Reason's small power

The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes - Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes
January 31, 1997

Why do we study political thinkers of the past? According to one account, we study the political thought of Aristotle, Machiavelli or Hobbes because each of them sought to provide answers to the same small set of questions - the same questions that we ask today. These are questions about the sources and limits of obligations to governments, the best forms of organisation of states, the claims people can make on one another in terms of justice and rights, and so forth. Two beliefs go naturally with this once-common understanding. First, it presupposes that the central subject matter of political thought is pretty well historically invariant. And second, there is the conviction that moral and political reasoning are, ideally, demonstrative in character. They proceed by deduction from premises that are universally accepted to conclusions that are universally valid.

This once-dominant view is notably unhistorical. It takes for granted that, as a rule, the meanings of political texts from the past are unproblematically retrievable. But why should the historicist method advanced for the first time by Vico in his Scienza nuova, affirming that in order to understand the Homeric poems we must make a strenuous effort to enter a world whose ethical life is radically unfamiliar and deeply alien to us, not apply equally to the study of the history of political thought? Can we really be sure that writers who seem to share a discourse of justice and rights but who are separated by centuries mean the same things by such terms?

The assumption that political thinkers of the past were asking the same questions and deploying the same values - our questions and our values - may be, and often has been, a major impediment to our understanding their works. Moreover, in presupposing that its central content is constant, this unhistorical understanding tacitly privileges the conception of political thought as a species of demonstrative reasoning from first principles. It thereby suppresses the humanist understanding, which has been in the past at least as influential, according to which political reasoning aims at dialogue rather than demonstration, and in which it is closer to rhetoric than it is to any of the formal sciences.

A thoroughly historical understanding of political thought is the project by reference to which the "Cambridge'', "contextualist'' school of intellectual history has defined itself. In the work of Quentin Skinner, its principal exponent, it looks to the performative dimension of language in which words and sentences are themselves deeds. By contrast with traditional hermeneutics, Skinner seeks not to recover the sense and reference of texts but to reconstruct what their authors were doing in (and through) them. He rejects the view of the history of political thought as a series of variations on a small set of timeless themes. He seeks to understand texts as historically specific performances undertaken in particular historical contexts.

It would seem that few thinkers are less promising subjects for this method than Thomas Hobbes. His aim was a civil science whose maxims were derived by inexorable necessity from unshakeable foundations. His Leviathan seems a classic exemplar of demonstrative reasoning in political thought. His object was not to articulate the presuppositions of his or any age, but to construct a theory that was applicable in all ages. Nearly all Hobbes commentators have accepted his self-interpretation as a thinker (in Hugh Trevor-Roper's words) "without ancestry or posterity''.

In Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes, Skinner seeks to revise this common understanding, and to present Hobbes as a thinker whose conception of a civil science was throughout formed by his changing responses to the practice of rhetoric, and more particularly to classical and neo-Ciceronian theories of eloquence. In his early writings Hobbes sought to drive a wedge between science and eloquence, and show that the discourse of civil science was not persuasive but demonstrative. If, in this early work, Hobbes conceived the truths of his political philosophy to be so compelling as to stand in no need of the doubtful benefits of rhetoric, Skinner argues convincingly that Hobbes changed his mind in Leviathan, where he acknowledged the "small power of reason'' and endorsed the humanist affirmation of the necessity of rhetoric.

Here Skinner proposes a thoroughly novel and brilliantly illuminating reading of Leviathan, in which it is a work replete with rhetorical codes and bristling with satirical intent. He tells us that to think of Hobbes's prose "as a clear window through which we can gaze uninterruptedly at his thought'', and thereby miss his reliance on rhetorical devices throughout Leviathan, "is to fail to recognise what kind of work we have in our hands''. More generally, Skinner's book compels a fundamental revision of the conventional alignment of Hobbes with such contemporary philosophers as Mersenne and Descartes, and with the English empiricist tradition of Bacon, Locke and Hume. It suggests that Hobbes can be seen no less justly as belonging in a literary tradition linking Erasmus, More, Rabelais and Montaigne as satirists who deployed ridicule rather than argumentation in their attacks on their opponents.

The picture of Hobbes which Skinner presents is less that of an author of a systematic philosophy than of a contributor to Renaissance debate about the nature of the moral sciences. It will not be a picture that is easily recognisable by those who have been accustomed to see Hobbes as a "contractarian'' or "egoistic'' moral theorist. It represents him instead as a theorist of the virtues, who holds that a firm commitment to justice and to all the other social virtues is a necessary precondition of lasting peace in the common life.

This view of Hobbes runs in tandem with that advanced by several of the contributors to The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes. This useful and comprehensively multidisciplinary volume does not confine itself to Hobbes's moral and political thought. It contains instructive sections on Hobbes's writings on geometry and optics, law, religion and rhetoric. An instructive essay by Richard Tuck on Hobbes's moral philosophy argues that his reflections on the nature of ethics represent "the most profound philosophical analysis of the practice of late Renaissance humanists'', including their practice of rhetoric.

Skinner's book is a transforming contribution to Hobbes studies; but it is much more than that. It is a vindication of the historical method which Skinner has long advocated. The implicit lesson of Skinner's book is that we must engage in intellectual history if we are to distance ourselves critically from the assumptions that are built into the "concepts'' that are embedded in our present discourse. The method of contemporary analytical political philosophy is merely a late modern embodiment of the project of reconstructing political discourse on a model of demonstrative reasoning.

Among the many merits of Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes is that it reminds us of another, "humanist'' tradition in political thought whose understanding of political discourse is closer to the practices of dialogue. Skinner's splendid book provides a compelling reason why we should engage in the study of intellectual history - as a corrective against the type of absolutism that is most characteristic of late modern intellectual life, which is the absolutism of the present and of conventional opinion.

John Gray is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes

Editor - Tom Sorell
ISBN - 0 521 410193 and 422442
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £12.95
Pages - 404

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments