Aristotle's Concept of Judgement
in the Rhetoric


Maria de Fátima Simões Francisco
Universidade de São Paulo


Aristotle justifies the need for rhetoric to employ proofs based on ethos and pathos by, among other manners, its insertion in the city’s leading political institutions. Thus he tells us: “But since rhetoric is concerned with making a judgement [hepei d'heneka kriseos estin he retorike] (people judge what is said in deliberation, and judicial proceedings are also a judgement), it is necessary not only to look to the argument [ton logon], that it be demonstrative and persuasive [apodeiktikos kai pistos] but also for the speaker to construct a view of himself as a certain kind of person and to prepare the judge”, 1377b20-24. It is a fundamental fact that a particular process, a judgement, is taking place in public assemblies and law courts, rhetoric’s sphere of activity, which requires the use of proofs based on ethos and pathos, in addition to logical proof. Since there are certain characteristics of a deliberative or legal judgement which render logical proof insufficient as a means of persuading the listener to accept the thesis being proposed, other forms of persuasion are therefore necessary.

Returning to the same idea in another passage, 1391b7-22, Aristotle suggests that the use of the proof based on ethos is demanded by the very conditions implicit in any judgmental process. In that passage in a lengthy argument, after establishing that “Since the use of persuasive speech is directed to a judgement [hepei d'he ton pithanon logon chresis pros krisin esti]”, that "a judge is, so to speak, simply one who must be persuaded [hon gar dei peisai houtos estin hos haplos eipein krites]", adding that “[since] nevertheless only that person is purely a judge in the general sense of the word who is judging the questions at issue in civic debates [holos de monos estin haplos krites en tois politikois agosin]”, Aristotle concludes by calling attention to the importance of what he calls “ethical speeches [tous logous ethikous]”2. In general terms, we have interpreted this passage, as crucial as it is difficult, as follows. The persuasive function of the discourse is at the core of any judgmental situation. The terms persuasion and judgement are, therefore, inextricably linked, the use of one always implying the use of the other. One can speak of judgement in two senses: broad (haplos eipein, 1391b12) and narrow (holos de monos estin haplos krites, 1391b18). In its broad sense, it occurs in a variety of circumstances in everyday life – in its most general form, every time one has to make a decision involving more than one possibility. In its narrow sense, however, it occurs solely in the public debates in assemblies and in law courts. The persuasive function of the discourse presupposes the use of ethical speech – a term which Aristotle appears to be using here to refer to proof based on ethos. This passage, concluding the necessity for proof based on ethos in a judgmental situation – reiterating what had already been affirmed in 1377b20-24 – also helps one to understand much of the general aristotelian concept of rhetoric.

The rhetorical discourse is thus defined by its location in an institutional framework centred around the act of judgement. Its addressee in turn assumes a determined role: that of a judge. Aristotle points out, however, that the term judgement when referred to the assembly or law court does not have the same meaning as it does in other contexts where it is applied. It is only in these two institutions that it is used in its narrow sense. In 1391b7-22, which we have summarised above, he notes that judgements also occur in other situations involving persuasive speech and that the listener is, by definition, a judge. In each of these situations the listener is a judge faced with two contradictory discourses. For example, every time one attempts to exhort or dissuade someone from doing something, one is simultaneously both defending an opinion and attacking its opposite. The listener is thus in the position of a judge who must decide which of the two possibilities of action is better. Similarly, whenever one speaks against an opponent or a proposition, one uses speech to refute either antagonist or thesis, at the same time defending the contradictory proposition. Here too the listener finds himself in the position of a judge, deciding which proposition is more reasonable, that being defended or that under attack. Even in the case of the epideictic discourse (that branch of rhetoric whose purpose is praise or blame), the listener, although in fact a mere spectator, can also be considered a judge from a certain point of view. Therefore the speech is composed for him, Aristotle goes on to say, as if he were a judge, on the assumption that he will not immediately accept what is being proposed but needs to be persuaded of it. That is why the speaker in the epideictic discourse must defend what he says and attack any eventual opposing opinions3. When, in De Anima, Aristotle contextualises the idea of judgement in the realm of the senses, the act of judging occurs as a discernment by the sense organs of opposing sensible qualities – e.g. black and white, sweet and bitter4. A basic element inherent in any judgmental situation already evident in the activity of the sense organs, is the discrimination between opposites. This element in turn is present in the three situations where persuasive language is used in the above-mentioned passage. In all three, the judge must discriminate between two opposing discourses put before him in order to arrive at a decision, even if both are represented by a single speaker. For the speaker attempting to persuade employs a paired discourse, defending a certain point of view and simultaneously attacking the opposing one.

