From the Homeric Epic to Modern Political Theory

Olympian Gods, Heroes and Human Genesis of Power in Hobbes’s Translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey

In: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought
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  • 1 Department of Political Science, University of Genova, Genoa, Italy

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Starting from the idea that the Hobbesian English version of the Homeric poems was a translation work but especially a tool for spreading political theories and teaching moral virtue in a period when the philosopher was under censorship (Nelson, 2008 and 2012), the article focuses on a remarkable situation where original texts and Hobbesian purposes deeply diverge. In translating the Iliad and the Odyssey, Hobbes had to handle a lexicon imbued with expressions that linked men in power to the Olympian gods. Unfortunately, the existence of these ties was completely at odds with what he had previously explained in his political works; hence he had to work on it extensively. By starting from a lexical analysis and moving to the dimension of History of Political Ideas, the article will show how Hobbes bypasses this problem, in order to reach his political and educational target.

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    Cf., for example, E. Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes. 2. Puovoir, droit, religion, (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit , 1969), p. 28; G. Miglio, La struttura ideologica della monarchia greca arcaica e il concetto «patrimoniale» della stato nell’età antica, in AA.VV. (edited by), Gianfranco Miglio. Le regolarità della politica. Scritti scelti raccolti e pubblicati dagli allievi, vol. i, (Milano: Giuffrè Editore, 1988), p. 146. It is known that in Hobbes’ political theory there is a deep mutual link between natural and civil law (cf. for example Leviathan, xxxix, section Subjecting the sovereign power to civil laws and xxvi, section The law of nature, and the civil law contain each other) and, since the former comes from God, the sovereign – whose creation depends on that law – might be said to be ruling both by human and – though indirectly – divine right. However this element does not appear at all in his translations of the Homeric poems: the detachment between human and divine spheres is clear-cut and this sort of indirect link does not seem to be present. It might depend on the strong educational purpose of this work: in order to avoid internal conflicts – as the Behemoth shows, the threat of Civil War was essential in the political thought of the late Hobbes too – the philosopher prefers to present a regime where this link, that could sound equivocal, is not present, not even indirectly.

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    Cf. R. Fagles – B. Knox, The Iliad (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 106 (original line numbers: 204-206; in this work: 236-39); henceforth, English translations of the Iliad will be quoted in accordance to this edition; it will be shown by [F.K.] following the line numbers.

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    E. Nelson, Translation of Homer. Iliad, p. 256.

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