A Mistrust of Thunder and Lightning

Jeremy Waldron

  • Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes by Quentin Skinner
    Cambridge, 477 pp, £15.95, July 1997, ISBN 0 521 59645 9

‘He that hath good thoughts, and cannot clearly express them, were as good to have thought nothing at all.’ The quotation is from a speech by Pericles in an English translation of The History of the Peloponnesian War that Thomas Hobbes published in 1629. The sentiment expressed is one that haunted him throughout his intellectual endeavours.

Hobbes regarded himself as one of the first philosophers to engage in genuine political science, by which he meant not only the analysis and observation of political systems but the practical ‘skill of making, and maintaining Commonwealths’. He had no doubt about the importance of this work. Political science – clear, rigorous, systematic thinking about law, liberty and authority – was urgently needed in England, where (as he said in a book about the Civil War) ‘the people in general were so ignorant of their duty, as that not one perhaps of ten thousand knew what right any man had to command him, or what necessity there was of King or Commonwealth.’ By the beginning of the war, Hobbes had done the analysis he thought necessary: he had rejected what he called the ‘Aristotelity’ he was taught at Oxford, he had embraced something like the Euclidean method for the human sciences, he had made contact in Europe with Mersenne and Galileo, and he had read Descartes, Bodin and Grotius. He had had the ‘good thoughts’ which we know from the texts of De Cive and The Elements of Law: the fundamental relation between peace and survival, the intractability of religious and ethical disputes, and the importance of undivided sovereignty and absolute political authority. The problem for Hobbes was how to get this analysis across, how to ‘clearly express’ the new political science not only to his own satisfaction, but in a way that would have some positive impact in England beyond the small circle of those already sympathetic to his programme.

For humanist scholars and statesmen in the early 17th century, the solution to this problem could be stated in a single word: rhetoric. The ultimate test of good thoughts in a practical science like politics was the author’s capacity to structure them persuasively according to the conventions of eloquence and oratory. The art of rhetoric was not just a Renaissance equivalent of ‘spin’ or political campaign ads. Certainly, it was oriented to forensic success. But it used that orientation as basis for some quite categorical standards of evidence and exposition. Thoughts that could not be accommodated to those standards were, for that reason, suspect and disreputable.

But what if the rules of rhetoric were among the things you wanted to challenge? What if – like Hobbes – you saw rhetoric as part of the problem, usurping the more rigorous criteria of definition and logic that you now saw political science demanded? For example, the conventions of rhetoric might encourage an orator to use the word ‘tyrant’ to designate any king condemned by his arguments or to use the word ‘licence’ to designate liberties he thought impermissible. Hobbes believed that science required the consistent use of a single word to describe all monarchs (whatever one thought of them) and a single word to describe the absence of restraint (whatever one thought of that); in other words, science condemned the rhetorical technique of paradiastole as a breeding ground for equivocation. Again, rhetoric might counsel a speaker to adduce classical quotations in support of his case; indeed, it would be suspicious of any argument so radical as to preclude this kind of decoration. But if Hobbes was right that excessive reading of the Greeks and Romans tended to subvert a commonwealth, then he might well regard ‘the Ornament of quoting ancient Poets, Orators, and Philosophers’ as a dangerous and unwarranted concession to respectability.

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