Ramus, Peter

views updated May 21 2018


also known as Pierre de La Ramée

(b. Cuts, Vermandois, France, 1515; d. Paris, France, 26 August 1572), logic and method, pedagogy, mathematics, astronomy, optics, mechanics.

Born into a family that had lost its wealth but not its title of nobility with the sack of Liège in 1468, Ramus was the son of Jacques de La Ramée, a laborer, and Jeanne Charpentier. After a primary education at home, in 1527 he entered the University of Paris (Collège de Navarre), where he met his costs by working as a manservant. Apparently an outstanding student, he first drew widespread attention in 1536 with his defense of an M.A. thesis, “Quaecumque ab Aristotele dicta essent, commentitia esse,” in which he attacked not only the accuracy but also the authenticity of traditional Aristotelian philosophy. The precise meaning of the thesis, of which there is no extant text, hinges on the term commentitia. Translated by some as “false,” the word connotes, rather, something made up as opposed to factual. Ong1 has analyzed the question closely and has argued for a meaning close to “badly organized, unmethodical.”

Ramus’ teaching career began at the Collège du Mans, from which he soon moved, together with Omer Talon and Bartholomew Alexandre, to the Collège de l’Ave Maria. Attracted by Johannes Sturm to the rhetorical logic and pedagogical ideas of Rudolf Agricola, Ramus undertook a program of critical reeducation that in 1543 culminated in a broad-scale attack on Aristotelian logic, Aristotelicae animadversiones, and plans for a new arts curriculum. A counterattack led by Antoine de Govéa soon succeeded in obtaining a royal edict forbidding Ramus to teach or write on philosophical topics. Consequently Ramus turned to rhetoric and mathematics, in part for their inherent importance but also as guises for his logical theories.

Ramus’ fortunes began to improve in 1545 when, as a result of staff shortages caused by the plague, he was called to the Collège de Presles. Shortly thereafter he became principal of the college, a position he held, with some interruptions, until his death. Through the intercession of his patron, Charles Cardinal de Guise (later Cardinal de Lorraine), Ramus was released from the 1544 teaching ban upon the accession of Henry II in 1547. The release did not, however, still the controversy Ramus had aroused and was continuing to enflame through the popularity of his lectures at Presles. Moreover, the position of royal lecturer, to which Ramus was appointed in 1551, gave him even greater freedom to attack his scholastic opponents and to espouse his often radical ideas.

Beginning in 1562 Ramus’ intellectual positions became increasingly fused with religious and political issues. A defense of the Roman church by the Cardinal de Lorraine at Poissy in 1561 had the unintended consequence of leading Ramus to embrace Calvinism, which he then pursued with his usual enthusiasm. In 1562 Ramus published a plan of reform for the University of Paris. This plan grew out of the work of a commission appointed by Henry II in 1557, to which Ramus had been recommended by a vote of the university faculty. Although the text appeared anonymously, internal evidence2 makes clear Ramus” authorship but not whether the commission was defunct and, therefore, whether Ramus was acting largely on his own. He suggested a reduction of the teaching staff, the abolition of student fees, and the financing of the institution with income from monasteries and bishoprics. He also proposed a chair of mathematics, which he later endowed from his own estate; a year of physics in the arts curriculum; the teaching of civil law in the law faculty; chairs of botany, anatomy, and pharmacy, and a year of clinical practice in the medical faculty; and the study of the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek in the theological faculty;3 The plan hardly endeared him to some of his academic colleagues, who were quick to suggest a link between it and Ramus’ religious persuasion. Hence, late in 1562, when Calvinists were ordered out of Paris, Ramus fled to Fontainebleau, where he found refuge for a time with the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medicis.

On his return to Paris under the Peace of Amboise in 1563, Ramus resolved to avoid controversy; but by 1565 he was leading opposition to the naming of Jacques Charpentier (no relation), a long-time adversary, to the royal chair of mathematics. Charpentier, who had by then succeeded Ramus as the Cardinal de Lorraine’s protégé and who enjoyed Jesuit support, kept his chair; and Ramus, ever more threatened, in 1567 again fled Paris, taking refuge with the Prince de Condé.

Sensitive to the worsening political situation, in 1568 Ramus returned to Paris, where he found his library ransacked. He stayed just long enough to ask leave of the king to travel in Germany. From 1568 to 1570 he toured the Protestant centers of Switzerland and Germany, where he encountered an enthusiastic welcome strangely coupled with opposition to his permanent settlement in a teaching post because of his non-Aristotelian doctrines. Lured back to Paris in 1570 by promises of tolerance, Ramus soon found himself with titles and salaries, but banned from teaching. In the midst of a vast publication project, he was caught by the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and, despite explicit royal protection, was cruelly murdered, apparently by hired assassins.4

