Online Colloquium (1): Introduction to Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Timothy Raylor’s recent book, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes. We begin with an introduction to the text by Professor Raylor himself, which will be followed by weekly responses from Ted H. Miller (Alabama), Patricia Springborg (Humboldt, Berlin) and Alan Cromartie (Reading), and finally a reply by Timothy Raylor. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes began life as a cluster of doubts about some of our standard assumptions regarding Hobbes’s understanding and practice of rhetoric. Among such assumptions are: that the early Hobbes was a thoroughgoing humanist and, a fortiori, an unapologetic teacher and practitioner of the art of rhetoric who saw it as a valuable aspect of civic life; that Hobbes began, in the later 1630s, to develop concerns about rhetoric as self-serving and therefore dangerous; that, in embracing the so-called ‘scientific’ or ‘geometrical’ method around 1640 Hobbes rejected humanism, banishing rhetoric from his new civil science; and that, a decade later, in Leviathan, Hobbes effected a rapprochement with rhetoric, which he now, finally, came to see as an indispensable part of civil science.

There were, it seemed to me, problems with the chronology of the supposed stages of the development of Hobbes’s thinking about rhetoric. The turn away from rhetoric seemed to be detected in works that were also treated as products of Hobbes’s ‘high’ humanist period (such as the Briefe of Aristotle’s Rhetoric); while the rapprochement with rhetoric seemed to be detected in works that are considerably earlier than Leviathan (the 1646 preface to De cive, for example), thus severely curtailing the scope of the supposedly ‘scientific’ period. And it seemed questionable to me whether Hobbes’s concerns about rhetoric could be neatly accommodated to different stages. Hobbes seems to have been consistently concerned about the impact of orators on civil society in works of all periods—from the 1628 translation of Thucydides, through Leviathan, to late works like Behemoth and the Historia ecclesiastica. And up through his very latest major works—his translations of Homer—Hobbes’s humanist commitments remained unshaken.

It also seemed to me that in attempting to grasp the character of Hobbes’s conception of rhetoric we had failed to give due weight to the fact that in teaching rhetoric to the third earl of Devonshire, Hobbes used for his text not some staple of the humanist curriculum like the pseudo-Ciceronian Ad Herennium or Quintilian’s Institutes, nor even a modern textbook like that of Cyprian Soarez—but, unusually for the age, Aristotle’s Rhetoric: a work he later extolled to his friend John Aubrey as ‘rare’. Aristotle, it seemed to me, was the key to a proper understanding of Hobbes’s thinking about rhetoric.

Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes works through the implications of that insight. Where Cicero saw rhetoric as an essential complement to philosophy and found in the orator the ideal of active citizenship, a vital member of a healthy civitas, Aristotle’s attitude toward rhetoric as the ability to see the available means of persuasion involved no large claims for its philosophical value or political importance, and consisted with the concerns he frequently registered about the dangers presented by its subversion of rational processes by appeals to the character of the speaker and the passions of the audience. Although Aristotle was, for humanists, traditionally accommodated to a Ciceronian understanding of rhetoric, recent approaches by scholars such as Theodore Goulston—whose bilingual edition Hobbes appears to have used—set about the task of clearing away later accretions, freeing Aristotle’s account of rhetoric from its high-minded Roman framing.

Acknowledging Hobbes’s understanding of rhetoric as, from the first, Aristotelian rather than Ciceronian allows us to recognize a consistency in the concerns over rhetoric Hobbes registered at various points in his career without having to posit a dizzying series of voltes faces to explain them. Rhetoric is a tool, both powerful and dangerous; it needs to be kept apart from philosophy, which is—or ought to be—concerned with truth, not with persuasion. The problem, as Hobbes came to see it at the end of the 1630s, was that rhetoric had not been kept apart from philosophy.

Hobbes’s adoption of the ‘scientific’ method was founded, I argue, not on any general discontent over the power or character of rhetoric. It involved no general dismissal or rejection of the art. Hobbes continued to deploy, in dedicatory epistles and addresses to readers, the age-old techniques of capturing attention and securing goodwill. Nor was it founded on any sudden confidence in the persuasive power of reason: reason could yield truth; but truth did not necessarily persuade.

Hobbes’s new method was based on no discontent with rhetoric, but, rather, on the recognition that there was something fundamentally wrong with philosophy, which had been pursued not logically, by perfect and immutable reasoning, but rhetorically, by way of approximate proofs and persuasive instances, by means of likelihoods and probabilities. Philosophy, Hobbes insisted in Anti-White, I.3, has nothing to do with rhetoric. And from that position, I argue, he never retreated.

What, then, of Leviathan, and Hobbes’s supposed rapprochement therein with rhetoric? It is of course true that Leviathan exhibits some of the most brilliant flourishes of Hobbes’s English style; but this, in my view, does not involve a rapprochement between rhetoric and philosophy. The rhetorical texture of Leviathan is in part attributable to the mere contradiction of theory by practice. But the differences between Leviathan and Hobbes’s earlier works of civil philosophy have been overestimated. Hobbes’s exposition of his political philosophy in Leviathan differs less markedly from The Elements of Law and De cive than has recently been suggested. And the most distinctively ‘rhetorical’ parts of Leviathan are those sections of the work (part three and, especially, part four) which are new to Leviathan and which are not, strictly speaking, philosophical but controversial. Indeed, the generic and stylistic shift from the bare exposition of political philosophy in the early sections of Leviathan to the anti-clerical polemic of part four is so dramatic that the work’s most recent editor, Noel Malcolm, suggests that Hobbes’s intentions must have changed radically during the process of composition, after an Anglican attempt to undermine his position at court. In so arguing Malcolm echoes earlier commentators who have questioned the coherence of the work: J.G.A. Pocock, for instance, suggests that Leviathan is not one but two books.

