oxford 2

Discussion (2): Raffaella Santi and Ioannis Evrigenis debate Hobbes’s state of nature.




Response to Raffaella Santi’s Comments



Ioannis D. Evrigenis (Tufts University)



I am grateful to Raffaella Santi for her insightful comments on my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes. Santi has identified a key issue in regard to Hobbes’s state of nature, not least because of Hobbes’s insistence on proper method and his aspiration to be the first to put politics on a proper foundation. That issue is science and its place in Hobbes’s account.

Santi and I disagree on only one thing: the view that she ascribes to me regarding the scientific status of Hobbes’s state of nature. She writes, ‘[f]or Evrigenis, the state of nature is not scientific at all’, and adds ‘[i]t is an image used rhetorically’. Although I never claimed the former, I will admit complicity in possibly leading some readers to that conclusion. I will argue, however, that the fault is Hobbes’s, for that conclusion is evidence of his success in producing what in the Briefe of the Art of Rhetorique he calls ‘a kind of science’.

Santi’s former conclusion, namely that I think the state of nature not scientific, is based on the assumption that science and rhetoric are mutually exclusive, an assumption that I reject. Santi made a very generous reference to my book, Images of Anarchy, wherein I devote more space to this issue. The first piece of evidence, then, is the book’s subtitle: The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes’s State of Nature. I cannot reproduce the argument in all its details, but I will list certain pertinent points.

Contrary to accounts such as Strauss’s and Skinner’s, which see Hobbes’s development as manifested in stages marked by turns, I argue that Hobbes made consistent use of both rhetoric and science, throughout his political treatises. Others, notably Tuck, have argued that the earlier political works are every bit as rhetorical as Leviathan, and I agree. For me, however, the use of rhetoric does not signal the absence of science. This argument applies on two levels.

First, it is possible to envision what in my book I call ‘a science of rhetoric’, namely an account of what language should be expected to do to audiences. The evidence from the Elements and De Cive shows that Hobbes was tweaking this part of his theory from the beginning, placing a lot of weight on the terms ‘reason’ and ‘rhetoric’. I will return to these two terms in a moment.

This science of rhetoric is precisely what I think Hobbes develops on the way to his science of politics. The latter involves ‘maker’s knowledge’, but not in the way that most interpreters see it. That is, it does not give a recipe for the construction of a commonwealth but rather, as Santi notes, one for the avoidance of its collapse. The maker, then, is Hobbes first and foremost, who conjures the image of the state of nature, and only secondarily the sovereign who uses his recipe of the summum malum to avoid that collapse. For the reader, it is ‘destroyer’s knowledge’ that is vital.

The very existence of a summum malum, by the way, signals quite clearly that there is a science at work, and the state of nature is an essential component of it. Hobbes’s science of rhetoric rests heavily on an observation about how human beings think about terms of approbation and disapprobation, and a second about how we think when it comes to classification and opposition.

This is where reason and rhetoric come in. Whatever else they may be, ‘reason’ is a term of approbation and ‘rhetoric’ a term of disapprobation. As such, we tend to think of them not just as opposites but as mutually exclusive. Hobbes knows and manipulates this from the start. Consider the Epistle and first 13 chapters of the Elements, where Hobbes builds an image of the world divided as follows:

  • reason vs. passions
  • knowledge vs. opinion
  • teaching vs. persuasion
  • mathematicians vs. dogmatists

Crucially, this list of antitheses culminates in the opposition between the commonwealth and the state of nature. Footnote 11 in my chapter points to my book, in which I argue that this fact is only lost because of the publication history of the Elements and of readers’ zealous attentiveness to titles, which prevents them from seeing the connection between Elements chapters 13 and 14, a connection that Hobbes clearly intended. A careful examination of these oppositions reveals artificially neat domains, even in cases where the description is absurd, as when Hobbes attributes everything good in the world to the mathematicians and everything bad to the dogmatists.

The most telling sign that this opposition mirrors that between the state of nature and the commonwealth lies in the list of the benefits that the mathematicians have allegedly bequeathed to mankind. It is the opposite of the negative account of the state of nature in Leviathan 13. But all this is further confirmation of Hobbes’s science of rhetoric. That science predicts that we are eager to buy neat classifications such as the ones between reason and rhetoric, and order and disorder.

