lauantai 26. tammikuuta 2013

How to do things with words

The highest point in practical investigations for Aristotle was investigating the final end of all human endeavours  that is, happiness of individuals and communities. The final aim of such investigation was action for the sake of action, but usually activities aim at producing something. Because the end of these actions is something else than the action itself, a science investigating such an action will be lower in status than the science investigating happiness. Thus, we get a third class of sciences, which Aristotle calls poetic.

Now, the easiest examples of such productive activities are perhaps handicrafts: we do not pay for a tailor to continue his activities indefinitely, but to make clothes for us. Aristotle, like any good Greek gentleman, in all likelihood felt that such menial activities are beneath him and thus worthy of no interest. Still, he did study some productive activities, that is, those to do with language.

In one sense we have already seen Aristotle tackle one such productive science, namely, in his methodological writings: after all, the point of scientific method is not the method itself, but its result or science. Even more clear example is provided by rhetoric or the investigation of how to make eloquent and convincing speeches.

Rhetoric shares some features with scientific methodology and even more with debating on scientific and philosophic matters. Yet, the aim of rhetoric is not to find truth, but to convince others that something is true. Hence, a speaker must do something more than just spin out intricate proofs. The speaker must, for instance, make the impression that she is a reliable and trustworthy character. In order to do so, she must know what sort of characters e.g. persons of different age or of different social status have.

In addition to showing a good front to her audience, the speaker must also use some proofs. Yet, the proofs of a speaker must be less intricate than full scientific proofs. Thus, a speaker often leaves some of the assumptions of her proofs implicit, so that she will not appear a bore repeating self-evident matters. Furthermore, a speaker must often rely on mere probabilities and leave the search of certainty for philosophers. Finally, a speaker cannot usually go through all possible individual cases, if she wants to justify some general proposition, but she must be satisfied with few paradigmatic examples.

Mere knowledge of argument forms is not enough to set up a proof, and speaker must therefore be acquainted with a variety of topics, depending on what she is speaking of. Speeches were used in Aristotle's time for convincing citizens of a community to decide on future actions in certain manner. Thus, a speaker should know politics: she should understand what a community and its citizens are striving for, how different communities work and how to achieve desired ends. She should also have clear understanding of what is possible and what is not.

Speeches could also be used to praise or damn persons either living or dead. Because a speaker should already have the ability to make her own character to look good, she should have no trouble convincing people that a character of someone else is good or bad. Furthermore, she should be able to augment or diminish the worth of things and persons, whatever the case requires.

A third use of speeches beyond planning for the future and praising of present persons is convincing court officials that a certain event has or has not happened in the past, e.g. that someone has committed a crime. Thus, speakers should know a thing or two about motives of human beings, especially as it comes to unjust actions, and also be acquainted with the laws in question. In addition, some basic knowledge of how to establish past events is required.

In addition to proving things through their own speech, especially in courts the speakers can have sometimes recourse to other sort of evidence. One example are witnesses, but a good speaker must also know when to use witnesses, how to make them look reliable and how to discredit witnesses of the opponent.

A speaker should not just know human character and modes of reasoning, but also human passions: that is, how certain emotions arise and what are they targeted at. Thus, she should be able to, for instance, make people pity a person and thus look at him in favourable light, or on the contrary, envy and therefore despise him.

The core of a speech should consist of the justification of the statement to be defended. In addition to this, usually just the statement itself is necessary, Aristotle thinks. At least one does not need a long prologue just to awaken the interest of the listener – usually the listener is most apprehensive in the beginning, while the attention starts to lag only after a while. The end of the speech might require a recapitulation of the main points, if the justification has been long.

Aristotle also considers the style in which the speech should be made. He is somewhat reluctant to speak of the topic, because style is something extraneous to the matter to be discussed. Still, the speaker must know stylistic issues, because these affect the listeners. Even so, complex and too poetic style should be avoided, as it just makes listeners confused.

If rhetoric is just hindered by too ornate language, a second productive science studied by Aristotle or poetic thrives in metaphors. Poetry is one species of activities characterized by the desire to capture natural and social life in presentations – nowadays we would speak of arts. Such arts use many different media, Aristotle notes: for instance, some use musical instruments, others painting. The medium specific for poetry is language, which imitates events of real social life through words.

Now, poetry itself falls into different categories. On the one hand, we can differentiate types of poetry or literature through objects they imitate: some of them describe lives of noble persons, such as legendary heroes, while others describe lives of commoners and even rabble – Aristotle was apparently used to seeing such characters only in comedies. On the other hand, we can differentiate types according to the literary strategies used in them. In this respect tragedies as dramatic texts are closer to comedies than to epics, which described heroes as well as Greek tragedies.

While Plato had disparaged poets and denied letting them in his ideal society, Aristotle had a more positive idea of poetry. As pieces of art poetic texts were meant to imitate, but even imitations may have beneficial results. Indeed, poetic works produced emotions of sympathy and thus purified human mind from all repressed feelings.

Aristotle is interested not just to describe poetic works, but also to find some rules how to make better literature and especially dramas. His answer is that one should concentrate on the most important element of dramas or the plot – all other elements, such as character building are subservient to the plot, and especially means for the actual theatrical production of a play are completely superfluous in comparison. Because of the importance of the plot, the play should be small enough so that the spectator couldn't forget all the intricacies of the events. Thus, good dramas should concentrate on one problematic and not use many plot strands, unlike epics which allowed for a more variety.

The role of dramas and especially tragedies was to purge emotions by showing events of tragic nature, which then aroused feelings of pity toward the characters in play. Aristotle noted that misfortunes of bad persons do not arouse pity, because the spectator feels that bad person deserves bad luck. Indeed, seeing bad persons get lucky is also not tragic, but an outrage. Furthermore, when an incomparably good person faces misfortune, we are bound to feel horrified instead of pitying him. It is then only misfortunes of persons like or slightly more better than us, caused by mistakes that we ourselves could have also made, which cause most pity and thus form the most suitable topic of tragedies.

Aristotle also considered the problem whether tragedies were of more value than epics. He admitted that the theatrical form of tragedies appeared to hinder the true enjoyment of their literary qualities. Yet, this is more of a question of bad stagecraft, which concentrates on more spectacular aspects of theater. Even tragedies merely as read fare better than epics, Aristotle contested, because they could unravel and analyse one incident more completely than epic, which had to use many different plot strands to keep the reader awake. Thus, tragedies as a whole, as pieces of literature and combined with stagecraft, are much more dignified than epics.

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