Ramus’ general intellectual stance, from which his thoughts on the sciences derived, was the complex result of two distinct educations and of a life spent entirely within an academic setting. As Ong has emphasized,5 Ramus was primarily a pedagogue, whose views on the content of philosophy were shaped by the exigencies of teaching in the arts faculty. Having received first a traditional scholastic education, with its emphasis on the Aristotelian corpus, he then immersed himself in the humanist teaching of Rudolf Agricola, who focused on Ciceronian rhetoric and dialectic and on the revival of the seven liberal arts of classical antiquity. The tensions brought about by Ramus’ attempt to reconcile and combine these two traditions is best reflected in his attitude toward Aristotle. Like many “anti-Aristotelians” of his day, he aimed his criticism not so much at Aristotle himself, for whom he had genuine respect, but at contemporary Aristotelians. To concentrate solely on Aristotle’s works was to ignore or to fail to appreciate a whole body of equally classical material that was often better adapted to the purposes of education.

Aristotelians, Ramus argued, had lost sight of the proper goal of teaching and had become entangled in a sterile web of logical subtleties. In concentrating on forms of the syllogism, for example, scholastics forsook the main purpose of logic, to wit, the finding of arguments and their presentation in a manner designed to convince an audience.6 By illustrating precisely this use of logic, the works of rhetoricians and dialecticians both before and after Aristotle (most notably, Cicero) provided a more effective means of teaching the subject.

Ramus’ attitude reflected a basic epistemology quite close to Aristotle’s, as Ramus himself realized. Reason was a natural faculty of man which, like all natural faculties, revealed itself in its actual exercise.7 Just as general physical principles were the product of induction from particular phenomena of nature, so too the principles of logic should be derived from examples of its effective use by orators, rhetoricians, and dialecticians. Indeed, Ramus maintained, all teaching should be rooted in examples of the use of the subject, from which students could move more easily and naturally to the general precepts underlying that use. It is a mark of Ramus’ continuing commitment to Aristotle that he sought the theoretical underpinnings of this method of teaching in the Posterior Analytics, and his attacks on Aristotle and his followers were generally based on supposed violations of the precepts contained in that text. Ramus borrowed from the Posterior Analytics his three ’laws of method”—kaia pantos, kat’ auto, and kath holou prōton— which required that all material taught should be in the form of propositions that are universally true, demonstrable within the strict confines of the subject, and as general as possible. Although trivial in content, the “laws” became a touchstone for Ramists.8

Thus “method” was for Ramus primarily a pedagogical concept; accordingly, his contributions to the sciences were essentially pedagogical and propagandistic in nature. In seeking a return to the curriculum of the seven liberal arts, he sought in particular to retrieve arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and physics (the quadrivium9) from the neglect into which they had fallen. As taught (when they were taught at all) they suffered from a form of intellectual detachment that made them appear more abstruse, and hence less important, than they were. Ramus’ solution to this problem was twofold: first, to make clear in a series of commentaries (scholae) where the teaching of the sciences had gone astray and, second, to reorganize the subjects according to his own method. The result was a series of textbooks which, together with his texts on grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, circulated widely for the next hundred years.

Ramus’ twofold approach emerges most clearly from his Scholae mathematicae (1569) and his texts on arithmetic (1555) and geometry (1569). In the first three books of the Scholae, which appeared separately in 1567 under the title Prooemium mathematicum, he sought first to defend mathematics against charges of its lack of utility and its obscurity. Surveying the history of Greek mathematics (largely on the basis of Proclus’ summary), Ramus insisted on the practical origins of the subject and on the use to which the ancients had put it, both as a theoretical foundation for natural philosophy and as a practical tool in areas like astronomy and mechanics. A mere look at the contemporary scene, he argued, revealed the continuing utility of mathematics in commerce and industry; moreover, recent developments in astronomy and mechanics showed by contrast the sterility of a scholastic natural philosophy devoid of mathematics. The blame for the neglect of mathematics lay first with Plato for having shunned its practical application (a fault Archimedes shared for not having written about his engineering feats and mechanical inventions) and then with Euclid for having severed the precepts of geometry from their use and for having written the Elements in an obscure syllogistic form, ostensibly following Aristotle’s precepts. The remaining books of the Scholae are devoted to analyzing in exhaustive detail the methodological faults of the Elements.

The cure for obscurity lay in a return to teaching mathematics on the basis of its application to practical problems. Arithmetic should deal with computational problems occurring in the market place and in the law courts; geometry should be concerned with measurement of distances, areas, volumes, and angles, and with the types of mechanical problems to which Aristotle had applied the properties of the circle in his treatise on mechanics; the theory of proportion should be rooted in pricing and exchange problems and in applications of the law of the lever. Ramus’ textbooks on arithmetic and geometry sought to effect this cure by rearranging the content of traditional arithmetical texts and of Euclid’s Elements (together with scraps from Archimedes, Apollonius, and Pappus) in terms of the bodies of related problems that the theorems helped to solve. Apparently Ramus was perplexed about the proper role of algebra, and a text attributed to him was published only some years after his death. At one point in the Scholae mathematicae, however, he did suggest a link between algebra and Greek geometrical analysis, a notion that was picked up and developed by Viète and Descartes.10

