An Ancient Argument

Aristotle v Plato / Rhetoric v Dialectic


This essay will discuss one of the earliest fundamental communication theories from around 350BCE. The theory proposed by Aristotle called ‘Rhetoric’. It will also discuss the ‘Dialectic’ theory of communication as championed by Plato. These Two theories are counterparts in ‘The Art of Discourse’ (Ong 2005). This essay will also acknowledge the links modern communication theories have to the ancient Greeks’ and what relationship communication theory has with the music industry today.

Aristotle’s ‘Rhetorical Theory of Communication’

Aristotle was a proponent of ‘Rhetoric’ as a theory of communication. It had three simple elements: Logos, Ethos and Pathos (Aristotle 1984). This theory relies on the understanding of persuasion as a method of communication with little or no input from the receiver/receivers of the message (Jardine 1974). It discourages argument, is not suited to written communication and is a one-way conversation (Olmsted 2008).

A ‘Rhetorical’ message/speech is sent/broadcast – Logos (Aristotle 1984). The credibility and reputation or moral character of the speaker/sender of the message is made evident – Ethos (Aristotle 1984). Then the emotions of the receiver/receivers of the message, the audience, are manipulated, to sway their judgement to the sender’s point of view – Pathos (Aristotle 1984). This can be done as part of the content of the message or, as an example, with music (Aristotle 1984). This element of ‘Rhetoric’ is used by politics and organised religion and is especially evident in today’s society with lighting, projection and other technological advancements often seen at political rallies and entertainment events (Jardine 1974). Unfortunately, Pathos can also extend to physically changing peoples emotions and their proclivity to persuasion via the horror of torture as we have seen over millennia (Schiappa 1994). This seems to be the main thrust from opponents of ‘Rhetoric’.

Plato, a pupil of Socrates, was an opponent of ‘Rhetorical Theory’. ‘Rhetoric’ can be seen as being able to be used for propaganda and the dissemination of lies (Brands & Medhurst 2000). The ‘Rhetorical Theory’ is based less on truth than outcome (Murphy, Katula & Hoppmann 2013). He openly criticised his own pupil, Aristotle, and other proponents because its three precepts, Logos, Ethos and Pathos, in any communication, could and probably would, due to human nature, enable deceit instead of discovering truth (Plato 1999). In “Gorgias”, Plato’s set of written conversations, he accuses a senators’ use of rhetoric in parliament as the “persuasion of ignorant masses within the courts and assemblies” (Plato 380BCE).

Plato’s ‘Dialectic Theory of Communication’

Plato seems to extol the virtues of the “Dialectic Theory of Communication” (Plato 1999). This theory relies on the understanding of reason and logic as a method of communication (Jardine 1974). It encourages argument, can be used in written communication and is a two-way conversation (Plato 1999).

A Dialectic conversation begins by someone having a point of view, an opinion that is then spoken or transmitted. The audience interprets the message using their education and experiences. They then apply critical thought to the information supplied in the message, examine its context and formulate a reply or argument based on deduction and reason (Jacobs n.d.). This assumes, of course, the patience and/or good nature of the original sender who conversely becomes the receiver of a new message called the reply or argument (Nyquist 2001).

Modern Theories and their links to Rhetoric and Dialectic

Today, the ‘Rhetorical’, to persuade, is used in political speech, lecturing, propaganda, religious speech, torture and anywhere you have a need to maintain authority (Olmsted 2008). The ‘Dialectic’ is used everywhere one needs to discuss and get opinion such as political forum, debates, symposiums and general argument (Miller 2004). This is a simplified overview, however many of today’s communication methods have their roots in one or the other of these ancient Greek theories (Stacks & Salwen 2014).

McGregor’s X and Y theory, an organizational method of communication used for management practices where motivation is required (Miller 2014), can be seen to have its basis in both Rhetorical and Dialectic theories. This two-part theory has been widely taught in business schools, industrial relations schools, psychology departments, and professional development seminars for over half a century now (McGregor 2006). McGregor’s Theory Y, which says individuals are self-motivated and self-directed, is a soft approach to management and can be seen to have its root in Dialectic argument – a two-way conversation. McGregor’s Theory X, however, in which employees must be commanded and controlled is Rhetorical in nature. “What are your assumptions, either implied or explicit, about the most effective way to manage (or motivate) people?” asks McGregor in his book ‪’The Human Side of Enterprise’ (McGregor 2006). Aristotle in 350BCE claims that Rhetoric can be used as a ‘method for controlling society through politics’, a way of managing/motivating people (Littlejohn & Foss 2009)

Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy Of Needs’ is a theory of human motivation rather than communication. However, Maslow states that knowing the different cultural needs of your employees or workforce can be intrinsic in motivating their communication and their responses to messages (Maslow 2013). He implies a duality of meaning here in that knowing the needs of your workforce (or audience) can be either Rhetorical or Dialectic depending on the reputation and/or motivation of the employer or message sender (Steinberg 2007).

