Summary of "Rhetoric" by Aristotle

by Scott Thompson
The philosopher Aristotle lived from 384 to 322 B.C.E.

The philosopher Aristotle lived from 384 to 322 B.C.E. Images

The art of persuasion is known as "rhetoric," and one of the most influential works on this topic was composed by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle believed that persuasive speech was composed of three elements: the character of the speaker himself, the logical argument presented by the speaker and the emotions of the audience.

The Uses of Rhetoric

Aristotle's "Rhetoric" describes three situations in which persuasive speech must be used. The first is in a courtroom, where the speaker is trying to convince a jury of the guilt or innocence of an accused person. The second is in politics, where the speaker is trying to convince voters to vote for one course of action or another. The third is ceremonial, where the speaker is describing a person's actions and trying to convince the audience to view them as either praiseworthy or blameworthy.


Aristotle uses the word "ethos" to mean a rhetorical appeal based on the perceived character of the speaker. If audience members perceive the speaker as a reliable person of good character and high intelligence, they will be naturally inclined to agree with what he says. The audience's perception of the speaker's character is reinforced by his apparent goodwill toward them and the impression that he has the best interests of his audience in mind. The audience's perception of the speaker's intelligence is reinforced when he reflects their own opinions back to them. We tend to perceive someone who shares our own opinions as intelligent and reliable.


Aristotle refers to the speaker's logical argument as the "logos." The logical argument is delivered through an "enthymeme," a formal logical proof or syllogism that the speaker deliberately leaves incomplete. When the speaker encourages the audience to draw the obvious conclusion and complete the proof, the audience members feel as if they have come to the conclusion on their own rather than being led to it by the speaker. The result is far more persuasive than a completed logical argument would have been because the audience feels that the speaker's conclusion is their own conclusion.


In Aristotle's "Rhetoric" the term "pathos" describes a rhetorical appeal based on the emotions of the audience. Aristotle classifies a range of emotional states by providing a definition for each emotion. The speaker's goal is to correctly understand the context in which a person would ordinarily be likely to experience a particular emotion. This will enable her to focus on the elements of the issue in question that are most likely to induce the emotional state she wishes to create in her audience. For example, by knowing that anger is usually experienced when we feel that a person has unjustly slighted us, the speaker can emphasize aspects of an issue that will be likely to make the audience feel that this has happened to them.

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