Rhetoric and Poetic: Aristotle, The Enthymeme, and the Discovery of Dramatic Troping in Contemporary Theatre

August W. Staub
University of Georgia


We citizens of the fin de siecle are defined by our privacy. Given a choice between valorizing the group or the private individual, we chose the individual. It is difficult, then, for us to realize that the ancient Greeks placed very little value on the individual and no value whatsoever on private matters. As James Redfield points out, we have scant informal evidence from ancient Greek culture. "We have instead, formal representations: shaped and painted images, literary narratives, historical accounts, philosophic analyses, and public speeches .... We meet the Greeks, as it were, in their Sunday best; we do not catch them unawares but see them as they choose to represent themselves. These representations, further, are with few exceptions representations of public life."( Reford, The Greeks, p. 1 53)

It is with the very publicness of the ancient Greeks that I wish to deal and with the implications of that publicness in both ancient and ' contemporary theatre. While public activity can extend from ceremonies to warfare, my special concern is with public as opposed to private thought. When presenting thought in his Poetics, Aristotle uses the term dianoia , and he refers us to his work on rhetoric to which he says the issue of thought properly belongs (Poetics, XIX, 2).

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle makes clear immediately that rhetoric is a type of thinking--the counterpart of dialectic (Book 1,1)--but it is not concerned with what seems logical to an individual but what seems logical to a given class (Book 1,2). That is, rhetoric is concerned with public thinking, phronesis, or the practical thought processes common to a given civic order. As such, rhetoric is characterized by the enthymeme, a syllogism used by the group, as opposed to formal logic. Because Aristotle gives no further definition, the traditional assumption has been that the enthymeme is some sort of faulty syllogism, but the new rhetoricians of the second half of this century have taken issue with such an assumptions As Eugene Garver points out in his recent and illuminating study of the Rhetoric we cannot define the enthymeme as "a syllogism with defective or probable premises or with a missing premise" (Garver, p 1 50). Indeed, Aristotle is quite clear that just as there are false or illogical syllogisms in dialectic, there are also false or sham enthymemes(Book II, 23-25). The enthymeme is not poor or secondary logic but, as Garver observes, the process of thought employed by a 'civic intelligence'.

Since the whole force of classical Greek culture was the perfection of civic life, it is small wonder that Aristotle felt no compulsion to defend the value of the enthymeme or to engage in lengthy definition. Of the nature of the enthymeme he says only that it must not employ long chains of reasoning or it will lose clarity nor should it include every link else it fall into prolixity. (Rhetoric, Book II, 22)

But there is considerably more to the enthymeme than brevity. However, to understand the complexity of the enthymeme, we must see it as suasion in action in ancient Greek culture. And where might we moderns go to observe the enthymeme at play? Why to the only complete surviving examples of public life in ancient Greece: the dramenon of the city-wide festivals, frequently cited by Aristotle himself. Unquestionably, in the works intended for performance in the Greek theatre the method was to present public figures(Kings, Queens, Potentates, Gods) thinking and acting publicly to encourage a public thought process in the spectators. Greek plays are not "kitchen dramas," but events of the civic assembly. They are organized around a chorus which represents the civic order of the play, and they are presented at public festivals before spectators who are very aware of each other's presence in a sunlit and open seeing place. Indeed, the very seeing-place is crucial to all Greek thinking , for as Charles Segal and others point out: "The Greeks are a race of spectators." To see a thing is to understand that thing. "The Greek word theoria implies the same identification of knowledge with vision as that expressed in the common verb to know oida taken from the root vid - to see"(The Greeks, p 1 93).

