Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Image, Rhetoric, and Politics in the Early Thomas Hobbes

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Image, Rhetoric, and Politics in the Early Thomas Hobbes

Article excerpt

In 1628 Thomas Hobbes composed the earliest surviving piece of writing to which he put his name, a simple letter addressed to Christian Cavendish, Countess of Devonshire. Sent from London on 16 November, it accompanied a copy of the dedicatory epistle to his forthcoming translation of Thucydides' Eight Books of the Peloponnesian War, a text with which Hobbes hoped to honor Lady Devonshire's husband, the second Earl of Devonshire, "according to that forme which your Ladiship gaue me leaue to use."1 Hobbes also acknowledges the expectation that he keep his benefactor informed of his work and asks her to review the dedication lest "through ignorance" it fails to do her family justice, all the while gently asking for speed in its return so that the publication of his larger literary project-one meant to intercede in his country's growing political debates-might not be inordinately delayed. The letter provides a brief glimpse into the conditions of Hobbes's early years, ones in which the duties of secretary, translator, and tutor combined to position Hobbes as a humanist scholar.2 Early modern humanism was often shaped by a deep concern for both private and public service, not only in terms of work like that of Hobbes for the Cavendishes but also in its conception of rhetoric, which emphasized the profound interdependence of citizenship and eloquence. Humanists drew their inspiration from texts such as Cicero's De oratore, in which Crassus proclaims that the orator is one who can "rouse [the people] to a sense of honor or lead them away from error ... in short, the man who is able, through speech, to arouse or calm in people's hearts any emotion that the circumstances and the case demand."3

Though early modern humanists studying the relationship between thought, rhetoric, and civic involvement had a myriad of ancient and contemporary texts to consider, modern critics bent on placing Hobbes in this group face a much different prospect. Owing to the apparent dearth of Hobbes's early written work, modern readings of Hobbes's humanism-in particular that of Quentin Skinner-have generally been forced to rely as much on biographical as on textual evidence for their characterizations.4 Along with considerations of Hobbes's service to the elder Cavendish and his guided tours of the Continent for the younger William Cavendish (the future third earl of Devonshire), studies of Hobbes's translations of Thucydides and Aristotle's Rhetoric have revealed Hobbes's clear interest in the power of rhetoric, power that from Hobbes's initial perspective seems to have been simultaneously necessary and dangerous to the proper functioning of the state. Such studies of the early Hobbes can be enriched and deepened, I argue, by a consideration of the formerly anonymous texts now identified as the philosopher's earliest work, namely the essays "A Discourse of Tacitus," "A Discourse of Rome," and "A Discourse of Laws" found in a larger 1620 collection entitled Horae Subsecivae: Observations and Discourses. Originally thought to have been the work of the young William Cavendish, who under Hobbes's supervision likely wrote the majority of the Horae essays, these three discourses have since been identified by Noel Reynolds and Arlene Saxonhouse as the work of Hobbes himself.5 This attribution has not gone uncontested, though even skeptics have granted Hobbes a large influence over the content of the essays. Criticism of the specific attribution to Hobbes generally stems from a suspicion of Reynolds's and Saxonhouse's reliance on a computer-aided stylistic analysis as well as occasional concerns that the discourses might not always be entirely consistent with Hobbes's later (and more famous) writings such as Leviathan.6

Rather than looking immediately ahead to such texts, I contend that it is more fair and productive to read the discourses alongside Hobbes's first major publication and their near contemporary, his translation of the Eight Books, published in 1629 though likely completed much earlier. …

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