Persuasion: Greek Rhetoric in Action

By Ian Worthington | Go to book overview
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Rhetorical means of persuasion

Christopher Carey

In the Rhetoric (1356a) Aristotle distinguishes three means of persuasion (pisteis) which can be produced by the rhetorician’s art. The term used, pistis, though frequently translated ‘proof, is broader in its semantic range than the English word would suggest. Its use encompasses the related qualities of trust, trustworthiness, credence and credibility, and extends to objects and means used to secure trust or belief. This breadth of usage explains the disparate contents of Aristotle’s list, and his inclusion of items which have no bearing on factual proof; he lists argument (as Aristotle puts it, ‘to demonstrate something or appear to demonstrate’), the character of the speaker, and the disposition created in the hearer. Aristotle considers the first of these to be the the proper task of rhetoric, the other two being additional effects necessitated by the nature of the audience. Certainly this item is different in kind from the others in that demonstration by argument addresses itself more or less directly to the issue to be decided, while the other two pisteis listed have only an indirect bearing at most on the issue. These indirect ‘proofs’ do however play a major role in Attic oratory, and accordingly Aristotle feels compelled to accept and advise on their use. In this chapter I shall examine the range of effects sought by their deployment in the Attic orators, and the means used.


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Pathos is defined broadly by Aristotle (Rhetoric 1356a, 1377b) as ‘creating a certain disposition in the audience’. Aristotle was not the first rhetorician to stress the importance of pathos. Emotional appeal formed a major component of the rhetorical handbooks

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