Moreover, the dramas were the first public events in which myth was used enthymemically, as a rational device for a public assemblage. Of course, the epic preceded the drama and the rhapsode was also presenting myth in a public assemblage. But the art of the rhapsode is one based on example, a string of examples, not upon an enthymeme. Indeed, Aristotle clearly differentiates in the Rhetoric between the enthymeme and the example (Book II,19-20). In fact, while he roughly classifies the example as inductive and the enthymeme as deductive, the difference lies more in the dynamics of the thought process. The enythmeme, particularly in drama, entails twisting ideas together in a non-linear action; reasoning from example, as in the epic, requires a linear procedure and thus a longer chain of reasoning--the very thing Aristotle cautions against in rhetorical argument. Indeed, the Greeks recognized the difference between linear thought - logos - and the more supple and more active and twisted practical thought - rnetis (Detienne and Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society), a difference which today might be drawn between binary choices and a more fluid, more quantum suasion.

The maker of a dramenon was a transition agent. On the one hand, he was a logo-graphien : a writer of stories engaged in the structuring of narratives, but unlike the epic maker, his narratives were for the sighted and therefore immediately knowing group. Dramas are for spectators not audiences, and as a consequence they are enthymemic and mythic. As with any myth, they are to be grasped as a whole which serves as a singular proof of its own validity because it is seen to be. Indeed, as Aristotle points out, it is the mythos that is the soul of the dramenon, just as the enthymeme is the soul of rhetoric. It is my contention that the two are the same and that the mythos of drama may be called the dramatic enthymeme.

What is the nature of the dramatic mythos that makes it identical with the rhetorical enthymeme? Like the rhetorical enthymeme dramatic mythos begins close to the point of suasion so that its action will not be obscure and like the rhetorical enthymeme it does not fill in all the links so that it may be brief. But most important of all, the dramatic enthymeme is always a trope. That is, the dramatic enthymeme always presents two or more actions turned-in upon themselves. This turning-in is the stasis (Aristotle also uses the term peripetia or turn around). The most common meaning for the term stasis is civil war, and like war the dramatic stasis in not a fixed point, as it will become in Roman thought, but a collection of agonistic energies (dynamos), a dynamic event which holds in tension the actions of the prostasis and that of the exstasis (ecstasy) so that the entire movement may be seen altogether, just as we currently perceive the universe in quantum terms. That is why it is appropriate to call the dramatic enthymeme a trope - a turning-upon or twisting about. All mythoi in drama are so constructed.

Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter is finally twisted together with his own sacrifice by Clytemnestra. Indeed, the very peripetia which entwines the two killings is a public and entirely visual event-- Agamemnon's removing of some sort of foot gear and his treading bare foot on some sort of sacred carpet. It was a very public spectacle of great potency to be grasped by the civic intelligence of the assembled Greek spectators. We sense that some powerful energy is at work, but it is no longer convincing to us. It is not our enthymeme, but their's.

In the twining or braiding together of the existing assumptions of a given cultural group the suasion of the enthymeme occurs. On the simplest metaphorical or metonymic level we can see the enythmeme at work in such phrases as "Richard the Lion Hearted" or "Naturally his brother defended him; one hand washes the other, doesn't it?." In the one enthymeme, we literally argue that a particular English king was brave because we have twisted together his name, the part of his body considered to be the source of such emotions, and the image of a lion. This is a brief but extremely complex trope which calls for considerable mental agility. In the other phrase, we argue that families are as inseparable as the cooperating hands of a single body. But let us imagine a culture which knew not lions. for example, a group living two hundred years ago in the Arctic. They would draw no conclusion from the joining of Richard's heart with a lion. We could also postulate a culture which for religious reasons immobilized the left hand and arm. For this particular civic order, our second phrase would be illogical. Neither group could or should be considered unintelligent because they were not affected by one of the tropes. On the other hand, we should be cautious in assuming that tropes are faulty or simplistic thought. They may well be classified as the highest order of thought, even though they depend upon a civic and not a singular intelligence.

