Aristotle begins his Art of Rhetoric How do we reason in general about what is possible, probable, not necessary; he approaches rhetoric not as a determinate science, not as a particular domain of knowledge and judgment, but as a domain of knowledge and judgment that, determined by any number of situations, is nonetheless not determined by a set of knowledge claims (though it may often become entangled or enriched by them).Even if there is often probabilistic reasoning about a determinate science, there are grounds that are more general, grounds of probabilistic reasoning that are common to all, fundamental.
My experience of the text has been second-hand, and mostly, I think, second-hand smoke: the text is casually reduced to a very fine manual for persuasive speaking, which it is explicitly not (Aristotle tells us, early on, that it is intended to allow us to assess probabilistic reasoning, not to dupe people). Moreover, I regret not having realized it to be the third piece in a sort of sub-section of his thinking, along with the Ethics and Politics.
Reading it now, I’ve been helped by Sebastian Rodl, whose recent Self-Consciousness and Objectivity provides an inspiring account of Aristotle’s aims, approach, and achievement; it is, among all else, a lesson in how to read The Philosopher.
In a particularly crucial passage, in a standard translation by W. Rhys Roberts, Aristotle sets out the subject matter of the study: matters of probability, which is to say matters that are not necessary, but that admit of possibly being, or having been, or going to be, otherwise. What range of matters is that? It is itself the range of matters over which people have some sense that they have some choice in how they act or in what they believe, which is to say a range of matters in which people can deliberate.
“Clearly counsel can only be given on matters about which people deliberate; matters, namely, that ultimately depend on ourselves, and which we have it in our power to set going”: it is the capacity to deliberate on these matters that suggests they are in our power, being in our power means being able to deliberate over whether we act or believe; it means to bring our actions and beliefs into the realm of self-consciousness.
Matters that people have it in their power to set going are matters that admit of their being able to consciously hold that they act in a particular way to achieve an end. That end, inexhaustible and infinite, Aristotle calls “the good.” We do not need to specify the “good,” and Aristotle tells us that it is happiness or flourishing, which does not do much to add substance to the concept, but which does help bring home that it pertains to a natural form of human excellence which people can hold in their minds. To be act self-consciously is to act with the concept of a good, and beneath that, with “the good,” in mind. When people deliberate how to act, they are in effect deliberating over what is good, and deliberating over different goods; probabilistic reasoning involves comparing different notions of the good, assessing them to see which is more good than another. Rhetoric will not determine what in any given situation is the good; that will, more often than not, Aristotle knows, depend on specific knowledge, or “science.” But deliberation about different bodies of knowledge and matters of science will rest upon the probabilistic reasoning that Aristotle describes; and, here is the crucial political point, since most of us are not able to learn enough of various sciences to understand the specifics of those deliberations, we would do well to acquaint ourselves with the underlying, highly general forms that probabilistic reasoning will take, in order to at least assess those.
Rhetoric is an essential capacity because it makes political participation possible; because it is the study of the capacity to communicate across sciences, domains of specific knowledge claims that depend on training and that some might not understand. But more than that, rhetoric is itself the lifeblood of politics in so far as it is a description of what actions might be best in a polis, by a polis, etc.
The breadth and scope of the work become apparent in the third section; I was inspired to take notice by the unimaginatively sneering tone that the editor and translator of the Penguin Classics translation adopts when introducing it. It is characteristic of the commentary that sets people on the wrong tracks when reading Aristotle:
“Aristotle outlines the three genres of rhetoric and suggests rather artificially that their number is a logical necessity. The most junior of the three by some margin is certainly display oratory, whose inclusion here may also be an innovation for a rhetorical treatise. The activity had been steadily rising in importance during the fourth century BC largely because of the school of Isocrates. In any case, it receives far less attention in this work than do political and forensic speaking. The primary purpose of the present chapter is to bring out the characteristic subject-matter of each of the genres, which it is necessary to understand in order to be able to invent the appropriate special topics for the enthymemes to be deployed in each genre of oratory. It is this that justifies the rather over-schematic flavor of the chapter.”
