BMCR 2023.01.37

Aristotle. Art of rhetoric

, Aristotle. Art of rhetoric. Oxford world's classics. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. lxxiv, 201. ISBN 9780198724254

Aristotle’s Rhetoric continues to be a cornerstone in Classics, Rhetoric, and Communication Studies to this day. It is arguably a key example of an ancient text that still serves its intended purpose in the modern world. Yet while several translations into English were published at the beginning of the 20th century, it was not until the 1990s and beyond that the text picked up momentum again with translations into English by Kennedy (1991), Lawson-Tancred (1991), Reeve (2018), and the present volume.[1]

Robin Waterfield is a familiar name to any student or scholar who has purchased translations of Ancient Greek texts from Oxford World’s Classics. His recent output includes Demosthenes: Selected Speeches (2014); Plutarch: Hellenistic Lives and Diodorus of Sicily: The Library, Books 16-20 (2016); and Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Successors (2019), all produced from his small olive farm in the Peloponnese.[2] Waterfield’s translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a welcome translation of a challenging text, although its timing was somewhat unfortunate since C. D. C. Reeve’s translation for Hackett was published only a few months later. This seems to have become a tradition in translations of the Rhetoric, with the translations of Kennedy and Lawson-Tancred published almost simultaneously in 1991.[3]

First established in 1901, the Oxford World’s Classics series publishes editions of well-loved literary works for the non-specialist public and students to enjoy. In their own words, they intend to bring readers “closer to the world’s great literature”.[4] These editions are known for including thorough introductions, explanatory notes, and bibliographies containing the latest scholarship. The present volume is no exception and boasts an introduction, a translator’s note, a ‘select’ bibliography, explanatory notes, and textual notes.

The introduction by Harvey Yunis is systematic and detailed, yet it is also accessible to readers who are new to the Rhetoric. Yunis’ introduction is divided into five parts. The first deals with approaches to the text and discusses the historical and literary background under which Aristotle flourished. The second summarises the fundamental ideas of the Rhetoric, namely the three genres of speech (deliberative, forensic, and epideictic) and the three rhetorical appeals (logos, pathos, and ethos). Yunis also includes a useful explanation of rhetorical topics, a concept he admits Aristotle does not explain (xxxix). The third part details the transmission of the Aristotelian corpus and discusses some of the discrepancies in the text. The fourth gives an account of Aristotle’s life from Stagira to Chalcis which, although engaging, makes some rather sweeping statements about the nature of the polis in the Hellenistic Period (lxi). The fifth and final part of the introduction is a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the text which is presented clearly. Anybody approaching the Rhetoric for the first time, or a reader who wants to brush up on their knowledge of Greek history, will not come away empty handed from Yunis’ introduction.

As a result of Yunis’ thorough introduction, the ‘select bibliography’ is modestly titled and runs for six pages (lxix-lxxiv). Among its entries are several non-Anglophone works, as well as textual editions of the Rhetoric and works on specific aspects of rhetorical theory and the Aristotelian species of oratory. Helpfully, the bibliography opens by highlighting some its entries and states which of them are (to name a few) general surveys, critical essays, and commentaries. To a student unfamiliar with rhetoric and/or daunted by extensive bibliographies, this selection will be reassuring. The bibliography is then followed by a translator’s note by Waterfield (lxvii), in which he states that his translation is based on the edition of Kassel (De Gruyter, 1976). The translator’s note also acts as a general preface in which Waterfield gives thanks to Yunis and stresses that the work should be seen as a joint effort.

Before discussing Waterfield’s rendering of the Rhetoric into English, I want to make some remarks about the layout of the text. Experiences probably vary, but Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a text that I find myself dipping in and out of, rather than one that I read cover to cover. The present volume is probably intended for those who would opt for the latter. Waterfield’s text runs in continuous and uninterrupted prose, in contrast to previous translations such as that of Kennedy and Lawson-Tancred, which have tended to break down the individual chapters and preface each of them with a short summary. Waterfield’s approach certainly gives the reader a more authentic experience in reading the Rhetoric, and the lack of chapter introductions/summaries is compensated by Yunis’ excellent introduction. On the other hand, for readers who often find themselves picking up a volume of the Rhetoric to find a particular reference or passage, Waterfield’s structure is less helpful.

In general, Waterfield’s translation reads clearly, and each clause flows into the next, which is welcome considering how dry (and often convoluted) Aristotle’s syntax can be. Waterfield’s Aristotle is even colloquial in places, and he renders several phrases into somewhat colourful English idiom. For instance, at 1367b4-7 when Aristotle is discussing amplification as a characteristic of epideictic oratory, Waterfield translates:

“That is, if a man tends to run unnecessary risks, people think him far more likely to run risks in a noble cause, and if he tends to be open-handed with every Tom, Dick, and Harry, people think him far more likely to be so with friends. I am assuming here that doing good indiscriminately is an excess of virtue.”

Compare with that of Kennedy:

“… for if a person meets danger unnecessarily, he would be much more likely to do so where the danger is honourable, and if he is generous to those he meets, all the more to his friends; for to do good to everyone is overdoing virtue.”

And that of Lawson-Tancred:

“For if someone takes risks when there is no need, all the more will he do so when it is noble, and if someone is generous to people at random, all the more will he be so to his friends – for it is an excess of virtue to do well at all.”

