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.

Above all, Hobbes was troubled by the techniques of elocutio: sensitivity to the passions of one’s audience and an ability to adapt the tropes and rhythms of one’s speech to maximum emotional effect. This was partly a distrust of orators. If we learned anything from Greek and Roman history, Hobbes wrote, we learned not about the desirability of rhetoric but about its dangers. Pericles, for example, was a great orator, but his mode of expressing thoughts clearly was to transfix the people of Athens with his eloquence, to make ‘thunder and lightning in his speeches’, and thereby, as Hobbes remarked, throw the whole of Greece into confusion. Hobbes’s aversion was not just pragmatic. The techniques of elocutio were grounded on what he regarded as the greatest threat to peace and order: the wild swings in people’s views about justice depending on where their passions and appetites happened to alight. Rhetoric made a virtue of tracking these swings and pandering to them, whereas for Hobbes the highest priority was to bring them under control and if possible banish them altogether from political life. With that as an end, it was not at all clear he could safely use rhetoric as a means.

On the other hand, could he afford to forego its benefits in the presentation of his own position? If his interest was simply in its truth, perhaps. But if he proposed to share that interest with the people whose predicament his arguments addressed, he would have to reckon with their passions and compete with other orators who, as things stood, were more than eager to lead them astray. ‘There is nothing,’ Hobbes said in Leviathan, ‘that I distrust more than my Elocution.’ Still, he added, ‘if there be not powerful Eloquence, which procureth attention, the effect of Reason will be little.’

Quentin Skinner’s Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes is a monumental work which has joined his earlier two-volume Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978) as a massive contribution to our understanding of late medieval and early modern political theory. Unlike Foundations, however, Reason and Rhetoric is a formidably difficult book to review, especially for one who does not share the author’s avowed preference for the history of discourse over the substance of political philosophy.

Reason and Rhetoric makes precious few concessions up front to those of us who would like to treat Hobbes as a modern rational choice theorist. We may be interested in game-theoretic models of social contract among self-interested rational agents, says Skinner, but it’s wrong to assume that Hobbes was, or to assume he was simply because some of his vocabulary matches our vocabulary, without considering the context in which that vocabulary was used. Skinner’s ‘contextualism’ is a subject of widespread debate and (as he thinks) misunderstanding in political theory, but it amounts at least to this: he thinks it impossible to understand any writing without grasping the culture, discourse and politics that made it meaningful for its first generation of readers. (The main difference in this regard between De Cive and a piece of modern writing on politics is that with the latter work we grasp the context as a matter of course – we are the first generation of readers – whereas with Hobbes, the 17th-century context has to be recovered painstakingly and reconstructed for our understanding.)

The first five chapters of Skinner’s book – nearly two hundred intimidating pages – are thus devoted to an elaborate account of the study of rhetoric in late Tudor England (the environment in which Hobbes was educated and from which he would have drawn his familiarity with elocutio, inventio, amplificatio etc, both as problems and as techniques). Skinner shows us in detail the place that rhetoric occupied in the grammar schools of Hobbes’s youth. We learn roughly what contemporary textbooks would have taught him about the nature and provenance of the classical conventions: we read with him from Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. We follow the rise of the Christian Grand Style in Renaissance Europe, we ponder Francis Bacon’s thesis of the colours of good and evil, we trace the slow movement of the study of human memory from rhetoric to medical science in the late 16th century, and we learn about the importance for irony of ‘drawing the lippe awry, or shrinking up the nose’. It is all very interesting and instructive, though sometimes it is difficult for the reader not to skip straight to the second course – the chapters on Hobbes, for which the reams on the history of rhetoric are presented as an essential, though starchy hors d’oeuvre.

Skinner is uncompromising about the importance of the first five chapters. ‘I am less interested,’ he says, ‘in Hobbes as the author of a philosophical system than in his role as a contributor to a series of debates about the moral sciences within Renaissance culture.’ Hobbes advertised Leviathan as an endeavour ‘to set before mens eyes the mutuall Relation between Protection and Obedience’, but Skinner sees it instead as ‘a belated but magnificent contribution to the Renaissance art of eloquence’. I guess it’s the mark of a great book that it can be many things to many people, but I can’t help thinking that this anti-philosophical presentation sells short Skinner’s achievement in Reason and Rhetoric, not to mention the importance of the Hobbesian (or Periclean) problem with which we began.

I suspect that Skinner’s disclaimer of interest in Hobbes’s philosophy is a bit of amplificatio on his own account. For Part Two of Reason and Rhetoric is devoted wholly to Hobbes’s struggle with elocutio and paradiastole as philosophical problems in politics. Hobbes was adamant that theories of government had to be scientific if they were to do any good; and he was convinced, as I’ve said, that the misleading and tendentious use of rhetoric was part of the problem in politics that his own theories set out to address. The earlier of his two great treatises – De Cive, published in Latin in 1642 – was an attempt to present his political analysis in a purely scientific mode. It was, Skinner says, ‘as violently anti-rhetorical a text as Hobbes was capable of making it’. What dominates the second part of Skinner’s book is the question of why Hobbes turned back to rhetoric in Leviathan (1651), even as he republished the anti-rhetorical De Cive that same year in an English translation. What had convinced him of the indispensability of rhetoric, and why did he now think that (with careful chaperoning) ‘Reason and Eloquence, (though not perhaps in the naturall Sciences, yet in the Morall) may stand very well together’?

