Online Colloquium (4): Cromartie 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, followed by responses from Ted H. Miller and Patricia Springborg. We now have a response from Alan Cromartie, before finishing with a reply by Timothy Raylor next week. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


It is a pleasure to welcome Timothy Raylor’s Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes. Both specialists in rhetoric and generalist Hobbes scholars will surely find much to admire in its careful presentation. As someone doing work that crosses much of the same ground, I was grateful for the thoroughness of the picture it presents and the deftness and acuteness with which it summarises existing scholarship. Irreversible local advances range from the discovery of natural-philosophical concerns in De mirabilibus pecci to the removal of doubts about the Hobbesian authorship of A briefe of the art of rhetorique. The most striking claims, however, are that Hobbes’s ‘attitude to rhetoric underwent no radical changes during the course of his long life’ (11) and that it remained essentially Aristotelian in basis. To my mind, these claims are convincing; the difficulties lie in working out the implications for the precise relationship of rhetoric with logic. Given the opportunity, I’d like to ask two questions, both raised by presupposing that Hobbes’s rhetoric is broadly Aristotelian in nature. The first is concerned with what lies within the scope of ‘rhetoric’; the second with what lies outside the scope of Hobbesian ‘logic’. The starting point of both is some remarks about A briefe.

There is a case for saying that Hobbes’s concern with ‘belief’ involves a subtle distortion of Aristotle’s views, re-orienting study of the possible means of persuasion towards an unqualified focus on the endpoint of the process. But A briefe is unquestionably loyal to its Aristotelian source in treating the ‘belief’ produced by the art of rhetoric as coming ‘partly from the behaviour of the speaker; partly from the passions of the hearer: but especially from the proofes of what we alledge’ (Briefe, 5) – in other words, from êthos, pathos, but especially logos. The Digest and A briefe are both surprisingly insistent on the dominant role of logic in the art of rhetoric. Moreover, the logic that interests Hobbes is formally valid logic; he shows surprisingly little concern with fallacies (less, certainly, than Sturmius and Goulston). He mentions the use of examples—characterised as ‘short inductions’—but he is much more interested in ‘short syllogisms’ (that is, in enthymemes), which are for the most part presented as conventional syllogisms whose fault is that they are based upon endoxa. The Latin Digest’s summary of Book One, Chapter Six goes so far as to provide cross-references explaining the logical links that obtain between the colours of good. Significantly, Hobbes departs from Aristotle’s text in interpreting refutative enthymemes as arguments ‘wherein from that which the Adversary maintaineth, wee conclude that which is manifestly impossible’ (Briefe, 131). The Greek does not specifically refer to this kind of manoeuvre. In other words, Hobbes was using his rhetoric classes to teach the earl of Devonshire a kind of argument that was to be essential to his ‘scientific’ thinking.

My first question, then, is concerned with the survival of this capacious view of the art of rhetoric in the political writings of his maturity. Aristotle’s appeals to êthos, pathos, and logos all have a fairly obvious potential to go wrong: the hearer’s faith may be misplaced, his passions may distract him, and the commonly held opinions on which his ‘proofs’ are based may be in various respects misleading. But they can also go right; indeed, they must go right if any political order is to be sustainable. Belief is not only the basis of Christianity, but the default condition of human interaction. The Elements tells us that ‘there be many things which we receive from the reports of others, of which it is impossible to imagine any cause of doubt’; such things compose ‘a great part of our histories’ (EL, I.vii.9). Moreover, when specific people do specific things, they do so at the prompting of the passions. Reason is even powerless to make hearers pay attention (217). The point is not just that fear is at the heart of political life, nor even (if Oakeshott and others are right) that good behaviour can be driven by a generous pride, but that the causal chain that sets a human being in motion invariably passes through a passion. From his translation of Thucydides onwards, Hobbes is hostile to deliberate inflammation of the passions (of the type that will inevitably occur in large assemblies), but any presentation of future goods and evils will of its nature stimulate a passion-driven response. Lastly, there is some suggestion that ‘logic’ is still a component of what Hobbes calls ‘eloquence’, at least in the passage at Civ, xii.12 where the ‘art’ of one type of ‘eloquence’ is said to be logic, while the ‘art’ of the other—involving the use of metaphors and endoxa—is ‘rhetoric’ (a weaker claim, I think, than saying that these manoeuvres simply are rhetoric). I agree that this kind of contrast between ‘rhetoric’ and ‘logic’ is in a pejorative sense of the term a rhetorical manoeuvre (182), improperly implying that the art of rhetoric should be identified with some of its aspects. But has anything else really changed?

My second question is concerned with logic’s limitations. Here I differ from the view that natural philosophy is something less than science (14). This raises some deep problems that it would be impossible to settle by quotation. I take it, though, that Hobbes’s official position is that ‘science’ is conditional knowledge; the ‘truth’ that is involved in scientific propositions takes the form ‘if x, then y’. Civil science and geometry do have the special advantage that human beings can bring x about, but science by its very nature rests on suppositions and cannot lead to any non-hypothetical conclusions. Leviathan, Chapter Seven could hardly be clearer that ‘no Discourse whatsoever, can End in absolute Knowledge of Fact, past or to come’ (Lev 1651, 30); not only is there no path from fact to ‘science’, there is equally no path from science to fact. There may of course be passages in which Hobbes lapses from this very radical position, implying that a factual correspondence can be ‘true’ (at 179, the principia vera of Civ, x.11 are a possible example), but if we take it seriously, then science relates tp words, not things. This was the view, at all events, that Hobbes himself expressed in his ‘Objections’ to Descartes (190). Science can police our language—discouraging, for instance, loose talk of ‘liberty’—but cannot map the words we use onto specific actions. If so, it is not much to the discredit of rhetoric that it pursues an object that is not strictly ‘truth’. One such object worth pursuing is destroying pernicious religion. Prophetic religion is based on a historic revelation: the faith of a believer is faith in testimony (in general of testimony that miracles occurred). In other words, its basis falls outside the scope of science. But because it is faith in a person, it is open to attack by anything that attacks that person’s êthos. This surely explains the highly rhetorical texture of Leviathan, Part IV: ‘Of the Kingdome of Darknesse’ that is acknowledged on all sides to constitute a problem.

More tentatively, it can be suggested that the tone of the rest of the volume is appropriate to a project that has some elements of advocacy (deliberative rhetoric encouraging specific people to do specific things: encouraging, for instance, royalists to acquiesce in a republic that they found repulsive). All Hobbes’s major works display much literary art, but Leviathan does seem to aim at different, more varied effects. Pace Schuhmann, these effects do seem consistent with the view that

‘in all Deliberations, and in all Pleadings, the Faculty of solid Reasoning is necessary: for without it, the Resolutions of men are rash, and their Sentences unjust: and yet if there be not powerfull Eloquence, which procureth attention and Consent, the effects of Reason will be little’ (Lev, 389).

It is true that this passage forms part of an argument Hobbes rejects, but the claim that he objects to is not the premise that eloquence is necessary ‘in all deliberations’, but the conclusion that the faculty of eloquence cannot co-exist in one person with solid reasoning. If Leviathan just is deliberative rhetoric, should we be surprised that it uses rhetorical techniques?

Professor Alan Cromartie (University of Reading)