Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.10

Eric Nelson (ed.), Thomas Hobbes: Translations of Homer. (2 vols.).   Oxford/New York:  Clarendon, 2008.  Pp. cii, 733.  ISBN 9780199262144.  $250.00.  

Reviewed by Miklós Péti, Károli Gáspár University, Budapest
Word count: 2102 words


Hobbes' translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey are published as Volumes 24 and 25 in the grand project of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes. Completed in the last years of Hobbes' life when, as he himself says in his prefatory essay, he had "nothing else to do" (xcix), the translations have remained on the periphery of Hobbes scholarship, and they have not proved too inspiring for literary scholars either. As the meagre reception of the work and the absence of modern editions show, readers seem to have happily assented to Pope's often-quoted verdict: "His [Hobbes'] poetry [in the translations], as well as Ogilby's, is too mean for criticism."1 Eric Nelson's new edition of the text presents a challenge to this received consensus: in the extended General Introduction and throughout the notes to the text he argues systematically and persuasively that the translations represent Hobbes' attempt to reinterpret the Homeric epics in accordance with his political philosophy, i.e. that "Hobbes's Iliads and Odysses of Homer are a continuation of Leviathan by other means" (xxii).2 Nelson's stance thus involves a thorough reappraisal of many significant, yet hitherto often neglected or condemned features of the text (e.g. anachronisms, instances of indebtedness to other translations, etc.), as a result of which the two elegantly presented volumes will not only become the definitive edition of Hobbes' Homer for many years to come, but will hopefully also enter the wider discourse about early modern translations of the classics.

The rather poor reception history of the work has been thought to be anticipated by Hobbes himself whose already-quoted explanation for his project ("Why then did I write it? Because I had nothing else to do" (xcix)) -- together with his reason for omitting commentary from the volumes ("But why without Annotations? Because I had no hope to do it better than it is already done by Mr. Ogilby" (xcix)) -- have usually been taken to intimate the translator's excuse for the quality of his text. However, as Nelson points out in the 'Introduction' section of the General Introduction, the available evidence (a piece of which is published by him for the first time) suggests quite the contrary. Hobbes is far from self-demeaning in these lines: the reference to Ogilby is ironic, while the statement about the lack of other tasks is not so much a conventional expression of otium as an actual reflection of Hobbes' difficult public position towards the end of his life. Virtually bereft of other ways to publish, the elderly Hobbes chose the Homeric epics to "teach the precepts of his philosophy" (xxi), and to correct what he had seen as dangerous in the early modern reception of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The background against which Hobbes' Homer came to existence is outlined in the 'Composition and Sources' section where, besides establishing the time of composition and identifying the Greek text Hobbes was probably using, Nelson enumerates the several Latin "cribs" and English interpretations the translator must have consulted in his work. This attempt to contextualize Hobbes' rendering also informs much of Nelson's commentary, and all through the volumes prompts the reconsideration of the translation's position among late-16th- and 17th-century English interpretations of Homer. Reading Hobbes' text more closely than before (i.e. when his version had been regarded as little more than a vague and rather unfortunate echo of Ogilby's) this and the following sections of Nelson's General Introduction (and later also his notes) reveal an intricate range of possible influences, but also mark where the translator had significantly departed from his predecessors. For example, Nelson convincingly points out Hobbes' slight yet significant indebtedness to Arthur Hall's 1581 Tenne Bookes of Homers Iliades (turned into English from Hugues Salel's French), the "black sheep" of Elizabethan translations, which has rarely entered the scholarly discourse for more than outright ridicule of its awkward language, its royalist bias, or its rank anachronisms. The survey of possible influences, however, goes beyond mere source-hunting as Nelson in this section draws attention to how Hobbes' choice of rhyming verse may be interpreted in the wider context of 17th-century literature, and especially in contrast to Milton's project in Paradise Lost to recover "ancient liberty [. . . ] to Heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing."3

