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The Politics of Eloquence: David Hume's Polite Rhetoric by Marc Hanvelt (review)

From: Hume Studies
Volume 38, Number 1, April 2012
pp. 119-122 | 10.1353/hms.2012.0007

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Hanvelt's analysis in The Politics of Eloquence can be summarized as follows: Hume sees faction and fanaticism as significant problems. While rhetoric can contribute to these problems, neither is necessarily caused by rhetoric. In fact, rhetoric of a certain kind can cure these ills, specifically a rhetoric characterized by accurate and just reasoning, politeness, and an idealized ancient eloquence comprising Aristotelian, Ciceronian, and Demosthenic elements. Hanvelt's three major aims are to demonstrate that Hume's conception of mind commits him to assigning rhetoric an important role in political life, synthesize Hume's writings on eloquence in order to describe his conception of rhetoric, and show that Hume's conception of rhetoric continues to be relevant today (7).

In the introduction Hanvelt describes and defends his objects of study and method. He chooses to limit "rhetoric" to "political oratory," based on Hume's writings and interests, as well as on his (Hanvelt's) interest in addressing a significant question: what ought to be the role of rhetoric in democratic politics? Hanvelt proposes to analyze Hume's Treatise, both Enquiries, a number of essays, and the History of England (8). Although Hanvelt asserts that his objective is more descriptive than critical—he intends to define Hume's outlook on politics rather than assess "the accuracy or even the defensibility of Hume's vision" (9)—in the concluding chapter he makes a case that Hume's analysis is relevant to contemporary democratic politics.

Hanvelt's chapter 1 describes Hume's political project: how to address fanatics and fanaticism. Here and elsewhere (for example on pages 82 and 98), Hanvelt notes that Hume's discussions of rhetoric are motivated by his concerns about religious and political enthusiasm (19). The question is what kind of rhetoric could promote "public zeal" (142) rather than religious and political zealotry. In chapters 2 and 3, Hanvelt begins identifying Hume's view of this kind of rhetoric. Hanvelt observes that Hume describes rhetoric as a neutral tool that can be used to either contribute to the common good or create faction, "because his philosophy of mind does not allow for a distinction in kind between different feelings of belief" (40). Hanvelt analyzes how Hume characterizes good rhetoric, as opposed to merely effective rhetoric (8-9). Good rhetoric features politeness, comprising manners and decorum, sociability, and "a generalist approach to learning" (59).

In chapters 4 and 5, Hanvelt compares Hume's views on rhetoric with those of other Scots (mainly Adam Smith and George Campbell) and the ancients (mainly Aristotle, Demosthenes, and Cicero). In chapter 6, Hanvelt turns to the History of England to show what Hume considers to be zealous, hypocritical rhetoric, poor reasoning, rhetoric thin on emotion, and rhetoric thin on reasoning. Hume praises Thomas Wentworth, first Earl of Strafford's speech in his own defense at his impeachment for being directed at the public interest, for using reasoning "grounded in the experimental method" and vivid imagery, and for "engaging his accusers in conversation" by posing questions and respecting "the judgment of his individual audience members" (141). Hanvelt concludes that Hume's view of the public sphere involves opposing interests engaged in combat by means of good rhetoric that can avoid creating faction and fanaticism.

In chapter 7, Hanvelt argues that Hume's "account of rhetoric and the sentiment-based conception of judgment that underlies it are highly relevant to contemporary theorists interested in improving the quality of democratic practices" (145). He focuses on how Hume's conception of high rhetoric addresses Isaiah Berlin's position that "values are irreducibly plural and often incommensurable" (145). The core problem is how citizens can "defend their views forcefully and passionately in an effort to persuade others of their merits without resorting to manipulation, without fomenting the factionalism and fanaticism that can be so destructive to a democratic society" (147). Hume's account of high rhetoric suggests one way of doing so.

My main criticism of this work concerns what is left out rather than what is included. Hanvelt writes that he excludes writing and focuses on political oratory because in "Of Eloquence" Hume writes about oratory (7). The exclusion is questionable, both because using "rhetoric" to refer to...



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