By: Michael C. Hawley, University of Houston

The following blog post is a summary of the research that won the Midwest Political Science Association’s Review of Politics Award for research presented at the 2023 MPSA Annual Conference. The award recognizes the best paper in normative political theory.

What are we to make of people who willingly teach self-interested political actors how to better manipulate ordinary citizens? When we refer to such people as “hired guns,” we reflect the general sense of moral suspicion toward such individuals—they are like political arms dealers, hawking their wares indiscriminately to the virtuously public-spirited and the viciously ambitious alike.  

We are doubly likely to look askance at someone who offers such amoral assistance while denouncing others for doing the same thing. Thus, it would come as a surprise to many that this is precisely what Aristotle does in his Rhetoric. Aristotle opens his famous guide to political speech by sharply criticizing the authors of rhetorical manuals for teaching tactics of inappropriate manipulation, which allow speakers to play on the emotions of the audience instead of cultivating their rational faculties. Yet, Aristotle goes on to teach those very tactics himself, including how to induce useful (often reason-clouding) emotions in an audience, how to escape rightful charges of perjury, and more. Given that he equips his readers with the ability to perform such underhanded oratorical maneuvers, Aristotle’s admonition that rhetoric should be used only in the service of ethical ends seems to ring hollow.  

This fact has posed a conundrum for scholars, some of whom read Aristotle as a moral naïf, who feels that his his finger-wagging insistence not to use his lessons for ill is sufficient to deter his students from misusing them. Others have taken the opposite approach and read him as almost nakedly amoral. Neither reading fits well the author of such subtle and ethically oriented works as the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics. The Rhetoric is a far more accessible and practical work than either of Aristotle’s other moral-political works, yet its strange apparent moral grayness has resulted in its comparative languishment.  

In this article, I suggest that Aristotle was neither morally indifferent nor naively hopeful in writing the Rhetoric. Instead, I argue that Aristotle’s work is no mere how-to guide, but rather a concealed project of reform. Faced with the rampant abuse of rhetorical talents in the Greek world, Aristotle seeks to reorient political speakers to better serve the common good. Yet, because his intended audience is itself made up of crafty and cynical individuals, Aristotle cannot go too directly at his aim. Instead, he must subtly persuade rhetoricians to reform themselves. In short, Aristotle must practice rhetoric in his Rhetoric 

I show that Aristotle does this by first offering his self-interested readers what they want: tactics to win political debates at whatever cost. But as Aristotle offers this instruction, he suggests that the speaker who truly wished to triumph will benefit from adopting the position that actually embraces the good of his audience. In so doing, Aristotle seeks to align the self-interest of political speakers with the true interests of their audiences and to plant the seeds of habits that will keep those speakers regularly seeking out the advantage of their listeners.  

This reading opens up a new way of viewing Aristotle’s Rhetoric, as an expression of rhetoric itself on the highest level, aimed at the most rhetoric-resistant audience imaginable: rhetoricians themselves. It saves Aristotle from the twin charges of naïveté and unscrupulousness, and it helps integrate the Rhetoric more comfortably with the Politics and the Ethics as a coherent expression of Aristotle’s moral-political vision.  

Illustrating this feature of Aristotle’s thought has implications for us today as well. We too live in a time where the state of political discourse is woefully deficient. Aristotle suggests that audiences bear some of the responsibility for political elites’ corruption of our discourse. Aristotle also shows that if we seek a reform of our situation, we might achieve that better by addressing the interests of speakers than by simply morally condemning them.  

This article is drawn from my larger research agenda into political rhetoric that does not conduce to deliberation. In addition to Aristotle, this project engages a wide range of theorists and practitioners of rhetoric, including Cicero, Augustine, Machiavelli, Frederick Douglass, and Winston Churchill. More information about the project can be found on my website, here: