Aristotle on the Passions

Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a book about Persuasion. Contrary to popular opinion, the Rhetoric is not a manual for how to “win an argument” regardless of truth or untruth. Instead it is a philosophical treatise, perhaps even collected notes on Aristotle’s speeches about rhetoric. The text brings to light the nature of persuasion; how it may be used or misused.

In general, someone is deemed a trustworthy speaker is they display: “judgment, virtue, and goodwill” (1378a 9). Now, a speaker must also be a student of human passions -the “sources of change” on account of which people differ in their judgments which are accompanied by “pain and pleasure.” The imagination is key to understanding the passions (which is influenced by speeches, habituation, age, station, and so on).. Aristotle discusses the various passions in detail in Book II, chapters 2-11.

First Anger: a desire, accompanied by pain, for revenge against one’s pride (i.e. belittling). Pleasure follows the feeling of pain once vengeance is exacted. People attain pleasure when achieving desires. This is why joy on the underside is a life-affirming perspective. Imagined pleasure is akin to a dream. One is successful when presenting speeches appealing to this passion that accuse opponents of injustice. The opposite of anger is calmness, which breeds a feeling of “leniency.” People are lenient toward kind and humble people, not mockers, not belittlers, not people they fear nor are on a similar or higher station in life. People are successful against people who are angry, by painting angry people as imbalanced, immoderate, fearful, shameful and so on.

Liking someone (even love) is a desire for goodness for another person. Hostile feelings and hatred are the opposites. One is successful with hostility or hatred by showing that other people are not truly friends.

Fear is an imagined painful agitation of impending evil or destruction. Confidence is the opposite, when there is little to feared in the way of enemies or danger.

Shame is a painful agitation at one’s own bad deeds, such taking advantage of the helpless or poor. If one does not respect certain people and then commits a bad deed in front of them, shame does not come.

Charitable feelings incline people to help those in need.

Pity is different from charity. It is imagined pain felt on behalf of someone who does not deserve it. Pity is enhanced by feelings of suffering, and it is driven out by a feeling of horror.

Righteous indignation is the opposite of pity, a feeling of undeserved prosperity. It is different from envy, which takes pleasure out of the downfall of others. Envy is pain at knowing or imagining others success. The feeling of emulation is a positive inversion of envy, primarily because they are pained for want of the good things possessed by others. It is characteristic of the young, or those who have lost a certain prosperity. The opposite is contempt.

This discussion of the passions is concluded and then followed by a discussion of age, or which passions, by nature, come naturally to each age group: young, middle-aged, and old. The idea is that if someone has a particular truth claim, the speaker may appeal to the passions for clarity and persuasive effort. In the same way that the Socratic maxim is “know thyself,” it might be said that the Aristotelian maxim in the Rhetoric is “know thy audience.”

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

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