Progress Report on an English Translation of De Homine

In: Hobbes Studies
Elaine Condouris Stroud Independent Scholar, Madison, Wisconsin, USA,

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My draft of De Homine as part of the Clarendon Edition of “Thomas Hobbes: Optical Writings” is now complete. Because I came to work on a translation of De Homine from editing “A Minute or First Draught of the Optiques” (1646),1 I read Hobbes’s De Homine (1658) from the perspective of natural philosophy and theories of optics and vision. Where Hobbes’s manuscript “First Draught” develops the most complete exposition of his optics in two parts, comprising 22 chapters (13 and 9 respectively in Part i and Part ii), De Homine was prepared for publication in 1658 to complete his philosophical trilogy (De Corpore, De Homine, De Cive), with only 8 of the 15 chapters concerning optics. In 1646 Hobbes explained that the completion of “First Draught” would bring him the reputation of being the first to lay the groundwork of two new sciences: the optics of “First Draught” and natural justice in his De Cive.2 After having published De Corpore and De Cive, and more than 10 years after writing “First Draught,” Hobbes tells the reader of De Homine that he has kept his promise of organizing all the elements of his philosophy, and that the two parts of De Homine reflect man’s position as both a part of physics (natural body) and a part of the body politic. De Homine is the only publication by Hobbes of his optics presented within his philosophical system.

Whereas Hobbes tells the reader that the first part (chapters 1–9, with the optical parts in chapters 2–9) is hard, and the second part (chapters 10–15) is easy, my own experience with translation was just the opposite, since the optical chapters of De Homine closely follow the English manuscript “First Draught” Part ii (chapters 1–9) while the non-optical chapters posed language difficulties for my “scientific” approach to Hobbes as a natural philosopher.

1 Reading an Integrated De Homine

Modern readers have had little access to the complete version of the second part of Hobbes’s philosophical system since a complete version of De Homine has not been available in English—the most well-known English edition omits the optical chapters.3 For those looking at the original Latin, or other translations of De Homine, the question often arises as to why so much of the text is devoted to optics, although Hobbes’s contemporaries likely would not have been surprised to find optical topics in a tract On Man. Theories of vision dominated the development of seventeenth-century philosophy and, with the transition from a medieval concept of vision to a modern one, Katherine Tachau has shown that “scholars perceived the whole range of optical concerns as lying not at the periphery but at the nexus of natural philosophy and epistemology.”4 This new translation of the optical parts of De Homine within the Clarendon Edition of “Thomas Hobbes: Optical Writings” will give modern scholars an option to understand not “Why optics?,” but rather “What was optics?” in De Homine.

1.1 Practical Considerations: Language

The two parts of De Homine posed different translation difficulties. Just as there are two parts of De Homine, there are two approaches to the language problems posed for the translator and solutions. Part 1 uses “A Minute or First Draught of the Optiques” as a basis for understanding the English counterparts of the Latin of chapters 2–9, where clearly Hobbes the natural philosopher is speaking. Part 2 (chapters 10–15) has no direct English counterpart from Hobbes, although the topics were mostly covered in other publications of his.

1.1.1 Part 1

As I noted earlier, I expected that the optical parts of De Homine would be easier to translate than chapters 10–15. Still, even with “First Draught” as a blueprint for chapters 2–9, there were difficulties due to optics being a mathematical science. Rendering Hobbes’s mathematical arguments can be hard because modern readers have “both too much and too little mathematical knowledge.”5 Modern theories can reveal connections unknown to Hobbes, but his contemporaries also had access to skills and knowledge that are cumbersome and difficult for a modern reader, including “knowledge of Latin, familiarity with classical authors, and the skill to elicit procedures or arguments from long and typographically unstructured prose texts referring to complicated and randomly lettered figures.”6

Furthermore, the “First Draught” is an imperfect guide to the optical chapters of De Homine because the two works address different audiences and serve, therefore, different purposes. Whereas the manuscript was a teaching text designed for Hobbes’s patron, De Homine was a publication serving as the keystone of his philosophical system. We see an example of the contrast in Hobbes’s engagement with the reader in the respective chapters on reflection in a spherical concave mirror.

The purpose of chapter 6 in “First Draught” is to inform his patron and to tout Hobbes’s own importance as a natural philosopher. It is clearly a piece of propaganda. The style mimics traditional geometric presentations, with propositions and geometric proofs, diagrams and demonstrations. It is systematic and deliberate. At the end of this generally boring and detailed examination of all possible positions of the eye with respect to geometry and the concave mirror, we find Hobbes addressing the reader directly, and presenting what he considers a new definition of optics: it must be derived from the nature of vision and of light, and be consistent with experience.7 Hobbes does not produce a generalized “law” for determining the location of the image in a concave mirror, but rather asks the reader to start with a clean and empty piece of paper and follow along as he includes all the cases for convex and concave mirrors, drawn in one diagram: “I hope if you suppose ye paper void and cleane, and goe along with mee as I describe it peece by peece, you will nott finde any other difficulty in it butt onely that of giving attention.”8

The analysis of concave mirrors in De Homine (chapter 6) is much shorter than “First Draught” and does not include any direction to the reader to follow along in his constructions on a clean sheet of paper. Even though De Homine was supposed to include more experiences, this chapter does not include all the possible situations of observer/mirror/object analyzed in “First Draught.” Hobbes addresses the reader only when he refers to the situation when the object is so far away that it appears as a point, writing that “mathematical points are in no way perceptible, but can be considered so only for the sake of instruction.”9

1.1.2 Part 2

The solution to translating the novel Part 2 is to carefully maintain consistency in his vocabulary within each chapter and to use modern cognates where possible. Sometimes maintaining consistency means sticking close to Hobbes’s own writing style so that his meaning is not lost in the process of reconstructing sentences.