The same separation of theory and practice led Ramus to discard completely Aristotle’s Physics as a suitable text for natural philosophy. In terms that Bacon would later echo, Ramus argued that the Physics dealt not with natural phenomena but with logical analysis addressed to concepts rooted in the mind alone. Far more revealing of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature were his Mechanical Problems, his Meteorologica, and his biological texts. Beyond Aristotle, Hippocrates, Plato, Theophrastus, Virgil, Pliny, Witelo, Copernicus, and Georgius Agricola all belonged in the physics curriculum; in particular, despite Aristotle’s strictures, astronomy, optics, and mechanics formed an integral part of physics, even if it was more convenient to teach them separately or as subtopics of geometry. Ramus’ broad view of this subject remained largely programmatic. His Scholae physicae appeared in 1565; but he never did write a textbook, and his lectures suggest that he lacked the technical command necessary to do so.11 As presented to his students, Ramus’ physics consisted primarily of agricultural maxims and natural history culled from Virgil and Pliny.

Ramus turned to astronomy late in his career, and apparently the subject perplexed him. Filled with admiration for this most obviously useful and practical application of mathematics, he nonetheless felt that both Ptolemy and Copernicus had succumbed to the lure of Aristotelian metaphysics in their reliance on such “hypotheses” as the principle of uniform motion on circles. In a letter written to Rheticus in 156312 Ramus urged a return to the observational astronomy of the Babylonians and Egyptians in an attempt to determine the nonhypothetical, directly observable regularities of the heavens and to build astronomy on them. It is unclear from his letter and from other statements whether Ramus would have accepted as “nonhypothetical” a system based on sun-centered measurements (that is, the Copernican system), although Kepler did later claim to have met Ramus’ demands.13

Although the problem of Ramus’ influence, especially in the sciences, still requires much study, it is clear that he and his works enjoyed widespread popularity both during his lifetime and in the century following his death. If that popularity was concentrated in the Protestant areas of the Rhineland, the Low Countries, England, and New England, it also filtered back to France, particularly after the accession of Henry IV. The Latin and French editions of Ramus’ Dialectics went through a hundred printings in as many years, and his other texts seem to have been only slightly less well known. For example, through Rudolph Snellius and his son Willebrord, Ramus’ mathematical works became part of the Dutch curriculum by the early 1600’s, and Ramist texts in mathematics and physics spread rapidly.14

In particular, however, Ramus and Ramism became almost synonymous with the term “method,” and all writers who dealt with the subject in the early seventeenth century, including Bacon and Descartes, felt it necessary to come to terms with Ramus’ ideas. Indeed, as Ong15 points out, the lack of reference to Ramus in the seventeenth century often means not that he had been forgotten but, rather, that the content of his thought was so well known as to obviate the need of naming the source. By emphasizing the central importance of mathematics and by insisting on the application of scientific theory to practical problem-solving, Ramus helped to formulate the quest for operational knowledge of nature that marks the Scientific Revolution.


1. Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, 45–47.

2. Cf. Waddington, Ramus, 141.

3.Ibid., 144 ff.

4. Waddington, in Ramus, ch. 10, lays the blame squarely on Charpentier; but Ong (Ramus, 29) feels the evidence is insufficient.

5. Ong, Ramus, passim but esp. ch. VII , emphasizes as a main theme the continuity of pedagogical concerns within the scholastic tradition and sees many of Ramus’ ideas as new solutions to old problems.

6. Here Ramus contributed decisively to a Renaissance concept that largely erased Aristotle’s careful distinction between scientific logic and rhetorical dialectic. For a careful analysis of the concept, see Ong, Ramus, ch. IV, esp. 59–63.

7. Cf. Hooykaas, Humanisme, science et réforme, ch. 5.

8. Cf. Ong, Ramus, 258–262.

9. The traditional quadrivium made music the fourth subject, but Ramus believed music, like astronomy and optics, belonged to the wider subject of physics.

10. Cf. M. S. Mahoney, “Die Anfänge der algebraischen Denkweise im 17. Jahrhundert,” in Rete, 1 (1971), 15–30.

11. Apparently Ramus relied heavily on the work of his students, notably Henri de Monantheuil and Risner.

12. First published in the preface to Professio regia (1576).

13. Cf. Hooykaas, op cit., ch. 9.

14. Viète clearly knew Ramus’ works, and Descartes almost certainly learned of them through Beeckman, who had studied with Rudolph Snellius.