Another important ingredient of persuasive function of speech already present in judgements in the broad sense, highlighted by Aristotle in the passage in question, is that one judges because one does not know: "there is no further need of speech on subjects that we know and have already judged" (1391b7). The judge is faced with two opposing speeches since, both dealing with something which is not known, any given speech automatically presupposes the possibility of its opposite. At the same time, neither of the two is immediately manifest or immediately acceptable. Since both are only plausible, in order to persuade the judge that one of them is right it is necessary to defend it and get him convinced of it. When listening to an exhortation to adopt a certain course of action, or a dissuasion concerning the same course of action, one is by definition in a state of ignorance over what to do. Similarly, in the second example, whoever attacks a proposition must at the same time present the defense of the opposite since neither of the two is immediately manifest to the listener. Thirdly, the speaker in the epideictic discourse acts on the assumption that the listener does not have a entirely formed and final opinion on the person or thing being praised or blamed, thereby permitting a speech praising or blaming that person or thing. In all three examples, since we are dealing with a judgmental situation and the persuasive function of the discourse, there is always a listener who is a judge of the two opposing discourses because he does yet know which of the two is truer and has not yet decided which party to accept. He is therefore in an indeterminate position, a position of indecision vis-à-vis the two conflicting points of view.

These two dimensions of judgement in the broad sense of the word – discriminating between opposites and not-knowing – are equally present in public judgements (judicial and deliberative). In these cases, however, they take on greater complexity due to the additional meanings which the democratic regime brings to the situation of judgement. It is as if the democratic regime had developed and explored to the last possible degree and for political and judicial purposes the potentialities involved in any judgmental situation. Judgement in the fullest sense of the term, Aristotle maintains, is only that which takes on all the connotations arising from its insertion in democracy’s two most important institutions. In other circumstances, the terms judgement and judge can only be employed in a weaker sense and by analogy to public judgement. We must now ascertain precisely what are these additional meanings present in judicial and deliberative judgements.

In order to indicate these additional meanings with which democracy invests judicial and deliberative judgements, Aristotle resorts to a series of rich and complex concepts, all of which refer to the same thing – i.e. what actually goes on when citizens meet in a law court or an assembly. All, therefore, are part of the same semantic context, each presupposing and deferring to all the others, as if each one emphasised a different angle of the same thing. These concepts are antilogy, opinion, deliberation, investigation, pistis and truth.

We have seen from the examples of judgement in the broad sense given in 1391b7-22 that judging has certain implications. Firstly, it implies a patrticular situation of discourse – the existence of one who speaks and persuades on the one hand, and of another who listens and judges other. Secondly, it implies two mutually contradictory speeches between which it is the task of the judge to discriminate and decide. Finally, it implies that neither of the two conflicting discourses are manifest and because of this, the speaker must convince the judge that one is false by attacking it and that the other is true by defending it. Judgement in the strict sense also includes all these elements, in this case although they assume an more sophisticated configuration.

The public judgement is equally a situation of discourse, with those who listen and decide on one side and those who speak and persuade on the other, although these positions, due to the stipulations of democracy, are now fixed. The listeners are spectators of the speakers’s rhetorical performance. They are not called upon to speak but first to hear and then to judge, to deliver a verdict. The one who speaks persuades – i.e. defends and attacks – but does not judge, he has no power of decision. In the context of the public judgement the two original roles of the persuasive situation of common language become more clear and definite.