Not only in respect to its textual practice does Leviathan subvert the notion of a late rapprochement with rhetoric; it does so also on the level of theory. It is in Leviathan that Hobbes offers his most sustained analysis of the contamination of philosophy by rhetoric. In Leviathan, for instance, Hobbes shows how political philosophers hostile to monarchy have deployed the term ‘tyranny’ to denote a distinct species of monarchy, while in fact denoting only monarchy itself, with the addition of their personal dislike. In an extended discussion, Hobbes exposes the way in which the orators and pseudo-philosophers who made up the early church deployed rhetoric to consolidate their spiritual authority and expand their temporal power. Indeed, in Hobbes’s analysis, it was by way of rhetorical figuration—particularly through metaphor, synecdoche, and metonymy—that they did so. The term ‘episcopus’ (‘bishop’), for instance, originally denoted merely a humble overseer of sheep; it was illicitly extended by metaphor to signify a ruler of people—even being stretched to denote monarchical authority over them. Among other examples of such figurative extension are the concepts of ‘hell’, ‘the kingdom of God’, and the papal ‘fulmen excommunicationis’.

But this emphasis on the dangers of figuration should not lead us to the conclusion that the main problem with rhetoric was, for Hobbes, the capacity of figurative language to hoodwink readers and auditors. This is a feature of elocutio, or style, on which I believe we have been too narrowly focused; it was a central feature of the Roman approach to rhetoric to which we are still largely indebted.

Although style is indeed a problem, our focus on it has, I argue, obscured the importance for Hobbes of the prior problem of inventio, or discovery: specifically, that method of argumentation which proceeds by finding the available means of persuasion. The fundamental problem with this approach is that it is a means of literary composition, not a method of logical demonstration: its proofs are merely plausible, not universal and necessary. This distinction, Hobbes believes, is what earlier philosophers have failed to observe. And Hobbes, I think, never backs away from this position.

Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes, argues for a new understanding of Hobbes’s thinking about the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric. That relationship does not, I argue, undergo a series of fundamental changes in Hobbes’s thinking. From first to last Hobbes is concerned about the political dangers of oratory. At the end of the 1630s, after (and, I suggest, in part because of) working intensely on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he set about freeing philosophy from the procedures of rhetorical reasoning and setting it on a firm footing. In so doing he drew a line between rhetoric and philosophy that he never, in theory at least, erased.

But although its central argument addresses the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric in Hobbes’s thinking, this is not the sole focus of the book. My reconsideration of Hobbes’s attitude to rhetoric led me to a more general reconsideration of his early humanism, the character of which was, I came to see, less literary, less civic or Ciceronian, than has usually been supposed. Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides, for instance, emphasizes not the virtue of eloquent men acting in the interests of the civitas, but the corruption of the state by demagogues—a panel illustrating which point Hobbes incorporated within his engraved title. That panel furnishes the dustwrapper image for Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes.

The humanism of Hobbes’s Thucydides is not brightly Ciceronian; it is darker and colder, in keeping with the Tacitean outlook detected in the Cavendish household by Noel Malcolm and Richard Tuck. Hobbes’s introductory account of Thucydides’ manner and method reveals opposition to Ciceronian canons of style and indebtedness to the ‘politic’ history that Bacon had drawn from Thucydides, with its quest to uncover the secret springs and hidden causes of political action.

Bacon was a significant influence on the Cavendish household, and in Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes I trace his impact on the essays and discourses of the Horae subsecivae (works sometimes recently assigned to Hobbes, but for which I adduce additional evidence in favour of William Cavendish’s authorship), and on Hobbes’s Latin poem on the ‘wonders’ of the Peak. While that poem has generally been treated as a contribution to humanist letters (as indeed it is), I suggest that in its focus on the rational investigation of natural phenomena both regular (e.g. the sources of rivers) and irregular (e.g. the ebbing and flowing well) and its investigation of the procedures of mechanical arts (e.g. the techniques of Derbyshire lead mining) the poem is informed by the concerns of Renaissance Aristotelianism and by those of Baconian natural history. My reading of these works of the 1620s and 1630s leads to some recalibration of our understanding of Hobbes’s humanism as more engaged with the philosophical and natural philosophical concerns of his maturity than has previously been recognized.

In sum, while it is the goal of Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes to offer a fresh understanding of the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric in Hobbes’s thinking, it aims also to furnish a more nuanced account of Hobbes’s early philosophical interests, and a new understanding of the emergence of Hobbes’s mature philosophical stance. How far it succeeds in these goals is, of course, not for the author, but for his readers, to determine.

Professor Timothy Raylor (Carleton College)