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Neither Nasty nor Brutish, but Short: Thomas Hobbes’ Abbreviated Translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric

Charles McNamara

Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften / Thesaurus Linguae Latinae

In England, the seventeenth century was marked by an interest in the problems surrounding epistemology, from Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning in 1605 to John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1689. Even if we might think of English authors of this period strictly as empiricist reformers, they nevertheless looked to the rhetorical texts of antiquity for inspiration. This double interest can be seen clearly in Thomas Hobbes’ compressed English translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. But by abbreviating and reformulating some of Aristotle’s key concepts, particularly the enthymeme, Hobbes’ translation of the Rhetoric shows his century’s growing distrust of classical methods of persuasion.

After his well-known turn to demonstrative methodology after 1630 (Remer 1992, 5-6), Hobbes compresses Aristotle’s Rhetoric, first summarizing the Greek in Latin and later publishing an English translation of this abbreviated version in 1637. Scholars have previously noted that Hobbes admires Aristotle’s rhetorical treatise: while he disparages the Politics and Aristotle’s ethical theory, he says the Rhetoric is “rare” (Harwood 2009, 2).

Despite this admiration, however, Hobbes’ translation uses novel reformulations that appear to undercut classical rhetoric. For example, his definition of its enthymemes underscores his view of this art as a method of mere popular persuasion. Hobbes explains that “the principles of rhetorick out of which enthymemes are to be drawn; are the common opinions that men have” (I.3). This emphasis on “common opinion” does not appear in Aristotle’s original chapter. In the same chapter, moreover, Hobbes contrasts these rhetorical enthymemes with the rigor of logic, in which “certain and infallible knowledge is the scope of our proof” (ibid.). Hobbes adds his own judgment of rhetoric’s less lofty goals: “in rhetorick the principles must be common opinions … because the end of rhetorick is victory” (ibid.). No mere translation, Hobbes’ version of Aristotle’s Rhetoric inserts pointed judgments on the nature and limits of persuasion.

Other scholars have noted Hobbes’ interest in Aristotle’s Rhetoric: Quentin Skinner reports Hobbes’ attention to Aristotle’s treatise in his later work The Elements of Law, and John Harwood correctly notes that Hobbes’ text here is “neither an original work of rhetorical theory nor even a full translation of the Rhetoric” (2009, 3). Taking Hobbes’ interest in Aristotle’s text as a point of departure, I underscore Hobbes’ pointed rendering of the enthymeme and common opinions as a sign of his shifting views of persuasion and proof more generally.

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Translation and Transmission: Mediating Classical Texts in the Early Modern World

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