In the public judgement we have also the two contradictory speeches over which the judge has to decide, and, once again, the democratic regime introduces additional dimensions of the basic elements inherent in any judgmental situation. The two contradictory discourses are propounded by two different speakers who represents two different parties, two fixed points of view, which contributes to accentuate their conflicting nature even more. In addition, the two speeches are constructed having each other as a reference. In the law courts, for example, where the antilogical aspect is more visible, the discourses put forward by the two positions, plaintiff and defendant, must demonstrate opposite theses on the same points (those in dispute), generating a mutual dialogue. Both must respond to questions raised by the other, propose their own questions, draw implications from what the other has put forward, etc. The antilogical aspect present in the situation of judging in common life is thus amplified and made more sophisticated.

Here too in the judgement in the strict sense two contradictory speeches are also possible because neither is immediately acceptable or manifest to the judge. And for the latter to discriminate and decide between opposite speeches, accepting one rather than the other, he must, by definition, be convinced by it. He who proposes it must therefore defend it, which implies at the same time attacking its opposite. In the case of a public judgement, these characteristics are once again enriched. The universe in which all this process takes place, we know, is that of opinion (doxa); as Aristotle emphatically puts it in 1404a2, "the whole business of rhetoric is with opinion [holes ouses pros doxan tes pragmateias tes peri ten retoriken]". In 1377b17 and 1391b24, the material presented in chapters I (paragraphs 4 to 15) and II (paragraphs 2 to 17) this is also termed doxai5. Speeches directed towards a judgement are therefore composed of opinions. The doxa, in turn are defined as being "concerned with that which can be otherwise than it is" (Metaphysics, 1040a1). Precisely because discourses in a public judgement are about that which can always be otherwise than it is, the discourse in favour of a thesis and the one denying it are both possible. Since the object of such a thesis is contingent, it is not manifest and must therefore be defended in order to be accepted by the listener, implying, for the same reason, an attack on its opposite. This allows us to understand why the contradictoriness of the speeches, i.e. antilogy, is a basic rule of the judgement. It meets a demand of the subject matter around which the discourses revolve – contingent – but also a demand of the persuasive function of speech itself, since to persuade is, by definition, to defend an idea while at the same time attacking its opposite. Thus doxa is the proper domain of rhetoric, since no opinion is immediately self-evident, but always presumes the contradictory one, and must always be defended in order to be accepted by the listener.

Another aspect of judgements in the broad sense indicated in 1391b7-22 is that of the absence of knowledge. We only judge when we do not know, insists Aristotle. Any judgement is therefore a search, although only those in a law court or assembly assume the consequent-rich sense of deliberation and investigation. The function of rhetoric, he says, is to deal with things over which we deliberate (bouleuometha) (1357a2). A judgement in both these forums assumes the character of deliberation (bouleusis). What Aristotle has to say in his Nichomachean Ethics about deliberation in the domain of the soul is in perfect harmony with what he tells us in the Rhetoric about deliberation in the city. In the Ethics, he states that deliberation is an investigation (zetein) (1142b3) whose object is actions, more properly those which are in the control of he who deliberates (1112a30)6. From the De Anima, we know that the deliberative imagination is characterised by deciding whether to do this or that, measured by the greater good (434a8-9)7. Deliberation is an investigation into courses of action in a situation where there are always different alternatives, and we need to determine the best one. From the Ethics, we also know that, although those things over which we deliberate, the courses of action, occur for the most part in a certain way, they allways involve obscurity and indeterminateness (1112b8-10)8, thereby justifies their being object of deliberation.

