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Art History

Bonsai and the Ancient Art of Rhetoric

Can we learn from the ancient classics?

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By Attila Soos, USA

I believe that for anyone who is seriously engaged in arts, understanding the various aspects of art theory and its evolution has important benefits. One of them is recognizing the interdependence of arts at a deeper level.

One of the oldest theories having significant influence over the arts in the Middle Ages and early modern period is the ancient rhetorical theory. This theory, from its inception to the present days, immensely affected the European civilization. It had a direct influence on literature and poetry, but since poetry was constantly associated with painting, rhetorical theory became the point of reference for the entire vocabulary of stylistics describing the visual arts.

Inevitably, the question arising here will be: what do Aristotle, Plato, and other famous orators have to do with bonsai? Aren’t we pushing the parallels between totally unrelated things into the ridiculous?

I say no. As Joseph Campbell said about legends and myths, the deeper our knowledge, the more we realize that they all go back to the same source, the same themes repeating themselves in various forms.

I was surprised to discover that rhetorical theory and bonsai has a lot to do with each other for the simple fact that they both belong to the arts. In the following paragraphs I will present some of the principles of rhetoric and apply them to the art of bonsai. Lets see how far we can go.

General Ideas

The most important principle of rhetorical theory is called decorum. It is the law governing the relationships between the form, content, and audience. In order for a work of art to successfully communicate with the audience, all three elements are equally important. This principle requires a deep understanding of expressive possibilities and acute sensitivity to social circumstances.

In bonsai the artist should be careful to select a material suitable for the picture he has in mind (or conversely, the subject he is creating should be appropriate to the material that is used), also keeping in mind the tastes of the audience he wants to communicate with. He may not care about the audience, and so he may be the only one enjoying the work at the end.

A work of art should be held together by stylistic unity and internal consistency. Observing carefully the concept of decorum achieves just that.

This tree projects an image corresponding to the forceful style in rhetoric. Many of us find it very impressive. Others would find the deadwood excessive and somewhat overwhelming.

This tree projects an image corresponding to the forceful style in rhetoric. Many of us find it very impressive. Others would find the deadwood excessive and somewhat overwhelming.
Photo by Boon Manakitivipart

There are countless tools that the artists use today, deriving from rhetorical theory. One of them is the metaphor. This is when we substitute one thing for another in order to increase the power of suggestion. Another one is synecdoche, using a small part to represent the whole.

Bonsai is all about metaphors. Leafs can represent foliage pads. Moss represents grass. Gravel can represent water, and there are so many more. Synecdoche is also used a lot, a few lonely twigs in the distance representing a whole forest, for instance.

Plato, in the Phaedrus expressed his belief that the principle inspiring any work of art is the love of ideal beauty. Every discourse should be like a living thing, with body, head and feet of his own. All its parts should meld into an organic unity, creating an artistic composition. Incidentally, it is interesting to note what Plato said about art critics: a critic in order to have any worth, should be a foremost expert of the particular art form. He should study good and bad examples. Recognizing bad examples is just as important as recognizing good ones.

Here is an advice from Socrates on the skills of good artists: one can only master tragedy if one is a master of comedy as well. Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.
This concept is a very important one, and points to the simultaneous existence of opposing forces. It is the secret of balance and unity in any work of art. Applying to bonsai, we need to learn to recognize and create the opposing characters in a tree: masculine and feminine; young and old; graceful and clumsy; tension and relaxed; merry and solemn; friendly and hostile. Only by recognizing the traits of youth and innocence, can we successfully create the impression of great age and wisdom.

Aristotle wrote the first complete treatise on rhetoric. Here are a few of his ideas on the art of rhetoric.

The best speeches are not always truthful. They should rather take into account human psychology and try to hit the "right chords" in the listener’s mind. In bonsai, the most successful tree is not always the one copying nature. It is much more important that the image presented by the tree seems plausible than that it is true. It is not about how the tree should look. It’s about what we believe that it should look like. You will be much more successful in communicating with your audience by telling them a lie that confirms their expectation than by telling them a truth that is against their expectations.

In his Rhetoric III, Aristotle says that Clearness and Fitness are primary requirements for creating good art. Clearness refers to the message: a plain, unambiguous message. A work that doesn’t deliver a plain message will not be effective. Trying to deliver too much will distract and lessen the impact. Fitness is about style: it has to support the content. Choosing an inappropriate style will ruin a brilliant idea.