Indeed, it is precisely because troping, the fundamental enthymeme, is so complex and agile, exactly because it involves the apprehension and joining of energy and motion in its very structure, that it must grow out of a public and civic intelligence. Consider the complicated web of entwined events which make up the stunning and disturbing enthymeme known as Oedipus Tyrannus. First there is the act of abandoning the infant to prevent his murdering his father, enfolded with the action of the grown son fleeing his home to escape his murdering his father, twisted with the action of his inadvertently killing his father, entwined with his unwittingly marrying his mother and having children by her--children who are his own brothers and sisters. This whole trope is enmeshed within itself even as the narrative of the dramenon begins so that it is an active helix turning endlessly upon itself, imploding throughout the short play. Indeed, the most significant event of the dramenon proper is the stasis or civil war between Oedipus and Joscasta in which she realizes that public shame is inevitable and commits suicide. Following his vision of his dead mother, Oedipus explodes the stasis into a public ecstacy of sorrow. The final suasive twist by which the whole trope is displayed is Oedipus' embracing of own siblings as his children. The poet's intent is that the spectators are persuaded to pity and terror, because they see the final explosion of the complicated trope which they knew--from their cultural assumptions--could not forever implode. This logic of implosion- explosion, of tension and release is the logic of the trope. Moreover tropic logic consists in equal parts of past--and therefore proven--events entwined with present actions forming a single complex presented in a see-able whole movement.

The great achievement of the Greek dramatic poets, what raises them above the epic poet in the estimation of Aristotle, is the fashioning of the dramatic trope--the twisting about of images in an implosion-explosion turn-about--which is the very essence of public thought. That creation depends in great part on the facility of sight and therefore is especially the province of theatre--the art of the seeing place. In the history of dramatic art since the Greeks not all writers have elected to employ the dramatic enthymeme. Some works are tropic; some are not. And, of course, the variations wrung on the dramatic trope are endless. With the advent of the well-made play In the mid-19th century, tropic structure was replaced by probability and linearity. Popular melodramas, as well as the more elite but equally melodramatic plays of Ibsen or Strindberg, depended on establishing a strong set of present circumstances out of which an inciting incident prompted a long chain of detailed events, each embodying binary choices and thus each the consequence of its precedent. Such plays are logical not mythic. They are atropic. Twentieth century interest in the interior life of the individual presented the theatre with a peculiar problem. The one is not the many. How, in a completely public art, can the intimate life of the individual be presented for public consideration? Writers came to employ again the tropic devices of the Greeks.

I should like to offer two examples of the recovery of the trope in the theatre, of the contemporary American play as enthymeme. Both plays have had New York productions in the past two years. Both have received excellent reviews and may be justly called "hits". One play, Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1 994. The other, Anne Meara's After-Play, is arguably the best play by an American woman in this decade. Both plays go about in the disguise of 20th century realism, which is, of course, an enthymemic necessity in modern theatre. Both plays are virtually bare of incident, nor is there any established chain of formal logic or probability from which incidents follow. Both plays deliver the past to the present in tropic form. Both are contemporary myths.

Anne Meara's After-Play is actually set in the shape of an ancient Greek symposium. Two elderly couples come to a restaurant after seeing a play. We know immediately that we are to observe public talk in a public place. The couples are old friends but have not seen each other in some years. The play they have attended incites talk and what they talk about is the past: the past they have shared as friends and the past that was unshared. The unshared past has to do with their families--mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, former spouses--engaged in incidents that have bordered on the embarrassing, the publicly shameful. We get to know these people as public figures and to enjoy their private life as public thought. As one woman says when it is revealed that she has had a mastectomy and is being comforted by her friend: "Oh, shut up about it, will you. I've had reconstructive surgery. My breast looks better than my face." We laugh. Not because breast cancer is humorous, but because the trope is so suasive. We see the beautiful but no longer young actress delivering the line. We see the so very feminine gesture of the actress touching her bosom. We see that she is still alive. We know the horrors of what she went through, but more importantly we see her triumph. We are relieved that life continues and we understand and laugh in relief. The play continues its implosions, twisting the past with the present until a third couple--who happen to be eating in the same restaurant--join our group.- The ultimate turn-around, the tightest twist, is created when it is revealed that the third couple's child has died of AIDS, such a public disease with such private transmission. The implosion is black and unbearable. The group looks for a way out, but the past is relentless and unyielding. They know and we know that the past will not let us out of the cycle. "When will this be over?" asks one of the symposium. The reply is a popular joke about opera: "It's not over till the fat lady sings." When Anne Meara has screwed her action to the sticking point, when the whole trope is before our eyes, we hear off-stage an operatic soprano singing. The couples exit. The lights go out.

