Aristotle’s Rhetoric

 Posted by on 17 June 2006 at 8:05 pm  Aristotle
Jun 172006

A few months ago, I listened to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. (It’s available from, packaged with his Poetics and Topics.) Although I’ve read it before, it has been some years. The work contains a great deal of interest beyond the narrow topic suggested by the title. For example, it includes some helpful discussion of voluntary action in relation to luck, a topic on which I’ve written some and expect to write more. And here’s a little gem:

We shall learn the qualities of governments in the same way as we learn the qualities of individuals, since they are revealed in their deliberate acts of choice; and these are determined by the end that inspires them.

Ah, how simply put! We can infer the desired ends of a person based upon the actions he chooses over time, precisely because those actions aim at those desired ends. And a person’s desired ends reveals much about his character. In determining the goals which motivate a person, actions speak much louder than words.

So a Marxist professor may claim as loudly as he likes that he’s deeply concerned for the plight of the world’s poor, but his persistent advocacy of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” responsible for killing, starving, and torturing hundreds of millions of people tells us much, much more about his actual desires — and his character. Or an self-described Objectivist organization may claim to promote Ayn Rand’s philosophy, yet offer the originators of unjust and dishonest attacks upon her person and philosophy platforms upon which to do even more damage. Although they claim to be promoting “open and honest discussion of ideas” amongst “honest individuals” so that “truth win[s] out in the end,” their refusal to even read The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics speaks volumes.

In all of these cases, and so many others, the person’s actions tell us so much more his goals and his character than do his empty words.

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