Epideictic Rhetoric

Posted: December 29, 2009 in Uncategorized
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So I’m trying to get a better understanding of epideictic rhetoric. My adviser holds the opinion that the way Aristotle presents this type of rhetoric basically dooms it to obscurity, that his example is wrong for what this rhetoric really is and what it’s used for.

My job is to prove him wrong. To construct an argument such that Aristotle’s example, the funeral oration, is the perfect example of how epideictic rhetoric is meant to be used.

Trouble is, I think he’s right. But a good rhetorician can argue either side, and make the weaker argument seem stronger, as the sophists would say. (Though I should note that making the weaker argument seem stronger does not mean that it seems like the stronger argument; just that it is stronger than it was. Basically, I take this particular point of contention in rhetorical history as suggesting that good rhetoric gives the opposition the benefit of the doubt. Ed Schiappa writes a lot of great stuff about the fragment of Protagorus this is all based on.)

Anyway, Aristotle. I’m looking here at On Rhetoric, the Kennedy translation,so all quotes will be from there.When talking about epideictic, Aristotle writes that “in epideictic, the present is the most important; for all speakers praise and blame in regard to existing qualities, but they often also make use of other things, both reminding [the audience] of the past and projecting the course of the future” (1.3.4). This tells us that epideictic is about the present, though it slips into both the future and the past. This is a point of contention I find whenever trying to explain that the three species of rhetoric are each focused on a certain time period (deliberative for the future, epideictic for the present, forensic for the past). But the point here, as I understand it, is that epideictic is about the present. The arguments made about the present may focus on other time periods, but we’re talking about praising and blaming in the now. I don’t think this is all that complicated, and the quote seems to sum it up pretty nicely. So let’s move on.

Shortly thereafter, Aristotle writes that “those who praise or blame do not consider whether someone has done actions that are advantageous or harmful [to himself] but often they include it even as a source of praise that he did what was honorable without regard to the cost to himself” (1.3.6). This says, to me, that we can and should give praise and blame to actions not based on their selfish motivations, but rather on the result as a whole. That is, motivation doesn’t matter, only results matter. So it doesn’t matter WHY someone did something, it only matters that the thing was done. An honorable act is always honorable, no matter why it’s done. This seems to help focus on the present. After all, motivations come before actions, so they’re more concerned with the past. But we care about the action, not the reason, so we’re focused on the present.

So far, it seems like we’re pointing pretty clearly towards a funeral oration. We’re talking about what kind of person someone is, based on the past sometimes, but primarily focused on the present. We’re looking at what has been done in order to inspire people to do things in the future, and we care about the actions, not the reasons; we’re talking about what someone does, not why.

When we talk about what counts as praise worthy, Aristotle reminds us that “virtue is defined as an ability for doing good, [and] the greatest virtues are necessarily those most useful to others” (1.9.5). So the reason we would want to engage in epideictic rhetoric is to point out those virtues that are most useful to others. Again, we’re pointing towards funeral orations.

Praise [epianos] is speech that makes clear the great virtue [of the subject being praised]” (1.9.33). At the very least, this suggests that one use of epideictic rhetoric is to make clear that someone has (or had, I suppose) virtue; the funeral oration. This might be the crux of the argument, a far more important quote than I originally thought. The value of such a speech is to point out the virtue to others, so they have something to identify with, something to aspire to. If we also look at the suggestion to “Consider also the audience before whom the praise [is spoken]; for, as Socrates used to say, it is not difficult to praise Athenians in Athens” (1.9.30), then it looks like Aristotle is suggesting that one of the points of epideictic rhetoric is to join those hearing about it together as a group, a community. This might explain how Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca came to this idea in New Rhetoric. Of course, if that’s right, it means that NR actually is just an extension of Aristotle, and not something wholly new. Which might be just the evidence I’m looking for.

If I’m right, then not only is the funeral oration the appropriate example of epideictic rhetoric, but the point of epideictic is to bring the audience together into a communion (Perelman’s term) by pointing to things that everyone in the audience can identify with and agree about.

I don’t like it, but I’m not sure I can defeat this new argument. Which might serve as a problem. I guess I could say that even if this is what was intended, Perelman expanded the idea and created something truly new. But I don’t know if that’ll hold water.

  1. Interesting blog post. You are the first person I have seen to speak of epideictic rhetoric in the blogosphere, though I admit that I have not looked very much.

    Based on my understanding of epideictic as far as Aristotle is concerned, the funeral eulogy is the prime example of epideictic rhetoric because it is focused on the present and praises the virtues and actions of the person. While I have not read Perelman or Olbrechts-Tyteca, it was my understanding of epideictic rhetoric to reiterate that which the community already accepted to be true, which is why no proof is necessary. Aristotle did state that the statement of facts are amplified in such a way that the amplification itself functions as its proof (Rhetoric III.xvii.3). However, I don’t know of anything in Aristotle’s Rhetoric that would indicate the purpose of epideictic rhetoric is to bring the audience into a communion. Epideictic did indeed point to things that the audience already accepted to be true, but is there anything in his Rhetoric that would indicate Aristotle thought it was done to bring them together? I don’t recall.

  2. cogitas says:

    Aristotle did not suggest that rhetoric brought communion. That idea pretty much comes from Perelmen and Olbrechts-Tyteca.

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