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An Unlikely Place to Find an Argument

Aristotle discusses the parts and arrangement of an argument: “The only necessary parts of a speech are the Statement and the Argument. These are the essential features of a speech; and it cannot in any case have more than Introduction, Statement, Argument, and Epilogue. ‘Refutation of the Opponent’ is part of the arguments: so is ‘Comparison’ of the opponent’s case with your own, for that process is a magnifying of your own case and therefore a part of the arguments, since one who does this proves something. The Introduction does nothing like this; nor does the Epilogue-it merely reminds us of what has been said already.” Aristotle. Rhetoric. (1954). Ryhs Roberts, Trans. New York: Modern Library.

When reading arguments we don’t necessarily want to join the argument; we want to read the argument effectively, which means, primarily, identifying and thinking about the writer’s assumptions, particularly assumptions unstated, but also identifying and understanding the writer’s audience and the rhetorical situation that prompted the argument. Reading arguments effectively also requires that we identify and analyze the writer’s claims, the thesis, causes and effects described, organization of these parts within the argument, the support given for the claims, the efficacy of the solution if a problem has been described and a solution offered – in short, what has been said, and what has been left out; why and how said, and why left out. We ask questions.

Arguments surround us. Let’s go somewhere we might not expect to encounter one. Even if we live alone, even if extremely recluse, we still probably argue – with ourselves if no one else is around. Consider Han-shan, a recluse from the Period of Division (220-589), who wrote his poems on rocks near trails in the mountains: “He misses the point entirely, / Men like that / Ought to stick to making money” (Hahn-shan, Cold Mountain Poems, Nov. 1982 Printing, Gary Snyder, Trans. Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, San Francisco: Grey Fox Press). But why did Han-shan bother writing his poems at all, let alone on rocks where travelers might or might not have found them, randomly? Perhaps Han-shan was one of the world’s first bloggers: “I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff.”

Aristotle thought everyone argued, and he thought argument useful. His Rhetoric shows us how to read arguments. “Rhetoric the counterpart of Dialectic. Both alike are concerned with such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science. Accordingly all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others. Ordinary people do this either at random or through practice and from acquired habit. Both ways being possible, the subject can plainly be handled systematically, for it is possible to inquire the reason why some speakers succeed through practice and others spontaneously; and every one will at once agree that such an inquiry is the function of an art.”

When we read and write, we argue.

When we read and write, we argue. We all argue from time to time, and we generally apply, from an opponent’s prompt or from our own desire to make ourselves clear, examples and proofs, persuasive tools, but as we ramble on, as is often our wont, making claim after claim, supporting or not, making assumptions left and right, some stated, others not, we shortly may find ourselves caught in a riptide of our own words.

As Samuel Beckett said, “You can’t listen to a conversation for five minutes without noting inherent chaos.” But we swim on, using what persuasive tools we find handy – tools described and explained nicely for us in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It’s not only OK to argue; arguing is our responsibility.

In Aristotle’s view, argument is what makes us human; we engage in argument as a consequence of our living together, working together, playing together – reading and writing together. It follows, though it may sound paradoxical, that when we learn to read and write arguments effectively, we more effectively cooperate with one another, and we learn to live together in greater harmony. But not all arguments are equal. Some are specious, others obfuscated, sometimes deliberately so. Some, contrary to Aristotelian principle, persuade to do wrong. As Woody Guthrie said, “Some men will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen.” 

If arguing is good (and necessary), not all arguments are good (or necessary). But what’s necessary? And what’s good? The answers to those questions are what we work toward when we work on learning to read and to write arguments.