Similarly, in the Rhetoric, the object of deliberation is successively presented as : action (1357a25); that which can be resolved in two ways (1357a6), and that which is not necessary but always capable of being different, either in the past or in the future (1357a7)9. It is important to note that the deliberation dealt with in the Ethics, in the domain of the soul (the individual), as well as the deliberative imagination of the De Anima, is concerned only with the future, a course of action to be taken. This model of deliberation appears to be that of the assembly, from where, Aristotle suggests, the concept also originates. Because he is constructing a comprehensive idea of judgement, however, whether it occurs in an assembly or a law court, he has expanded the idea to include deliberation not only over future actions but also over past events. This can be justified by the qualities of obscurity and uncertainty surrounding not only future actions (by definition) but also past actions, due to the dispute which they have engendered between the opposing parties in the law courts. What has happened, says Aristotle, is in some way unclear (asaphes, 1368a32)10 and is therefore subject of deliberation. Thus we can say that the democratic regime establishes the public judgement in a law court or assembly as a means of deliberating over or investigating questions which, being of common interest but uncertain, are in need of clarification. Thus, in 1391b18-19, the member of the tribunal or assembly is defined as he who judges that which is under investigation (zetoumema) in civic debates and who investigates (zetetai) issues at dispute in a court and under deliberation in an assembly.

The judge in either forum, finding himself lacking knowledge, undertakes an investigation for the purpose of acquiring that knowledge – i.e. being confronted with a antological situation, he must ask himself which of the alternatives presented by the two opposing discourses he should accept. Since these discourses are a enumeration of doxai, deciding in favour of one or the other assumes the form of adhering to certain opinions. The judger's final decision, therefore, assumes the form of pistis, or conviction, which is, according to the De Anima, the means by which one adheres to doxa (428a20-21)11. At this point, however, a certain perplexity arises. On the one hand, he who is doing the persuading is attempting to get the judge to accept a certain opinion (to persuade and to judge are concepts which are inextricably linked and complementary), attempting to produce in him a certain pistis. On the other, and Aristotle emphasises this point, the judgement also assumes an investigatory aspect, the conclusion of which produces knowledge and, important at this moment, truth. It is worth remembering that, on more than one occasion, Aristotle states that a public judgement gives rise to truth, as, for example in 1354b10, where the judge discerns the truth (theorein to alethes)12. In another important passage he affirms that rhetoric is a useful tool for ensuring that truth and justice prevail in the judgement. However, the knowledge which follows the completion of the deliberation/investigation is not, as emphasised in the Ethics, episteme, but rather a form of affirmation (phasis) known as opinion (1142b1 e 1142b14)13. How then can we speak of this latter realm of truth, since the very concept of truth is more appropriately associated with episteme, with a discourse which deals with the universal and necessary? Or rather, in what sense can truth exist in the realm of doxa – which deals with what can always be otherwise than it is – and that of rhetoric, the art whose object is doxa? On this point Aristotle maintains that truth and doxa, truth and rhetoric, are not mutually irreconcilable pairs. One passage indicating it can be found in the Ethics, where he states that thereis a type correctness (orthotes) of opinion (1142b11) that corresponds to truth14. In the case of rhetoric, this correctness occurs when the best and the just are achieved at the conclusion of deliberation, defeating their opposites in the judgement. This is the case of the good deliberation (euboulia) (1142b20-23)15, according to the Ethics. Another response can be found in the Rhetoric itself : "it belongs to the same capacity both to see the true and what resembles the true [to te gar alethes kai to homoion to alethei]...; thus an ability to aim at commonly held opinions [endoxa] is a characteristic of one who also has a similar ability to regard to the truth [aletheian]", 1355a15-19. Particularly if we use episteme as our reference it would be more accurate, in the realm of doxa (and endoxa) and rhetoric, to speak of something which resembles the truth. However, this "weaker" or perhaps “by analogy” truth produced by the art of persuasion appears not to be inferior to epistemic truth, particularly when we consider the institutional insertion of rhetoric and the serious implications of the results of public judgements for the city. Indeed, Aristotle appears to be well aware of these implications when he emphasises the quality of investigation of the judgmental process.

The purpose of the above paper is only to draw attention to certain aspects of Aristotelian theory of rhetorical judgements, in which he proposes the strict relation between the judgemental situation and the persuasive function of the discourse. This type of judgement which involve oratory is a highly specific one which both expandes and enriches the basic judgemental elements encountered in everyday life.


