Feb 3, 2016
Welcome to New Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, events, and ideas that have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren and today I actually get to respond to a listener who wrote in, named Greg Gibby. And Greg wrote in saying that he would love to know some sort of ranking system; some way to see who are some of the most important figures in rhetorical history and sort of how they might relate to each other. So because of Greg, for the next month, we are going to be counting down the villains of rhetoric. Not that there are any you know, mustache twirlers per say, but these are folks who sort of give rhetoric a bad name, and contributed to rhetoric becoming a pejorative.
So today, in honor of Greg, we are going to be start out our series. We are going to be starting with, Thomas Hobbes. Now, you probably remember Hobbes from your political science classes. He's the one that came up with the idea of the social contract. You remember this. You have a bunch of people all living together and life is nasty and terrible and brutish, and then they decide, "Hey if we all get in this together and make somebody in charge of us, we don't have to live like animals." So they create a contract.
"We will all obey the sovereign, and the sovereign will protect us."
Well, this is all very well and good until you include rhetoric. Hobbes kind of defines eloquence into two camps. One is philosophy, and the other is a passion.
He says, "The one is an elegant and clear expression of the conceptions of the mind, and riseth partly from the contemplation of the things themselves. Partly from the understanding of the words taken in their own proper and definite signification. The other is a commotion of the passions of the mind. And derives from metaphorical use of words fitted to the passions."
This is sort of going back to the old idea that you either have, sort of a philosophical understanding of what everything is, and you just sort of lay the words on top of it with one clear understanding. Or, you've tricky, tricky words which are going to create a commotion of passions of the mind, deriving a metaphorical use of words fitted to those passions. It's sort of a cold, contemplated way to sort of approach rhetoric, in this sense. So rhetoric is suspect, and in fact Hobbes is quite suspicious of the roll of rhetoric within, heaven forbid, a democracy.
He says, "In a democracy, look at how many demagogues, that is how many powerful orators there are with the people."
And he says, "In a popular dominion there may be as many Nero's as there are orators who sooth the people."
It's kind of a scary idea for him that people will be able to speak, and have such a big influence. He goes even deeper with this when he talks about why there are so many demagogues, so many orators trying to grasp for power through the words that they use.
He says, "Another reason why a great assembly is not so fit for consultation is because everyone who delivers his opinion holds it necessary to make a long tongued speech, and to gain more esteem from his auditors, he polishes and adorns it with the best and smoothest language. Now the nature of eloquence is to make good and evil profitable and unprofitable, honest and dishonesty. Appear to be more or less than indeed they are. And to make that seem just which is unjust. According as it shall best suit with his end that speaketh. For this is to persuade, and though they reason, yet they, not from their rise form true principles but from vulgar received opinions."
Now this is actually Hobbes getting at sort of a philosophy of rhetoric that has been around for a long time. The idea that received opinions are a way to reason. In ancient rhetorical theory this was kind of okay. It was called the common places, and you could argue from a common place. We talked about this a little bit in the podcast about the cannons, and a little bit of the [inaudible]. Well you could say, "Well everyone knows that a stitch in time, saves nine." And that would count as good evidence. But for Hobbes, he says that becomes dangerous because of vulgar received opinions. Now, these orators, he also criticizes by saying, "there is no reason why every man should not naturally mind his own praise, rather than the public business, but that here he sees a means to declare his eloquence, whereby he may gain the reputation of being ingenious and wise. Rejoice and triumph in the applause of his dexterous behavior." So he says that all these orators that are going in for public speech; they don't really care about the public in general. In fact, they should probably just mind their own business, but the only reason they are going into it is so that people will think that they are smart, and clever. Now that's not to say that there is zero space for conversation within Hobbes ideas. At the beginning of chapter 14 of Laws and Trespass, Hobbes does make a somewhat passing remark about the role of council. He says that those who confuse law and council are like those who, "think it is the duty of the monarch, not only to give ear for their counselors, but also to obey them, as if it were in vain to take council unless it were also followed." What? Hobbes! Did you just say that Monarchy could be influenced by something outside of the sovereign, but politically impactful? Let's take a look at the page again. "Council is directed to his end that receives it. Council is given to none but the willing." Council, then, according to Hobbes, doesn't necessarily persuade the sovereign as we might understand in rhetoric, but provides another pillar of reasoning for the Monarch to consider. In fact, such council looks a lot like that philosophical eloquence that Hobbes describes above. A clear, grounded, rationalist contemplation and divorced from emotional appeals. This kind of reminds me of Tacitus who was similarly enamored of the principatus, and his concern about demagogues' rhetorical sway. But he was, nonetheless, willing to admit that the sovereign could benefit from hearing what advisers have to say. So in the end, Hobbes is generally not in favor of rhetoric. Not for the masses, not for the people speaking of their own, not sort of even in assemblies, but he does have a tiny smidgen of space where a counselor could say something to a sovereign, that the sovereign -- moving forward from his own wisdom and not from anyone else's admission can take into account of make his own decision. So there you have it Hobbes; number four on our list of the villains of rhetoric. Next week we will continue on with our villains of rhetoric series by talking about Ramus. Until then, try not to let the demagogues bring you down. And always pay attention to what your sovereign has to offer.