Tuesday, July 10, 2007


A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest
--Paul Simon

Oh, you're a voyeur, the worst kind of thief
--Sheryl Crow

Talk with me like lovers do
--Annie Lennox

In this post, I'm aiming to do two things:

1. to consider who scholars say Aristotle's audience is for his

2. to reconsider our notion of targeted audience (recognizing this notion as simply an arrogant academic aim).

Let me just try to tantalize you into continuing to read what I'm writing here. Let me add quickly ( parenthetically) that you are my audience. So are they. You might say that I'm aiming at you and them. There's nothing you or I can do about it or them. Stop reading if you must. Jesus Christ's disciples put it this way: ος εχει ωτα ακουειν ακουετω. υμων δε μακαριοι οι οφθαλμοι οτι βλεπουσιν και τα ωτα [υμων] οτι ακουουσιν. (You and I and most any educated English and Greek reader now can notice how they used Hellenistic writing to tell us his Hebraic speech to them and us). But we digress, don't we?


Rhetorician George Alexander Kennedy says this: "Modern audiences for On Rhetoric fall roughly into four main groups, with considerable overlapping and many individual differences of opinion" (19). He says this in a little essay, "Aristotle's Original Audience and His Audience Today," in the Introduction of the second edition of Kennedy's translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric. (So I say to you, my reader, that Kennedy points his translation and this commentary of his at some of us: "modern readers" and "modern students" [xi]. And he dedicates his writing "To My Grandson, Alexander Kennedy Morton, The Original Rhetoric for a Later Alexander" [v]. He wants some of us, and his grandson, to read. Surely, he and the editors and textbook sales people of Oxford University Press, Inc., also aim for quite a few of us to buy this second edition of his translation. A few rhetoric professors are targets too. This is the added cost, if the rhetorical benefits, of higher education. But we digress again, don't we?)

"Modern audiences for On Rhetoric " are audiences for Aristotle's work, and for Kennedy's. Kennedy says these "modern readers" are

(1) "the classical philologists, specialists in Greek language, literature, and culture . . . who tend to pounce on the inconsistencies in the text and thus resist viewing it as a unity";

(2) "the philosophers, largely scholars who study and teach ancient philosophy . . . skilled dialecticians, [who] are good at what they do and can easily overwhelm the average reader with their subtlety and learning, sometimes at the expense of distorting what Aristotle actually says";

(3) "teachers of English composition and speech communication, whose primary interest is in the rhetorical theory found in the work . . . [who] are understandably inclined to use it as the basis of developing a comprehensive system of rhetoric, following out the implications of the text or imaging [sic] what Aristotle ought to have said but didn't";

(4) "the literary scholars and critics. . . [whose] interest in the Rhetoric is largely confined to the third book, where Aristotle's theory of metaphor is of special interest . . . in conjunction with the Poetics" (19-20).

(Now, don't we wonder where the "modern student" is in this list of "modern audiences"? And don't we wonder why Kennedy accuses philologists of "pouncing" and "resisting"? Shouldn't we ask whether he's avoided "easily overwhelming the average reader," the very thing he attacks philosophers for doing in their "distorting"? Can we wonder how teachers of English composition and speech communication are more "understandably inclined" to do what they do, and how it is that Kennedy more understands them? Finally, doesn't it seem Kennedy thinks literary scholars and critics are a bit narrow in their "largely confined" and "special" interests? But we seem to be digressing again, don't we?)

