The Iliad as a ‘dangerous’ text. Part 2

Published on: Author: Mark Erickson Leave a comment

In contrast to Plato, Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (1588 – 1679) considered the Iliad to be a ‘dangerous’ text not for reasons of its alleged impiety, but because it was a paradigm for disrespecting sovereign authority.

Hobbes identifies two causes of the English Civil War in his 1668 book Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England and of the Counsels and Artifices by which they were carried on from the year 1640 to the year 1662 (published posthumously in 1682 and reprinted in the 1840 edition of ‘Thomas Hobbes’ Collected Works in English’ I am using here). These were:

  1. “[T]he people were corrupted generally and disobedient persons esteemed the best patriots” (Hobbes [1682] 1840: 166)
  2. The king’s treasury was low, such that he could not pay an army properly

The people were “so ignorant of their duty, as that not one perhaps of ten thousand knew what right any man had to command him, or what necessity there was of King or Commonwealth, for which he was to part with his money against his will; but thought himself to be so much master of whatsoever he possessed, that it could not be taken from him upon any pretence of common safety without his own consent.” (Ibid.: 168-9) For Hobbes, people were simply ignorant of what a king was – they thought it merely a title – and they thought the best person to be in Parliament was one who was “most averse to the granting of subsidies or other public payments.” (Ibid. 169)

So how were the people corrupted and ‘seduced’ (as Hobbes puts it) into thinking this? By ministers, Papists, Independents and other religious denominations agitating for what they wanted, by influential wealthy people who wanted war to restore their fortunes, by the City of London thought that a change of government would produce similar prosperity to the Low Countries following their rebellion against the King of Spain, but also:

“[T]here was an exceeding great number of men of the better sort, that had been so educated, as that in their youth having read the books written by famous men of the ancient Grecian and Roman commonwealths concerning their polity and great actions; in which books the popular government was extolled by that glorious name of liberty, and monarchy disgraced by the name of tyranny; they became thereby in love with their forms of government. And out of these men were chosen the greatest part of the House of Commons, or if they were not the greatest part, yet by advantage of their eloquence, were always able to sway the rest.” (Ibid. 168)

Education is important here (as it was also for Plato – see previous blog post). The multitude should learn their duty from the pulpit, and the preachers should gain their authority from attending universities. “But out of the Universities, came all those preachers that taught the contrary. The Universities have been to this nation, as the wooden horse was to the Trojans.” (Ibid. 213) This is because universities have been using Greek and Latin texts that are histories recounting the “disputation against the necessary power of their sovereigns” (233). Hobbes here cites Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero and Plato, but alludes to pretty much all the Classics that have an historical component. “I despair of any lasting peace among ourselves, till the Universities here shall bend and direct their studies to the settling of it, that is, to the teaching of absolute obedience to the laws of the King, and to his public edicts under the Great Seal of England.” (Ibid.: 233) Hobbes “had always been an outspoken critic of the Universities. He thought they were hotbeds of civil disobedience because of their Puritan and Catholic connexions. He thought, too, that their old curriculum, inherited from the scholastic tradition, should be abandoned in favour of the study of the new sciences.” (Peters 1956: 38)

This provides a background to Hobbes’ work on Homer, and a partial explanation for his motivation to produce a new translation of the Iliad and Odyssey. Hobbes returned from eleven years of exile in Paris in 1651, and published Leviathan but was effectively barred from public life by, firstly, the government of Oliver Cromwell and latterly by Charles II in the restored monarchy. From 1666 Hobbes was ‘not encouraged to publish anything on politics’ and so Behemoth, written in 1668, was only published posthumously. Leviathan was banned or, rather, the censor would not allow its publication; this meant that second hand copies changed hands for comparatively large sums. For example, Samuel Pepys in his diary writes:

“Up, and to the Office, where busy till it was time to go to the Commissioners of Accounts, which I did about noon, and there was received with all possible respect, their business being only to explain the meaning of one of their late demands to us, which we had not answered in our answer to them, and, this being done, I away with great content, my mind being troubled before, and so to the Exchequer and several places, calling on several businesses, and particularly my bookseller’s, among others, for “Hobbs’s Leviathan,” which is now mightily called for; and what was heretofore sold for 8s. I now give 24s. for, at the second hand, and is sold for 30s., it being a book the Bishops will not let be printed again, and so home to dinner, and then to the office all the afternoon, and towards evening by water to the Commissioners of the Treasury, and presently back again, and there met a little with W. Pen and the rest about our Prize accounts, and so W. Pen and Lord Brouncker and I at the lodging of the latter to read over our new draft of the victualler’s contract, and so broke up and home to supper and to bed.” 3rd September 1668 [Note that C B Macpherson in his Introduction to the Pelican Classics Leviathan (1968) misquotes Pepys and also incorrectly dates the diary entry to 1688. It is interesting that my copy of this 1968 edition of Leviathan cost 10/- !]