“Rather artificially” is foolishly patronizing, and “in order to be able to invent the appropriate special topics” makes Aristotle seem like a hack; “over-schematic flavor of the chapter” betrays the translator’s smugly dandified approach to Aristotle’s thought.
What Aristotle says in this section is much more interesting, and turns on his announcement that the three-fold division corresponds to a three-fold temporality: past, present, and future. Probabilistic reasoning in each is concerned with a different order. Past actions are reasoned under the order of justice; present under the order of honor; future under the order of expedience or utility. The “good” is involved in each, but differently.
In reasoning over the future, we reason over what will result in the greatest good, most directly. In reasoning over the present, we reason over what ought to be praised as honorable, as being that which is good. In reasoning over the past, we reason over whether a person’s actions were deliberate, motivated by a reasoning of what he or she perceived as a good, and thereby thought pleasurable. In all three cases, we are deliberating over claims for the good, either assessing different goods in the future, deciding whether something ought to be considered good and praised now, or understanding why and how a person in the past understood something to be good, and whether they did so consciously, lawfully, for reasons that are good.
The future state is an examination of what is useful, so it examines potential ends and their various causes; it is a comparison of different goods. The past state examines ends that have been set, and that have been inspired actions that might be unjust or just; but from the perspective of the agent, all such acts are pleasant, and so that perspective must be born in mind; what pleasure was derived from acting in such a way and why was pleasure derived from acting in such a way? Aristotle both reminds us that what a person considers pleasurable will also be considered good, but suggests also that they might be reasoning poorly, or that they might not be acting ethically (they might not be acting deliberately at all), and so violating the laws; more significantly, he suggests that they might be judged unjust not only according to the laws of a city, but according to natural laws, which suggests that some greater ethical standards might be formulated.
But Aristotle, characteristically, does not provide an account of what those greater ethical standards might be. He is not interested in those standards, but in their conditions of possibility, and so he provides an account of what excellence in ethical reasoning must involve:
it is excellence in the terms of probabilistic reasoning that he discusses here, which generalize to all humanity, and which are the sorts of claims about the good in relation to possible actions that excellence in virtue depends upon. Virtue for Aristotle is habitual, but it is also conscious; it is to act with the concept of virtue in mind; in determinate forms, it would be to act with the judgment of what is good and what is not good, but also what is more good and what is less good, in a particular situation.
It is to understand the expedience, normative force, and justice of what is good: to be able to assess one’s actions perhaps from all three temporal standpoints, projecting ahead, viewing oneself as an object worthy of praise or not worthy of praise, and also imagining a retrospective account of oneself. Excellence in probabilistic reasoning is excellence in ethical reasoning because it is excellence in discerning claims for what is good.
Aristotle tells us that no universal ethical standard is possible when he tells us that rhetoric, like syllogistic reasoning, admits of contrary views, which must be assessed against one another, rather than against an external measuring stick. It may be that we require more knowledge, but knowledge will not on itself provide us with the skill and excellence required to deliberate over possible goods; only an understanding of the nature of deliberation itself, and practice in deliberation, can do so.
Presented as an instruction manual or guide, it might be that the instruction Aristotle seeks to provide is in the capacity for probabilistic reasoning to take no determinate shape, but to be aware of itself as probabilistic, not to claim certainty or absolutes, and not to presume ethical deliberation is possible in isolation from politics (there is no dismissal of a debate as “merely” political here). Probabilistic reasoning is common, as is syllogistic or logical reasoning. “All men,” Aristotle writes in the first paragraph, “make use of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others.” But to do so with excellence, is not to just happen to do so, just as to act virtuously is not to happen to do the right thing: “Ordinary people do this either at random or through practice and from acquired habit.” “Acquired habit” is the training that allows people to deliberate with deliberation in mind; to bear in mind what they are doing when they deliberate over what to do, what should be done, what others have done: holding in comparison probabilities about what is good in the context of a shared political life.