Kennedy also reviews the "resumption of the ongoing scholarly discussion about the audience for which On Rhetoric was composed." He says that Carol Poster says that Aristotle writes

for the student trained in dialectic who needs, particularly for self-defense or defense of Platonic-Aristotlelian philosophy, to sway an ignorant or corrupt audience or to understand the functioning of rhetoric within the badly ordered state. The techniques described are dangerous, potentially harmful to both the speaker and audience, and ought not be revealed to the general readership of Aristotle's dialogues, but only taught within the controlled environment of Aristotle's school, as part of the esoteric corpus of Platonic-Aristotelian teaching. (244) (17)

(Kennedy concedes that what he excerpts from Poster is from her "prize-winning article." So, don't you wonder who gave her the prize? Was it philologists, philosophers, teachers of English composition and speech communication, or literary scholars and critics? Is Poster one of these? And doesn't what she says make Aristotle more of a defensive specialist philosopher whose academic specialty trumps a social phenomenon he calls, "rhetoric," a "dangerous, potentially harmful [thing] to both the speaker and the audience"? So doesn't Poster seem to think that Aristotle uses his Rhetoric to fight against rhetoric? Indeed, Poster's article is entitled "Aristotle's Rhetoric Against Rhetoric." But does Poster claim that Aristotle uses rhetoric in the Rhetoric? And doesn't she use it in her article? Just so we know, Kennedy, in his review of the first edition of his translation, slams philosophers for neglecting the rhetoric in all of Aristotle's writings, even the purely philosophic stuff. But, once again, aren't we digressing?)

Kennedy seems to like better than Poster's article the long essay by Edward W. Clayton. Clayton reviews all the possible original audiences of Aristotle's Rhetoric, "including the legislator of an ideal city, the Athenian public, the students in his philosophical school, or different audiences in different parts of the work, written at different times" (17). Kennedy says that Clayton "concludes that the students in his school are the most likely audience, agreeing in this with Poster, though without her emphasis on moral urgency" (17).

(Now, shall we together, my targeted readers, get round to the real, second, point?)


Let's suppose that Aristotle aimed his Rhetoric at a specific audience. How would we know today, unless the likes of Carol Poster, Edward W. Clayton, and George A. Kennedy tell us? Have they targeted us? Are they really any different from what Poster says Aristotle was? Are they not academic specialists who are defending the boundaries of their specific interests to those of us paying our interest, our time, our journal subscriptions, and our tuition to be their special audience?

Now let's imagine something else. What if none of Kennedy's "modern audiences" of Aristotle's Rhetoric will ever know, really, who his "original audience" for the text was? Or what if it is always everybody?

What if we got over our idealistic (shall we call it Platonic?) quest for the "original" and the precisely "targeted" listener and reader? What if we took a second look at how our English language and our American academic culture tends to reinforce artificial and elitist boundaries? Are the connotations of the following phrases positive or negative, bridge building or wall constructing?

whispering through the fence,
reading someone else's mail,
spying over someone's shoulder,
invading someone's privacy,
imaginary friendship,

Now, how different do you think, really, these terrible things are from what "modern audiences" do with Aristotle's Rhetoric? Are we readers and translators and teachers and students of what Aristotle wrote not reading something we insist is written for, aimed at, someone else and not ourselves? Did we pay Aristotle for his work?

Or could Aristotle really care? And if he does, would he be bothered? I think now of four things: Four things Jesus said (that his disciples wrote down); four things literary critic George Steiner wrote; and four things business scholar Robert E. Quinn wrote. Then, I'll end this long post with something C.S. Lewis wrote about audience, and something Aristotle wrote along the same lines, hoping that you'll stay with me here, my reader.

Jesus said we might as well compare a speaker or writer to an inefficient seed sower. Some seed falls by the wayside, other in shallow rocky sunbleached soil, other in choking weeds, and other in good soil. That's four isn't it? The minority goes where aimed; the majorities fly elsewhere. (If you get common Hellenistic writing, like the involuntary laugher gets the inside joke, then enjoy this:
ος εχει ωτα ακουειν ακουετω. υμων δε μακαριοι οι οφθαλμοι οτι βλεπουσιν και τα ωτα [υμων] οτι ακουουσιν. Or read a good translation of the parable Mark recorded in chapter 4).

