Ramus, Peter (1515–1572)

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Peter Ramus was a logician, educational reformer, and author of many widely used works on philosophy and letters. He was born Pierre de la Ramée in Cuts (Oise), in northern France, the son of an impoverished descendant of a noble family from Liége. After beginning Latin at Cuts, he went to study at Paris, probably between the ages of eight and twelve, and despite grave financial difficulties received his master of arts degree there at the age of twenty-one. His master's inaugural thesis, according to one still widely circulated but questionable report, was Quaecumque ab Aristotele Dicta Essent, Commentitia Esse (Whatever Aristotle has said is a fabrication; the common translation of commentitia as "false" is oversimplified).

In 1543, Ramus (he had adopted Petrus Ramus as the Latin form of his name) published two works growing out of his teaching, Dialecticae Partitiones (The structure of dialectic," also titled Institutiones Dialecticae [Training in dialectic]) and Aristotelicae Animadversiones (Remarks on Aristotle), which violently attacked Aristotle and the university curriculum as confused and disorganized. The university faculty, led largely by doctors of medicine, secured from Francis I a decree forbidding the sale of these books and prohibiting their author from teaching publicly and from writing on philosophy (which included all academic subjects other than grammar, rhetoric, medicine, law, and theology). Ramus, however, quietly continued to teach and write and in 1545 moved to the Collège de Presles in Paris, where he was joined by his earlier associate, Omer Talon (Audomarus Talaeus). Ramus soon became principal and dedicated himself, with great success, to promoting more purposeful and effective teaching. In 1547, Henry II lifted the ban against Ramus and in 1551, he appointed him professor of eloquence and philosophy in the body of professors supported by the king, which was later known as the Collège de France; Ramus became its first dean. Earlier an observant Catholic, he embraced the Protestant reform around 1562, withdrawing to Fontainebleau in 15621563 during the religious wars and to Rhenish Germany and Switzerland from 1568 to 1570. He returned, however, and was murdered on the third day of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Charles Waddington's assignment of his murder to an academic opponent, the physician Jacques Charpentier, is repeated in many encyclopedia articles but is without demonstrable foundation.


Ramus's published works run to some sixty-odd titles, supplemented by thirteen additional works of Talon, his frequent collaborator. The works of the two men appeared mostly between 1543 and 1650, in nearly eight hundred (at present) known editions and adaptations (some eleven hundred if works published in collected editions are separately enumerated). Besides the pivotal writings on dialectic, or logic, and on rhetoric, Ramus's works include classical editions and commentaries; lectures on physics, metaphysics, and mathematics; textbooks for grammar, arithmetic, algebra, and geometry; miscellaneous orations and open letters; and the posthumously published Commentariorum de Religione Christiana Libri Quatuor (1576), a basically Zwinglian theological work, unoriginal and apparently of little influence. Other works, notably Latin translations from the Greek, remained unpublished at his death. Although most of his writing was in academic Latin, he published a few works in French, including a Gramere of the French language (1562) in a reformed spelling that was developed from that of Louis Meigret.


The striking orderliness of Ramus's philosophy is superficial and is determined by pedagogical serviceability rather than by insight. His Dialectica (French, 1555; Latin, 1556, with subsequent revisions), later called also Logica, is the key work in the Ramist canon and appeared in nearly 250 extant editions or adaptations, chiefly Latin. The Dialectica grew out of his 1543 works and proposed to supplant the highly complex quantified logic of the Middle Ages, so objectionable to humanists. Actually, it exaggeratesat times grotesquelythe quantifying drives built up in medieval Scholasticism. Following the De Inventione Dialectica of Rudolph Agricola, Ramus reduced all argumentation to one "art of discourse" (ars disserendi, a Ciceronian definition common during the Middle Ages), which he called indifferently dialectic or logic. He thus did away with dialectic as a separate art that argues from probabilities and is thereby distinct from a scientific logic, which argues from certainties or necessity.


