Historical Rhetorics/The Big Aristotle/Jacob, Bernard E. "What if Aristotle Took Sophists Seriously? New Readings in Aristotle's ''Rhetoric''."

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  • Jacob asks his readers for a more generous reading of Aristotle: noting that many Greek philosophers and rhetoricians wrote against the sophists (including Isocrates, seemingly the chief sophist), Jacob suggests that Aristotle and Plato “at least some of the time, reflected an understanding and respect for the work of the sophists and rhetors similar to the one now emerging” (237).
  • Jacob examines, for example, Aristotle’s treatment of Protagoras: Jacob suggests that, though many readings of Aristotle suggest that this passage is meant as a condemnation of Protagoras’ rhetorical practices, this passage could instead be read as “an approval of their use and of deception in general in rhetorical speech” (239). Jacob then draws on his previous work to suggest that Aristotle’s reflections on Socrates act as a connection (as opposed to a contrast) between Socrates and Protagoras.
  • Jacob’s extended discussion of Corax, normal, and abnormal seeks to underscore the ways in which Aristotle’s denunciation of rhetoric is inherently rhetorical and, quite possibly, meant to be ironic: “In this reading of our passage from Aristotle, Protagoras is quoted, I believe, with a delicate and wickedly effective irony” and as an attempt to present multiple voices that challenge the reader (243).
  • Even the polemics, according to Jacob’s reading are “in fact, ironic in intention” (244). Jacob notes with some interest the hyperbolic and emotional nature of the polemics and suggests that a deeper reading of these passages suggests “that Aristotle does not intend the arguments about law seriously. If he does not, then there is, in the polemics, a voice that is not Aristotle's, since Aristotle does teach that ethos and pathos have an integral role to play in rhetoric and are artful proofs within rhetoric” (246).
  • Jacob concludes that these two examples (Aristotle’s attention to the relationship between Socrates and Protagoras and the hyperbolic nature of the polemics) suggest that Aristotle’s On Rhetoric should be read a least semi-ironically, especially insofar as “speech relies on ethos and pathos even when the speaker denies that it is doing so” (250).


What If Aristotle Took Sophists Seriously? New Readings in Aristotle’s Rhetoric Bernard E. Jacob Rhetoric Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring, 1996), pp. 237 – 252


In his article, Jacobs posits an alternative reading of Aristotle that portrays him as sympathetic to the sophist rhetorical methodology, eventually justifying the use of fallacy in argument. Jacobs begins his article by arguing that the shift in focus that readers pick up on in Aristotle’s Rhetoric from the first book to the rest of the work (hyper logos, to more ethos/pathos) is intentional, and that Aristotle’s uses the change in tone as a rhetorical device upon his readers with the intention of more effectively plying them with emotional arguments later in the piece. He argues that “it would be very strange if a Socratic like Aristotle should be incapable of irony, that is, distortion in a good cause.” So, while he still holds that Aristotle would require the cause to be ethical (and perhaps I use that word loosely…), the methods one employs need not be held to the same standard so long as they serve the ultimate goal of good. Jacobs develops his argument along the lines that “ the core of dialectic… is coeval with the discovery of the fallacies that make the fireworks of sophistry possible.” Essentially, the two (dialectic and fallacy) develop together because they are useful together Jacobs notes that, while the legalistic rhetoric that Aristotle calls for in book I relies heavily on ‘what is likely,’ Aristotle is also aware that that very logic that allows for discussion of the likeliness requires the acceptance of unlikely occurrence, essentially opening the doors for the use of fallacy that he quietly supports in the rest of the work. While the argument that Jacobs puts forth is playful, it is also compelling. Essentially, his claim is that Aristotle uses the first chapter in book I to arouse audience emotion by stirring them up with a call to hyper-legalilstic rationality. Much like a magician might use sleight of hand to mislead an audience that the final reveal will work impressively, Aristotle’s priming of the audience with logo-centric arguments opens the door for a more effective use of ethos and pathos for the rest of his work. This which allows him to advocate a practical application of fallacy beyond pisteis. Rather than just being able to see what could be persuasive, Jacobs argues that Aristotle is advocating their use, as well.