In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Petrus Ramus and Ramism

  • Introduction
  • Contemporary Biographies
  • Modern Biographies

Renaissance and Reformation Petrus Ramus and Ramism
Erland Sellberg
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0456


Petrus Ramus was considered a controversial professor in Paris in the middle of the 16th century, and he remains so among scholars today. He is mostly considered to have been an unimportant philosopher, yet his ideas about how philosophy should be understood, and how it consequently should be taught and, most importantly, to what benefit it should be undertaken, had an enormous impact on northern Europe and New England in the Early Modern period. Ramus was born in 1515 in the north of France. He came from a noble but destitute family. Ramus spent his youth in hardship before he secured the opportunity to study in Paris. He later adopted as a motto the words of Virgil “labor improbus omnia vincit,” i.e., insatiable work overcomes everything, which reflected his pride in his ability to surmount his difficulties and obtain a masters of arts degree in 1536. Ramus won a reputation for criticizing deficiencies in the curriculum and the teaching at the university as well as for blaming Scholasticism for it. His ideas on how to reform education were not appreciated by most of his colleagues, and he was for a time banned from teaching. Modern scholars of Ramism are divided between those who think that Ramus’s departure from the Aristotelian tradition stemmed from a Platonic ontological outlook, which he never abandoned, and those who thought that his childhood’s hardship engendered in him a striving for a new and shorter educational program, one that led him to abandon the traditional Scholasticism. One argument for the latter explanation is that it easily explains all the variations found in his system of textbooks. In 1551 he was appointed to a royal professorship through which he succeeded in distancing himself from the university. And ten years later he took a further step away from scholarly circles when he converted to the Reformed faith. As a Huguenot, he lost the support of the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually he left Paris and spent time in Germany and Switzerland. He tried, although he failed, to obtain a chair in Heidelberg and in Strasbourg. In 1570 he returned to Paris and to his royal professorship, but still without the right to teach at the university. Ramus was assassinated in the immediate wake of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres in 1572, and for many Protestants he became a martyr.


Most of Ramus’s published books are textbooks. He often changed his opinion on central issues and all the various copies of his works need to be evaluated by scholars. Only the most important of the works are cited here, which are available in modern prints or are reprinted in facsimile. The important work on rhetoric, Institutiones oratoriae, which his close associate, Omer Talon (Audomarus Talaeus), published in 1545, has not been printed in facsimile. It was followed by other textbooks on rhetoric by Talon or Ramus, which, although not easily accessible in print, are available as an e-book.

  • Ramus, Petrus. Dialecticae Institutiones [und] Aristotelicae Animadversiones. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann Verlag, 1964.

    Facsimile edition in Paris (1543) with an introduction by Wilhelm Risse. Ramus’s first books in which he launched a furious attack on the traditional scholastic curriculum, in particular for its lack of methodical cogency. The introduction in German is illuminating.

  • Ramus, Petrus. Commentariorum/ De Religione Christiana Libri Quatuor. Frankfurt: Minerva, 1969a.

    Facsimile of an edition from 1576. Ramus’s only work on a subject not included in the philosophical curriculum and published after his death. Yet it is an important book that reveals a very rational and reformed attitude to religion. Ramus defined theology as the art of how to live a righteous life, an ars or doctrina bene vivendi.

  • Ramus, Petrus. The Logike of the Moste Excellent Philosopher P. Ramus Martyr. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1969b.

    Facsimile of an edition of 1574 of a translation into English made by M. Roll, Makylmenaeus Scotus. This short textbook of Ramus’s dialectic is an excellent example of how translations were made in vernacular languages, sometimes or often never printed. Written largely in Latin, the rather simple and thin version of Ramus’s dialectic was the standard textbook for thousands of young pupils.

  • Ramus, Petrus. Scholae in Liberals Artes. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag, 1970.

    Facsimile with an introduction by Walter J. Ong of a printed edition from 1579. This is a series of lectures on the different disciplines of the curriculum in which Ramus vented his criticism of the scholastic treatment of them, and how he thought they should be studied. His lectures on mathematics are not included in the volume, which originally was printed in Basel. His lecture on metaphysics, which is marked by his nominalism and his consequent rejection of it as a discipline, is of interest.

  • Ramus, Petrus. Arguments in Rhetoric against Quintilian: Translation and Edition of the Text of Peter Ramus’s Rhetoricae Distinctiones in Quintilianum (1549) by James J. Murphy & Carole Newlands. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986.

    Ramus is following up his criticism in 1547 of the Ciceronian rhetoric and, according to him, its confused mixture of rhetoric and dialectic, and also how Quintilian has passed on the Ciceronian opinion. James Murphy’s comprehensive preface gives an excellent survey of Ramus’s life and works and, in particular, of rhetoric; includes notes and a bibliography. The edition of Ramus’s text in Latin follows directly after Newlands translated version.

  • Ramus, Petrus. Peter Ramus’s Attack on Cicero: Text and Translation of Ramus’s Brutinae Quaestiones. Edited with an introduction by James J. Murphy and translated by Carole Newlands. Davis, CA: Hermagoras, 1992.

    Ramus’s criticism in 1547 of the Ciceronian rhetoric and its mixture of rhetoric and dialectic. The edition in Latin and the English version by Newlands Davis runs parallel to each other.

  • Ramus, Petrus. Dialectique: Un manifeste de la Pléiade. Paris: J. Vrin, 1996.

    The printing in 1555 of Ramus’s dialectic was the first in vernacular. This is not a philological edition but Nelly Bruyère has made the text modern. Her introduction is short, and there are no notes. She maintains her strong opinion that Plato was as important for this version of Ramus’s dialectic as for the one in 1543. Included are passages from the Latin edition of 1572, which, according to her, were made by Ramus himself before his death.

  • Ramus, Petrus. Scholarum Mathematicarum Libri Unus et Triginta. Facsimile of an edition from 1569. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 2008.

    Facsimile of an edition from 1569. Ramus looked upon mathematics as something natural to human beings and therefore he had in an earlier work criticized Euclid for destroying the natural mathematical thinking. Here he blames Plato in even stronger words for the same offense.

  • Ramus, Petrus, and Audomarus Talaeus. Collectaneae Praefationes, Epistolae, Orations. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag, 1969.

    Facsimile with an introduction by Walter J. Ong from an edition of 1599. This is a collection of letters, prefaces of Ramus’s many books and some of his most important speeches, especially the one he held at his inauguration as professor regius and including some autobiographical notes and even a long oration concerning all kinds of teaching at the faculty of philosophy. A collection of most of the works included here was published in 1577 but this one has been extended and includes also Freigius 1969. In the volume the prefaces to the rhetorical works by Talon and Ramus are included.

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