In the last two sections of the General Introduction ('Hobbes on Epic Poetry'; 'The Translations'), Nelson goes on to elaborate in detail on how Hobbes' special theory about heroic poetry and his actual interpretation of the Homeric epics differ from those of his contemporaries and predecessors. Setting the 1675 "Essay Concerning the Vertues of an Heroic Poem" in the context of Hobbes' oeuvre, Nelson shows that the translator's insistence on "discretion" as the chief epic virtue reflects his lifelong mistrust of rhetoric, and is consistent with his attempt to narrow the gap between philosophy and poetry. In practice, the Hobbesian idea of epic discretion finds expression primarily in the "decorous representation of heroes" (xxxviii), and would ultimately serve a didactic and political purpose: in Hobbes' commonwealth, just as in Plato's, no abuse of authority is tolerable. It might seem strange, therefore, that Hobbes chose the frequently "indiscreet" Homeric epics to elaborate this idea of discretion; however, as Nelson suggests, the translator's strictures should be interpreted in relation to his own work. In other words, Hobbes' purpose was not simply to deliver the contents of his source text in English, but rather to create a new, discreet epic by neutralizing the dangerous political implications of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This radical reinterpretation of Homer is at the same time an open attack on what Nelson calls the Homeros Sophos tradition, i.e. the allegorical-Neoplatonic interpretive strain that had since antiquity provided the means to explain away whatever might have been considered indiscreet in Homer, and had to an overwhelming extent determined early modern conceptions of the Homeric epics, most notably perhaps in Chapman's translations. Rejecting the idea of a divinely-inspired, prophetic Homer whose "wisdom" was occassionally forced by interpreters to align with Christian beliefs, Hobbes tries to purge the Iliad and the Odyssey of all traces of indiscretion. This is most apparent in scenes featuring or reflecting on rhetoric, but is also quite striking in the consistent presentation of Agamemnon, and even in less conspicuous aspects of the text such as the use of "low" words in connection with bards featured in the epics ("fiddlers" according to Hobbes), or the layout of the frontispiece of the 1677 edition.

After the thorough General Introduction, Nelson briefly explains his editorial policy in the Textual Introduction, and povides a general Bibliography for consultation in which, given the previous state of scholarship, studies dealing with Hobbes' Homer are not more than a handful. The prefatory material ends with Hobbes' 1675 "Essay" and Wallim's "discreet" biography of Homer based on pseudo-Herodotus (originally prefaced to the translations). The actual text of Hobbes' Homer faithfully preserves all the peculiarities of the first editions -- except for the indentation of alternate lines, instead of which the complete text is left-aligned --, and is accompanied by textual notes to mark the relatively few, and only occasionally significant variant readings (deriving from the different editions which appeared within Hobbes' own lifetime). The text is reproduced in a large, conveniently readable font, and is generally faultless, although I have counted a number of typos, e.g. "fight" for "sight" (Iliad VIII. 496); "tkae" for "take" (Iliad XIX.10); "broughtyou" (Odyssey VII. 280).4 The same goes for the various Greek quotations in the introduction and the commentary where there are only a few missing or misplaced accents or breathings, e.g. εἰαμενῇ for εἱαμενῇ (xcviii n. 22); χαραξας for χαράξας (xcix n. 25), etc.

As for the commentary, part of Nelson's notes gloss difficult or unusual words or expressions, offer explanations for characters and places, or identify obvious mistranslations, omissions or anachronisms. As Hobbes' Homer sometimes features words like "charre" (chariot) "cracking" (boasting), or "bait" (stop for a meal), etc., the need for explanatory glosses is evident, and there are only minor inconsistencies: e.g. "rost" is glossed in the Iliad (VIII. 490), but is not in the Odyssey (XVII. 148), neither is "Penelope her heart" (i.e. Penelope's heart in Odyssey XVII. 142), although similar expressions, like "Telemachus his side" (Odyssey XV. 200), usually are. The notes providing information about the cultural, mythological, or geographical background are noticeably (and understandably) less consistent than the glosses, and occasionally one encounters strange solutions, e.g. "Tydides" is used by Hobbes for Diomedes several times in Book V of the Iliad (and all throughout the epic), yet is noted only once (V. 723 -- not the first occasion the name crops up); "Boreas" is extensively glossed in the Odyssey, but never in the Iliad, etc. Similarly, Nelson notes that Hobbes uses the anachronistic expression "Devil" in Odyssey XI. 55 and 572 for the Greek δαίμων (in the Greek XI. 61 and 587, respectively), and also in Odyssey XVII. 460 ("like any Devil") where it stands for μελαίνῃ κηρὶ ἔοικε (XVII. 500 in the Greek), but he does not comment on the presence of the term in Zeus' impatient address to Hera (Iliad IV. 25; in the Greek δαιμονίη, IV. 31), or in Aeolus' bewildered question to Odysseus (Odyssey X. 65: "Some Devil crost you"; in the Greek τίς τοι κακὸς ἔχραε δαίμων; X. 64).

