writers of court speeches of his time he called sophists, obviously in the negative sense.
The noun “rhetoric” as a label for the sophists’ skill appears for the first time in our sources in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, where the famous sophist declares that all he teaches is the ability to speak persuasively. But then Socrates denounces rhetoric as a pseudo-craft, aiming only at the pleasure of the audience. A serious rhetoric, he says later, would be able to teach the truth and aim at the moral improvement of the listeners. The same ideal of a philosophical rhetoric, together with the condemnation of the existing versions, is set out in more detail in Plato’s Phaedrus. So it might have seemed strange that Aristotle, as a member of Plato’s school, should turn to the teaching of rhetoric. Perhaps to explain this move, an ancient anecdote, reported by Cicero (De or. 3.35.141) and Quintilian (Inst. 3.1.14), tells us that Aristotle, seeing the great number of distinguished students going to Isocrates’ school, parodied a line from Euripides and said, “A shame to stay silent and let Isocrates speak.”
It is not likely that Aristotle envied Isocrates for his many students. Isocrates had founded his school to make a living; his students would pay a fee and stay for a year or two with him. The Academy, by contrast, was at least as much a place of common research, in the sciences as well as in philosophy, and its members did not have to rely on fees. But unlike Plato, Aristotle accepted the importance of rhetoric in the political life of the Athenian democracy. He had made a collection (now lost) of existing manuals, and found them wanting. As he puts it, these teachers would give their students model speeches or parts of speeches to memorize and then use them to compose
their own, acting like shoemakers who present their apprentices with finished pairs of shoes instead of instructions (Soph. el. 34, 184a1–6). Aristotle rightly thought that he could do better by providing a systematic method for all kinds of speechmaking, thus offering a useful tool to students of politics and writers of trial speeches.
His Rhetoric opens with a programmatic statement: “Rhetoric is a counterpart of dialectic”—similar but not identical with the art of arguing for and against any given thesis. Not long before, Aristotle had written the first manual of dialectic, as he proudly says at the end of his Topics. Both dialectic and rhetoric are not sciences that have a specific subject matter; they provide methods that can be used in almost any field and are thus tools for philosophers and politicians, respectively. Aristotle goes on to criticize the rhetoricians of his time, mostly writers of trial speeches, for neglecting precisely the arguments about the case at hand that ought to be at the core of any attempt to support an accusation or a defense. He then sets out his own conception of rhetoric and its uses: public audiences, whether in the courts or in political assemblies, usually consist mainly of simple people with little or no education. Such people cannot be persuaded by precise scientific teaching that is beyond their grasp; so rhetoric must start from plausible opinions that the listeners may already hold to convince them of the truth. The objection that rhetoric can also be misused could be raised equally about many other good things, such as strength, wealth, or power. And given that language is what makes humans superior to all other animals, one ought to be ashamed if one could not defend oneself by words, especially if one has the truth on one’s side—no doubt an allusion to Plato’s