Aristotle's Rhetoric
Previous Chapter

Book III - Chapter 11

Next Chapter

It has already been mentioned that liveliness is got by using the proportional type of metaphor and being making (ie. making your hearers see things). We have still to explain what we mean by their "seeing things," and what must be done to effect this. By "making them see things" I mean using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity. Thus, to say that a good man is "four-square" is certainly a metaphor; both the good man and the square are perfect; but the metaphor does not suggest activity. On the other hand, in the expression "with his vigour in full bloom" there is a notion of activity; and so in "But you must roam as free as a sacred victim"; and in

Thereas up sprang the Hellenes to their feet,

where "up sprang" gives us activity as well as metaphor, for it at once suggests swiftness. So with Homer's common practice of giving metaphorical life to lifeless things: all such passages are distinguished by the effect of activity they convey. Thus,

Downward anon to the valley rebounded the boulder remorseless;


The (bitter) arrow flew;


Flying on eagerly;


Stuck in the earth, still panting to feed on the flesh of the heroes;


And the point of the spear in its fury drove full through his breastbone.

In all these examples the things have the effect of being active because they are made into living beings; shameless behaviour and fury and so on are all forms of activity. And the poet has attached these ideas to the things by means of proportional metaphors: as the stone is to Sisyphus, so is the shameless man to his victim. In his famous similes, too, he treats inanimate things in the same way:

Curving and crested with white, host following host without ceasing.

Here he represents everything as moving and living; and activity is movement.

Metaphors must be drawn, as has been said already, from things that are related to the original thing, and yet not obviously so related -- just as in philosophy also an acute mind will perceive resemblances even in things far apart. Thus Archytas said that an arbitrator and an altar were the same, since the injured fly to both for refuge. Or you might say that an anchor and an overhead hook were the same, since both are in a way the same, only the one secures things from below and the other from above. And to speak of states as "levelled" is to identify two widely different things, the equality of a physical surface and the equality of political powers.

Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more. His mind seems to say, "Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that." The liveliness of epigrammatic remarks is due to the meaning not being just what the words say: as in the saying of Stesichorus that "the cicalas will chirp to themselves on the ground." Well-constructed riddles are attractive for the same reason; a new idea is conveyed, and there is metaphorical expression. So with the "novelties" of Theodorus. In these the thought is startling, and, as Theodorus puts it, does not fit in with the ideas you already have. They are like the burlesque words that one finds in the comic writers. The effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose. The word which comes is not what the hearer imagined: thus

Onward he came, and his feet were shod with his -- chilblains,

where one imagined the word would be "sandals." But the point should be clear the moment the words are uttered. Jokes made by altering the letters of a word consist in meaning, not just what you say, but something that gives a twist to the word used; e.g. the remark of Theodorus about Nicon the harpist Thratt' ei su ("you Thracian slavey"), where he pretends to mean Thratteis su ("you harpplayer"), and surprises us when we find he means something else. [1412b] So you enjoy the point when you see it, though the remark will fall flat unless you are aware that Nicon is Thracian. Or again: Boulei auton persai (You wish to persecute him). In both these cases the saying must fit the facts. This is also true of such lively remarks as the one to the effect that to the Athenians their empire (arche) of the sea was not the beginning (arche) of their troubles, since they gained by it. Or the opposite one of Isocrates, that their empire (arche) was the beginning (arche) of their troubles. Either way, the speaker says something unexpected, the soundness of which is thereupon recognized. There would be nothing clever is saying "empire is empire." Isocrates means more than that, and uses the word with a new meaning. So too with the former saying, which denies that arche, in one sense was arche in another sense. In all these jokes, whether a word is used in a second sense or metaphorically, the joke is good if it fits the facts. For instance, Anaschetos (proper name) ouk anaschetos (Baring is past bearing): where you say that what is so-and-so in one sense is not so-and-so in another; well, if the man is unpleasant, the joke fits the facts. Again, take --

Thou must not be a stranger stranger than Thou should'st.

Do not the words "thou must not be," &c., amount to saying that the stranger must not always be strange? Here again is the use of one word in different senses. Of the same kind also is the much-praised verse of Anaxandrides:

Death is most fit before you do
Deeds that would make death fit for you.

This amounts to saying "it is a fit thing to die when you are not fit to die," or "it is a fit thing to die when death is not fit for you," i.e. when death is not the fit return for what you are doing. The type of language employed-is the same in all these examples; but the more briefly and antithetically such sayings can be expressed, the more taking they are, for antithesis impresses the new idea more firmly and brevity more quickly. They should always have either some personal application or some merit of expression, if they are to be true without being commonplace -- two requirements not always satisfied simultaneously. Thus "a man should die having done no wrong" is true but dull: "the right man should marry the right woman" is also true but dull. No, there must be both good qualities together, as in "it is fitting to die when you are not fit for death." The more a saying has these qualitis, the livelier it appears: if, for instance, its wording is metaphorical, metaphorical in the right way, antithetical, and balanced, and at the same time it gives an idea of activity.

Successful similes also, as has been said above, are in a sense metaphors, since they always involve two relations like the proportional metaphor. [1413a] Thus: a shield, we say, is the "drinking-bowl of Ares," and a bow is the "chordless lyre." This way of putting a metaphor is not "simple," as it would be if we called the bow a lyre or the shield a drinking-bowl. There are "simple" similes also: we may say that a flute-player is like a monkey, or that a short-sighted man's eyes are like a lamp-flame with water dropping on it, since both eyes and flame keep winking. A simile succeeds best when it is a converted metaphor, for it is possible to say that a shield is like the drinking-bowl of Ares, or that a ruin is like a house in rags, and to say that Niceratus is like a Philoctetes stung by Pratys -- the simile made by Thrasyniachus when he saw Niceratus, who had been beaten by Pratys in a recitation competition, still going about unkempt and unwashed. It is in these respects that poets fail worst when they fail, and succeed best when they succeed, i.e. when they give the resemblance pat, as in

Those legs of his curl just like parsley leaves;


Just like Philammon struggling with his punchball.

These are all similes; and that similes are metaphors has been stated often already.

Proverbs, again, are metaphors from one species to another. Suppose, for instance, a man to start some undertaking in hope of gain and then to lose by it later on, "Here we have once more the man of Carpathus and his hare," says he. For both alike went through the said experience.

It has now been explained fairly completely how liveliness is secured and why it has the effect it has. Successful hyperboles are also metaphors, e.g. the one about the man with a black eye, "you would have thought he was a basket of mulberries"; here the "black eye" is compared to a mulberry because of its colour, the exaggeration lying in the quantity of mulberries suggested. The phrase "like so-and-so" may introduce a hyperbole under the form of a simile. Thus

Just like Philammon struggling with his punchball

is equivalent to "you would have thought he was Philammon struggling with his punchball"; and

Those legs of his curl just like parsley leaves

is equivalent to "his legs are so curly that you would have thought they were not legs but parsley leaves." Hyperboles are for young men to use; they show vehemence of character; and this is why angry people use them more than other people.

Not though he gave me as much as the dust or the sands of the sea . . .
But her, the daughter of Atreus' son, I never will marry,
Nay, not though she were fairer than Aphrodite the Golden,
Defter of hand than Athene . . .

[1413b] (The Attic orators are particularly fond of this method of speech.) Consequently it does not suit an elderly speaker.

Previous Chapter
Lee Honeycutt ( Last modified:3/15/04
Next Chapter