I will come to Skinner’s answers in a moment. First, let me emphasise again that although the answers will be in part historical – Hobbes was moved by this or that series of events in the 1640s to change his mind about elocutio – and although they will certainly constitute a chapter in the history of rhetoric (particularly the history of its long and losing struggle for hegemony over the new forms of discourse associated with Galilean science), they will also be theorems in political philosophy. How to make political science politically effective was, as Skinner points out, a central topic of Hobbes’s substantive theory. Even at the most superficial level, his work on this topic is indispensable for understanding his views on education, toleration, democracy and freedom of speech. These are all about rhetoric in one way or another, for they make us think hard about ‘that art of words, by which some men can represent to others, that which is Good, in the likenesse of Evill; and Evill, in the likeness of Good ... discontenting men, and troubling their Peace at their pleasure’.

The issue also has a deeper political significance. One of the most important positions in modern political philosophy is the Enlightenment commitment to transparency. Thomas Hobbes may not be our contemporary in very many things, but he is in this: he was adamant that subjects should understand the truth about politics. Sovereign power, he said, depends on popular belief: ‘If men know not their duty, what is there that can force them to obey the laws? An army, you will say. But what shall force the army?’ And it is important that the beliefs in question be veridical: ‘It is against [the sovereign’s] Duty to let the people be mis-informed of the grounds, and reasons of these his essentiall rights.’ State authority should not rest on myths, noble lies, fantasies or superstition.

In fact, rulers tell many lies to bolster their authority. They say hereditary monarchy is ordained by God; or they proclaim a moral duty of patriotic sacrifice. Both these views are false, according to Hobbes, and any sovereign who tried to use them as official ideology would be taking a foolish risk on people’s gullibility. We should remember, too, that the problem for Hobbes was not just to secure the acceptance of any old version of absolutism. His position was subtle, ‘beset’, as he said at the beginning of Leviathan, ‘with those that contend, on the one side, for too great Liberty, and on the other side for too much Authority’. Unless his conclusions were accepted for the right reason, there was no guarantee they would be the right conclusions. He was well aware also that his absolutism was unfamiliar and in many ways ‘counter-intuitive’. It became credible only in the light of the arguments developed within his political science. If those arguments did not do their work, the position was lost. There was nothing else to support it.

The fact that Hobbes believed there was nothing except reason for him to rely on does not mean that he was particularly confident that reason would work. On the contrary, Skinner points out that by the time it came to the writing of Leviathan, Hobbes had a much more pessimistic sense of what the powers of unaided reason could hope to achieve than he’d had when he drafted De Cive. Why? The book offers two answers. First, says Skinner, the events of the Civil War convinced him that ‘the most absurd and pernicious doctrines, so long as they are put forward with sufficient rhetorical force, can always hope to triumph over the clearest scientific proof.’ They may not triumph in the sense of producing a stable settlement. Hobbes thought rhetoric without reason produces fickle allegiances, vulnerable to the whims of ideological fashion, ‘as birds that entring by the chimney, and finding themselves inclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glasse window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in’. Still, without rhetoric, reason cannot hope even to participate in the competition.

Secondly, Hobbes’s exile in France in the mid-1640s drew him into a circle of thinkers who emphasised the primacy of interest in politics over everything else. ‘Princes rule peoples,’ wrote the duc de Rohan (a Huguenot leader) in 1639, ‘and interest rules Princes.’ In any competition, Rohan added, reason will always lose out to self-interest. Thus the political scientist had better think hard about how to package his reasoned conclusions rhetorically so that they pander to the interests and the passions of his audience. This is a substantial reinterpretation by Skinner. The traditional view has always been that Hobbes’s political theory begins and ends with self-interest – the interest of every person in avoiding sudden, violent, untimely death – and that, on Hobbes’s scheme of things, reason is not to be contrasted with interest but only with short-term interest undisciplined by prudence. But Skinner seems to be suggesting that the emphasis on self-interest in Leviathan is pure elocutio – a way of packaging an independent doctrine about justice, virtue and authority, so that it appeals to the egoism of an irrational audience.

I think Skinner is wrong about this (though it does not detract from his account of the importance of rhetoric). It is true that modern Hobbesians may have placed too much emphasis on the material or economic side of his egoism; certainly they have paid insufficient attention to his concern about religious and ethical conflict. But the basic theme of mortal self-interest is fundamental in Hobbes’s work, in both its rhetorical and its anti-rhetorical phases. If anything it is more prominent in the earlier scientistic writing. ‘Each man,’ he says in the Latin De Cive, ‘is drawn to desire that which is Good for him and to Avoid what is bad for him, and most of all the greatest of natural evils, which is death.’ This happens, he goes on, ‘by a real necessity of nature as powerful as that by which a stone falls downward.’ Skinner would have us believe that De Cive is a science of virtue not interest, particularly the virtue of justice, which means standing by your covenants, according to Hobbes. But standing by your covenants is valued in both De Cive and Leviathan as a necessary means of securing peace, and the importance of peace is quite unintelligible in his work except by reference to his theorem that ‘men who live in a state of war, cannot expect long preservation.’

The need to match reason with eloquence, then, cannot be explained in terms of the rhetoric of pandering to people’s interest in order to get them to accept more detached and independent propositions of morality. The propositions that Hobbes wants to get across are propositions about interest. The real worry in Leviathan is not about interest v. reason, but about the dominance of short-term interests over interests that are so long-term that nothing but good political science will enable men to grasp them: ‘For all men are by nature provided of notable multiplying glasses (that is their Passions and Selfe-love) through which every little payment appeareth a great grievance, but are destitute of those prospective glasses, (namely Morall and Civill Science,) to see a farre off the miseries that hang over them, and cannot without such payments be avoided.’ Skinner is on safer ground when he reports that rhetoric was supposed to appeal to the passions, not to interests per se, and that what Hobbes had to figure out in Leviathan was how to take advantage of the passions – or, at the very least, how to defuse them – for the sake of sound, prudent, long-range rational choice.