Nonetheless, these are only minor reservations, especially since the most extensive and most important part of Nelson's commentary is in the notes dealing with Hobbes' special reading -- very often misreading -- of the source text. Drawing on the Greek original as well as quoting liberally from the "competing" English and Latin sources (Chapman, Sponde, etc.), Nelson's notes highlight even in unexpected places how Hobbes' idea of discretion works in practice. On a very general level this is apparent in the translator's constant efforts to alleviate the dire conflict at the heart of the Iliad, and to promote the idea of "discretion" as a decisive character trait of heroes in the Odyssey -- the term and its variant forms standing as equivalents for Greek expressions ranging from πινυτός (IV. 212; in the Greek IV. 211), through ἐσθλός (VII. 63; in the Greek VII. 73), to φρεσὶν ᾕσιν ἀρηρώς (X. 520; in the Greek X. 553) --,5 but the effects of Hobbes' project are also discernible in such details as, for example, the reservation of the term "king" for Agamemnon, or the translation of Homeric ἀγορή as "Parliament" (e.g. in Iliad VIII. 444; VIII. 489 in the Greek). One could perhaps wish for further reflection on how Hobbes' occasional rendering of repeated lines or passages identically (or with slight changes) relates to the practice of other early modern translators, but the absence of such information does on no account challenge the fact that the commentary aptly complements the General Introduction by following up several aspects of the translation closely. Nelson's notes will undoubtedly be instrumental in all further critical evaluations of Hobbes' Homer.

At the end of the General Introduction Nelson wryly reminds us that Hobbes' version had quickly lost its appeal: already for late-17th-century readers the translator "had made Homer so discreet that there was no longer any reason to read him" (lxxvi). True, the translations have not been able to stand the test of time, and the emphasis on "discretion" is only one of the reasons why the first look into Hobbes' Homer has for the majority of readers quickly proved to be the last; one could also mention the drab verse, Hobbes' tendency to abridge the narrative, or the omission of several similes (which already Pope had remarked). Yet Nelson's edition throws new light on the text and makes us rethink the translation's critical heritage. This of course does not mean that Hobbes' Homer will suddenly be allotted the same significance and attention as the great historical versions (Chapman's or Pope's translations) have duly received, but Nelson's elucidation of Hobbes' peculiar interpretation certainly rescues the text from oblivion, and provides new reasons to read the "discreet Homer", new perspectives both for Hobbes scholars and literary historians interested in early modern translations. In the long run, furthermore, the consideration of Hobbes' Homer could also prove fruitful in the wider context of English and comparative literary studies: it is enough to think of Milton's very different, but equally radical revaluation of the classics in Paradise Lost, or even Spenser's "Letter of the Authors" according to which Homer in the Iliad "hath ensampled a good governour" in the person of Agamemnon,6 to see that Hobbes' discreet version is not without interesting constrasts and parallels.


1.   Maynard Mack, ed., The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope vol. 7 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 21 2.
2.   Nelson credits this turn of phrase to Quentin Skinner.
3.   John Milton, Paradise Lost, Barbara Lewalski, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 10.
4.   Unless otherwise indicated, book and line numbers of the Iliad and the Odyssey refer to Hobbes' translation.
5.   Hobbes also uses the term in negative contexts, e.g. in Alcinous' indirect reproof of Nausicaa, an instance Nelson does not note: "'Twas in my Child an indiscretion" (Odyssey VII. 279); the Greek expression is ἐναίσιμον οὐκ ἐνόησε (VII. 299).
6.   Hugh Maclean and Anne Lake Prescott, ed. Edmund Spenser's Poetry (New York: Norton, 1992), 1. Spenser does not mention Achilles.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 08:34:31, Thursday, 04 June 2009