Obryk Reviews Lan, Aristotle and Confucius on Rhetoric

From the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Version at BMCR home site):

Haixia W. Lan, Aristotle and Confucius on Rhetoric and Truth: The Form and the Way. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. 228. ISBN 978147287360. $149.95.

Reviewed by Matylda Amat Obryk, Heinrich-Heine-University, Düsseldorf (matylda.amat.obryk@uni-duesseldorf.de)

Publisher’s Preview

In Aristotle and Confucius on Rhetoric and Truth. The Form and the Way, Haixia Lan (henceforth Lan), a specialist in the field of comparative rhetoric, follows the latest trend of comparing Aristotle’s and Confucius’ thought.1 Her objective is quite ambitious. The author wants to “to help foster better communication between East and West today”. To achieve this she challenges the view that Eastern and Western thought differ beyond comparison. She fights against stereotypical assumptions that e.g. Aristotle’s concept of essence (which Lan conflates with “truth”) is static and Confucius’ dao-the-way is decentered and therefore incompatible with inferential / discursive thinking (cf. p. 14).

To analyze Aristotelian and Confucian understanding of rhetoric and truth Lan chooses Aristotelian “form” and the Confucian “way” as her interpretative tools. The choice of the “dao-the-way” (as she calls it) is intuitive, as Confucius uses this metaphor to construe his understanding of the world processes. The choice of Aristotelian form, however, is unorthodox. Aristotle claims that every object is a compound of matter and form, and his hylomorphism allows for an explanation of the changes observed in the world. But Lan understands “form” as an interpretative tool too, a metaphor that describes the world. She does this because she needs a tool similar to the Confucian dao-the-way in Aristotelian philosophy. Regrettably there is no such a thing (even if the Aristotelian form may in fact be the closest to what she was looking for). She fails to acknowledge this substantial difficulty.

As the aim of the author is to foster mutual comprehension between East and West the choice of rhetoric is rather satisfying. Lan takes a broad definition of rhetoric, understood both as τέχνη and as ἐπιστήμη. She sees that the aim of rhetoric can be either success, when it is conceived more as τέχνη, or truth, when approached as ἐπιστήμη. The second objective of rhetoric is where Lan sees the core issue in both Aristotle and Confucius. She analyzes the means through which both thinkers approach the question of truth.

The main difficulty is the very premise of this book. Aristotle and Confucius appear to have thought and approached the world in such radically different ways that any comparison seems to be impossible. Aristotle is the first to propound a systematic theory of rhetoric. Confucius is far from it. All we can derive about Confucius’ thought on rhetoric from the Analects comes from incidental remarks made in the course of dialogues or within an exchange of opinion. In the Analectswe can see Confucius’ rhetoric at work; in Aristotle we can analyze his theory step by step. That makes the task of Lan extremely difficult and at times rather confusing. And even though she admits to following Kennedy’s Comparative Rhetoric2 with his rather heavy Eurocentrism, Lan manages to bring the two thinkers, Aristotle and Confucius, onto a similar platform and deal with them in a sovereign way (always under the restriction noted above: only after she has construed the Aristotelian form as similar to Confucian dao).

In five very well structured chapters (the first two on Aristotle and Confucius respectively and then the last three on different approaches to rhetoric—rhetorical probability, rhetorical reasoning, rhetorical education—in both the Greek and Chinese traditions) the author analyzes the different traditions and their history. Aristotle and his approach to rhetoric grows out of a democratic society where speech was omnipresent and a tool of social life. For him rhetoric has a dynamic dimension as it is used to inquire into the truth of things. On the other hand, Confucian rhetorical theory must be extracted from indirect statements. From Confucius’ attacks against “mere rhetoric” we can construct his postulate for a rhetoric as a useful tool of inquiry into the world and human communication.