Hobbes, barred from political life and writings, and surrounded by enemies retreated into further studies and a small group of friends in London. According to Richard Peters, Hobbes, at the age of eighty-six, published a verse translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey because he had ‘nothing better to do; there was, too, a hope that he might deflect the attention of his adversaries from his religious and political opinions to his renderings of Homer.’ (Peters 1956: 42)

One tool that I used in the ‘Homer in the laboratory’ research was to read as many different translations of the Iliad as I could find. Hobbes’ translation is particularly interesting. I disagree with Bernard Gert’s opinion that Hobbes’ translations of Homer are ‘excellent’ (Gert 2010: 7). I also can’t agree with Aloysius Martinich’s assessment of Hobbes’ translations which ‘have often been criticized for their inaccuracies and leadenness. Notwithstanding these criticisms, I think Hobbes’ translations are extremely readable and closer in spirit to Homer’s epics than some well-regarded translations.’ (Martinich 2005: 23) I did think they were leaden, but not inaccurate, or rather the point here is that Hobbes’ translations are deliberately inaccurate. I was alerted to Hobbes deliberately mis-translating Homer after reading Eric Nelson’s Introduction to the revised edition of 2008. Once alerted to what Hobbes is up to, it becomes a) quite obvious what he is doing and b) a kind of puzzle to try and spot these subtle alterations to Homer. Put simply, Hobbes alters the original to modify or remove instances where the supreme authority of sovereigns (usually Agamemnon) is challenged by anyone. Further, where Homer portrays Agamemnon as, at times, a fool and a coward, Hobbes softens the tone and the language. This is no mean feat: Agamemnon’s character is called into question not just by Achilles, but also by Poseidon (13: 130) and Homer makes clear Agamemnon’s potential cowardice in book XIV when he proposes simply running away (14: 90ff) and is rounded on by Odysseus. Homer portrays Agamemnon in this way for – well, it is difficult to make definitive statements here, but it is clear that the poem wants to show Agamemnon as a conflicted and complex character, rather than just a cipher for absolute authority. Hobbes can have none of this. An example from Book II illustrates this well. The original is:

νηπιος, ουδε τα ηδη α ρα Ζευς ημδετο εργα (II: 38)

Direct translation:

‘fool, and he did not know what Zeus was planning’

Hobbes’ translation:

‘Vain man presuming from a Dream Jove’s will.’ (Nelson 2008: 22)

Later in Book II Agamemnon admits that it was he who lost his temper first with Achilles; it is almost an apology before the assembled mass of the Achaean army and he goes on to note that if he and Achilles fought together then Troy would surely fall. Hobbes omits this admission by Agamemnon.

Why does he do this? Because the Iliad in and of itself is a ‘dangerous’ text; it is a paradigm for epic – and thus a text that must be revered – but also a paradigm for challenging and rejecting sovereign authority, something that goes against everything that Hobbes stood for. For this reason, Hobbes took it upon himself to protect the people from it.






Gert, B. (2010) Hobbes : prince of peace, Cambridge: Polity.

Hobbes, T. (1968) Leviathan, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Hobbes, T. ([1668] 1840) Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England and of the Counsels and Artifices by which they were carried on from the year 1640 to the year 1662 In: The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury Volume VI, Edited by W. Molesworth. London: John Bohn.

Homer, Hobbes, T. and Nelson, E. (2008) Thomas Hobbes’ translations of Homer, Oxford: Clarendon.

Martinich, A. (2005) Hobbes, New York ; London: Routledge.

Nelson, E. (2008) Thomas Hobbes’ translations of Homer, Oxford: Clarendon.

Peters, R.S. (1956) Hobbes, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.





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