Aristotle, Rhetoric, and Knowledge

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How does Aristotle define/understand rhetoric?

Aristotle’s view of rhetoric can be defined as the way in which the art of persuasion can be studied and logically applied to oration in any field that deals with probabilities. Aristotle pairs the arts of rhetoric and dialectic very closely. He literally states, “Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic” (Aristotle, n.d./2001, p. 179). In this sense, rhetoric is defined as public speaking while dialectic can be viewed as the art of logical discussion (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001, p. 179). He desires for orators to treat public speaking in a more logical manner. He sees rhetoric as a practical means through which the orator can logically persuade audiences in all sorts of subject matters. Rhetoric is a rare art form in the sense that a rhetorician must be well versed subjects other than rhetoric in order to be a successful rhetorician. Essentially, a speaker cannot argue on the subject of rhetoric, as rhetoric is the tool through which one persuades an audience on another matter.

He also believes that rhetoric has been given too much responsibility in various subject matters and it has become like a science rather than a tool for reasoning in specific fields. Rhetoric, in Aristotle’s opinion, is not a field of study, but, rather, a practical way in which an orator can persuasively discuss other subject matters, due to the fact that these subjects are not absolute truths, but, rather, composed of probabilities. He argues that rhetoric should only be applied to subjects where absolute truth is not possible. One cannot try to persuade, as the sophists did, a certain mindset if it has absolute, true knowledge backing it up.

There are points of agreement and disagreement on rhetoric between Plato and Aristotle. What epistemological views does each hold and how does this explain parts of the agreement/disagreement?

From Plato’s writings, one may assume that Plato believes knowledge to be absolute. It is something that a person may know and not merely believe in. Knowledge cannot be disputed. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates and Gorgias’ discussion focuses, for a time, on the ideas of knowledge and belief and what their differences are. They conclude that “…rhetoric, it seems, is a producer of persuasion for belief, not for instruction in the matter of right and wrong” (Plato, n.d./2001, p. 92). This narrowed understanding of rhetoric’s applicability then narrows Plato’s view of knowledge and what it can be used for. He does not believe that knowledge has a role in persuasion. Belief deals with probabilities, not facts, whereas knowledge is known and not something to be persuaded for or against.

It does not seem as though Plato has a specific method through which to attain knowledge; rather, knowledge is something that is more built-in to understanding. Knowledge is known without a shadow of a doubt. Therefore, through living and experiencing life, one may gain knowledge of the world and its surroundings. Knowledge is not something that rhetoric can assist in cultivating, from Plato’s viewpoint. To him, fact differs from opinion in the same sense that knowledge differs from belief. Fact corresponds to knowledge in that it is indisputable. Opinion corresponds to belief in that Plato believes that one is capable of having a wrong opinion: “…I consider that a man cannot suffer any evil so great as a false opinion on the subjects of our actual argument” (Plato, n.d./2001, p. 94). Therefore, the difference between fact and opinion is that no amount of persuasion or training in rhetoric can change fact; however, the same such training is perfectly capable of changing the opinion of a person, as these areas of argument are up for debate due to probabilities.

Aristotle agrees with Plato in saying that knowledge is absolute truth (Bizzell and Herzberg, 2001, p. 170). To Aristotle, knowledge can only be understood through scientific demonstration and logical analysis of formal logic (Bizzell and Herzberg, 2001, p. 170). This essentially means that knowledge is fact and can only be shown, through demonstration, to be true. One cannot argue for the truth of knowledge, as there is no other alternative to absolute truth. Aristotle and Plato’s views, again, are very similar in this aspect in that knowledge can be understood as absolute while everything else that deals with probability cannot be defined as knowledge. As Aristotle states, “A Probability is a thing that usually happens; not, however, as some definitions would suggest, anything whatever that usually happens, but only if it belongs to the class of the ‘contingent’ or ‘variable’” (Aristotle, n.d./2001, p. 183). Therefore, the subjects that rhetoric deals with cannot be classified as knowledge, no matter how hard a rhetorician may try.

