Hobbes and the Politics of Translation

Published date01 February 2021
Date01 February 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18qu2cN1KOc8nx/input 903393PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720903393Political TheorySteinmetz
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(1) 83 –108
Hobbes and the Politics
© The Author(s) 2020
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of Translation
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720903393
Alicia Steinmetz1
This essay argues that Hobbes’s work as a translator was fundamental to
his mature political philosophy. A proper appreciation for the significance of
Hobbes’s lifelong engagement with the politics of translation clarifies both the
relationship between Hobbes’s humanist and scientific work, and the meaning
of his simultaneous critique and use of rhetoric in his political writings. Against
the interpretation held by many scholars that Hobbes simply traded his early
humanist interests for his mature political and scientific views, I demonstrate
that Hobbes was consistently concerned with the political instability generated
by the vernacular translation of classical Greek and Roman texts. In responding
to this instability, Hobbes developed his geometrical approach to speech while
also, through his analysis of the relationship between translation and metaphor,
finding ways to employ humanist rhetorical techniques consistent with this
approach. Yet I show that Hobbes continued to rely on translation in areas of
speech where he thought science alone could not provide persuasive answers.
Thomas Hobbes, translation, history, rhetoric, Thucydides, humanism
New ideas are born in a variety of ways. Sometimes they come from careful
study and repeated experimentation, sometimes from dreams and flashes of
inspiration, and sometimes from conversation and debate. But occasionally
ideas are born through the attempt, whether successful or flawed, to commu-
nicate old ideas to new audiences. Who can know what Christianity and Islam
1Department of Political Science, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alicia Steinmetz, Department of Political Science, Yale University, 115 Prospect Street, New
Haven, CT 06511, USA.
Email: alicia.steinmetz@yale.edu

Political Theory 49(1)
alike would have been if Caliph al-Ma’mun had not ordered the translation of
Aristotle’s works into Arabic in the ninth century? Who can say whether the
Enlightenment would have occurred in the way it did if humanist thinkers had
not searched tirelessly in dusty libraries for forgotten Greek and Roman texts
during the Renaissance? Indeed, some of the greatest intellectual movements
in history were not set into motion by the loud and bright figure of the genius
but, rather, by the quieter, more shadowy figure of the translator.
Thomas Hobbes was both of these figures at once, and even he knew that
history would recognize one side of his contribution to political thought more
easily than the other. When he published his English translation of Thucydides’
Eight Books of the Peloponnesian War in 1629—marking both the occasion
of Hobbes’s first published work and the very first vernacular translation of
Thucydides ever completed directly from the Greek—Hobbes wrote in his
note to the readers “that mere translations have in them this property: that
they may much disgrace, if not well done; but if well, not much commend the
doer.”1 And yet, Hobbes was a translator before he was the founding father of
modern political philosophy, with his name forever tied to that famous image
of sovereignty printed on his Leviathan frontispiece. What then did Hobbes,
the political scientist, owe to Hobbes, the translator?
Many scholars have elected to treat Hobbes’s identity as translator as an
artifact of his early humanist “stage,” which is thought to have effectively
ended with his encounter with Euclid’s Elements at the age of forty. In his
Life of Hobbes (1679/80), biographer John Aubrey describes this encounter
as a watershed moment in Hobbes’s intellectual trajectory, in which he came
upon a proposition that he considered impossible before he read the demon-
stration of it.2 He then worked back through the component propositions and
demonstrations until “at last he was demonstratively convinced of that
truth.”3 Following Aubrey, as well as Hobbes’s own similar comments in his
prose Vita attesting to the importance of this discovery,4 scholars have viewed
his Thucydides translation as either largely unimportant for understanding
Hobbes’s political work, or at least constituting a significant epistemological
distance from the later, scientific developments in his thought.
Yet Hobbes did not abandon translation following his turn to science and
geometry in the 1630s. He was also responsible for the first English transla-
tion of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, published anonymously in 1637. And at the end
of his life, Hobbes went on to publish translations of Homer’s Iliad and
Odyssey. To be fair, part of the reason why scholars are quick to dismiss
Hobbes’s identity as translator is because, other than his Thucydides, Hobbes
himself seems to have accorded little significance to his translations. In addi-
tion to the fact that his Aristotle was published anonymously, Hobbes claimed
that he translated Homer out of a lack of better things to do and only decided

