Bryn Mawr Classical Review 3.5.8


Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, newly translated with Introduction, Notes and Appendixes by George A. Kennedy. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Pp. xiii, 335. $24.95 (hb) and $9.95 (pb). ISBN 0-19-506487-9 and 0-19-50486-0.

Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, translated with an introduction and notes by H. C. Lawson-Tancred. London and New York: Penguin, 1991. Pp. xii, 291. $8.95. ISBN 0-14-044510-2.


Reviewed by Eugene Garver, St. John's University.

It has been sixty years since Aristotle's Rhetoric was last translated into English. Now, suddenly, we have two new translations. George Kennedy has, starting with The Art of Persuasion in Greece in 1963, been a leading expert on ancient rhetoric. I would guess that he would be on most people's short list of ideal translators of the Rhetoric. Hugh Lawson-Tancred, his publishers tell us, translated the de Anima for Penguin, and is studying for a Ph. D. at Birkbek College. Under such circumstances, a reviewer hopes to confound expectations by announcing that Lawson-Tancred has done the better job of translation. But that would be wrong.

Lawson-Tancred is unlucky. If it weren't for the simultaneous appearance of Kennedy's version, I would probably recommend Lawson-Tancred's over the competition. The translation itself is quite readable and fresh. Its sacrifices of accuracy and literal fidelity for readability seem on the whole defensible. He divides the Rhetoric into a new set of two sections, while retaining the traditional division of books and chapters. I like the idea of giving students the impression that the Rhetoric is a book to understand and use as best we can, and so the novel arrangement I think sets a good example. The translation itself is preceded by a sixty page Introduction, which discusses "The Importance of Ancient Rhetoric," "The Historical Background to the Rhetoric," a series of sections that provide an extensive overview of the Rhetoric, and a discussion of "The Rhetorical Legacy of Aristotle." Each chapter of the Rhetoric is preceded by the translator's own summary, a practice Kennedy also follows. (They also share the practice of giving Bekker page numbers, but no line numbers.)

Kennedy proceeds under a different, equally defensible, understanding of the job of the translator. He sometimes leaves key Greek terms untranslated, and often supplies the Greek in parentheses after his English equivalents. His introductory material is very brief: in nine pages he covers "Aristotle's Life and Works," and "Rhetoric Before Aristotle." "Aristotle's View of Rhetoric" gets a single page, and then he gives a ten page chapter by chapter outline of the Rhetoric. The body of the translation includes around 700 footnotes (Lawson-Tancred has endnotes), and Kennedy then offers a series of supplementary "texts." He presents Gorgias' Helen, Nicomachean Ethics 6.4, Topics 1.1-3, Poetics 21, "Cicero's Description of Aristotle's Synagoge Tekhnon," and two pages on "The Concept of the Enthymeme as Understood in the Modern Period." These are followed by three "Supplementary Essays" on the composition of the Rhetoric, the history of the text, and (in three pages) the strengths and weaknesses of the Rhetoric. He ends with a glossary of terms, and a list of works cited. Kennedy's interpretive material contains reliable and useful information, and he seems to avoid any risky interpretations. The edition's strength is in providing a context for the Rhetoric. Its weakness is in not giving an extensive picture of the Rhetoric itself. The student (or teacher) who needs an overall presentation of the Rhetoric apart from the text itself will not find one here.

Lawson-Tancred's interpretive material has two major flaws, and Kennedy's looks good by comparison on both counts. Lawson-Tancred sees himself in a position quickly and easily to judge Aristotle's successes and failures as the book proceeds. I opened the book at random to his introductory synopsis to II.2, and was informed that "it is quite apparent that Aristotle is more motivated in this Section by the general fascination that human nature had for him than by a concern to cover all aspects of rhetorical practice" (142). Kennedy too thinks he knows when Aristotle gets off the subject, but is a bit more circumspect about it. In his introduction to the same chapter, he says: "These famous chapters on the emotions ... seem to have originated in some other context and have been only partially adapted to the specific needs of speaker" (122). I am less confident than they that I know better than Aristotle when he is getting off the point. They agree that Aristotle's main fault is an attraction to philosophical questions that interfere with his practical advice. Since the relation of philosophy to rhetorical practice is, according to them and me, a central concern in the Rhetoric, one could hope that commentators would be more hesitant about imposing their own views of philosophy, rhetoric and their interrelations on the text. It is difficult to hit the mean between regarding the Rhetoric as revealed wisdom that should be worshipped, not questioned, and regarding it as a student paper to be graded. Both translators err, when they do, on the latter side, and help their readers out by keeping them informed about how well Aristotle is doing. But Kennedy is far more modest in his judgments of Aristotle.

