Online Colloquium (2): Miller on Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Timothy Raylor’s recent book, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Raylor. We now have a response from Ted H. Miller, which will be followed by responses from 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.


Thomas Hobbes never abandoned humanism. From beginning to end, he condemned the rhetorical practices he associated with demagoguery, but these were never the totality of rhetoric. Hobbes used its other parts to further his philosophical program. His transition from Cavendish family tutor to self-declared pioneer of civil science did not mark, as Quentin Skinner maintained, a turn away from humanism. Leviathan, therefore, did notmark a return to rhetoric. Reading Timothy Raylor’s new book,I was pleased to see an author who agrees with me on these basic assertions.[1] I was less pleased that he chose to highlight our disagreements rather than explore our commonalities (9–10, 28–31). Most importantly, there is now another dissenting voice against the standing view regarding Hobbes, rhetoric, and so-called phases of his intellectual career. Professor Raylor and I do differ on some matters, and I look forward to a productive debate over matters of substance. This entry can only be a start.

The book’sstrengths, and some of its weaknesses, stem from an intense focus upon dialectic, or renaissance era school logic. Particular concern is devoted to the interplay of distinct parts of rhetorical and dialectical practice as they developed prior to Hobbes’s arrival on the scene. For Raylor, however, there can be no discussions of Hobbes and rhetoric which do not first reverently correct Quentin Skinner’s error in assigning the early Hobbes a Ciceronian humanism. Having come from a position that did not assent to the Ciceronian-Hobbes in the first instance, I think his best contribution lies elsewhere.

Why was Hobbes dissatisfied with school logic? Our first impulse might be to speak of the quest for causes, but Hobbes also belonged to an intellectual milieu that still bore the impact of Ramism. Walter Ong described it as having robbed rhetoric to pay logic; it was a curricular maneuver. Ramism appropriated inventio, the rhetorician’s task of searching for proofs, for logic. This turned philosophy into an echo of the rhetorical practice of collecting and deploying commonplaces; the quest through authorities for sententiae had migrated.[2] Having acquired a reserve of received truths, the philosopher might, as demanded by the occasion, assemble arguments. Finding proof became a matter of invention, of drawing upon accepted truths from the reserve.

Some have found Ramist habits within Hobbes’s work (the table in Leviathan Chapter 9 echoed Ramist affinities for visual pedagogy), or in his treatment of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Raylor pulls in the opposite direction (173–75). Importantly, this also includes inventio’s migration. Its ill affect upon school logic, Raylor emphasizes, were a key target of Hobbes’s aggressive campaign (219–32, 246–53). It could only reinforce, rather than challenge, convention.Raylor’s Hobbes continues to operate within the collection of compartmentalized reasoning and communicative tasks that Quentin Skinner insisted upon, but with an important twist. Skinner saw Hobbes’s assault upon the task of inventio as an attempt to dethrone prudence and history. These sources of received but uncertain knowledge were no longer sufficient for the “human sciences.”[3] The old humanist store houses were no longer good enough, and that was a rejection of eloquence as well. Raylor, by contrast, sees in Hobbes’s assault on inventio a decontamination campaign within logic’s, not rhetoric’s, house. Whether this amounts to a rejection of “the greater part of the Western philosophical tradition” (223) may be questioned, but it does offer an alternative.

Supplying us with contemporaries that may have praised, or denounced, Hobbes on these same terms would have contributed further. Another question for Raylor might be how far Hobbes’s rebellion truly departed from its home terrain. When does a self-declared revolution begin to look more like mere reform?

I wish he had pursued some other questions. Outside the confines of discussions of Cicero or Quintilian (and Quentin Skinner’s) vir civilis, Raylor doesn’t speak directly to what many frame as the grand conflict between philosophy and rhetoric. Some of the scholarship Raylor puts behind him reveled in showing that Hobbes, the philosopher’s philosopher, could be made to eat his anti-rhetorical words. Quentin Skinner tried to demonstrate how and why Hobbes changed his mind—even if the hero of Ciceronian imaginary, vir civilis, was not likewise rehabilitated upon Hobbes’s return to rhetoric. Raylor offers material for what might have been a reframing. No one was more convinced than Thomas Hobbes that rhetoric (or at least its inventio) had become integral to philosophy. He wasn’t defending a timeless Platonic wall, but attempting to reverse part of an already successful invasion. For Raylor’s Hobbes, the question was which parts to keep and control, and which to deport from his reinvented discipline (246).

What did he keep? Loathed inventio was not elocutio. Aside from invention, rhetoric’s tasks included eloquence (style)—dispositio (organization), memoria (memory), and pronutiatio (voice and delivery) don’t figure here. Hobbes, argues Raylor, kept eloquence, if in a subordinate place (246). If we mistake eloquence for the whole of rhetoric, we miss something. Likewise, if we fail to see his counter-attack on inventio in its transplanted home. Eloquence may make itself most felt in Leviathan, but Raylor joins others who find it at work in earlier works including De Cive and The Elements of Law. Don’t mistake Hobbes’s ongoing truce with eloquence for either hypocrisy or a reversal. Raylor does not analyze Hobbes’s use of rhetoric’s subdivided repertoire in other important works including Behemoth, or his heated debates with mathematicians and other rivals for scholarly laurels.