When it comes to attainting knowledge, Plato and Aristotle’s beliefs diverge. While Plato believes in transcendent knowledge, Aristotle focused on the idea of obtaining such knowledge through empirical means. Aristotle claims that “…men have a sufficient natural instinct for what is true and usually do arrive at the truth” (Aristotle, n.d./2001, p. 180). However, finding this truth requires trial and error. While Aristotle does believe that knowledge comes from truth and that truth is instinctual, he also believes that there are certain ways in which a man may get better at finding the truth. He believes in the use of syllogism, or as he calls it enthymeme, which is essentially deductive reasoning. Truth and knowledge can be found through enthymeme and the use of probability as well (Aristotle, n.d./2001, p. 183). Through deductive reasoning, he believes that a man may find absolute truth. However, persuasion does not lead to this knowledge, rather it attempts to sway a man’s thoughts to favor an opinion, rather than a fact. Again, in regard to fact and opinion, Plato and Aristotle hold very similar views. Fact is truth and indisputable. Opinion can be swayed, as seen above, through enthymeme.

Why is Aristotle’s claim of rhetoric as an art so important to understanding his treatise [his work/writing on the subject] through a biblical worldview?

Aristotle is very set in the idea that rhetoric is an art, which means that it can be practiced and learned and refined and there are better and lesser ways to do it. I think that his view of rhetoric as an art is important because it validates his entire treatise. Most of Rhetoric is spent discussing the ways in which arguments can be made more persuasive or more beneficial or why certain aspects of a speech should be a certain way. He spends a lot of time discussing the importance of a speaker having a good reputation before speaking. He states, “…the orator must not only try to make the argument of his speech demonstrative and worthy of belief; he must also make his own character look right and put his hearers, who are to decide, into the right frame of mind” (Aristotle, n.d./2001, p. 213). Aristotle finds it important to be a good person when it comes to trying to persuade people. I think that this idea of Aristotle’s has some weight in regard to someone who is claiming to be a Christian. We, as Christians, must also strive for excellence when it comes to walking in our faith and spreading the good news of the Gospel. As Aristotle states, when speaking of the sophists, “What makes a man a ‘sophist’ is not his faculty, but his moral purpose” (Aristotle, n.d./2001, p. 181). Essentially, good rhetoricians are not looking to win an argument. Rhetoric is about honesty and desiring for the best argument to win. This is reminiscent of what Christians should desire. We must do a self-analysis before going out into the world and trying to bring people to Christ. We have to figure out what our purpose in evangelizing is before stepping into the world. It cannot be selfish, like the sophists. They wanted only to persuade people to believe in their side of the argument. However, like Aristotle believed, we must not be so quick to think that our way is the only right way. Yes, we have certain aspects of our faith that are absolutely true. Due to human error, it feels impossible to know anything for certain, but that is where faith (something more than mere belief) comes into play. Aristotle was adamant that rhetoric should be used to learn the views of both sides of the argument:

We must be able to employ persuasion…on opposite sides of a question, not in order that we may in practice employ it in both ways (for we must not make people believe what is wrong), but in order that we may see clearly what the facts are, and that, if another man argues unfairly, we on our part may be able to confute him. (Aristotle, n.d./2001, pp. 180-181)

Aristotle lingers on the idea that rhetoric is an art and a tool to be used in persuasion, and I believe that this idea carries into the biblical worldview. His pursuit of excellence in rhetoric should motivate Christians to use the same sorts of admirable argumentation styles when defending their faith.

Lastly, my question for the readings on Aristotle is simply what are your thoughts on the idea of absolute truth? Do you agree with the idea that knowledge is absolute truth and that this is transcendent and cannot really be attained through any human means or do you think that there are tools and ways in which we can further gain knowledge? Where is the line between knowledge and belief, or can we even know that?


Aristotle. (n.d.) Rhetoric. In P. Bizzell & B. Herzberg (Eds.), The rhetorical tradition: Readings from classical times to the present (2nd ed., p. 179-240). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Bizzell, P., & Herzberg, B. (2001). Aristotle. In P. Bizzell & B. Herzberg (Eds.), The rhetorical tradition: Readings from classical times to the present (2nd ed., p. 169-170).

Bizzell, P., & Herzberg, B. (2001). Plato: Gorgias. In P. Bizzell & B. Herzberg (Eds.), The rhetorical tradition: Readings from classical times to the present (2nd ed., p. 82-84).

Plato. (n.d.) Gorgias: On rhetoric; reputative. In P. Bizzell & B. Herzberg (Eds.), The rhetorical tradition: Readings from classical times to the present (2nd ed., p. 87-138). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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