to publish it “because I thought it might take off my adversaries from show-
ing their folly upon my more serious writings.”5 If Hobbes himself depicted
his later translations as mere distractions, interpreters claim, then it appears
justified to exclude them as relevant to his “more serious” political writings.
It is more difficult, however, to dismiss the fact that Hobbes displays a keen
concern with translation throughout his mature political works. The second half
of Leviathan and Hobbes’s history Behemoth, for instance, both contain fre-
quent corrections to English translations of the Bible as well as sharp critiques
of the divisive political effect of translated Greek and Roman texts leading up to
the English Civil Wars. In Leviathan, for example, Hobbes claims that “by read-
ing of these Greek and Latin authors, men from their childhood have gotten a
habit (under a false show of liberty) of favouring tumults and of licentious con-
trolling the actions of their sovereigns, and again of controlling these controllers,
with the effusion of so much blood as I think I may truly say: there was never
anything so dearly bought, as these western parts have bought the learning of the
Greek and Latin tongues.”6 Similarly, in Behemoth, Hobbes draws a direct con-
nection between the causes of war and the work of translation, writing, “the
interpretation of a verse in the Hebrew, Greek, or Latin Bible, is oftentimes the
cause of civil war and the deposing and assassinating of God’s anointed.”7 These
statements present something of a puzzle for Hobbes’s interpretation: no one can
deny that Hobbes remained invested in the skills and effects of translation across
the span of his life, and yet most today regard this fact as essentially irrelevant
to the interpretation of Hobbes’s actual political philosophy.
In this article, I argue that Hobbes continually—both prior to 1630 and after-
ward—viewed the issue of translation politically and that interpreters therefore
have much to gain by paying closer attention to the use of translation across
Hobbes’s works. Moreover, I submit that it is essential to recognize Hobbes’s
enduring political interest in translation in order to properly account for both
the turn to science and the use of rhetoric one finds in his mature political
works. The tension between science and rhetoric in Hobbes’s work has increas-
ingly troubled interpreters of his political thought, as many have noted that
despite strongly critiquing rhetoric, Hobbes nonetheless made masterful use of
it.8 I show how translation helps make sense of this apparent contradiction.
First, by examining the context and purposes behind earlier translations of
Thucydides, I reveal that Hobbes’s own translation participated in a long tradi-
tion of using translation for political ends while also generating larger concerns
about the instability of moral language that would motivate his turn to geome-
try in the 1630s. Next, I demonstrate that Hobbes’s scientific approach to
speech was formulated in response to what he saw as deceptive rhetorical uses
of classical texts leading up to the English Civil Wars. In so doing, I also show
how Hobbes differentiated harmful from beneficial forms of rhetoric and

Political Theory 49(1)
applied these techniques in his own writing. Finally, I explore the limits of
Hobbes’s scientific speech in the context of his treatment of scripture and law
in Leviathan and Behemoth, exposing Hobbes’s continued participation in the
politics of translation throughout his mature political writings.
Thucydides and the Politics of Translation
Starting in the fourteenth century, humanists saw it as key among their tasks to
translate Greek classical texts into Latin. Such translations usually carried ethi-
cal or rhetorical purposes, reflecting the humanist commitment to the twin com-
ponents of moral formation and oratory, both part of an education for republican
citizenship thought to be necessary in Renaissance Florence.9 Yet humanists
also frequently had more direct political goals at stake in their work as transla-
tors. One of them, Lorenzo Valla, produced the first Latin translation of
Thucydides in 1452 at the...

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