The starker the spectre of the other side, the more readily we will accept the side we happen to be on. A darker and more credible state of nature will always make the commonwealth look better than it may actually be. Hobbes also knows the force of a rhetoric of science, as we are eager to embrace anything labeled ‘reason’ and reject anything dubbed ‘rhetoric’.

My complicity in misleading Santi lies in my having claimed that Hobbes violates his own standards of precision and that his account of the state of nature is elusive and ostensibly self-contradictory. All of these characterizations, however, are based on evidence from the texts and none of them is meant to imply that there is no science at work. Where Hobbes’s standards of precision are concerned, consider only his preposterous statement in the Elements about mathematics: ‘to this day was it never heard of, that there was any controversy concerning any conclusion in this subject’ (13.iii, emphasis added). Or, take his claim that teaching occurs only when there is no disagreement. If that were true, then no teaching has ever taken place.

What, therefore, are we to make of these and other statements Hobbes makes about the divides I listed above? I argue that they are part of his science of rhetoric, whose aim is to lead us gradually to the realization of the summum malum. Many commentators since the 17th century have pointed to a fact that was surely well-known to Hobbes, namely that not everyone will recognize violent death as the summum malum. That is precisely where Hobbes had to concentrate.

His diagnosis, e.g. in Leviathan chapter 18, was that we are notoriously bad at calculating risk and reward, especially in the long term. His neat oppositions were part of the science of solving that problem, not least by putting dependable rhetoric to work.

Is his state of nature ostensibly self-contradictory? Not in its basic form. But to a reader, say, who associates it with the Fall and then discovers that Hobbes links it to Cain and Abel or the Indians of America, it certainly could be. Indeed, a quick survey of the reaction to it reveals that many found it self-contradictory. I argue that this was a consequence of his difficult balancing-act: having to convince many individuals who disagree fundamentally about lots of things, by appealing to their beliefs while avoiding too close an association with any of them, because such an association would alienate those who disagree with its foundation.

This explains his multifarious explanations and examples – from ancient ethnography, through Scripture, to America and civil war – of what in the end is a basic opposition between the undesirability of anarchy and the consequent desirability of order. As Santi points out rightly, all of these essentially point to what Hobbes calls the ‘Inference, made from the Passions’. If it were easy for everyone to arrive at such an inference, there would be no disorder. Alas, human nature intrudes.

This brings me to the second level on which rhetoric and science can coexist happily, and that is the point at which scientists have to communicate their findings to various audiences and convince people of very different abilities to act according to their discoveries. Assuming there were such a thing as communication without rhetoric, would anyone contend that a dry description of fact suffices to explain how rain or babies come to be, to every single person, regardless of intelligence, maturity, or level of education? Hobbes knew well that any truth he might arrive at would trickle down to his fellow countrymen through a number of different rivulets, many of which originated in pulpits. That was a fact he could not ignore.

Moreover, having arrived at the truth about human nature is one thing. Taking that truth into account in attempting to change human behavior is quite another. Hobbes’s science of rhetoric is but a subset of his broader science of politics. As I indicated above and explain in Images of Anarchy, however, that science is best thought of not as the construction of commonwealths as though they were LEGO sets straight out of the box, but rather a science akin to what we have come to call psychology, intended to rescue them from vainglorious wishful thinking. Let’s call it ‘political psychology’, to split the difference.

As I have argued, that science is already underway in the Elements, in Hobbes’s illuminating treatment of how men work on one another’s minds. Continuing through the two versions of De Cive, it culminates in the two versions of Leviathan, whose notorious title and frontispiece make it clear that the most difficult political problem is pride. If, however, it is true (as Hobbes argues in Leviathan chapter 13) that no one thinks himself inferior to anyone else when it comes to wisdom, how can one devise a solution without taking that fact seriously? Hobbes took it very seriously and needed to appease that pride in order to stand any chance of persuading us that we should fear the state of nature and wish to avoid it at all costs. That, I contend, is why Leviathan may well have been written with Charles II in mind, as Malcolm argues, but it was published so as to counsel everyone who thinks himself a king, namely every child of pride.

From Hobbes’s day to ours, many have despised the state of nature and the account of human nature on which it is based, yet even the most vociferous of Hobbes’s opponents sought not to dismiss it but to rescue it. That and the fact that we continue to think of rhetoric and science as strictly antithetical are evidence both of Hobbes’s science and of his success in articulating it. The state of nature is an integral part of that science, and I am very grateful to Santi for having given me the opportunity to clarify.