- Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes by Timothy Raylor
Timothy Raylor's book constitutes a major advance in understanding Thomas Hobbes's thought in several dimensions: of course, in philosophy and rhetoric, as his title indicates, but also in Hobbes's views of history, science, and civic humanism. Raylor's scholarship is of the highest order; and his judgment about texts, Hobbes's and others', is acute. His book should be as important to historians of philosophy as to rhetoricians and intellectual historians. Placing "Philosophy" and "Rhetoric" before Hobbes's name in the title is appropriate because it is the interplay between conceptions of philosophy and rhetoric in the early seventeenth century that Raylor explores, with special attention to Hobbes. At one time, scholars thought of Hobbes as a relatively solitary figure. Scholarship over the last half-century on what he read and with whom he associated has changed that image of him.
The foundation of Raylor's thesis about the continuity of rhetoric in Hobbes's thought depends on a distinction between two complex conceptions of rhetoric, one Aristotelian and one Ciceronian. Concerning the Aristotelian conception, rhetoric is "an art of knowing what strategies, in a given speech situation, will win belief in an audience"; in other words, knowing "the requirements of [rational] persuasion" (176). On this conception, rhetoric is compatible with logic; but it is logic that is the tool of science, the set of propositions arrived at through "apodeictic demonstration" (279). According to the Ciceronian conception, rhetoric provides help with the rough and tumble of civic life, where "mere opinion, [and] mere plausibility" masquerade "as demonstration" (176), and victory is the goal (180). It is easy to conflate the Aristotelian and Ciceronian conceptions in Hobbes's work. One reason is that he sometimes denigrates "rhetoric" in comparison with logic, not making clear that he is thinking only of Ciceronian rhetoric. The other reason is that he sometimes insinuates that "the eloquent man" is morally bankrupt (178). But his criticism of eloquence on these occasions is tendentious. He is talking about politicians who "desire … to seek personal glory, rather than the good of the commonwealth" (178). At other times, Hobbes uses the Aristotelian conception of rhetoric, which simply concerns "speaking well" (180). Leviathan is rhetorical in this latter sense.
Raylor contends that Hobbes never abandoned his broadly humanist orientation (277) and maintained the same conception of rhetoric throughout his career: Aristotle's, not Cicero's. Granted, Hobbes "removed ethics and politics from the domain of opinion and [End Page 754] relocated them in the realm of … certain and scientifically demonstrable" subjects (14). Against Aristotle's view of natural philosophy, ethics, and political philosophy, Hobbes placed "natural philosophy … [in] the domain of uncertainty, of opinion," and placed ethics and political philosophy within science (14). Nevertheless, he never eschewed "all aspects of rhetoric in his 'scientific' works" (14). The "most striking locus of elocutionary display in Leviathan" comes only in "the astonishing verbal firework" of the last two parts (15; see also 276–77).
One payoff of the distinction between the two traditions of rhetoric is that history, as rendered by Thucydides, Tacitus, and Bacon, teaches that citizen participation in government usually results in ruinous policies and decisions (69–82). Bacon considered Thucydides the best Greek historian and Tacitus the greatest historian simpliciter. Hobbes's interest in History of the Peloponnesian War comes from Thucydides's search for the causes of events, not as "a storehouse of moral commonplaces" (278; see also 65–67). He was tutoring a young aristocrat in his future "practical responsibilities of an aristocrat … rather than to the training of a Ciceronian vir civilis" (278). So much for civic humanism.
To add a note about Bacon's influence on Hobbes, Raylor shows Hobbes's debt to Bacon in historiography, jurisprudence, moral philosophy, data collection, and even prose style. Hobbes played a role in translating at least one of Bacon's essays and some or all of The Advancement of Learning and Historie of the Raigne of King Henry VII (70).
In addition to an...