15. Ong, Ramus, 9.


I. Original Works. Ramus published extensively. Waddington (see below) provides an initial survey, which has been extensively supplemented by Walter J. Ong, Ramus and Talon Inventory. A Short-Title Inventory of the Published Works of Peter Ramus (1515–1572) and of Omer Talon (ca. 1510–1562) in Their Original and in Their variously Altered Forms (Cambridge, Mass., 1958). There is no modern edition of Ramus’ works, although recently some have been reprinted photostatically from the originals. Ramus’ most important writings include Dialectieae partitiones sive institutiones (Paris, 1543), later replaced by Dialectique de Pierre de la Ramée (Paris, 1555) andDialecticae libri duo, Audomari Talaei praelectionibus illustrati (Paris, 1556); Aristotelicae animadversiones (Paris, 1543); Oratio de studits philosophiae et eloquentiae conjungendis, Lutetiae habita anno 1546 (Paris, 1547); Arithmeticae libri duo (Paris, 1555); Grammaticae libri quatuor (Paris, 1559);Scholae grammaticae(Paris, 1559); and Prooemium reformandae Parisiensis Academiae, ad regem (Paris, 1562).

Subsequent writings are Scholarum physicarum libri octo, in totidem acroamaticos libros Aristotelis (Paris, 1565); Scholarum metaphysicarum libri quatuordecim, in totidem metaphysicos libros Aristotelis (Paris, 1566); Actiones duae habitae in senatu, pro regia mathematicae professionis cathedra (Paris, 1566);Prooemium mathematicum (Paris, 1567), which is bks. I-III of Scholae mathematicae; Geometriae libri septem et viginti (Basel, 1569); and Scholarum mathematicarum libri unus et triginta (Basel, 1569).

Three important writings appeared posthumously: Testamentum (Paris, 1576),and which endowed a chair of mathematics at the Collège Royal; Professio regia. Hoc est, Septem artes liberales, in Regia cathedra, per [Ramum] Parisiis apodictico docendi genere propositae … (Basel, 1576); and Collectaneae Praefationes, Epistolae, Orationes(Paris, 1577). A work on optics is also attributed to Ramus, both by its title and by references in his letters, although his precise role in it is not clear: Opticae libri quatuor ex voto Petri Rami novissimo per Fridericum Risnerum ejusdem in mathematicis adjutorem olim conscripti (Cassel, 1606). Similarly, Lazarus Schoner published in Frankfurt in 1586 an Algebrae libri duo, which he attributed to Ramus. Ramus also appears to have had some hand in Henri de Monantheuil’s edition of Aristotle’s Mechanical problems (Paris, 1557).

II. Secondary Literature. Two major nineteenth-century studies, Charles Desmazes’ P. Ramus: Sa vie, ses ecrits, sa mort (1515–1572) (Paris, 1864) and Charles Waddington’s Ramus (Pierre de la Ramée), sa vie, ses écrits et ses opinions (Paris, 1855), have been updated, but not entirely superseded, by Walter J. Ong’s Ramus’ Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), which contains the best scholarly account of Ramus’ theories of logic and method.

For Ramus’ influence in England, see Wilbur S. Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500–1700 (Princeton, 1956); for his influence in New England, see Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century(New York, 1939); for his influence in the Low Countries, see Paul Dibon, “L’influence de Ramus aux universités neerlandaises du XVII siècle,” Actes du XI e Congrès international de philosophie, XIV (Louvain, 1953), 307–311.

For a general survey of Ramus’ scientific thought, see R. Hooykaas, Humanisme, science et réforme. Pierre de la Ramee (1515–1572) (Leiden, 1958); for his mathematics, see J. J. Verdonk, Petrus Ramus en de wiskunde (Assen, 1966), with extensive bibilography of his mathematical writings. Other, more specialized studies include P. A. DuHamel, “The Logic and Rhetoric of P. Ramus,” inModern Philology, 46 (1949), 163–171; N. W. Gilbert, Renaissance Concepts of Method (New York, 1960); F. P. Graves, P. Ramus and the Educational Reform of the 16th Century (London 1912); Henri Lebesgue, “Les professeurs de mathématique du collège de France: Humbert et Jordan; Roberval et Ramus,” in Revue scientifique, 59 (1922), 249–262; and N. E. Nelson, Peter Ramus and the Confusion of Logic, Rhetoric and Poetry (Ann Arbor, 1947).

See also W. J. Ong, “P. Ramus and the Naming of Methodism,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 14 (1953), 235–248; Edward Rosen, “The Ramus-Rheticus Correspondence,” ibid., 1 (1940), 363–368; Paolo Rossi, Francesco Bacone. Dalla magia alia scienza (Bari, 1957); “Ramismo, logica e retorica nei secoli XVI e XVII,” in Rivista critica di storia della filosofia, 12 (1957), 357–365, with extensive critical bibilography; Claris universalis. Arti mnemoniche e Logica combinatoria da Lullo a Leibniz(Milan–Naples, 1960); L. A. Sédillot, “Les professeurs de mathématiques et de physique générate au Collège de France,” in Bollettino Boncompagni, 2 (1869), 389–418; and J. A. Vollgraff, “Pierre de la Ramée (1515–1572) et Willebrord Snel van Royen (1580–1626),” in Janus, 18 (1913), 595–625.

