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Why did Aristotle write about persuasion?

Ancient Greece was obsessed with persuasion because it impacted all forms of public life

Many people I coach wonder why it is that Aristotle chose to write about persuasion at all, and the answer to the question is important to consider. About a century before Aristotle was born, the Persian emperor Darius sent a great army to conquer the collection of city-states we now think of as ancient Greece. The two forces met at a place called Marathon, where the Greek won a remarkable victory. Ten years later, Darius’ son Xerxes decided to repeat his father’s quest, however this time with the largest army the world had ever seen (some accounts say it was over two and half million soldiers). This time the outcome was decided at sea in a great naval battle fought in the narrow straits off the coast of the Greek island of Salamis. Much to Xerxes’ surprise, the Greeks, led by the Athenians, emerged victorious yet again. Within a year, Xerxes’ army would be completely turned back, never to return.

With the Persian wars long in the past, the Greeks, especially in Athens, found themselves at peace, wealthy, and living in a radical democracy in which every citizen could (at least in theory) influence policy and government. As Greece grew wealthier and more powerful, its society changed in ways that made the ability to speak and convince critical to power. As Thomas Habinek wrote in Ancient Rhetoric: From Aritstotle to Philostratus:

Rhetoric came into being as a technical discourse due to the high value placed on oral communication, persuasion and deliberation in the emerging city-states of the ancient Mediterranean world. New frameworks for deliberative decision-making, as well as the substitution of formal legal procedures for violent conflict resolution, required participant who could clearly articulate issues for others and move members of an audience to decisive action, even when their individual or family well-being was not at stake, In addition, the expansion of political and cultural communities beyond kinship networks, and the persistence of such communities over time, required the articulation of unifying ideals and cultural memories through formal procedures of praise, blame and recollection, responsibility for which gradually passed from priests and poets to orators and statesmen.

The radical democracy of Athens, for example, did not have representatives or senators; rather, individuals were free to propose laws, make policy suggestions, or bring suits against enemies of the state. In the latter case, someone who was sued by his neighbor or the state had the obligation to defend himself in public courts. There were no defense lawyers to argue on your behalf. If we pause for just a moment to consider such a time and place, we suddenly understand why persuasion should come to dominate the educational needs of anyone with political ambitions, social goals, or great wealth that needed protection. As the James A. Arieti tells us in his Philosophy of the Ancient World:

The new form of government, democracy, validated by its success against Persia, brought to the fore the mechanism of persuasion. An ability to persuade had been admitted from Homeric times, but now democracy revealed the urgency of acquiring it. An ability to persuade meant political power in assemblies, legal success in courtrooms, and the esteem of one’s fellow citizens. Good speakers became leaders, and perhaps for this reason the word in Greek for speaker (rhetor) is also the word for politician. A market developed for those who would teach the art of persuasion, and there was no shortage of teachers hawking their skills. Alert Greeks understood the double-edged nature of rhetoric, which could be used to both educate and to delude, and the resulting ambivalence toward rhetoric became a stimulating subject for philosophy.

Like a young software genius arriving in Silicon Valley today, it was into this exciting and vibrant environment that the young would-be philosopher arrived, explains Arieti:

Aristotle, born to a physician in Stagira, in northern Greece, came down to study in Plato’s Academy when he was about seventeen years old, in or about 367 B.C.E. By now the Persian wars had been over one hundred years: the Peloponnesian War more than thirty-five years. Athens was prosperous, active, civilized: the external scars of defeat had passed. Tragedy, philosophy, and rhetoric were flourishing; Demosthenes, perhaps the greatest orator the world has seen, was commencing his career; trade and manufacturing, depressed during the Peloponnesian War, were in vigorous revival. And the world came to Athens to be educated. In the crowd of those who came was the seventeen-year-old Aristotle. He entered Plato’s Academy. He stayed for twenty years.

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