George Steiner wrote of four difficulties a reader has reading a poem-writer's poem. (Steiner wrote of this in "On Difficulty" in On Difficulty). Note these four: "epiphenomenal" or "contingency" difficulties, "tactical," "modal," and "ontological" difficulities. I'll let you find the article (or someone's commentary reading of it) and read it for yourself. But, would you see my point here. The author and the poem can hardly get around the fact of multiple possible readings, if difficulties of four kinds.

Robert E. Quinn wrote a book, Change the World: How Ordinary Individuals Achieve Extraordinary Results. Therein, he reviews the business, change-agent strategies and finds four: telling, forcing, negotiating, and self-transforming. You could take what Quinn has written, line it up with what Steiner has written, and stack that up with what Jesus's disciples' recorded of his parable telling. What we see are different kinds of readings, and hearings, suggesting different kinds of readers and audiences. And the writer speaker is always at their mercy.

C. S. Lewis wrote a book, Reflections on the Psalms. Therein, he has a chapter he entitles, "Second Meanings." In the chapter, he writes of a Greek slave boy speaking an important message, of Virgil writing a prophecy, and of Plato writing an ideal. All of them are and can be "misunderstood." That is, the boy and the two writers have "second meanings," meanings they never intended for audiences they never targeted. Plato, Lewis imagines, might concede that his ideal person of whom he's writing actually must also refer to another who comes after them all.

Lewis, in writing his book, takes the position of professional literary scholar. But his first readers knew also his reputation as an atheist turned theist turned Christian. Lewis writes the book, then, as a Christian assessing the Jewish Psalms. He reads Christian (second) meanings (of love mainly) into the psalm-writer's psalms. But Lewis writes as a non-specialist, as an eavesdropper if you will, but one who is interested in love:

This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. If an excuse is needed (and perhaps it is) for writing such a book, my excuse would be something like this. It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought me by pupils, I have sometimes after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.

In this book, then, I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained, when reading the Psalms, with the hope that this might at any rate interest, and sometimes even help, other inexpert readers. I am “comparing notes”, not presuming to instruct. (1-2).

So now, shall we listen in on Aristotle? He's writing to someone isn't he? (See the Rhetoric, Book III, Chapter 7, verse 11 in translation if you like). He's talking like a lover does, with a specific interest in another's hearing, in another's interest in what he's saying to them. Could it be only his students who he's writing to? Is he acknowledging us? Won't he? Won't he acknowledge, and isn't he acknowledging, that audiences ("us") are a tricky lot? Won't we?

τὰ δὲ ὀνόματα τὰ διπλα̂ καὶ [τὰ] ἐπίθετα πλείω καὶ τὰ ξένα μάλιστα ἁρμόττει λέγοντι παθητικω̂ς: συγγνώμη γὰρ ὀργιζομένῳ κακὸν φάναι οὐρανόμηκες*, ἢ πελώριον εἰπει̂ν, καὶ ὅταν ἔχῃ* ἤδη τοὺς ἀκροατὰς καὶ ποιήσῃ ἐνθουσιάσαι ἢ ἐπαίνοις (15) ἢ ψόγοις ἢ ὀργῃ̂ ἢ φιλίᾳ, οἱ̂ον καὶ ̓Ισοκράτης ποιει̂ ἐν τῳ̂ Πανηγυρικῳ̂ ἐπὶ τέλειφήμην δὲ καὶ μνήμηνκαὶοἵτινες ἔτλησαν”: φθέγγονται γὰρ τὰ τοιαυ̂τα ἐνθουσιάζοντες, ὥστε καὶ ἀποδέχονται δηλονότι ὁμοίως ἔχοντες. διὸ καὶ τῃ̂ ποιήσει ἥρμοσεν: ἔνθεον γὰρ ἡ ποίησις. ἢ δὴ οὕτως δει̂, ἢ (20) μετ' εἰρωνείας, ὥσπερ Γοργίας ἐποίει καὶ τὰ ἐν τῳ̂ Φαίδρῳ.

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