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  • Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes
  • William Walker
Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes, by Quentin Skinner; xvi & 477 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, $49.95.

Having shown in his earlier work how the classical Roman texts on rhetoric governed to an important extent the formulation of republican ideas in Italian Renaissance and therefore modern political thought, Skinner now returns to these texts in order to treat more comprehensively one of the major subjects of his research over the last thirty years—Thomas Hobbes. Determined to understand not so much what Hobbes’s writings mean as what Hobbes is doing, what “traditions he reacts against, what lines of argument he takes up, what changes he introduces into existing debates” (p. 8), Skinner devotes the entire first half of the book to “classical eloquence in Renaissance England” (p. 17). Citing mainly the Ad Herennium and the texts on rhetoric by Cicero and Quintilian, he provides a superb account of the classical Roman theory of persuasive speaking, as well as the ideal of citizenship which underlies it: for the Romans, the vir civilis, the good citizen, is the virtuous, wise, rational man [End Page 204] who exercises his mastery of the art of rhetoric to serve his community by pleading for just verdicts in the courts and beneficial policies in the assemblies. Citing the Tudor humanists who were instituting and teaching at the grammar schools, but also several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English rhetoricians, poets, and prose writers, Skinner then observes how this classical theory of persuasion and its ideal of citizenship achieved “widespread currency” (p. 1) in England and served as the foundation for “the rhetorical culture of Renaissance humanism” (p. 250).

It is in relation to this culture, Skinner insists in the second part of the book, that Hobbes must be understood. For although, as many have pointed out, Hobbes’s thinking was in part formed by the scientific developments of the century, “his intellectual formation was overwhelmingly indebted not to the culture of science but to the humanist literary culture” (p. 216). But this is not to say that Hobbes abides peacefully within this culture. After observing how his education, career, and publications up to 1640 are those of the “typical Renaissance humanist” (p. 217), Skinner argues that in his two major works of the early 1640s, Hobbes powerfully repudiates the entire classical theory of eloquence and its ideal of the vir civilis. For in The Elements of Law and De Cive, Hobbes claims to have made the study of moral and political theory into a scientific discipline. On the basis of this assertion, Skinner argues, Hobbes claims that reason unaided by eloquence is sufficient to persuade others of the truths of civil science, that eloquent men have not sustained but destroyed civil life, and that the most important duties of citizenship lie in the private sphere. In short, “Hobbes’s argument culminates in a view of citizenship and its obligations diametrically opposed to the image of the vir civilis” (p. 291). He does so, moreover, in prose which studiously avoids the invocation of commonplaces and authorities, the establishment of any ethos, the manipulation of definitions, the redescription of vices as virtues and virtues as vices (paradiastole), and the tropes and figures—Hobbes practices the repudiation of rhetoric he preaches.

But then there is Leviathan (1651). Responding primarily out of his understanding of how Presbyterian and House of Commons demagogues incited civil war, Hobbes in his most celebrated work “reverts to the typically humanist assumption that, if we are to succeed in persuading others to accept our arguments, we shall have to supplement the findings of reason with the moving force of eloquence” (p. 426). Though he continues to understand himself transforming politics and morality into a scientific discipline, Hobbes ultimately reaffirms the premises of the rhetorical culture that produced him and that he repudiated in his first major political works. And though he continues to be critical of commonplaces, reliance on authorities, and tropes and figures, Hobbes in this work again practices what he preaches. In the final chapter of the book, Skinner meticulously documents how Hobbes uses the tropes and...

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