Raylor’s recontextualization is testimony to a now obvious conclusion. Simple claims to read Hobbes “in context” mask something. Interpreters must argue which contexts are most relevant. Raylor’s context is useful, but this larger task is not as well met. This is because he is tempted to assign his context monopolistic privileges. It impedes his capacity to see other possibilities. If I find your driving objectionable, I might choose to criticize the way you maneuver the vehicle, your choice of destination, or your conduct towards other drivers. Hobbes did not like where many were driving in the political realm. Within the confines of Raylor’s perspective, his primary concern was to criticize the driving manual he presupposed they used. Where all political differences are, necessarily, doctrinal/philosophical differences this will have purchase. Hobbes’s contexts were not so very flat. He sought solutions in university reforms, but he thought many of those problems had spread beyond the universities. Had his foremost purpose been the defeat of Ciceronians we would have expected a more direct assault on Tully himself. Too much of what Raylor finds is inferred. My own view is that Hobbes wished to defend sovereigns from a variety of threats. He often sought pedagogical weapons in this struggle, but he traced many initial causes of his challenge to human ambition. Ambition caused problems in and out of school.

Raylor’s context for Hobbes is deep and sometimes helpful, but it is also sometimes unhelpfully narrow. It becomes so narrow that it jeopardizes his larger claims. It fails to capture some of Hobbes’s better-known boasts about his interventions into logic and philosophy. It also lacks the breadth to render a convincing picture of a political philosopher. Hobbes attacked pedagogues for the political and social consequences he attached to their teaching. Raylor’s tendency is to turn these pedagogical conflicts into ends in themselves.

For many, Hobbes’s break with humanism is signaled by his embrace of mathematics. For anyone (like Raylor and I) who maintain the persistence of Hobbes’s humanism, this must to be taken head-on. He does not do so. Hobbes had, in fact, continued a debate between Jesuit defenders of mathematics in the schools, and then did them one better. Not only were mathematicians capable of reaching certitude about natural philosophy’s most fundamental subjects,[4] but in Hobbes mathematics inverts the old hierarchy. He would see mathematics ranked prior and superior to the natural science, which must learn within its own limits to imitate mathematical methods.[5]

Hobbes participated in a larger trend. Enthusiasm for mathematics, especially practical mathematics, was growing outside of the schools. It was shared and observed by lettered men of his own and neighboring generations. Ancient humanist guidepost, Quintilian,[6] recommended mathematics, as did other pedagogues with influence in Britain, including Vives.[7] The fruits of mathematical learning were on display: at court, in noble (notably, Cavendish) households, in the taste for paintings that demonstrated a high mastery of perspective, in architecture, map-making, and among those claiming mastery of military and naval techniques. Workshops courted social climbers with shiny mathematical instruments.[8]

Raylor has nothing to say about the mathematician’s gains among the logicians, and brushes aside evidence of Hobbes’s connection with Britain’s mathematical culture. He relies, in part, on the authority of Mordechai Feingold.[9] Like the scholars Hobbes condemns, he asks too much of his authority. Feingold concluded there was no comprehensive mandate for mathematics education in the universities before 1640, but this was a part of Feingold’s project to rescue Oxford and Cambridge from the notion that they had no interest in mathematics. Hobbes helped propagate such claims.

In Chapter Three Raylor go to some lengths to connect Hobbes’s account of the Devil’s Arse (in De Miribilibus Pecci) with Baconian natural philosophy. He would, however, have us believe that we should not credit the notion of a mathematical humanism or its relevance to Hobbes if we cannot first establish that mathematics was at the core of university humanist pedagogy. Given Hobbes’s own views on the universities, this is a strange standard of evidence. The false premise erects an unnecessary barrier to discovering the connections between Hobbes and the mathematical culture in which he was immersed from the time of his earliest works. A similarly unnecessary barrier would stop us from looking towards the court, and to the households of noblemen for such connections. Do we have to believe, for example, that Charles I’s court had to be a “a centre of mathematical and scientific research” before we can entertain the possibility that one of the court’s mathematics tutors, Thomas Hobbes, was mindful of its interests?

In sum, this book contributes to correcting the mistaken partitioning of Hobbes’s career. Raylor uses the dialectical contexts to show the continuity of Hobbes’s humanism, but also makes Hobbes an unnecessary captive of those contexts.

Professor Ted. H. Miller (University of Alabama)

[1]  Ted. H. Miller, Mortal Gods: Science, Politics, and the Humanist Ambitions of Thomas Hobbes (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), 7, 8–33, 55–70, 115–35, 161–99.

[2]  Walter Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 92–130, 237, and Chapter 6 passim.

[3]  Quentin Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 257–67.

[4]  Paulo Mancosu, ‘Aristotelian Logic and Euclidean Mathematics: Seventeenth-Century Developments of the Quaestio de Certitudine Mathematicarum’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 23 (1992): 241–65; idem., Philosophy of Mathematics and Mathematical Practice in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[5]  Miller, Mortal Gods, 81–114.

[6]  Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, trans. H. E. Butler. 4 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1920), bks. I, 10, 35, 7.

[7]  Juan Luis Vives, De Tradendis Disiplinis, trans. Foster Watson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913), 201–2, 204.

[8]  The literature in the history of practical mathematics is reviewed in Miller, Mortal Gods.

[9]  Mordechai, The Mathematician’s Apprenticeship: Science, Universities and Society in England 1560-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).