Attic Hellebores: Aristotle, Excess and the Reticent Sedation of Kairos

Attic Hellebores: Aristotle, Excess and the Reticent Sedation of Kairos

        Aristotle has been expounded time and time again as a forebear of western thinking. Indeed, western rhetoric and philosophy owe an unpayable debt to the primordial systematizer, the inventor of disciplinarity, the constructor of the most developed epistemologies of ancient Hellenic civilization. The Ethics represents a unique incarnation of the various thought systems developed within Aristotle’s corpus, and will be probed throughout this essay for its epistemological and rhetorical ramifications. A major undercurrent within the Ethics perturbs the question of knowledge acquisition, and not only anticipates the empiricism that would rise to prominence with Locke and Bacon in the 17th century, but also the rationalism that Descartes would develop so persuasively as well as the “appetition” and intuition that Immanuel Kant elevated so highly two millenia later. Aristotle’s ascent in the Hellenic world corresponded with a tremendous expansion that would, ultimately, also lead to its unravelling. It is important to remember Nietzsche’s words here, who reminds us that “the philosopher is timely by being untimely.” Of course, we must acknowledge that in many ways we are stating the obvious– Aristotle’s influence on western thinking has never been in doubt. With such an expansive body of work, touching upon nearly every discipline that would develop over the subsequent two thousand years, inevitably there are currents within Aristotle oeuvre that are comparatively under-examined and neglected. A defining characteristic within Aristotle’s thinking is an overwhelming affirmation of moderation, of balance and restraint, a temperance in regards to consumption, pleasure, and ethical and political conduct. Accompanying this affirmation are crusades against excess: long passages of immense laboring on Aristotle’s part to outline the central premise that in the pursuit of a just, ethical life, an enlightened being must cut out the excessive, must temper it and silence it, and instead must supplant excess, in all of its multitudes, with moderation, constraint and a cool objectivity. Aristotle’s corpus privileges pursuit of the “mean” over the excessive, the superfluous, the extravagant inessential. My conjecture in this short discussion proposes that within this crusade against excess, Aristotle reinscribes a restricted economy in the parlance of George Bataille, and that a consequence of this crusade within the histories of rhetorics has been the gradual tempering and silencing of kairos, a rhetorical concern that had up to Aristotle been a prominent feature of Attic orators in their various approaches to the superfluous. In the end, Aristotle’s averments of moderation and objective, well-reasoned approaches to ethical measurement act as a sedative to Hellenic thinking and that which followed it, a hellebore in Greek medicine, a pacifying, anesthetizing commonplace (topos) that quells spontaneity and generative theatricks both excess and kairos help procreate. Aristotle’s hellebore had pronounced consequences well beyond the Greek world, rippling across the middle ages and the renaissance and well into the Third Sophistic period of rhetorical thinking.  These implications are of strong interest to contemporary historiography of rhetorics.

        Aristotle’s corpus of work, but especially his Ethics and his Politics, constructs an immeasurably influential restricted economy. For Bataille, when energy is generated in abundance and excess within a restricted economy such as that which Aristotle’s invokes, it “must necessarily be lost without profit,” wasted, tossed out and disregarded. In our case, paying particular attention to rhetorical play as energy within these discussions, we can comfortably but perhaps trivially refer to George Kennedy’s characterization of rhetoric as rhetorical energy that can be measured in rhemes. In a restricted economy, energy “must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously and catastrophically.” The rhemes must go somewhere.  In the case of Aristotle, they can be sedated, tranquilized and tossed aside in pursuit of the mean, the moderate, the temperate. In the Ethics, Aristotle’s campaign against excess kicks into full gear. The recurring contestation and postulation that appears time and time again in the middle books reveals itself in the enunciations “virtues are mean states” and again as “we must keep closely to the mean state.” Eric Havelock reminds us that for Aristotle, “the spontaneous is suspect; communication without control is meaningless.” Aristotle’s limiting of the possible within language, the excess, is a central tenet of his approach to both rhetoric and ethics. The possible is always the excess, and Aristotle’s managerial and codifying need to control the “extra,” (ie. excessive) within language, rhetorics, ethics, and politics is what ends up doing violence to excess and kairos, as we will soon see. If the end for Plato is the ideal, than the end for Aristotle is the actual, and the actual is the mean which must always cut out the excessive. Interestingly, for Aristotle, “the mean has no name.” As Heidegger would remind us, “the Greeks are often silent, especially about what is essential to them.” There is not space here to delve into the ways in which other Greeks conceived of the mean (the middle, the tempered, the unobtrusive, the dominant, scientific actual), but it is certainly a gap within which a kai-erotic moment opens up that we ought to pursue in words other than these.