Striving to use English words close to the Latin original (such as “phantasm” for “phantasma”) in translation is complicated by Hobbes’s involvement with the development of new scientific terminology. Digital sources helped with teasing out the variant meanings of particular terms. These include Early English Books Online (eebo), eebo text project, contemporary dictionaries (often available in full online), and internet searches in general. Since so many texts have been digitized for this period, there is a wealth of information on particular phrases or individual words. Although, of course, this is not a comprehensive approach (or even necessarily reliable for scholars because of the way texts are digitized), it often reveals crumbs of information that lead to knowledge of new potential sources. Hobbes’s contemporaries had knowledge of many of these sources at their disposal, but not in a consistent way so that this approach is limited for modern readers as much as for Hobbes’s contemporaries because of the inconsistent distribution of scholarly texts and the existence of other forms of communication. Epistolary evidence in Hobbes’s correspondence is also useful for setting the context of his writing.10 Ultimately, consistency in translation relies greatly on the availability of Hobbes’s writings in digital form, too.

1.2 Practical Considerations: Figures

Hobbes was very much involved with the drawing of the figures used to illustrate his optics and was generally careful with making sure the diagrams represented his words. They also helped to link the mathematics (geometry) with the physics and provide clues to what Hobbes was thinking. Yet, they have been considered less important in some of the digitized versions of De Homine where the pages containing tables were not unfolded for photographing. I think this represents not just a practical consideration, but also a general disinterest in the meaning that can be gleaned from the images themselves. Examining the figures and their direct relationship to the text in De Homine reveals places where Hobbes confused his manuscript with his published optics and may reveal the chronological development of some of his demonstrations. The printing of the tables of figures for De Homine in 1658 and in 1668 is not necessarily coordinated with the printing of the text, and the tables can be found bound in different places within different copies of De Homine. In “First Draught” the figures are individually dispersed throughout the text, usually drawn in boxes on the same page as the appropriate text, while De Homine includes plates of engravings of tables of figures, one plate for each chapter. We know that Hobbes had the plates ready before he had the text printed and assume that he used the figures from the manuscript “First Draught” to help compile the figures for some of the chapters of De Homine. However, in his chapter on concave mirrors (chapter 6 in both the manuscript and published text) the figures are very different and reflect a different analytical approach. It is a confusing and messy chapter in terms of attention to detail and requires a careful analysis of the figures to see where Hobbes may have been thinking about the figure in “First Draught” while developing a different analysis in De Homine and not bothering to proofread the lettering in the figures. Thus, “translating” his figures for a modern audience is sometimes as difficult as translating the text. For this edition of De Homine the lettering in the text and in the figures was carefully examined, looking for consistency. Where there are errors in the text or the figure, an attempt was made to keep this modern edition as close to Hobbes’s authorial intent as possible. Also, to maintain a close connection between the image and text, the figures are dispersed throughout De Homine rather than gathered into plates for each chapter. In this way, the relationship between text and image is preserved as much as possible.

This translation of De Homine that considers Hobbes as natural philosopher, attending to both words and images, will help future investigators see Hobbes within a context that he felt was an important part of his place in history.


Thomas Hobbes, “A Minute or First Draught of the Optiques,” British Library, MS Harley 3360; digital version Hobbes’s tract on optics is in two parts (ff. 6r-71r and 72v-193r); Part i has 13 chapters (pp. 1–131) and Part ii has 9 chapters (pp. 1–241).


Hobbes, “First Draught,” f. 193r.


Thomas Hobbes, Man and Citizen, trans. Charles T. Wood, T. S. K. Scott-Craig, and Bernard Gert (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991).


Katherine Tachau, Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham: Optics, Epistemology and the Foundations of Semantics 1250–1345 (Leiden: Brill, 1988), xvi.


Henk J. M. Bos, Redefining Geometrical Exactness: Descartes’ Transformation of the Early Modern Concept of Construction (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2001), 17.


Bos, Geometrical Exactness, 18.


Hobbes, “First Draught,” f.155r-155v.


Hobbes, “First Draught,” f.152r.


Thomas Hobbes, Elementorum Philosophiae Sectio Secunda de Homine (London, 1658), 37 [ch. 6.9], my translation (Puncta enim Mathematica nullo modo sensibilia sunt, sed tantum doctrinae causa considerabilia).


Thomas Hobbes, The Correspondence, ed. Noel Malcolm (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

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