The second trouble with Lawson-Tancred's presentation comes from his ambitious and confident exposition of what the Rhetoric means, its initial context, and its later fortuna. All these are fair subjects for speculation. I think, though, that he often loses sight of how far ahead of the evidence he is running, while Kennedy's claims are careful and qualified. So the same difference I find in the presentation of the text itself reappears here. Kennedy's discussion of "The History of the Text After Aristotle" reveals the few times when the Rhetoric was an important subject of discussion, and explains why it had so little influence over most of the history of rhetoric. His summary ends: "Although the Rhetoric was much read in the later Renaissance and although important scholarship on the text and the fine commentary of E. M. Cope appeared in the nineteenth century, real appreciation of the significance of the treatise is a phenomenon of twentieth-century interest in speech communciation and critical theory" (308-9).

Lawson-Tancred, by contrast, acts as though he has to defend Aristotle and prove how important the Rhetoric is. It is as if someone on the Penguin board of editors raised questions about whether the Rhetoric was worth the investment. His argument for its importance is one of his sillier moments. "Platonic obsessiveness had driven into different camps" philosophy and rhetoric, moral philosophy and "the psychological and social sciences." For the reintegration of these two "a very large measure of the credit must go to the present work, a judgment of which we can be the more confident for the fact that it seems to have been universally accepted by the later tradition of rhetorical exposition, for whom the Rhetoric was little short of a Bible" (57). (Lawson-Tancred does supply "evidence" in an endnote here. He quotes Quintilian's fulsome encomium, and then notes that Quintilian was praising other works of Aristotle, which we have lost. He then justifies ignoring that qualification by saying that the Rhetoric was obviously the most important work to Quintilian.) It gets worse. "The debt of Aristotle's posterity to this work" was profound. Evidence? Cicero and Quinilitan were influential, and they were in turn influenced by Aristotle. Q. E. D. "Cicero, it is true, is writing at a time when the works of Aristotle may have been only recently rediscovered, and he may not have known the Rhetoric at first hand...." (57). Quintilian, he continues, "makes frequent reference to, and use of, Aristotelian ideas and arguments" (58). But the note to this claim undercuts it severely. It reads, in its entirety, "Notably in his treatment of metaphor and simile in Book VIII" (268). Not only, according to Lawson-Tancred, is Aristotle's discussion of style "hopelessly muddled" (35), but metaphor and simile are clearly quite subsidiary aspects of rhetoric for Aristotle. To hang Aristotle's future influence on such a thread is like arguing that Ronald Reagan had an important impact on American politics because from his time male politicians often wore brown suits.

Lawson-Tancred seems to think he has to justify the publication of a translation of the Rhetoric. Kennedy acts as though the work can speak for itself. His interpretative material, therefore, is informative rather than argumentative. Obviously I prefer that strategy, at least in these hands, but I do wonder at the fact that Kennedy presents no overall picture of the Rhetoric. My own study of the Rhetoric has been concentrating on integrating the work with the rest of Aristotle's corpus, and so I occasionally wonder what the Rhetoric would look like if I didn't know it to be, or didn't think of it as, a work of Aristotle's. Kennedy's translation seems to me to come pretty close to that. It shows what the Rhetoric looks like if regarded as written at the same time as Aristotle was writing those other things, but with only intermittent contact between the author of the Rhetoric and the fellow who was writing the rest. Maybe I should just be grateful that he's left that job for someone else.