Lan argues that the main difficulty lies in the fact that the two thinkers conceive of the world and truth in such radically different ways. Lan argues that Aristotle sees in form a metaphor for truth (cf. p. 117) and that is ultimately progressive. On the other hand, Confucius seeks the truth in dao-the-way, which he conceives of being “deferential”, as Lan puts it, meaning a humble way of approaching the world and other fellow humans. At first sight, Aristotle’s thought is rather static and Confucian is dynamic. However, Lan argues that this is misleading. She compares the concept of appropriateness (καιρός) in Aristotle with the dynamic structure of understanding the world as it is encoded in the ba-gua, the eight trigrams that encapsulate the Confucian teaching of yin and yang. Lan makes here the point that, for Aristotle, taking the concept of καιρός and ἐπιείκεια into account, there is no such thing as inflexible and unchanging judgement either. The circumstances and the appropriate time make the judgment about the right way of acting a rather dynamic affair. Lan argues that this is exactly the point where the two thinkers would meet. Reality is never to be looked at from a single perspective.

Furthermore, the author challenges the common opinion that Aristotelian thought is linear and Confucian circular. Lan argues that Aristotelian thought is not as static as it appears—on the assumption that he thinks of forms as changeable and therefore in flux. This flexibility would bring him near the Confucian understanding of dao-the-way. Lan calls his way of thinking “systematic with flexibility”. Confucius’ thought on the other hand appears to be in constant flux, being the dao-the-way. Confucian thought is for her “flexible with systemacity”. Furthermore, Lan—quite rhetorically herself—points out that the differences are subtle: Aristotle is for her “relationally formal”, Confucius “formally relational” (p. 220). She argues that both seem to approach rhetoric in the larger context of inquiry into the truth of things. Aristotle seeks it in form, Confucius in the dao.

Lan concludes with a plea: “we can understand the truths of things, to live the form and walk the way, once we open our minds to others by constantly communicating, reexamining, and improving the probable beliefs and practices of our own” (p. 221). And in that way, she may have achieved her aim to further cross-cultural communication in the globalized 21st century. The dialogue between East and West is a difficult matter, and the book of Haixia Lan shows us both the difficulty and the path.

The most practical of all her conclusions might be this: “it is important to be aware of this difference to communicate effectively cross-culturally, to avoid misinterpreting Confucian ethos as a lack of confidence and Aristotelian ethos as a lack of flexibility” (p. 167). Aristotelian confidence sprouts from his fondness of clarity and deduction in rhetoric as he believes that truths are formal and that they do have an ascertainable aspect. Confucius on the other hand opts for inductivity in rhetoric and a certain subtlety. This insight may indeed help mutual understanding in cross-cultural encounters.

The book is not an easy read. The two traditions Lan is juggling with are indeed very different: the ways of presenting things, of approaching and discussing problems differ. Lan manages to balance between those two worlds very well but not everyone is equally able to. Lan herself seems at times to switch between the two rhetorics in a way that makes the reading even more challenging. Sometimes she speaks as if she would be an Aristotelian, sometimes as a Confucian. Without any doubt she manages to put the two great thinkers, Greek and Chinese, on one platform where a comparison is possible; but whether they in fact meet as often as Lan claims might be another issue. But the value of this work is this very approach. We must try to find ways of communication even across such difficult gulfs. Lan manages to bridge these very different worlds.

Regrettably there is a slight inconsistency in the presentation of non-English terminology. The Greek appears sometimes transliterated, sometimes not, and often lacks its accents. Furthermore, there are some mistakes in the print of the Chinese characters (cf. p. 202). The usual annoyingly typos are to be spotted as well. Nevertheless, the choice of making hyphenated Chinese-English terms for the core words, as for instance “dao-the-way”, was a good decision that makes the balancing between the two so different worlds a bit easier.



1.   A small selection: R. Wardy, Aristotle in China: Language, Categories and Translation (Cambridge University Press, 2000); M. Sim, Remastering Morals with Morals and Confucius (Cambridge University Press, 2007); J. Yu, The Ethic of Confucius and Aristotle. Mirror of Virtue (London: Routledge, 2007).
2.   G. Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric: An Historic and Cross-Cultural Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1998), reviewed in BMCR 98.2.13

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.