Vance Packard in his 1957 book about disguised rhetoric in modern advertising, ‘Hidden Persuaders’ talks about his ‘Theory of Needs’ and how fundraisers, advertisers, political leaders and public relations practitioners all appeal to peoples needs in their speech’s (Packard 2007). That is Pathos, part of the 3 elements of the Rhetorical Theory as proposed by Aristotle.

Communication in the Music Industry

The study of communication theory seems to be in its infancy despite its discourse over two thousand years. There are arguments that state that there are too few theories to make it worthy of any study at all (Berger 2003). However, there are others who say that the 127 or so theories are an indication that the subject is alive and continuing to expand its knowledge base (Craig 2007).

In the music industry, numerous theory and methods of communication are used both on an individual level as well as on a group or mass scale. Individual communication is important, as an example, through the artist/agent/manager relationship. However, in advertising and performance, methods of mass communication are used (Rogers 1983). Everett Rogers in his book “Diffusion Of Innovation” said:

Mass media channels are often the most rapid and efficient means to inform an audience of potential adopters about the existence of an innovation, that is, to create awareness-knowledge. (1983, p.18)

This was written in a time without the plethora of digital social media that is ubiquitous in the entertainment industry today, but the idea remains current. The new mass media information tools, such as Facebook and Twitter together with crowd sourcing and funding sites such as Indigogo have changed some of the physical structures of communication (in the music business), however, many of the theoretical aspects of communication remain the same (Lazorchak 2002).


The act of communication, at its least, could be seen as the simple transference of a thought between one being and another, a ‘telementational’ process (Harris 2014). However, there are three parts to any verbal communication: a sender, a message and a receiver or receivers – a group or audience (Kushal 2011). ‘Communication’ and theories about it abound and have been fundamental in the growth of humanity and the evolution of society (Griffin 2011). From the earliest times, philosophers have proposed theories in regards to what ‘communication’ is.

Rhetoric and dialectic have long been understood as two contrasting approaches to the use of reasoning through discourse. Rhetoric has been generally understood to be a unilateral process by which a speaker under-takes to persuade an audience. Its paradigm case involves monologue and text. Dialectic has been taken to represent a bilateral process by which two parties undertake to reach a consensus. Its paradigm case involves dialogue and debate (Jacobs n.d.).

The two ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato with their theories of communication, ‘The Rhetoric’ and ‘The Dialectic’, would have been unable to grasp the complex nature of modern communication – written, spoken, semiotic or digital but without their innovation humanity would be the lesser for it. Those two simple methods of communication have forged the way for an intricate array of theories and methods that now cover all aspects of modern life.

© Paul Jenkins 2015

Reference list 

Aristotle 1984, Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 2: The Revised Oxford Translation, Princeton University Press.

Berger, CR 2003, Why are there so few communcation theories?, EBSCO Publsihing, viewed 17 August 2014, <>.

Brands, HW & Medhurst, MJ 2000, Critical Reflections on the Cold War: Linking Rhetoric and History, Texas A&M University Press.

Craig, RT 2007, ‘Why are there so many communication theories?’, Journal of Communication, vol 43, no. 3, pp. 26-33, viewed 17 August 2014.

Griffin, E 2011, A First Look at Communication Theory, McGraw-Hill Education.

Harris, R 2014, ‘On Redefining Linguistics’, in Redefining Linguistics, Routledge.

Jacobs, S, Rhetoric and Dialectic from the Standpoint of Normative Pragrnatics, viewed 22 August 2014, <>.

Jardine, L 1974, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse, Cambridge University Press.

Kushal, SJ 2011, Business Communication, FK Publications.

Lazorchak, B 2002, CH-Scene: Communication Theories and Musical Communities, viewed 18 August 2014, <>, INLS 180 Final Project For Dr. Gary Marchionini.

Littlejohn, SW & Foss, KA 2009, Encyclopedia of Communication Theory, SAGE.

Maslow, AH 2013, A Theory of Human Motivation, Start Publishing LLC.

McGregor, D 2006, The Human Side of Enterprise, Annotated Edition, McGraw Hill Professional.

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Miller, K 2014, Organizational Communication: Approaches and Processes, Cengage Learning.

Murphy, JJ, Katula, RA & Hoppmann, M 2013, A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric, Routledge.

Nyquist, GS 2001, Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, iUniverse.

Olmsted, W 2008, Rhetoric: An Historical Introduction, John Wiley & Sons.

Ong, WJ 2005, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, University of Chicago Press.

Packard, V 2007, The Hidden Persuaders, LG Publishing.

Plato 1999, Plato on Rhetoric and Language: Four Key Dialogues, Hermagoras Press.

Plato 380BCE, Gorgias, Arc Manor LLC.

Rogers, EM 1983, Diffusion of Innovation, 3rd edn, The Free Press, New York.

Schiappa, E 1994, Landmark Essays on Classical Greek Rhetoric, Hermagoras Press.

Stacks, DW & Salwen, MB 2014, An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, Routledge.

Steinberg, S 2007, An Introduction to Communication Studies, Juta and Company Ltd.

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