(1) Our intention in these pages is to discuss the idea of judgement in the context of Aristotle's Rhetoric and how this concept is essential to the Aristotelian theory of the three rhetorical proofs, i. e. those based on logos, pathos and ethos, respectively. This theory in turn forms the basis for his entire treatise on the art of oratory.

(2) This is the passage in its entirety: "Since the use of persuasive speech is directed to judgement [hepei d'he ton pithanon logon chresis pros krisin esti] (there is no further need of speech on subjects that we know and have already judged) and since there is judgement even if someone, by using speech to address an individual exhorts or dissuades him, for example, those giving or persuading (a single individual is no less a judge; for a judge is, so to speak, simply one who must be persuaded [hon gar dei peisai, houtos estin hos haplos eiepin krites]) and [since] if someone speaks against an opponent and if against a proposition, the same is true (it is necessary to use speech and to refute opposing arguments at which the speech is directed as at an opponent), and similarly in epideictic (the speech is composed for the spectator as a judge) but [since] nevertheless only that person is purely a judge in the general sense of the word who is judging the questions at issue in civic debates [holos de monos estin haplos krites en tois politikois agosin ho ta zetoumena krinon] (for he inquires into the facts of the dispute [in a law court] and the subject on which counsel is being given [in a deliberative assembly]) and [since] characters as found under [different] constitutions have been discussed earlier - as a result, the definition of how and through what means one ought to make speeches ethical [tous logous ethikous] should be complete." 1391b7-22. G. A. Kennedy’s translation, which we have used throughout, may well generate ambiguities in lines 1391b17-18 ([since] nevertheless only that person is purely a judge in the general sense of the word), which are particularly important in Aristotle’s argument. On this point, the translations of Q. Racionero and J. H. Freese appear to be more precise: "por lo general sólo es absolutamente juez aquél que, en los debates ciudadanos, discierne sobre os hechos que se examinan" e "generally speaking, however, only he who decides questions at issue in civil controversies is a judge in the proper sense of the word". W. M. A. Grimaldi (Aristotle, Rhetoric II, A Commentary, pp. 225-228) calls attention to the passage’s problems of interpretation due to its syntactic construction. Some commentators believe that the conclusion of the argument begins in line 1391b21 (hoste, as a result), but they see no logical connection between that conclusion and what comes before. They believe, therefore, that we are dealing with a late addition by Aristotle, or that the passage belongs more adequately in another part of the Rhetoric (e.g. close to 1377b20-24). We have attempted here, however, to give meaning to the passage as has come to us, believing that Aristotle is reiterating the idea put forward in 1377b20-24, according to which, since rhetoric has its proper place in institutions centred around a particular activity, a judgement, demonstrative persuasion (apodeiktikos, 1377b23) – i.e. logical proof – is not sufficient in itself but must be complemented by persuasion based on ethos and on pathos. Certain commentators even believe that tous logous ethikous in line 1391b22 includes both proofs and not only that based on ethos. This term in turn reappears in 1366a10, this time unquestionably applied to the latter only.

(3) In this reference to the epideictic, although it is affirmed that the listener is a judge, he is not so in the full sense of the word as applied to an assembly or a law court. Hence, it would appear reasonable to conclude that the persuasive function of the discourse is not realised in its most complete form in all three judgmental situations, but only in the deliberative and judicial ones. In truth, this distinction appears to arise from the fact that the spectator in an epideictic discourse does not have the same attributions as a member of an assembly or a tribunal. Thus we can conclude that, although Aristotle attempts to formulate a general theory of rhetoric which includes the epideictic gendre – compatible with the realistic attitude of admitting an existing practice – he also recognises that the inclusive capacity of such a theory is limited. In more than one instance, his arguments are applicable only to the deliberative and judicial spheres. As early as 1358b2-7, the term of judge is reserved exclusively to participants in an assembly or tribunal, the listener to an epideictic discourse being excluded: "Now it is necessary for the hearer to be either a spectator or a judge, and in [in the later case] a judge of either past or future happenings. A member of a democratic assembly is an example of one judging about future happenings, a juryman an example of one judging the past. A spectator is concerned with the ability of the speaker."