        Following this, an interesting and provocative discussion occurs in book four of the Ethics in which Aristotle betrays his own claims to objectivity.  Aristotle begins a discussion of anger, which in our terms can be termed “excessive” emotion, spirit or energy, but then his reasoning slips: he comments that the “deficiency” of anger, excessive passion, is “indignant” and is “considered to err,” but then conflates excess with kairos when he writes “those who do not get angry in the right way or at the right time or with the right people” are “considered to err,” to be “indignant,” to be “deficient in perceptivity and sensitivity.” By denigrating excessive rhetorical energy– anger– in these words, Aristotle vilifies the excessive, but also hedges by leaving open a time and a space in which excessive passion might be permitted within a controlled, regulated, managed kairotic moment robbed off all its kai-erotic elements. Aristotle’s Ethics tempers kairos on at least two levels, each corresponding to the two definitions of the word of interest to rhetoricians. First is the word’s dominant sense in contemporary circles of rhetorical discussion, the kairos of ideal timing, of striking with language at the opportune moment, of loosening the powers within words at the timely opening of some more possibilities.  

        Of more interest within this particular discussion, however, is the second sense belonging to kairos, the meaning typically associated with the sophistic orator Gorgias. Within this kairos, space is opened for harmony of opposing voices, for plurality in speaking and subjectivity, for polyvocality and multitudinous multifarious multiplicity. Concisely put, Aristotle’s managerial approach, his calculating and controlling mode of suppressing and oppressing the excess, manifests a limiting of the possible within the kairotic that centers the scientific, the temperate, and the restricted. Aristotle’s restricted economy (“economy of words…”) is a “will to clarity.” I want to decenter it. Aristotle centers a singularity which he calls the mean. Let us collapse it and aggrandize the dustcloud.

        I argue here that Aristotle’s firm and unvarying rejection of both excess and kairos in favor of the rational, objective, always-moderate, codified, species-genus analytics mean is a mode which functions to sedate spontaneity, to limit the possible only to that which is likely, temperate or sanctioned “ethical” by the dominant, ruling ideology, in this case the rising empirical worldview championed by Aristotle. By limiting the possible and cutting out the excess, Aristotle takes what could be a general economy (represented here by Gorgias and other sophists) and instead steers his generations upon generations of readers toward a restricted economy in which rhetorical energy is channeled, captured, caged up and sedated. In the end, Aristotle’s species-genus analytics, his pursuit of the mean, act upon the changing and rapidly-expanding Hellenic society of his day as a sort of hellebore, a sedative typical of the Greek world. It is testament of Aristotle’s influence that the symptoms of this hellebore still linger with us today.

        It is not enough to posit that in Aristotle’s endless categorization, the species-genus analytics he proposes, his attitudes toward excess, all propose a set of relations to the world, to social relations in a community and to rhetorical energy itself, that maintain, uphold and replicate the sedation and tranquilization of rhetorics which handicap the subjective, the irrational, the unscientific. Aristotle’s species-genus analytics is implicated in what James Berlin would refer to as ideology “providing the language to define the subject (the self), other subjects, the material world, and the relation of all of these” within the definitive political, hegemonic statement that is any text or linguistic utterance, including the Ethics and the Politics. By placing penalty on excess, by limiting the extravagant and the spurious and the spontaneous, Aristotle does violence to subjectivities and modes of being that resist the cold, objective, rational, scientific mindset encapsulated in the mean. No rhetoric can be innocent, as Berlin would remind us, and that which Aristotle espouses in the Ethics is certainly imbricated and implicated in schemes of power, domination, colonization, and hegemonic interpellating through suppression, repression and oppression of that deemed the excess. To close, Aristotle’s privileging of the scientific voice at the expense of the excessive and the kai-erotic sedated and tranquilized what might once have been a vibrant, animated, dynamic and energetic approach to excess and its manifestations within rhetorical practice.

        The symptoms of this ancient hellebore linger with us still, however; perhaps a project of the Third Sophistic will have been, then, a continued recovery of its elixir-in-words.



Aristotle. “Ethics.” Penguin Classics. Trans. J.A.K. Thomson. 1983. Print.

— “Politics.” Penguin Classics. Trans. T.A. Sinclair, 1974. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks.” PDF.

Berlin, James. “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Classroom.” College English, Vol. 50, No. 5. PDF

Kennedy, George. “A Hoot in the Dark.” PDF.

Heidegger, Martin. “Parmenides.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998

Bataille, George. “The Accursed Share.” PDF.

Havelock, Eric. “The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics.” PDF.

Vitanza, Victor. “Negation, Subjectivity and the History of Rhetoric.” State University of New York Press, 1997.


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