This is a key aspect in which Waterfield’s Aristotle differs from his predecessors – that being his lexical choices. In the passage quoted above, he renders the adjective προετικὸς into ‘open-handed’ and the participle phrase τοῖς τυχοῦσι into ‘every Tom, Dick, and Harry’. ‘Open-handed’ is perhaps a somewhat colloquial translation when ‘generous’ or its synonyms would be fine. But the second lexical choice is more interesting. In Waterfield’s defence, the verb from which the participle stems, τυγχάνω, is one that will feel even upper-intermediate Greek readers with some frustration. But given the context of the sentence, however, I cannot help but feel that a simple ‘everybody’ or even ‘whoever is present’ would be a more sober choice.

My comments are perhaps a little too pedantic, since I can see what Waterfield is giving a distinctive voice to Aristotle’s generally monotonous prose. Waterfield’s Aristotle almost strikes me as a mid-twentieth century gentleman, which makes his translation an entertaining read and perhaps one that will go some way in preventing non-specialist readers from putting the Rhetoric down out of frustration. There are some drawbacks to this approach however, since some of the vocabulary is a little archaic. Earlier in the same section I have just discussed, Waterfield renders μικροπρέπεια at 1.9.12 as ‘niggardliness’, whereas Kennedy translates it into the more commonly used ‘stinginess’ and Lawson-Tancred into ‘meanness’. Waterfield’s rendering of μικροπρέπεια puts the reader at risk of coming away with further questions, for obvious reasons. Since the Greek term is somewhat abstract, it might have been helpful to provide the Greek term transliterated into square brackets, a method frequently used by Kennedy. This is useful since it indicates that the term is not the easiest to translate into modern English.

While the present volume is a translation intended for students and the general reader, there are several occasions includes Greek phrases that are not only untranslated but also not transliterated. These instances all occur in Book Three during Aristotle’s discussion on verbal style. In his discussion of the fundamental aspects for achieving fluency in Greek, Waterfield’s translation reads (1407b6-11):

“The fourth aspect of fluency in Greek depends on observing Protagoras’ classification* of words as male, female, and inanimate. These distinctions too must correctly be applied: ἡ δ᾽ ἐλθοῦσα καὶ διαλεχθεῖσα ᾤχετο. The fifth depends on using the correct word-forms for plural and singular objects, as in οἱ ἐλθόντες ἔτυπτον με.”

There are further instances of this, whereby Waterfield renders the examples given in quotation marks in Kassel’s text in untransliterated Greek, which I shall not discuss individually.[5] In contrast, Lawson-Tancred translates these phrases into English, as does Kennedy with some explanatory footnotes. Yet Waterfield does not even give translations of these examples in the explanatory notes. The context of these quotes is grammatical and it would therefore be more helpful to provide the Greek, but, especially for students with a beginner or intermediate grasp of the language, presenting them as he does contradicts not only the primary purpose of the series but also the intended audience of the volume. To put it cynically, these untranslated phrases are ‘gaps’ in Waterfield’s translation.

The explanatory notes, to which readers are directed via asterisks in the text, are detailed, going well beyond providing simple clarification to Aristotle’s often ambiguous phraseology and profiles of key texts and individuals mentioned. The explanatory notes also make cross reference to other classical texts that cover key points of interest, providing a solid foundation for further study to those who are non-specialists or curious students.

This volume also includes two pages of textual notes where Waterfield lists the points in his translation when he has altered the Greek text of Kassel. Waterfield has made textual notes a habit in his translations, having previously done so for Polybius’ Histories (reviewed BMCR 2011.08.29). While these are useful to more advanced readers, I do not think they would be using an Oxford World’s Classics translation in the first place. For the student or non-scholar, I feel that an index would have been more useful, which this volume lacks. For a reader who is new to rhetorical theory, an index of Greek rhetorical terminology would have been especially useful. A glossary of key rhetorical terminology would have also been welcome, but the present volume does not include one. Although Yunis’ chapter-by-chapter synopsis compensates for this to some extent by giving the reader some guidance around the text (lxii-lxvi), I do not think it goes far enough.

With a recommended price of £9.99, the cost of Waterfield’s translation is the same as that Lawson-Tancred’s 1991 translation for Penguin Classics, which is apt since most departments of Classics will generally recommend translations from either series to new cohorts of undergraduates. Even the most penurious will be torn! This is considerably more affordable than the Loeb edition (£18.95) and Kennedy’s 1991 translation for Oxford University Press (£29.99), although this is to be expected considering the former also provides the Greek text and the latter more extensive scholarly commentary.

In short, this translation from Waterfield builds on a series of readable and affordable translations from Oxford World’s Classics and will no doubt prove valuable to both students and academics. Waterfield has given Aristotle his own colourful voice, if not an even more doddery one, which will prove both entertaining as well as informative to Oxford World’s Classics’ intended audience.



[1] Early 20th century translations include those of Jebb (1909), Freese (1926) and Rhys Roberts (1954).


[3] As noted by Garver in his review of the latter (BMCR 1992.05.08).

[4] About Oxford World’s Classics

[5] These instances are found at 1407b35-7; 1409a14-7; 1410a28-36