Aristotle’s successor, Theophrastus said about delivering a speech:

"Not all possible points should be punctiliously and tediously elaborated by a speaker, but some should be left to the comprehension and inference of the hearer who, when he perceives what you have left unsaid, becomes not only your hearer but your witness, and a friendly witness too. For he thinks himself intelligent because you have afforded him the means of showing his intelligence. It seems like slur on your hearer to tell him everything as though he were a simpleton."

The implications of the above on bonsai are self-explanatory. In fact this is one of the cardinal concepts in the Zen philosophy of arts, so influential on bonsai. I also happen to find the above an essential element of any art. The ingredient that elevates it above kitsch.

Kitsch, or kitschy art leaves nothing to imagination. It may express the view of its creator, it may communicate an idea to the viewer, but it is forced upon you without inviting you to be an active participant in its world. What’s left unsaid is the key here.

Style and Rhetoric

It was widely believed that the orator should master various styles when addressing an audience.

Demetrius describes a plain style, an elegant style, an elevated style, and a forceful or awe-inspiring style. In his essays, the highest virtue is awarded to the plain style (Aristotle had also favored this style), due to its being the most accommodating to the cardinal virtue of clearness.


The graceful nature of japanese maple lends itself to an image corresponding to the elegant style in rhetoric.

The graceful nature of japanese maple lends itself to an image corresponding to the elegant style in rhetoric.
Photo by Boon Manakitivipart

Looking at the above styles, it is worth mentioning that in bonsai, the traditional styles refer to the outer shape of the tree rather then the inner qualities. The above styles refer to those inner qualities. Demetrius condemns all forms of affectation, the overuse of artistic arsenal, which leads to a sense of fakeness rather than honest imagination. He includes within the elegant style whatever is graceful, charming and playful. In praise of the plain style, he believes that the more simple the setting, the deeper the audience will be touched by the poetry.

Theophrastus also warns of the pitfalls of the elevated (read Formal) style. This style can degenerate into frigid when making it too formal or pompous. This happens quite often when we over-manicure our bonsai, taking away its soul.

Here is Aristotle’s take on style:

"A writer must disguise his art and give the impression of speaking naturally and not artificially. Naturalness is persuasive, artificiality is the contrary; for our hearers are prejudiced and think we have some design against them as if we were mixing their wines for them."

Horace, in Ars Poetica, places a great emphasis on the knowledge of various styles in poetry, the moods they represent, and the artistic tools applied in their creation.

"If you cannot distinguish these various kinds of work
You should not expect to be taken up as a poet;
If you don’t find out, you will always be a fool."

And one very important thing: "The subject must choose the style; you are not important."

As mentioned above, in bonsai, this talk about style should not be taken literally as the "bonsai styles" we traditionally talk about. It is rather about the recognition of internal qualities, of masculine and feminine elements, and how the mixing of these elements affects the overall mood. We can talk about qualities such as massive, stately, towering, drooping, sad, playful, lonely, rugged, elegant, or so many others.


The pine above is a very formal one. It would be seen as made in the elevated style by the orators.

The pine above is a very formal one. It would be seen as made in the elevated style by the orators.
Photo by Boon Manakitivipart

The Rules of Rhetoric and the Ars Poetica

There is a lot of literature concerning the rules of rhetoric. In ancient rhetorical theory, the consensus is that departure from the rules can be extremely effective in some cases. The artist needs to be aware that art depends on rules in essential ways, but the system of rules has to be open-ended enough to allow for departures. The vitality and sophistication of any art theory depends on being sensitive to the need for this flexibility.

One of the literary gems of the antiquity is the Ars Poetica, written by Horace. This poem is the most important channel through which the ancient rhetorical theory exerted its influence over the visual arts of today. It contains the poet’s advice to those who wish to practice the art of poetry. However, the points the author makes are not entirely original; they come from the rhetorical tradition. To the pedantic observer, these points can be interpreted as rules. They can also be looked at as sage advice from a simultaneously critical and creative mind.

Here are some highlights of this work, easily applicable to bonsai.

A literary work should have harmony and unity. In spite of the artistic freedom of the creative mind, it should follow the rules of nature.

