starting point

The other day I had a tiny idea, but one I want to at least record here in case I do something with it later. Consider this a starting point, a tentative foray, a thought out loud.

Here’s Aristotle:

It is clear, then, that rhetoric is not bound up with a single definite class of subjects, but is as universal as dialectic; it is clear, also, that it is useful. It is clear, further, that its function is not simply to succeed in persuading, but rather to discover the means of coming as near such success as the circumstances of each particular case allow. In this it resembles all other arts. For example, it is not the function of medicine simply to make a man quite healthy, but to put him as far as may be on the road to health; it is possible to give excellent treatment even to those who can never enjoy sound health. Furthermore, it is plain that it is the function of one and the same art to discern the real and the apparent means of persuasion, just as it is the function of dialectic to discern the real and the apparent syllogism. What makes a man a ‘sophist’ is not his faculty, but his moral purpose. In rhetoric, however, the term ‘rhetorician’ may describe either the speaker’s knowledge of the art, or his moral purpose.

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. This is not a function of any other art. Every other art can instruct or persuade about its own particular subject-matter; for instance, medicine about what is healthy and unhealthy, geometry about the properties of magnitudes, arithmetic about numbers, and the same is true of the other arts and sciences. But rhetoric we look upon as the power of observing the means of persuasion on almost any subject presented to us; and that is why we say that, in its technical character, it is not concerned with any special or definite class of subjects.

Here’s Malcolm X:

One of the first things that the independent African nations did was to form an organization called the Organization of African Unity. […] The purpose of our […] Organization of Afro-American Unity, which has the same aim and objective to fight whoever gets in our way, to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western hemisphere, and first here in the United States, and bring about the freedom of these people by any means necessary. That’s our motto. […]

I’m interested here in the two uses of “means.”  Not that the word is used significantly differently (though surely Aristotle and Malcolm are talking about different means) but I’m interested instead in the similarity of the phrases used: “in any given case the available means” and “by any means necessary”.  What would happen–as a thought experiment–to remix the two?

Aristotle remixed:

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing persuasion by any means necessary.

Malcolm remixed:

. . . bring about the freedom of these people by observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. That’s our motto . . . .

I’m not sure what the effect is.  In part, I find, it is difficult to separate my own association of “any means necessary” with the agenda of militant Black nationalism; likewise, my association of Aristotle’s definition with the promise of rational deliberation makes it hard to assess what the Malcolm Remix might be saying.  If anything, Malcolm here seems kind of toothless, while Aristotle–while suggesting a much broader rhetoric than he usually does–picks up an alien air of threat, of possible violence.  Of course, these evaluations are colored by my understanding of the two remixed phrases.

Painting by Danny Roberts

I’d be interested in any thoughts.  Maybe this isn’t as promising a move as I’d thought . . . hmm.


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