Antti Tahvanainen – Lectio praecursoria 21.1.2012

Antti Tahvanaisen väitöskirja ”Rhetoric and Public Speech in English Republicanism, 1642–1681” tarkastettiin  21.1.2012 Helsingin yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä oli professori Martin Dzelzainis, University of Leicester, ja kustoksena professori Markku Peltonen.

Messieurs Custos and Opponent, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by way of an answer to a question that might have crossed your mind upon hearing about the thesis at hand: that is, what happened in England during the 17th century? Quite a lot, as it happens, but most significantly as concerns this study, there was a period of Civil Wars during the 1640’s. From school history you may remember the terms Roundheads and Cavaliers (or in Finnish, ‘keropäät ja kavaljeerit’) – Roundheads is the umbrella term for the supporters of Parliament, and Cavaliers for the monarchists. The Civil Wars were followed by a republican stage in the 1650’s that ended with the restoration of monarchy in 1660. The contributing factors behind the Civil Wars were not limited to republican aspirations, and they included confessional and religious issues, and the wars involved Ireland and Scotland as well as England. Nevertheless, the fact remains that in 1649 the victorious Parliament officially declared England to be ‘a Commonwealth and Free State’.

Next, allow me to explain what is meant by republicanism. The republican political tradition is a fairly broad Church, but we can note a few elements in order to have a working definition. The tradition can be traced to antiquity, to the Greek city-states such as Athens and Sparta, to Roman republic – that is, after the kings and before the emperors – onwards to the communes and city-states of renaissance Italy, and eventually to 17th century England. These are also the times and places that were often mentioned as worth imitating by later republican authors. As to the content of the political theory of republicanism, it has been seen to include such aspects as equality of citizens, the importance of civic virtues, active participation, and rule of law, among others. The emphasis that was put on these aspects differed, and some of them, such as collectivism, have been somewhat misplaced in the context of seventeenth century. The one fundamental aspect that is worth knowing about republicanism is that it relies heavily on the absence of domination. Freedom was a status of not being under the domination, tutelage or no matter how beneficial arbitrary power of someone else, or, to put in more bluntly, not being a slave. Thus, a free state is free because it is not under domination by others, and its people are not enslaved by their own leaders.

So, if England only became a Free state in 1649, where did they get their ideas on the benefits of republicanism before that? This question brings us to another topic familiar from history lessons: the renaissance, which, quite literally, meant the rebirth, imitation and all-around admiration of all things classical and antique – resulting in some quarters in a renewed appreciation of ancient republics. More generally, renaissance also saw the advent of the humanists, that is, those versed in studia humanitatis, the students of classical works of literature that were so appreciated. One aspect of which also implied a very significant attention paid to the study, and mastery, of rhetoric. In the case of England, the humanist method of schooling became ever more common, to such an extent that even a boy from poor background could gain an education that allowed him to write, among other things, plays about ancient Rome where we may still find examples of persuasive political rhetoric – as was the case of one William Shakespeare, unlike what a recent Hollywood movie would have us believe.

It is easy to notice the connections between republicanism and rhetoric: ancient republics, renaissance and England all had their republican moments, as well as engaging in flourishing studies of rhetoric. Indeed, immediately after the Civil Wars Thomas Hobbes, in his book Leviathan argued that the learning of classical heritage in schools had made republicanism irresistibly interesting. The relationship between the two is not exactly such a clear-cut question of cause and effect, but nevertheless, the connection between governments based on public deliberation and the study of rhetoric is understandable: it can be useful for a aspiring politician to be well trained for public speaking. Not absolutely necessary, there can obviously be politicians who can get elected despite their lack of intelligible speech, and they can even consider their taciturn ways an asset.

Nevertheless, the point remains: in a form of government that requires deliberation among its citizens, there is a market for teaching and learning the art of public speaking and persuasion. Accordingly, that art is bound to change when the market no longer exists. This connection between republicanism and public speech is behind two of the basic arguments about the role of rhetoric in politics: 1) rhetoric as an art flourishes in republican forms of government, and accordingly degenerates into servile flattery in monarchies; and 2) the counterargument, which is that republican forms of government eventually fail because of that rhetoric. According to this perspective, populist oratory, or demagogic speeches cause constant turmoil and discord, which will eventually result in the republic’s downfall. The purpose of my thesis is to analyse how these arguments, among others, about the political role of rhetoric were dealt with by the republican authors themselves, during and immediately after the English Civil War and Commonwealth.