Michael S. Mahoney

Ramus, Petrus (1515–1572)

views updated May 17 2018

RAMUS, PETRUS (15151572)

RAMUS, PETRUS (15151572), French humanist philosopher, educator, and communicator. A controversial figure in sixteenth-century Europe, Petrus Ramus used the lecture hall and the printing press to oppose the educational establishment of his day. His goals were to reform the teaching of grammar, redistribute and refashion the functions of logic and rhetoric, add physics and metaphysics to the liberal arts, and place more value on mathematics. Reconstructing the university curriculum, he argued with passion that all knowledge was available to those willing to use the correct method to obtain it. His message was that there was only one method in true learning, and that it was based on a new dialectic, his own. Challenging the authority of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, he furthered the work of the Dutch philosopher Roelof Huysman (Rodolphus Agricola, 1443/441485) and the early humanists who sought to simplify the world of Aristotle's dialectics.

Baptized Pierre de La Ramée, Ramus was born into a poor farming family at Cuts in the province of Picardy. He went to Paris as a valet for wealthy students in 1523, entering the College of Navarre in 1527. His M.A. thesis (1536) argued the falsity of Aristotle's doctrines. Among his colleagues and friends were future bishops and cardinals, which figured in his appointment as an instructor at the College of Mans in 1537. His lectures were well attended and he quickly established a reputation as a vociferous critic of Aristotle. Moving to the College of Ave Maria around 1540, he worked with a team of colleagues who included Omer Talon, his major collaborator, and Nicolaus Nancel, his later biographer. In 1543 he published his two defining works: Dialecticae Institutiones (Training in dialectic) and Aristotelicae Animadversiones (Remarks on Aristotle). In 1544 a royal commission forced Ramus into a debate with Antonio de Gouveia, defender of the Aristotelian tradition. The commission denounced Ramus for attacking the art of logic accepted by all nations, and banned him from teaching. However, his friend Charles de Guise, cardinal of Lorraine, procured his appointment as principal of the College of Presles in 1545, and had the ban lifted by the new king, Henry II, in 1547.

Over the next quarter century Ramus gained in girth as in stature. Appointed royal lecturer at the College of France (the Sorbonne, Paris) in 1551, his lectures were said to have drawn thousands. Meanwhile, he continued to publish a work or two a year. A major event was his conversion to the Protestant faith in 1561, an act that broke his relationship with the church and with patrons. With the outset of the Wars of Religion in 1562, he withdrew to Fontainebleau with the king's protection. The wars caused him to be on the move between France, Germany, and Switzerland, although he became dean of his college in 1565. During these turbulent years he published perhaps his greatest work, the Scholae in Liberales Artes (1569; Lectures on the liberal arts) in 1,166 columns. He returned to the College of Presles in 1570 and in 1572 was condemned by the Synod of Nîmes for advocating secular views of church government. That same year, hunted by assassins hired by his longtime academic adversary Jacques Charpentier, he was murdered in his rooms on 26 August in the midst of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

Ramus was one of the most prolific writers of his time. He published over fifty works in Latin and French, and many unpublished manuscripts were looted from his study after his death. There were over two hundred editions of his Dialectic alone in the sixteenth century, in numerous languages and versions. Colleagues and devoted students typically worked with Ramus in his "laboratory" as unnamed collaborators, complicating the issue of authorship. In addition, Ramus frequently revised his books and papers. By 1650, there were over eleven hundred printings of his works in Europe, and hundreds of authors who wrote about him. The influence of his group spread to Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Poland, the Low Countries, Scotland, and England by the early seventeenth century, and to New England.

The purpose of Ramism was to establish a Socratic superiority that would invalidate Aristotle and all of medieval scholasticism, supplanting it with a new and simple method that would be applicable to all the arts and sciences. Logic (dialectic) comprised the two functions of invention (finding arguments to answer problems) and judgment, or disposition (arranging arguments to reach conclusions). The result was a godly law of truth for each problem resolved.

The largest influence was in religion, literature, and the sciences; the wider goal was to spur people to challenge authority, and to think, write, and create in their own vernacular languages in an era when Latin still predominated. While Ramus may be remembered by academics as a key figure in the history of the new philosophy and Protestant theology, by linking philosophical to mechanical theory, he often saw his own legacy as one for astronomers, geographers, engineers, and mathematicians, as well as architects, carpenters, and carvers (one of his works, translated in 1636, is titled The Way to Geometry ). He was, in this way, a child of the Renaissance.

See also Aristotelianism ; Humanists and Humanism ; Logic ; Mechanism ; St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre .


Feingold, M., J. S. Freedman, and W. Rother, eds. The Influence of Petrus Ramus Studies in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Philosophy and Sciences. Basel, 2002. The most recent evaluation of Ramus and Ramism by European scholars.

Grafton, Anthony, and Lisa Jardine. From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass., 1986. The best modern work on dialectics and its context.

Howell, Wilbur S. Logic and Rhetoric in England, 15001700. Reprint. New York, 1960. The most lucid description of his logic and rhetoric and of their history in England.