(4) "Each sense then relates to its sensible subject-matter; it resides in the sense organ as such, and discerns differences in the said subject-matter; e.g., vision discriminates [krinei] between white and black, and taste between sweet and bitter", De Anima, 426b8-12. Th. Ebert points out that the Greek term krinein has two acceptable meanings: firstly, in the sense of to discriminate or discern, and secondly in that of to judge or decide. He maintains that in the particular context of the De Anima the first is always preferable for the purposes of translation, since sense perception is the act of distinguishing between, or separating, two opposite sensible qualities. The second is more applicable in the judicial and political context, where, although we are still dealing with discriminating between opposing possibilities in relation to past or future events, the task is substantially more complex since the judges must undertake a complete investigation of the case and not merely apply a given law to it.

(5) "These are the proper sources of exhortation and dissuasion, praise and blame, and prosecution and defense, and the kinds of opinions and propositions useful for their persuasive expression", 1377b17. "Since there was a different end for each genus of speech, and opinions and premises have been collected for all of them, from which [speakers] derive pisteis"..., 1391b24.

(6) "Deliberating implies investigating [zetei] and calculating [logizetai]", Nichomachean Ethics, 1142b3, trans. H. Rackham. "we deliberate about things that are in our control and are attainable by action", idem, 1112a30.

(7) "Imagination in the form of sense is found, as we said, in all animals, but deliberative imagination only in the calculative; for to decide whether one shall do this or that calls at once for calculation, and one must measure by a single standard; for one pursues the greater good", De Anima, 434a8-9, trans. W.S.Hett.

(8) "Deliberation is concerned with things that happen in a certain way for the most part [hos epi to polu] but in which the event is obscure [adelois], and with things in which it is indeterminate [adioriston].", Nichomachean Ethics, 1112b8-10, trans. W.D.Ross.

(9) "people deliberate and examine what they are doing [prattousi]", 1357a25. "And we debate [bouleometha] about things that seem to be capable of admitting two possibilities; for no one debates things incapable of being different either in the past or future or present, at least not if they suppose that to be the case", 1357a6-7.

(10) "For what has happened in some way unclear [dia to asaphes]"..., 1368a32.

(11) Every opinion [doxe] implies conviction [pistis], conviction implies that we have been persuaded [pepeisthai], and what persuades [peithoi] is reason [logos]" 428a22-23, translation by Th. Ebert in the article Aristotle on What is Done in Perceiving.

(12) "For them, friendliness and hostility and individual self-interest are often involved, with the result that they are no longer able to see the truth adequately [theorein hikanos to alethes], but their private pleasure or grief casts a shadow on their judgment", 1354b10-11.

(13) "Now deliberation is not knowledge [episteme]: for men do not investigate matters they know", Ética a Nicômaco, 1142b1. "Opinion has passed beyond the stage of investigation and is a form of affirmation [phasis], whereas a man deliberating, whether he deliberates well or badly, is investigating and calculating something", idem, 1142b14, trans. H. Rackham.

(14) "and correctness of opinion is truth [doxes d'horthotes aletheia], Nichomachean Ethics, 1142b11, trans. H. Rackham.

(15) "Therefore it is a kind of correctness in deliberation that is deliberative excellence [euboulia], namely being correct in the sense of arriving at something good", Nichomachean Ethics, 1142b20-23, trans. H. Rackham.


G. A. KENNEDY, On Rhetoric, A Theory of Civic Discourse, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991

J. H. FREESE,The “Art” of Rhetoric, coleção ‘Loeb Classical Library’, edição bilíngüe, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press/London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1975, 1ª edição 1926

Q. RACIONERO, Retórica, Madri: Editorial Gredos, 1990

H. RACKHAM, The Nicomachean Ethics, coleção ‘Loeb Classical Library’, edição bilíngüe, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press/London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1975, 1ª edição 1925

Th. EBERT, Aristotle on what is done in perceiving, Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung, nº 37, 1983

W.M.ª GRIMALDI, Aristotle, Rhetoric II, A Commentary, New York: Fordham University Press, 1988