and explains what both of these means. In essence, he states their meaning is the most good for the most people.
31. He also states the passive form of the Golden rule, as well as the Active form.
32. Wow – he gets a bit chauvinistic in this chapter, stating that a man’s actions will be more noble than a woman’s!
33. Part of getting the agreement of point of view is to basically flatter or call out the good in another person.
34. Chapter Ten covers figuring out more about those that do “wrong”, and in true philosophic fashion, he defines the term wrong first.
35. He states that we do “wrong” based on the nature of our character. That is, whatever your character weakness is, the wrongdoing will be exposed along that fault line. So it follows that knowing someone’s character can aid you in arguing with them.
36. Character, then, leads to predictive analysis. He has not discussed the danger of this type of activity.
37. It is quite interesting to evaluate my own actions based on some of the “motivators” Aristotle puts forth in this chapter. Knowing yourself – however uncomfortable a process that might be – is also key to winning your argument.
38. Chapter 11 covers a range of human emotions and a very Epicurean view, but I do like this quote: “Where there is competition, there is victory.” Sums up the human condition quite nicely. We have to compete, it is our nature. Shying away from it will not help.
39.  Chapter 12 deals with the ways that people try to avoid punishment for their actions, especially the wealthy and politically connected. Not much has changed, it seems. ?
40.  He also explores the darker side of rhetoric, and how some use it to avert judgment.
41. In chapter 13 he explains the differences between specific law, written down, and “universal law”, which he deems to be inherent. This is not a reasonable position, in my mind. Each person interprets that differently.
42. Chapter 14 deals with the results based on acting on these laws, both justly and unjustly.
43. Chapter 15 explains other means of persuasion, including contacts, promises and even torture. An interesting take on convincing folks to see things your way, and once again, quite timely! Seems in 2000 years of human history, we have not learned a great deal.

Comments (1)
  1. Fazal Rahman says:

    Thank you sir, for sharing this precious knowledge with us… now if you have book review of their other parts (Rhetoric by Aristotle book 2 and 3) so plz share with us….

    and thank you again sir.

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