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Hobbes on Citing the Ancients

March 11, 2014

At the end of Leviathan, Hobbes takes a moment to consider the practice of salting one’s text with relevant quotes from ancient sources – as he would have it, sticking one’s doctrine with the cloves of other men’s wit. As that is much of what I am about here, it seems only fair to raise the complaint, as he is no longer able to do so.

There is nothing I distrust more than my elocution, which nevertheless I am confident (excepting the mischances of the press) is not obscure. That I have neglected the ornament of quoting ancient poets, orators, and philosophers, contrary to the custom of late time, whether I have done well or ill in it, proceedeth from my judgement, grounded on many reasons. For first, all truth of doctrine dependeth either upon reason or upon Scripture; both which give credit to many, but never receive it from any writer. Secondly, the matters in question are not of fact, but of right, wherein there is no place for witnesses. There is scarce any of those old writers that contradicteth not sometimes both himself and others; which makes their testimonies insufficient. Fourthly, such opinions as are taken only upon credit of antiquity are not intrinsically the judgement of those that cite them, but words that pass, like gaping, from mouth to mouth. Fifthly, it is many times with a fraudulent design that men stick their corrupt doctrine with the cloves of other men’s wit. Sixthly, I find not that the ancients they cite took it for an ornament to do the like with those that wrote before them. Seventhly, it is an argument of indigestion, when Greek and Latin sentences unchewed come up again, as they use to do, unchanged. Lastly, though I reverence those men of ancient time that either have written truth perspicuously, or set us in a better way to find it out ourselves; yet to the antiquity itself I think nothing due. For if we will reverence the age, the present is the oldest: if the antiquity of the writer, I am not sure that generally they to whom such honour is given, were more ancient when they wrote than I am that am writing: but if it be well considered, the praise of ancient authors proceeds not from the reverence of the dead, but from the competition and mutual envy of the living.

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