Peter Ramus


Petrus Ramus.Peter Ramus was a French humanist, logician, and educational reformer. He developed a long-lasting system of logic and rhetoric that was influential in designing liberal arts curricula in Protestant England and Colonial America (see Howell, 1954, pp. 28-33).

Ramus was born in Cuts, France. His father was a farmer and his grandfather a charcoal-burner. He became a servant to a rich scholar at the College de Navarre. Ramus was educated at home until he was 12 at which time he entered the Collège de Navarre in Paris. He graduated with a Master's Degree in 1536, defending a thesis on Aristotle. After graduation Ramus taught, first at the Collège de Mans, then at the Collège de l'Ave Maria in Paris where he taught until 1572.

During these years of teaching, Ramus developed a system of logic for teaching and learning, placing more value on reason than authority and taking issue with followers of Aristotle and Cicero. He attacked Aristotle in his teaching, focusing, in particular on Aristotle’s logic. He removed from his logical system the classical ideas connected with metaphysics and semantics. Instead, Ramus held that that rhetoric should be about what goes on in ordinary reasoning.

For Ramus, rhetoric is the art of speaking well. This requires ornate and correct speaking and skillful delivery. Ramus’s simplification of classic rhetoric and his use of the criterion of usefulness were in keeping with the humanist thinking at the time that was reacting to scholasticism.

In his system of logic Ramus adopted traditional trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, dialectic (argumentation), and rhetoric. He subdivided each of these three subsystems of liberal arts into two main parts. Grammar’s two parts are etymology and syntax; dialectic’s two parts are invention and arrangement; and the two parts of rhetoric are style and delivery. Ramus’s system included all but one (memory) of the five areas of rhetoric forwarded by

Using this philosophy he proposed to reorganize the liberal arts using the following three "laws of method":

  1. Only things which are true and necessary may be included;
  2. All and only things which belong to the art in question must be included;
  3. General things must be dealt with in a general way, particular things in a particular way.

In 1543, Ramus wrote a number of works on how to use logic to teach grammar, dialectics and rhetoric. Included were Dialectical institutions (Education in dialectics) and Aristotelicae animadversions (Remarks on Aristotle). The doctors at the Sorbonne had his book Dialectical institutions suppressed because of its anti-Aristotlean stance. He was forbidden by Francis I to teach or publish in the field of philosophy.

Although he was forbidden to work as a philosopher, Ramus was permitted to teach mathematics. So, in 1547 Cardinal Charles de Lorraine appealed to Henry II to have the ban against Ramus lifted and he was appointed as a faculty member in mathematics at the Collège de Presles in Paris. He became head of the College. In 1551 Ramus was re-appointed as Professor of Philosophy and Eloquence at the Collège de France.

Ramus became a convert to Calvinism in the 1550s and in so doing became caught up in the politics associated with the French Wars of Religion between the Roman Catholics and the Calvinistic Huguenots. The Duc de Guise, a Catholic, took control of the royal family in Paris. This resulted in uprisings by the Calvinist Huguenots throughout France and a ruthless response by Duc de Guise. Near the end of 1562, the Calvinists were forced to leave Paris, and Ramus left with them.

In 1572, after spending time both in and out of Paris, Ramus planned to return permanently to Paris under protection of the King. Despite this protection, during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in which a Roman Catholic mob attacked and murdered Protestant Huguenots, Ramus was assassinated. Following his death he became regarded by Protestants as a martyr.

Omer Talon (Audomarus Talaeus), Ramus’s friend and colleague, worked together with Ramus and together they created a logical system for organizing and studying rhetoric. Talon and Ramus divided style, the first part of Ramus’s rhetoric’s subsystem, into tropes and figures and they divided delivery, the second part of rhetoric’s subsystem, into voice and gesture.

English Ramists were Puritans and when the Puritans emigrated to Colonial America, they brought Ramus and Talon’s theories about rhetoric and communication with them.

Writings of Peter Ramus. Most of Ramus’s works are criticisms of the classical texts. His critiques are based on three principles, according to Peter Mack (p. 342).

His criticism is not entirely arbitrary but follows a general theory which is based on his three principles of method, the division of dialectic into invention and judgement, and a stringent requirement that dialectic must not be occupied with arguing about its own principles but must teach things which can be applied in practical reasoning.

Writings about Ramus

Dialectical institutions (Education in dialectics)(1543).

Aristotelicae Animadversiones (Remarks on Aristotle) (1543)

Brutinae questiones (1547)

Rhetoricae distinctiones in Quintilianum (1549)

Dialectique Libre Duo (reprinted and modified in 1550 and 1556).

Arithmétique (1555)

De moribus veterum Gallorum (Paris, 1559; second edition, Basel, 1572)

De militia C.J. Cæsaris

Advertissement sur la réformation de l'université de Paris, au Roy, Paris, 1562.

Commentariorum de religione christiana Frankfurt, 1576.

Three grammars:

Grammatica Latina (1548),

Grammatica Graeca (1560),

Grammaire Française (1562)

Scolae physicae, metaphysicae, mathematicae (1565, 1566, 1578)

Writings about Peter Ramus

Freedman, Joseph S. (1999) Philosophy and the Arts in Central Europe, 1500-1700: Teaching and Texts at Schools and Universities. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Graves, Frank Pierrepont. (1912) Peter Ramus and the educational reformation of the sixteenth century. NY: Macmillan.

Guthrie, Warren (1946, 1947, 1948). The development of rhetorical theory in America. Speech Monographs. 13, 1-22; 14, 38-54; 15, 61-71.

Høffding, Harald (1900) History of Modern Philosophy vol. i.185.

Howell, Wilbur Samuel (1951). Ramus and English rhetoric 1574-1681. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 37, 299-310.

Howell, William Samuel (1954). English backgrounds of rhetoric. In K. Wallace (Ed.). History of speech education in America. NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc.

Mack, Peter (1993). Renaissance argument: Valla and Agricola in the traditions of rhetoric and dialectic. NY: E. J. Brill. (see chapter 17, pp. 334-355 on how Ramus borrowed from Rudolphus Agricola).

Morison, Samuel Eliot (1936) The curriculum: Grammar, rhetoric, and logic in Harvard College in the 17th century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murphy, James (Ed.) (1995). Peter Ramus's Attack on Cicero: Text and Translation of Ramus's brutinae Quaestiones. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ong, Walter J. (1958). Ramus, method, and the decay of dialogue: From the art of discourse to the art of reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press reissued in 2004 with a new foreword by Adrian Johns, University of Chicago Press.