Aristotle’s Syllogism & Enthymeme: Part 2

Recap of first post: Ancient Greeks and Romans invented concepts like logic and figurative language that we practically deem self-evident. Aristotle defined the terms “syllogism” and “enthymeme.” A syllogism connects two ideas through definition/implication. The gist is that if A includes B and B includes C, A must include C. An enthymeme connects ideas similarly but works through probability rather than fact. Pragmatic examples of each are included in the first post: Aristotle’s Syllogism & Enthymeme: Part 1.

General Maxims

Shortened enthymemes can make particularly powerful rhetorical tools. Aristotle referred to them as “general maxims.” The examples from the first post illustrate that general maxims can be used as logos, but they can also be employed for pathos and ethos. Logos means logical evidence, pathos means emotional appeal, and ethos means credibility/character as a rhetorician. Aristotle claimed that general maxims bring audiences delight when they appear as oft-repeated generalizations that give people confirmation bias; invoking self-satisfaction is a pathos exercise. When a rhetorician makes this kind of proclamation, he or she marks a moral preference. Audiences who commend a rhetorician’s general maxims will view that person as more credible. An example of a general maxim meeting these standards is a rhetorician proclaiming to a libertarian audience that taxation is theft. The premises and conclusion read, “Taking my money without my approval is theft. I don’t approve of the government taking my money. Therefore, taxation is theft.” An audience that already opposes most forms of socialism will approve the statement and more likely trust the person who said it. Enthymemes are used to build logos, pathos, and ethos.


Aristotle claims that syllogisms are more important to scientific discourse, but enthymemes are more appropriate to rhetoric. Because rhetoric explores the ways we communicate ideas, syllogisms are not beneficial to rhetoricians; we work to persuade others of opinions, not facts. However, people often believe that they’re disputing fact when they’re actually disputing perception of fact; a cliched, seemingly self-evident, or well-crafted enthymeme can appear so logical that people accept it as irrefutably as a syllogism. Enthymemes bolster our opinions, or our presentations of “the real facts,” because drawing conclusions from examples, signs, and general observation strengthens the validity of those opinions. Enthymemes work to show an audience how and why a rhetorician perceives a situation a certain way. Ideally, a rhetorician would choose the most persuasive enthymeme in a particular case to display their line of reasoning to the audience; crafting a strong general maxim could be key to swaying them.

Golden, James, et al. The Rhetoric of Western Thought. 10th ed., Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2011.


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