Ong, Walter J. Ramus and Talon Inventory: A Short-Title Inventory of the Published Works of Peter Ramus (15151572) and of Omer Talon (c. 15101562) in Their Original and Variously Altered Forms with Related Material. Cambridge, Mass., 1958. Reprint Folcroft, Pa., 1970.

. Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason. Reprint. New York, 1974. The most complete study of his work.

Louis Knafla

Ramus, Peter

views updated May 21 2018


(b. Cuts, Vermandois, France, 1515; d. Paris, France, 26 August 1572),

logic and method, pedagogy, mathematics, astronomy, optics, mechanics.

For the original article on Ramus see DSB, vol. 11.

Ramus studies up to 1960 were dominated by two works by Father Walter Ong: his Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958) and his exhaustive bibliographical study of the publication of Ramus’s texts after his death (the Ramus and Talon Inventory of the same year). There were a number of presuppositions in his approach that have since been questioned. Ong’s underlying thesis was that the relationship between print culture and oral culture changed over the period of Ramus’s life, and that Ramus reflected, rather than instigated, this change. This change meant a shift away from the transmission of learning through oral and broadly discursive means to a visual representation of thought in diagrams and dichotomous tables. Ong argued that the spatialization and quantification of thought in dialectic and logic from the late Middle Ages onward enabled a new state of mind to emerge in print culture representing a real mathematical transformation of thinking associated with the emergence of modern science. According to this thesis, Ramus was characterized not as an original thinker but as a pedagogue responding to this subconscious movement in intellectual life. Ramism was said to be “not a respectable theory but a set of mental habits.” Ramus was portrayed as a not very erudite and philistine schoolteacher with an unimpressive grasp of ancient languages, who sacrificed accuracy, subtlety, and depth to ease of exposition. The great popularity of Ramus’s writings after his death, and of the method which they exemplify, was said to be due to their simplicity and their applicability to many forms of pedagogy rather than any intrinsic merit.

Ong himself did not devote much space in his work to the biography of Ramus. More work has since been done by Guido Oldrini, Kees Meerhoff, Marc van der Poel, Judith Rice Henderson, and Jean-Eudes Giret to shed light on the Parisian context of his activities, his role in the university, the polemics in which he engaged, and the consistency of the positions adopted by him. From this it emerged that he was a quite exceptionally combative figure both in his attacks on ancient and contemporary thinkers, and his proposal of his own very radical ideas. His plans for syllabus reform, and his attacks on some of the mainstays of the curriculum—Aristotle (or rather, Aristotelianism), Cicero, Euclid, and Quintilian— provoked the wrath of established figures in the university such as Antoine de Gouveia and Joachim Périon, who were as violent in their responses as Ramus had been in his attacks. His positive proposals for syllabus reform, expressed in the Advertissements sur la reformation de l’université de Paris, au Roy (also issued in Latin) of 1562, were reflected also in his radical redrawing of the relationship of dialectic to rhetoric, and his promotion of the quadrivium, especially mathematics. He remained remarkably consistent in his views on these issues, even though some were not fully spelled out until the late 1560s.

His own method of teaching was practical and direct in style, involving both teacher and pupil: for the study of humanist texts, for instance, an initial brief methodical exposition of texts was followed by direct exposure to them. Ramus expressed the belief that all men possessed a natural capacity for reasoning, which Aristotelian logic disguised rather than helped deploy. This natural faculty should be developed in the briefest and clearest way, and together with a simplified version of rhetoric, it should be applied to human life and actions for the practical benefit of individual and society. His democratic commitment to the natural light of reason led him to extend his teaching to those who had no Latin; although a French translation of his Dialectica and a vernacular Ramist version of rhetoric did appear in the 1550s, this part of his educational program was never fully worked out or implemented.

Ramus’s radical critique of education did not stop at the arts faculty; his suggestions for reforms in the higher faculties of law, medicine, and theology were as fundamental, and created a different set of enemies for him. In an enterprising biography, James Veazie Skalnik convincingly argues that his proposed reforms were prompted by a vision of university education as a site of social mobility. Ramus, the low-born provincial who suffered the social

disdain of his academic colleagues, was a meritocrat whose reason for shortening the arts course was to make it affordable to poorer students, and who openly declared himself the enemy of the self-perpetuating university oligarchies he saw around him. He was also convinced of the sound intellectual basis of his contributions to a new version of the arts course. Studies on the Dialectica (his most published work, whether in Latin or in vernacular languages) and his concept of method and logic, notably by Nelly Bruyère, have shown in detail how simplified schema for logic gradually took shape; and Kees Meerhoff revealed the importance of Philipp Melanchthon as one of his major sources, together with Roelof Agricola and Johannes Sturm. The Rhetorica of 1548, once ascribed to Omer Talon, has been attributed by James J. Murphy to Ramus himself, and reveals another facet of his general reshaping of the field of logic and rhetoric. His contributions to mathematics, science, grammar, and orthography are also now seen as more important than hitherto, thanks to the work of Reijer Hooykaas, J. J. Verdonk, and Geneviève Clerico.

