Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


We may, then, start from the observations there made, including the definition of style. Style to be good must be clear, as is proved by the fact that speech which fails to convey a plain meaning will fail to do just what speech has to do. It must also be appropriate, avoiding both meanness and undue elevation; poetical language is certainly free from meanness, but it is not appropriate to prose. Clearness is secured by using the words (nouns and verbs alike) that are current and ordinary. Freedom from meanness, and positive adornment too, are secured by using the other words mentioned in the Art of Poetry. Such variation from what is usual makes the language appear more stately. People do not feel towards strangers as they do towards their own countrymen, and the same thing is true of their feeling for language. It is therefore well to give to everyday speech an unfamiliar air: people like what strikes them, and are struck by what is out of the way. In verse such effects are common, and there they are fitting: the persons and things there spoken of are comparatively remote from ordinary life. In prose passages they are far less often fitting because the subject-matter is less exalted. Even in poetry, it is not quite appropriate that fine language should be used by a slave or a very young man, or about very trivial subjects: even in poetry the style, to be appropriate, must sometimes be toned down, though at other times heightened. We can now see that a writer must disguise his art and give the impression of speaking naturally and not artificially. Naturalness is persuasive, artificiality is the contrary; for our hearers are prejudiced and think we have some design against them, as if we were mixing their wines for them. It is like the difference between the quality of Theodorus’ voice and the voices of all other actors: his really seems to be that of the character who is speaking, theirs do not. We can hide our purpose successfully by taking the single words of our composition from the speech of ordinary life. This is done in poetry by Euripides, who was the first to show the way to his successors.

Language is composed of nouns and verbs. Nouns are of the various kinds considered in the treatise on Poetry. Strange words, compound words, and invented words must be used sparingly and on few occasions: on what occasions we shall state later. The reason for this restriction has been already indicated: they depart from what is suitable, in the direction of excess. In the language of prose, besides the regular and proper terms for things, metaphorical terms only can be used with advantage. This we gather from the fact that these two classes of terms, the proper or regular and the metaphorical-these and no others-are used by everybody in conversation. We can now see that a good writer can produce a style that is distinguished without being obtrusive, and is at the same time clear, thus satisfying our definition of good oratorical prose. Words of ambiguous meaning are chiefly useful to enable the sophist to mislead his hearers. Synonyms are useful to the poet, by which I mean words whose ordinary meaning is the same, e.g. ’porheueseai’ (advancing) and ’badizein’ (proceeding); these two are ordinary words and have the same meaning.

In the Art of Poetry, as we have already said, will be found definitions of these kinds of words; a classification of Metaphors; and mention of the fact that metaphor is of great value both in poetry and in prose. Prose-writers must, however, pay specially careful attention to metaphor, because their other resources are scantier than those of poets. Metaphor, moreover, gives style clearness, charm, and distinction as nothing else can: and it is not a thing whose use can be taught by one man to another. Metaphors, like epithets, must be fitting, which means that they must fairly correspond to the thing signified: failing this, their inappropriateness will be conspicuous: the want of harmony between two things is emphasized by their being placed side by side. It is like having to ask ourselves what dress will suit an old man; certainly not the crimson cloak that suits a young man. And if you wish to pay a compliment, you must take your metaphor from something better in the same line; if to disparage, from something worse. To illustrate my meaning: since opposites are in the same class, you do what I have suggested if you say that a man who begs ’prays’, and a man who prays ’begs’; for praying and begging are both varieties of asking. So Iphicrates called Callias a ’mendicant priest’ instead of a ’torch-bearer’, and Callias replied that Iphicrates must be uninitiated or he would have called him not a ’mendicant priest’ but a ’torch-bearer’. Both are religious titles, but one is honourable and the other is not. Again, somebody calls actors ’hangers-on of Dionysus’, but they call themselves ’artists’: each of these terms is a metaphor, the one intended to throw dirt at the actor, the other to dignify him. And pirates now call themselves ’purveyors’. We can thus call a crime a mistake, or a mistake a crime. We can say that a thief ’took’ a thing, or that he ’plundered’ his victim. An expression like that of Euripides’ Telephus,

King of the oar, on Mysia’s coast he landed,

is inappropriate; the word ’king’ goes beyond the dignity of the subject, and so the art is not concealed. A metaphor may be amiss because the very syllables of the words conveying it fail to indicate sweetness of vocal utterance. Thus Dionysius the Brazen in his elegies calls poetry ’Calliope’s screech’. Poetry and screeching are both, to be sure, vocal utterances. But the metaphor is bad, because the sounds of ’screeching’, unlike those of poetry, are discordant and unmeaning. Further, in using metaphors to give names to nameless things, we must draw them not from remote but from kindred and similar things, so that the kinship is clearly perceived as soon as the words are said. Thus in the celebrated riddle

I marked how a man glued bronze with fire to another man’s body,

the process is nameless; but both it and gluing are a kind of application, and that is why the application of the cupping-glass is here called a ’gluing’. Good riddles do, in general, provide us with satisfactory metaphors: for metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor. Further, the materials of metaphors must be beautiful; and the beauty, like the ugliness, of all words may, as Licymnius says, lie in their sound or in their meaning. Further, there is a third consideration-one that upsets the fallacious argument of the sophist Bryson, that there is no such thing as foul language, because in whatever words you put a given thing your meaning is the same. This is untrue. One term may describe a thing more truly than another, may be more like it, and set it more intimately before our eyes. Besides, two different words will represent a thing in two different lights; so on this ground also one term must be held fairer or fouler than another. For both of two terms will indicate what is fair, or what is foul, but not simply their fairness or their foulness, or if so, at any rate not in an equal degree. The materials of metaphor must be beautiful to the ear, to the understanding, to the eye or some other physical sense. It is better, for instance, to say ’rosy-fingered morn’, than ’crimson-fingered’ or, worse still, ’red-fingered morn’. The epithets that we apply, too, may have a bad and ugly aspect, as when Orestes is called a ’mother-slayer’; or a better one, as when he is called his ’father’s avenger’. Simonides, when the victor in the mule-race offered him a small fee, refused to write him an ode, because, he said, it was so unpleasant to write odes to half-asses: but on receiving an adequate fee, he wrote

Hail to you, daughters of storm-footed steeds?

though of course they were daughters of asses too. The same effect is attained by the use of diminutives, which make a bad thing less bad and a good thing less good. Take, for instance, the banter of Aristophanes in the Babylonians where he uses ’goldlet’ for ’gold’, ’cloaklet’ for ’cloak’, ’scoffiet’ for ’scoff, and ’plaguelet’. But alike in using epithets and in using diminutives we must be wary and must observe the mean.

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Chicago: Aristotle, "2," Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts Original Sources, accessed August 16, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3UKMDJI6BUIELBS.

MLA: Aristotle. "2." Rhetoric, translted by W. Rhys Roberts, Original Sources. 16 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3UKMDJI6BUIELBS.

Harvard: Aristotle, '2' in Rhetoric, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 16 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3UKMDJI6BUIELBS.