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  • The Bite of Leviathan: Hobbes and Philosophic Drollery *
  • Roger D. Lund

Theomachus was pincht for an answer, and therefore he retreated to the last retrenchment of baffled Libertines, Raillery and Satyr. For you must know these Gentlemen bite, when they cannot Speak to the purpose; and Laugh down those arguments they cannot Reason out of Countenance.

William Darrell, The Gentleman Instructed 1

Anthony Collins’s description of Thomas Hobbes as a Philosophical Drole, who displayed a “great deal of Wit of the drolling kind,” contradicts the modern emphasis on Hobbes as a master of the plain style, as a writer “earnest even to the point of insensibility.” 2 But Collins’s judgment tallies perfectly with contemporary accounts of Hobbes’s “witt and drollery.” 3 Given the ubiquity of Hobbes’s contemporary reputation for wit, it is surprising just how little critical attention Hobbes’s witty rhetoric has received from modern commentators. The most notable exception to this pattern is Quentin Skinner’s recent argument that Leviathan ranks “as a masterpiece of satire and invective, embodying as it does a systematic application of the techniques evolved by the theorists of rhetoric for speaking with ridicule and contempt.” 4 While Skinner provides a convincing analysis of Hobbes’s exploitation of the “persuasive techniques of the classical ars rhetorica” to “amplify and underline the findings of reason and science,” his argument leaves the impression that Hobbes is best understood as a Renaissance rhetorician. 5 My argument in this essay is that if we are to appreciate the full significance of Hobbes’s rhetoric in Leviathan we must see him not merely as the last in a line of Renaissance Humanists, but as the first in a line of Restoration and Augustan wits who imitated Hobbes’s philosophic drollery, even as they rejected his philosophical arguments. Previous critics have noted Hobbes’s role as one of the progenitors of the debate concerning wit and reason that stretches from his Answer to Davenant through Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding to Pope’s Essay on Criticism. 6 To stop here, however, is to miss the [End Page 825] significance of Hobbes’s greatest rhetorical innovation: the creation of what we might call a new form of “heterodox wit,” a portfolio of rhetorical gestures that can be detected in authors from Blount and Toland to Gibbon and Hume, and which also exerted a powerful influence on pious ironists like Berkeley and Swift.

Certainly, those who had been victims of heterodox wit blamed Hobbes for having perfected it. Looking back from the mid-eighteenth century on the struggle between heterodox writers, like Hobbes, and orthodox defenders of the Church of England, John Leland remarks that the quarrel had been marked not so much by the introduction of new arguments as by new strategies of debate. Indeed, he argues, “if it be really true, that deism and infidelity have made a great progress among us, it must have been owing to something else than the force of reason and argument; [since] the Christian religion is in no danger from a free and impartial inquiry.” Therefore, since it was assumed that Christianity stood proof against all the logical arguments that had been raised against it, “such a view would make it manifest, that the enemies of Christianity have not generally behaved as became fair adversaries, but have acted as if they judge any arts lawful by which they thought they might gain their cause.” 7 Hobbes was generally regarded as the first master of these “unlawful” arts, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the progenitor of heterodox wit was secure. Surveying the “ungodly Mockery and insolent Scorn” that characterized controversial writing in the Restoration, Daniel Waterland suggests that while these “licentious Principles” may have found their origins in France, “Mr. Hobbes has been reputed the first or principal Man that introduced them here, or however that openly and glaringly espoused them.” 8 In short, Hobbes was credited with having perfected a new kind of heterodox rhetoric marked by dissimulation, irreverent skepticism, ironic indirection and epigrammatic wit, which to his contemporaries made theological error seem irresistible and his arguments unanswerable. To his earliest readers, then, Hobbes...

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