Religious Aspects More attention has been paid to Ramus’s religious beliefs and thinking, including the difficult question of when he was converted to a Reformed practice of religion. Although his first participation in a Protestant Eucharist did not occur until 1569, in Heidelberg, there is some evidence that he was a sympathizer by the 1550s. The characterization of Ramus as a Protestant martyr, which began with Théophile de Banos’s biography of 1576, was adopted by Charles Waddington in his nineteenth-century biography: to it, he added a vision of Ramus as the herald of a new age that would cast off the shackles of superstition and the tyranny of ancient authorities. Against this, Ong’s work portrayed Ramus as a lukewarm Christian humanist, whose work was taken up by international Calvinism in the years after his death. Ong’s view has been shown to be as misleading as Waddington’s whiggish hagiographical account. Ramus left one, late, work on religion, the Commentaria de religione Christiana, which was published posthumously in 1576. This has been shown to be anything but Calvinist, as it does not espouse the sacramental theology of the Genevan church of Ramus’s day, but rather is consistent with the Zwinglian doctrine of the Eucharist as no more than an act of commemoration. In his relations with French Reformed churches, Ramus also made clear his Congregationalist rather than Presbyterian leanings. His dealings with Théodore de Bèze and Geneva were stormy: After his death, both the French Calvinist academies and the Dutch universities with similar sympathies evinced strong resistance to his theological and anti-Aristotelian ideas. What emerged from this is Ramus’s independent-mindedness, his uneasy relationship with authority, and his unwillingness to compromise; but these characteristics do not make of him the lukewarm Christian and the slavish passive mirror of underlying forces in intellectual life that Ong portrayed: they rather reveal his energy, courage, determination, clear objectives, and fixed principles, as well as his fiery nature.

Ramus’s Legacy The earlier accounts of the fortunes of Ramism after his death have also attracted criticism for their concentration on his influence in England, Scotland, and seventeenth-century America, and their relative neglect of its European dimension, especially in Germany and farther east. This occurred in spite of the fact that Ong’s Ramus and Talon Inventory showed the extraordinary extent to which Ramus’s works were used as textbooks in precisely those areas. Howard Hotson rejects both technological change and religious ideology as the fundamental explanation of the unique flourishing of Ramist pedagogy in northwestern Germany and focuses instead on the basic geopolitical feature of the region in a major new study. Ramism, Hotson argues, was embraced by rulers and magistrates in many of central Europe’s smaller Protestant territories as a means to deliver quasi-university education within states too small to maintain full universities. The streamlined pedagogy developed in these sub-university institutions also appealed strongly to students seeking an efficient, affordable, and readily applicable education.

There is a strong prosopographical patterning to this uptake, which is also not purely Reformed (Calvinist) but also Philippist in nature, confirming the Melanchthonian element in Ramus’s thought that his later adherents would have found attractive. A somewhat different reason for the popularity of his method and thinking has been offered by Christian Strom, who argues that an important factor in the appeal of Ramism was its relevance to the anxieties caused by the breakdown of the coherent social, religious, and political world of the later Middle Ages and the desire to reestablish a sense of order. These two views are not inconsistent with each other and are united in seeing the contribution of Ramus to the emerging need for a new overarching intellectual order, which culminates in the encyclopedism of Johann Heinrich Alsted. From all these studies, a more positive representation of Ramus the man and Ramism the philosophy emerged than that which characterized Ramist scholarship up to the 1960s.



Collectaneae praefationes, epistolae, orations. Introduction by Walter J. Ong. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1969.

The logike of the moste excellent philosopher P. Ramus, martyr. Translated by Roland MacIlmaine. Edited by Catherine M. Dunn. Northridge, CA: San Fernando Valley State College, 1969.

Scholae in liberales artes. Edited and with an introduction by Walter J. Ong. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1970.

Rudiments of Latin Grammar. Menston, U.K.: Scolar Press, 1971.

Grammaire. Paris: France Expansion, 1973.

Rami Scholarum metaphysicarum libri quatuordecim, in totidem Metaphysicos libros Aristotelis; recens emendati. Edited by Joan. Piscatorem Argentinensem. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Minerva, 1974.

Arguments in Rhetoric against Quintilian: Rhetoricae distinctiones in Quintilianum. Translated by Carole Newlands with an introduction by James J. Murphy. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Peter Ramus’s Attack on Cicero: Brutinae quaestiones. Translated by Carole Newlands, with an introduction by James J. Murphy. Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press, 1992.

Dialectique. Edited by Michel Dassonville. Geneva, 1964. 2nd ed. Edited by Nelly Bruyère. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1996.


Bruyère, Nelly. Méthode et dialectique dans l’oeuvre de la Ramée. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1984.

Feingold, Mordechai, Joseph S. Freedman, and Wolfgang Rother, eds. The Influence of Petrus Ramus: Studies in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Philosophy and Sciences. Basel, Switzerland: Schwabe, 2001.