By the same token, he also dispensed with rhetoric as a separate argumentative art persuading to action. The Ramist Rhetorica (1548), published under Talon's name but with Ramus's close collaboration (in some 175 known extant editions or adaptations), reduced rhetoric explicitly to mere "ornamentation," or the application of tropes and figures, conforming to what had been, in fact, a strong trend in medieval thinking about rhetoric. Like Agricola, Ramus treated logic or dialectic as made up of inventio (discovery of arguments for any kind of discourse, from mathematics to poetry) and iudicium or dispositio (the arrangement of arguments, including for Ramus not only syllogism but also method, likewise referable to any and all discourse). Ramus's treatment of syllogism varied somewhat from some previous treatments but in no original or insightful way, and he did nothing to advance formal logic. Still, his influence was vast and symptomatic.


In the wake of Scholasticism, logic had a high prestige value even among humanists. Ramus made it accessible to all by withdrawing it, more than even medieval Scholasticism had done, from the scientifically elusive world of sound and word and by associating it more with the sense of vision through overt or covert resort to spatial constructs or models in his teaching. Most notable among these models were the dichotomized divisions, often arranged in bracketed tabular form, for analysis of everything under the sun. One divided a subject into two parts, subdivided each of these into two, then again dichotomized each subdivision, and so on. The resulting structure somehow corresponded both to extramental actuality and to the contents of the mind. The intensified passion for this far-from-new procedure was associated with the new medium of typography, which reproduced these and other spatial constructs with an ease and conviction unknown in a manuscript-oriented civilization.


In this climate Ramists gave the term logical analysis its first extensive currency and developed concern with method. Between 1543 and 1547 the treatment of method earlier found largely in rhetoric manuals had been transplanted into logic manuals published separately by Johannes Sturm and Philipp Melanchthon. During this period Ramus effected the same transplantation in a pseudonymous 1546 revision of his Dialecticae Partitiones, from which method made its way into the Dialectica from 1555 on. For Ramus, method prescribed treating any subject by going from the general to the particular, although for special reasons one could use cryptic method, proceeding from the particular to the general. Dichotomization implemented method.

Metaphysics was absorbed or displaced by logic, which Ramus passionately but unconvincingly identified with Plato's dialectic. Ethics was to be taught by methodized analysis of biography and history, and the physics that had formed so great a part of Scholastic philosophy was replaced, in principle at least, by analytic study of works on natural history such as Vergil's Georgics.


Ramus's realignments involved him in disputes with Antonio de Gouveia, Joachim de Perion, Pierre Galland, Jacques Charpentier, Adrien Turnèbe, Jean Riolan the elder, and Jakob Schegk, disputes protracted after Ramus's death by hundreds of litigants. Ramist-inspired agitation over method set the stage for René Descartes (who at La Flèche studied a post-Ramist logic textbook with a section on method) and helped make meaningful the application of the nickname "Methodists" to John Wesley's followers. The modern encyclopedia owes a good deal of its organization to the Ramist and semi-Ramist tradition as represented by polymath organizers of knowledge such as Johann Heinrich Alsted. Ramus's followers, numbered by the thousands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were distributed, in descending abundance, through Germany, the British Isles and their American colonies, France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia. Anti-Ramists such as Nicolas de Grouchy, Everard Digby, and Francis Bacon and Ramists such as Johann Thomas Freige (Freigius), Gabriel Harvey, and John Milton crossbred to produce various syncretists, such as Bartholomew Keckermann, Andreas Libavius, Alsted, and Robert Sanderson. Ramism and its derivatives were particularly popular in Calvinist "middle" or secondary schools for cultural and psychological rather than directly religious reasons: The Ramist account-book interpretation of knowledge and actuality appealed strongly to the bourgeois mind. Influence in strictly university circles and on speculative thought was more intermittent or indirect, but extraordinarily pervasive.

See also Aristotle; Bacon, Francis; Descartes, René; Logic, History of; Medieval Philosophy; Melanchthon, Philipp; Milton, John.


Ong, Walter J., S.J. "Ramist Method and the Commercial Mind." Studies in the Renaissance 8 (1961): 155172.

Ong, Walter J., S.J. Ramus and Talon Inventory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Ong, Walter J., S.J. Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958. Includes an exhaustive bibliography.

Risse, Wilhelm. Die Logik der Neuzeit. Vol. I. Stuttgart: F. Frommann, 1964.

Waddington, Charles. Ramus. Paris: C. Meyrueis, 1855.

Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1967)