Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a Handbook of Leadership[1]

Summary by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.

© 2000 Jonathan Shay All Rights Reserved

Character is a living thing that flourishes or wilts according to the ways that those who hold power use power. Specifically, character has cognitive/cultural content—a person’s ideals, ambitions, and affiliations, and the emotional energy that infuses them—what Homer called thumos. The leader’s own thumos is critical to his or her capacity to lead others.

How does a leader get the troops— soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen—to commit themselves to a mission? Aristotle offers a mix of empirical and normative observations in the Rhetoric that apply wonderfully to the military situation.

For starters, we must understand the context that he thinks his remarks apply to, what it means for a leader to seek trust: It’s about dealing with fellow-citizens, where each looks the other in the eye and says, "you are part of my future, no matter how this turns out." Some might scoff, and say, "an infantry company, or a ship, or a squadron is not a deliberative assembly, and decisions are not arrived at by majority vote." But many of you want a picture of leading without undue reliance on coercion and will see that Aristotle has real food for thought here.

A leader who mentally and in the heart constantly walks away from those he or she is leading and says "I’m never going to see these jerks again after this assignment is over," is just faking it from Aristotle’s point of view—a sophist for hire, not a true leader, a rhêtor.

So having established that the leader and led are part of each other’s future, they now have to arrive at a shared, binding commitment to mission in the face of

  • conflicting, incommensurable goods

  • uncertainty.

Real military situations requiring real leadership invariably have these two elements. If everything can be done by formula, by the book, what’s needed is a supervisor, not a leader. Even in war, many of the things that need to be done preparing for battle can be done by the book (even von Clausewitz acknowledged that). And even in peacetime, many critical decisions cannot be solved by the book, because they involve competing, incommensurable goods and uncertainty. The Rhetoric has no Philosopher’s Stone that enables you to harmonize conflicting goods or to know what is not known. It provides a descriptive and normative framework for leading one’s fellow citizens under these conditions.

Aristotle shows us that leader has three interrelated means of achieving his fellow citizens’ trust:

  • Appeal to their character (éthos)

  • [2]

  • Appeal to their reason (lógos)

  • Appeal to their emotions (páthos)

These three are interrelated, not separate, because the goals of action arise from the troops’ ideals, ambitions, and affiliations—their character. Reason concerns the means to reach those goals. And the emotions arise primarily from their cognitive assessments of the real-world improvement or deterioration of their ideals, ambitions, affiliations, and how fast they are changing in the world.

Aristotle has useful comments on the leader’s need to build trust through appeal to the troops’ character and emotion. He even explains how it is possible to be "too rational," losing the trust of those you are trying to lead. (See Garver’s, "Making Discourse Ethical: Can I Be Too Rational?")

Aristotle goes on to say what the troops are looking for in a leader. What makes the leader trustworthy in their eyes? Aristotle provides another triad. The troops extend trust to someone whose explanations (what he called "arguments"), training exercises, and decisions provide evidence for

  • Professional competence, spirited personal integrity (aretê)

  • Intelligent good sense, practical wisdom (phronêsis)

  • Good will and respect for the troops (eúnoiâ)

The centrality of rational explanation ("argument"), rather than coercion or deception, shows the leader’s respect for the troops, who are his or her fellow citizens. You can’t separate respect from good will. What reasons, examples, and maxims the leader chooses from the infinity available, provide evidence for phronêsis and aretê. The persuasive power that comes when a leader appeals to reason comes more from the degree to which it provides evidence for the leader’s respect toward the troops than from the power of reason to compel assent, or having compelled assent, to guide or restrain behavior.

So as Aristotle famously says in Rhetoric I.ii.3, it is the ethos, the character of the leader that is most compelling to the troops. I want to connect the old Homeric word thumos to what I now want to say about character. This word is most often translated by the single word "spirit." In modern times this has become rarified and if you forgive the play on words, spiritualized, so that we lose the sense that is still preserved when we speak of a horse as spirited or an argument as spirited. Professor Rorty at Brandeis gave me her best shot at translating the word as "the energy of spirited honor." I want you to listen to Aristotle’s explanation of thumos in Politics VII.6.1327b39ff. He says, "Thymos is the faculty of our souls which issues in love and friendship….It is also the source … of any power of commanding and any feeling for freedom."

The spirited self-respect that Homer called thumós becomes particularly critical to leadership in a combat situation. To trust the leader, the troops need to feel that the leader is his or her "own person," not a slave. In combat, trust goes to the leaders who give critical obedience, rather than blind obedience, to their own bosses.[3] A leader giving blind obedience to a militarily irrational or illegal order gets the troops killed without purpose ["wasted"] or irretrievably tainted by commission of atrocities.

1. Eugene Garver, Aristotle's Rhetoric: An Art of Character, U. Chicago Press, 1994

2. Phenomenology of Spirit Aristotle fans may balk at this as flying in the face of Rh. I.ii.3, but it can be justified from the practice Aristotle shows us.  It should be evident that I do not dispute the importance of the leader’s character.

3. U. F. Zwygart, “How Much Obedience Does an Officer Need?” U.S. Army Command and General Staff College pamphlet, 1993