Hooykaas, Reijer. Humanisme, science et réforme: Pierre de la Ramée. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1958.

Hotson, Howard. Commonplace Learning: Ramism and Its German Ramifications, 1543–1630. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Meerhoff, Kees, ed. Ramus et l’université. Paris: Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 2004.

Meerhoff, Kees, and Jean-Claude Moisan, eds. Autour de Ramus: texte, théorie, commentaire. Quebec, Canada: Nuit Blanche, 1997.

Meerhoff, Kees, Jean-Claude Moisan, and Michel Magnien, eds. Autour de Ramus: le combat. Paris: Champion, 2005.

Oldrini, Guido. La disputa del metodo nel Rinascimento: indagini su Ramo e sul ramismo. Florence, Italy: Le Lettere, 1997.

Robinet, André. Aux sources de l’esprit cartésien: l’axe La Ramée-Descartes: de la Dialectique des 1555 aux Regulae. Paris: J. Vrin, 1996.

Schmidt-Biggemann, Wilhelm. Topica universalis. Eine Modelgeschichte humanistischer und barocker Wissenschaft. Hamburg, Germany: Meiner, 1983.

Sharratt, Peter. “The Present State of Studies on Ramus.” Studi francese 47–48 (1972): 201–203.

———. “Recent Work on Peter Ramus (1970–86).” Rhetorica 5(1987): 7–58.

———. “Ramus 2000.” Rhetorica 18 (2000): 399–455.

Skalnik, James Veazie. Ramus and Reform: University and Church at the End of the Renaissance. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2002.

Verdonk, J. J. Petrus Ramus en de Wiskunde. Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1966.

Ian Maclean

Petrus Ramus

views updated May 18 2018

Petrus Ramus

The French humanist logician and mathematician Petrus Ramus (1515-1572) founded the anti-Aristotelian philosophical school of Ramism.

Petrus Ramus was born Pierre de La Ramée in the village of Cuth in Picardy. He worked and studied at the College of Navarre at Paris until he took his master of arts degree in 1536, having defended his thesis that "everything which Aristotle said is invented or contrived" ("quaecumque ab Aristotle dicta essent, commentitia esse"—the exact rendering in English of Ramus's dictum is still disputed, but the common translation of "commentitia" as "false" is now generally rejected). In 1543 he published his criticism of Aristotelian logic, called Aristotelicae animadversiones. This and further editions brought on Ramus the ire of his colleagues at the University of Paris, who accused him of heretical tendencies contrary to true religion and philosophy. Modern commentators do not see his departure from Aristotle as being as dramatic as his Parisian contemporaries did—his main differences with Aristotle are now considered to be more in pedagogical method than in logic. His case, however, was first taken before a civil magistrate, then before the Parlement of Paris, and eventually before Francis I, who in March 1544 issued a decree prohibiting Ramus's works and preventing his teaching of philosophy. Ramus left Paris and turned to mathematical studies until the decree was rescinded in 1547 by Henry II.

Ramus was a brilliant lecturer and the prolific author of more than 50 works. His adoption of Protestantism in 1561 rekindled his colleagues' hostility toward him, and he fled from Paris again in 1562. He returned in the next year, when Charles IX was able to conclude a tenuous peace with the Protestants. Ramus reclaimed his chair of philosophy and continued teaching until the religious civil wars resumed in 1567. This began a period of flight from France during which he traveled extensively and lectured at various universities throughout Europe. In August 1570 he returned to France. For 2 more years he lectured and published, but on April 24, 1572, his opponents seized the opportunity of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre to murder Ramus.

Ramus was a considerable influence in the humanist development of anti-Aristotelian, antischolastic, antimedieval thinking; he was a major contributor to the "new philosophy" then challenging the assumptions of the Middle Ages. His influence was especially strong (according to their own testimony) among the English and Scottish Ramists (including John Milton and Sir William Temple), in the German universities (Johann Sturm and Johann Friege), and among the Puritans of New England. Nonetheless, the controversies which he aroused in the 16th century now seem merely tendentious.

Further Reading

A readable biography of Ramus is Frank Pierrepont Graves, Peter Ramus and the Educational Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1912). Indispensable for a thorough study of Ramus are the works of Father Walter J. Ong, Ramus: Method, and theDecay of Dialogue (1958) and Ramus and Talon Inventory (1958). Wilbur Samuel Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (1956), contains helpful chapters on the English Ramists. For Ramus's influence in colonial times see Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939). □

Petrus Ramus

views updated Jun 11 2018

Petrus Ramus


French philosopher and mathematician, born Pierre de la Ramee, who led the movement to reform the dogmatic adherence to Aristotelian philosophy by the intellectuals of his day (Scholastics). He laid the groundwork for the development of a philosophical system more conducive to scientific thought. A ban on his works in 1544 was removed in 1547. He converted to Protestantism in 1561, suffered persecution, and was assassinated by his intellectual and religious enemies in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572.

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