Three Tall Women takes place in a "wealthy bedroom, French in feeling," a locale for countless realistic plays. There are three women. a very wealthy 90 year old, her middle aged companion-nurse, and a young lawyer come to aid the old woman in her business matters. The first act consists of realistic talk. Nothing is at issue but the old woman's cantankerousness and her tendency to reminisce. At the end of the first act, the elderly woman is struck with a seizure. An "inciting incident" has finally occurred, and we seem to have the well-made play we were expecting. Act Two opens with the old woman lying in bed, her face covered with an oxygen mask. The middle aged woman and the young woman are present but their movements are more dance-like than in Act One. Presently the old woman enters, and the audience realizes that the body in bed is a dummy. The old woman is dressed for a gala evening. The three women commence a pas de trois of dance and dialogue, and we understand that we have not three women but one. The private soul of the old woman has been made a public spectacle--no longer spoken about but danced out. Indeed we have been persuaded to accept our ability to see in public what is publicly unknowable--the soul of another--by the skillfully employed enthymeme of realism presented in Act One now twisted in Act Two with the intangible . Now we see that most private moment of all: the death of an individual. We see that death, not in its typically public 20th century moment(lying in bed with medical apparatus attached, as does the dummy) but as a dance of the whole life of one person, a dance so visual, so irrefutably palpable and so entwined with the facts of the first act, and by the terrible turn of the seizure which closed that act, that we cannot refute the rhetorical logic.

Both the Albee and the Meare play can qualify as exemplar moments of postmodern culture. But they are also testaments to the lasting achievement of the Greek dramatists who fashioned the defining structure of the enthymeme: the dramatic trope. If we are ever tempted to dismiss the logic of the enthymeme and the power of its informing impetus - the dramatic trope, we have but to remind ourselves of its continuing vigor not only in the theatre but in all of Western thought. Perhaps the most significant idea of the late 20th century is that of DNA as the structure of life itself. And how is that DNA thought about but as a double helix - a dramatic trope!


1. Ritual and religious ceremony is usually a public event. Even eating can be public as in sacrificial eating(see Marcel Detienne and Jean Pierre Vernant, The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks, University of Chicago Press, 1 989) or in the symposia (see Greek Symposia, Michael Vickers, Joint Association of Classic Teachers, London, no date). Athletics, of course, were great public events(see Greek Athletes and Athletics, H. A. Harris, London, 1984. Warfare in the Greek practice was an especially public act. The phylanx was entirely dependent on the civic commitment of each warrior.

2. Led by the work of Kenneth Burke (A Rhetoric of Motives, Berkeley, 1958), the new rhetoric movement has done much to reclaim the importance of rhetoric as something deeper than mere decorative language. Some recent basic works of the new rhetoricians include E.L. Bowie's The Importance of the Sophists, New Haven, 1982; B. Vicker's In Defense of Rhetoric, Oxford, 1 988; J. Fernandez's Persuaions and Performances, Bloomington, 1986; and The Social Uses of Metaphor. Essays in the Anthropology of Rhetoric edited by J.C. Crocker and J.D. Sapir, Philadelphia, 1 977.

Works cited and consulted

Aristotle, The Art of Poetry, Phillip Wheelwright, trans, New York: Odyssey Press, 1951

Aristotle, The Rhetoric, Lane Cooper, trans, New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1921

Boardman, John, Jasper Griffin, Oswyn Murray, The Oxford History of the Classical World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986

Butcher, S.H., Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, 4th edition, with text in English and Greek, London: 1932

Csapo, Eric and William J. Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994

Detienne, Marcel and Jena-Pierre Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Society and Culture, Janet Lloyd,tran., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991

Else, Gerald F. Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument, Cambridge, 1957

Garver, Eugene, Aristotle's Rhetoric: An Art of Character, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994

Scodel, Ruth, ed., Theatre and Society in the Classical World, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993