Permit me to take a step back here to impress on you the significance of what I mean by the political role of rhetoric. From its beginnings in ancient Greece, rhetoric has developed into having two senses, primary and secondary. Since our tradition of rhetoric began from self-governing entities, so rhetoric in the first instance concerned the question of how people can persuade each other on near-equal terms in political assemblies, with the goal of enabling collective action. This republican connection to rhetoric obviously did not end up excluding rhetoric from other uses: even if republics came and went, most forms of government did, and do, make use of rhetoric – at least in their propaganda, if nothing else. In the early modern England, long before it became a free state, rhetoric was accordingly taught in schools, and students could be taught to argue for and against, say monarchical rule (although you can probably guess what the end result of such a debate was). The important point here is that even in monarchies rhetoric could be, and was, taught in schools, since it was rhetoric in its secondary sense. Not explicitly connected with republicanism, but as a systematic collection of techniques, for acquiring the skill of persuasive speech.

Of course, these are the descriptive senses of the term rhetoric, and since its beginnings, rhetoric in the more commonly used secondary sense has also had normative connotations, both negative and positive. The negative views have seen rhetoric as the art of lying, abuse of logic, and appealing to passions over reason, and generally setting it against philosophy. There is a basis for these arguments, if we keep in mind that rhetoric began as an accumulation of working techniques on what actually persuades people to do your bidding, and not as a moral pondering on how they should be persuaded in morally and logically appropriate ways. The more positive view has been to argue that while rhetoric can be abused, it does not mean that it will be: lies are possible without rhetoric, and rhetoric can be used in the service of truth. Furthermore, it can even be said that reason is speechless without rhetoric: philosophy and science do more good when their findings can be expressed persuasively.

This dispute over ‘words’ and ‘things’, or eloquence and issues, is commonly known. However, what is less known is the question of the primary sense of rhetoric. Alongside the tradition of setting philosophy against rhetoric, it has been as long-standing tradition within philosophy, to nag about the primacy of the secondary sense, and advocate a return to the first principles, to the initial question of how to realise common action among actors of equal power. Thus in ancient Rome Cicero ridiculed younger orators for their assumption that merely acquiring a formal set of skills in rhetoric made them statesmen, whereas they could only aspire to reach the true heights of oratory by careful consideration of what rhetoric is for – that is, for reaching the common good under common consent. The same problems were duly grappled with by the English republicans of the seventeenth century, but even in the twentieth century philosophers such as Martin Heidegger would still complain that unlike many people thought, rhetoric is not just something you learn at school, but a fundamental way of interacting with others.

As can be seen, the tendency to make the secondary sense of rhetoric into its main sense has a long history, and it has duly had its results in historical writing as well. In scholarly or academic studies, the history of rhetoric has usually meant the history of rhetorical manuals, guides, etc. In political science, rhetoric has been of late rediscovered, but even there many of the studies can be criticised for concentrating mainly on secondary rhetoric. This is not to say that such studies are without value: research is valuable in its own right, and rhetorical analysis of any text can play a part in understanding its intents and purposes. However, if such technical analysis becomes the main purpose of research, it can quickly end up as a rather tedious and dull school exercise. In the worst case, the result of such pain-staking research would be that persuasive speechwriters tend to be good at rhetoric.

Where the importance of the primary sense of rhetoric to political thought has become a subject of study is in the field of intellectual history of the seventeenth century, in the past two decades or so. Despite these welcome developments, there are grounds for criticising some of the results. For one thing, the relationship between republicanism is at times too straightforward: rhetoric is – quite rightly – seen as the method of statesmen to sooth the masses, to engage in public deliberations, and to defend the republic against other powers. These attributes are all correct, but they assert one republican approach – mainly, that of Cicero. The importance of Cicero to republicanism is beyond doubt, but by seeing the republican approach to rhetoric only through him, we leave out the huge variety of republican thought in seventeenth century England, which had to deal with rather different circumstances as well, such as practical ways of self-governing in a large-scale nation.

