Sunday, April 5, 2009

Aristotle's Topical Ointment

(image: likeness of Aristotle)

Aristotle, who seems to have been able to understand everything about everything, helped to establish the field of rhetoric, as well as the fields of science, philosophy, politics, literary criticism, and what we might call "college teaching." (All in a day's work.) Indeed, the volume we refer to now as On Rhetoric, by Aristotle, is composed in large measure of students' notes of Ari's lectures. It's a fabulous book, if you like that sort of thing.

With regard to rhetoric, Aristotle came up with, or at least formally defined, "topics of invention." The idea was that a rhetor (writer, speaker), when approaching a new topic, could approach it equipped with categories and get going more quickly on the task of discovering ("inventing") what he or she would have to say, ultimately, on the subject.

Nowadays, the term "stock issues" is one variation on "topics of invention." In this case, "stock" doesn't mean stereotypical; it means something closer to "well known issues" related to a subject.

For example, if you're getting ready to argue, civilly, with someone about abortion, you can be sure that the issue of when life begins will come up, as will the issue of whether a fetus is a separate life or part of a woman's body (or both). I often tell my composition-students that arguments about abortion effectively end before they begin because neither side is ever going to agree on fundamental points (or stock issues). If you can't agree on "when life begins," it is unlikely that you are going to agree about abortion. In some cases, it's better simply to agree to disagree, as opposed to wasting time staking out familiar territory, getting angry, and so on. At the same time, if you want to persist in writing an argument about abortion, you can use the "stock issues" to acknowledge the "opponent's" point of view and summarize them fairly, unless of course you are a pundit on TV, in which case you will want to be unfair and loud.

A distinct option is to try to find common ground elsewhere in the topic. For example, could people who disagree about abortion agree on sex-education? Maybe such agreement is not likely, but it's not impossible; it's not impossible because the argument hasn't stalled on something like "when life begins."

Another venerable example of "topics of invention" are the journalist's questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? Go into a story with these questions in mind, get answers to them, and you're on your way to writing a good news story.

During National Poetry Month, when we're supposed to be writing a poem a day (I usually do so anyway--more's the pity), I thought I'd reach back to some of the oldest prompts in the figurative book and steal something from rhetoric to use on poetry (Aristotle would approve, I'm convinced; he was comfortable with both arts).

Topical Poem

Who is the one you are. Good luck discovering
What makes up your Who. In the meantime, interact with
When, which is any moment you're alive, and with
Where, a space full of stuff!
How you interact is only partly up to you.
Why any of this is, is the Mystery.

I invite you to write a poem based on these venerable topics of invention, and I think the odds are quite high that your poem will surpass the one above (ya think?). Use Dr. Aristotle's Topical Ointment!

And by the way, isn't "ointment" just a fabulous word?
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