Visualizing Rhetoric: Dissimulatio Artis


Forget for a moment – if you can – the negative connotations you might have with spiders. Instead, let us look at the spider web alone and marvel at its elegance. Its symmetry. Its near perfection with tiny flaws. And most importantly: Its effectiveness. A spider web is an impressively effective tool in achieving the end for which it is made.

Now imagine instead, that the spider – proud owner and creator of this artifact – would be self-conscious and was eager to receive recognition and applause for its artfulness. It would start resenting that its audience doesn’t even notice the impressive structure of its web. The strengths of its individual threats. The extraordinary flexibility and durability of its silk. 

The spider would now find itself in the precise position of an artful and eloquent orator. Either it starts advertising its own skill – say by painting its web bright red and pointing its construction principles out to by flying insects – and by doing so heavily reduce the effectiveness of the web. Or it keeps everything as it is, efficiently achieves its goal, but has to swallow part of its pride.

The majority of rhetorical tools loose much of its effectiveness when they are being fully understood, analyzed and focused upon. And even those that don’t loose their strength (i.e. reasonable arguments – the core of the Aristotelian concept of logos) are less elegant when someone is trying to show off with them. This is the reason why dissimulatio artis (hiding of the art) is one of the most important precepts of ancient (and modern) rhetoric and at the same time one of the most tempting to neglect. 

It puts the highly skilled orator into an apparent paradox: ignore this rule and do not hide your art and be able to shine for your true skills or be more effective but appear merely lucky and in support of an obviously easy case. This is a dilemma that is – in theory – easy enough to solve, but in practice it takes a certain amount of determination to remember: Unless you are indeed trying to shine as an orator (in a debate competition for example), the effectiveness of the speech beats the applause for the speaker. Do not try to show off with you rhetorical skills if you want to persuade your audience to agree with you.