"There are rules to be observed...
The serious work must more than hang together...
Painters and poets are equal, and equally free to use their invention...
That doesn’t mean that I tolerate any stupidity."

Poets have the freedom to depart from nature and dare to create whatever they desire. But they should never cross the line where their creations seem improbable or impossible. I believe that the same principle applies to bonsai. Naturalness, or artlessness is the highest achievement a bonsai artist can accomplish.

Coherence and a clear story line is another rule to be observed.

"It’s nice sometimes to stick to objective matter...
Whatever you do, no harm in a little coherence."

Superfluous decorations and beautiful things put for their own sake do nothing but distract. How many times we saw our trees loaded with "bonsai techniques" applied for their own sake, having nothing to do with the image our tree was meant to suggest? Viewers may respond to a neatly trimmed foliage pad or an exquisitely carved deadwood. But lets not fool ourselves that they responded to the art we’ve created. Just because something is catchy, that doesn’t make it art. Mediocre art? Maybe.

Natural and clear. These are the most important virtues of a master orator. This tree seems to have those attributes and could be classified as plain style.

Natural and clear. These are the most important virtues of a master orator. This tree seems to have those attributes and could be classified as plain style.

Trying too hard to get it right is a shallow endeavor that doesn’t lead to much good. By doing that, many will never get further than just scratching the surface.

"Aim to impress, the effect is merely inflated...
It is artful enough but nothing to do with art.
You can get into trouble by trying to get it right"

As many of our great bonsai masters said before, being artsy doesn’t make art. It takes a much deeper understanding of the process. This is very discouraging to many of us, aspiring for art. But it is also very realistic.

It happens quite often that the artist pays great attention to the details, being rather unskilled at putting together the complete picture. Keeping the whole work in mind is what art is about.

"It is not unknown to find an artist in colour
With only the vaguest idea of handling shapes,
So quite unable to put a work together."

When we create a bonsai, concerning ourselves about the branch placement and wiring first, without having any idea about the final image of the tree, we are doing just that. Doing it a hundred times will lead to good craftsmanship, but hardly any art. Isn’t it what we are doing most of the time?

The essential direction for any writer is to find the right subject.

"If the choice of subject is right,
The words will come of themselves in a lucid order."

Every bonsai material lends itself to certain subjects and unsuitable for others. To recognize the right subject is an essential skill. Not to waste one’s time with sub-standard material is part of it.

Horace also discusses the nature of beautiful. Smooth, polished beauty without flaws is not enough.

"It is not enough for a poem to be beautiful:
It must have something to get at the reader’s mind...
If you want tears from me
You had better suffer yourself, then your character might."

This takes us to the realm of beauty in bonsai. Is it necessary? Or is it character wherein lies the real beauty? I will not try to answer this question here. It would be too much to handle in this little paragraph.

When talking about traditional themes versus originality, Horace sees a lot of virtue handling the traditional themes. One of them is that these original themes deal with the universal human condition. It also removes any bogus claims to originality. The novelty is in the handling of the theme. The art of bonsai has many traditional themes. We don’t always need to reinvent them, just look at them with fresh eyes and open heart.

When talking about developing characters, Horatio says:

"Put weight on the characteristics related to age"

Where can this thought be more relevant than in bonsai? Age is one of the central themes in our art.

Every great work of art has its faults, says Horace. And trying to make it perfect will eventually kill it.

"Where there are many beauties in a poem
I can forgive a few faults from a careless hand; The writer is also human."

Imperfect beauty is what we seek in our bonsai. Imperfection makes it so much more charming.

Here is a piece of advice that will offend some: If you don’t practice the art at a high level, don’t do it at all. There is nothing easier than live without bad art: it’s one thing in life that we really don’t need. There is a need for second-rate lawyers; they can do the odd job. But mediocre poets look really bad.

"So, nothing is easier than doing without a poem
Unless it is positively going to give delight.
If you can’t play games to a respectable standard
You had better avoid public exhibition;"

What about avoiding public exhibition of bad bonsai? I am all for it.

And this leads me to the conclusion of this article: who would have thought that these men from ancient Greece and Rome, wearing tunics and sandals can teach us about how to improve our bonsai artistry? But it seems to me that we can learn from them a thing or two. At the end, art is art, whether is practiced in Japan or in ancient Greece.

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