And it is precisely the variety of republican thought that is the justification for studying it. The mid-seventeenth century England was a very fruitful period of political writing, as it saw an explosive growth of public speech due to lack of censorship. Furthermore, it was a period that saw new approaches to political theory, perhaps none more important than the already mentioned Thomas Hobbes, but also radical democrats like the Levellers, development of the political theory of patriarchy, just to mention a few. In this melting pot of ideas old and new, all done during a period that did not always give writers the opportunity for long-winded, calm and disinterested reflection on matters, we can find republican political writing that was, and often explicitly wanted to be innovative.

Furthermore, the period was not simply one of Civil War, Republic, and Restoration, but involved changing fortunes and differing expectations of future during those sub-periods. Some of the republican authors under study wrote for and against the monarchist side, and some for and against the Parliament, some of them arguing that there was too much of democratic elements, and some that there was not enough. Some were paid to write propaganda, some were otherwise interested in participating in, what could be called, the public sphere of the time. One purpose of this thesis is to set the chosen writers in their contexts, so that we better may understand the circumstances of their actions: who they were addressing, what was their situation, and so on. Now having said that, it needs to be stressed that their circumstances as such are not the only explanations to their writings. Such a reductionist view would leave out the constraints that the needs of rational argumentation forces on political writing. That is not to say that the republican writers shied away from personal attacks, or were immune to confused logic. Rather, the point is that if the opposing side would apply a more philosophical avenue of attack, the challenge was to answer in similar terms. For example, if charges were put forth that the republic is not a good idea because it lacks a commanding central authority, or alternatively, that the politicians in power put their private interests before common good, it can help to persuade people otherwise by engaging these arguments. And obviously, all the more so if it can be done in an eloquent manner.

Of the many republican authors of the period, I have chosen five to represent the spectrum and variety of republican political writing, who, at the same time, shared many aspects of republican tradition, yet also had their individual approaches to some of the aspects. And indeed, they were on occasion diametrically opposed to each others writings. In the course of solving this jumble of differing opinions and approaches to republicanism and public speech, it became apparent that we cannot gain an accurate analysis if we restrict ourselves to some of the hitherto used methods – that is, to measuring how democratic they were, whether they approved of individual rights, such as free speech, or whether they were idealists, realists, and so forth. All such approaches fundamentally require us to set the authors on some axis that is sensible to us, in the manner familiar from election machines, questionnaires, or other methods of quantitative research. That is not to mock such research, but rather to point out such methods easily risk transferring our own assumptions to earlier writers.

For better or for worse, our era considers individual rights, democratic procedures and the rule of law as mutually complementing ingredients of a republican government. However, the relationship between rights, democracy, law and liberty was by no means simple in seventeenth century republican thought. Republican liberty could trump free speech as a right, arguments from natural law did not lead into inescapable condition of democracy, nor was democracy a necessary condition of free speech. We find theorists of republican liberty who could not abide the idea of republican self-government, but celebrate free speech. Some authors would restrict free speech only to elected assemblies, some only to governing councils. Setting such views on a 2×2 matrix of an ideological positioning system would give us a very superficial and distorted result.

What the study of the role of rhetoric in republicanism shows us, once more, is that we have to open up the field to accommodate the rubrics which the authors themselves were using. The concern of seventeenth-century republicans in free public speech was less a question of individual right than its relation to the source of legitimate authority in a society: if such authority lay in educated people, then they should enjoy free speech. If popular will was the source of authority, then free public speech was of secondary importance, since voting was what mattered. Undoubtedly we have to consider the republicans view on human nature, but their views on rhetoric were not as simple as designating malevolent orators as demagogues, and benevolent ones as statesmen. Some republicans thought that power is inherently corruptive, and therefore even good, virtuous and educated people could turn against the common good, but again, not all of them agreed. And finally, the republican views on the role of rhetoric were intimately tied to their views of the appropriate limits of legislation: what part of politics could, and should, be left for rhetorical deliberation, and what was better left for procedure.

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