Medea

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Thomas Hobbes (1603)

Historical Records

Aubrey's Life of Hobbes

In his biography of Hobbes, written 1679–80, Aubrey describes the young Hobbes's education under the tutelage of Robert Latimer, the vicar of Westport, Wiltshire:

                                                                                                    He was a Batche-
lour & delighted in his scholar T.H. company, & used to instruct
him & 2 ^or 3 ingeniose youths more, in the evening till nine a clock.
Here T.H. so well profited in his Learning, that at fourteen
yeares of age he went away a good schoole-scholar to
Magdalen hall in Oxford. It is not to be forgotten, that before
he went to the University, he had turned Euripidis Medea
^out of Greek Iambiques into Latin Iambiques, wch he prsented to his Master. Mr H. told me, that he
would faine haue seen had them, to have seen how he did grow ^in. and
Twenty 25+ odde yeares agoe, I searcht all old Mr Latimers papers
but could not find them; the good huswives had sacrificed them. the Oven [Pies] had devoured them
(Bodleian Library, Aubrey MS 9, ff. 33r, 34r; cf. Clark 328–29).

Aubrey's wording suggests that Hobbes presented his translation shortly before moving to Oxford. The exact date of Hobbes's matriculation is unknown and the surviving evidence contradictory, but he seems to have begun his studies at Oxford either in 1602 or 1603 (Martinich 8-9; Malcolm).

In the passage quoted above, the square brackets appear as in Aubrey's hand; some superscript word represent alternative phrasings(see Clark 6).


Theatrical Provenance

Likely never performed.


Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy (Harbage)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Hobbes's "Medea" was a Latin translation from the Greek of Euripides.


References to the Play

Blackburne's Life of Hobbes

Hobbes's translation of Medea was mentioned again in the Latin Vitæ Hobbianæ Auctarium, prepared by Richard Blackburne based on Aubrey's notes and published in 1681:

Tantos autem jam adhuc in ludo literario degens in literaturâ tam Latinâ quam Græcâ progressus fecit, ut Euripidis Medeam simili metro Latinis versibus elegantèr expresserit.
(Blackburne pp. 24–25)


Critical Commentary

Martinich: "The play seems to have deeply affected Hobbes. […] He refers to Medea four times in his writings, more than to any other non-Homeric literary work" (7). [See For What It's Worth below.]

Wiggins: "Since Aubrey assumed that Latimer might have kept it, it was presumably a gift rather than a mere educational exercise; perhaps it was a parting gift" (5:41–42).

(Further content welcome.)


For What It's Worth

Aubrey and Hobbes

Although born a generation apart, Hobbes and Aubrey were friends for over two decades before the former's death in 1679, and Aubrey was singularly acquainted with the details of Hobbes's biography. As he wrote in the preface to The Life of Mr. Thomas Hobbes of Malmsbury (finished 1680),

'Tis religion to performe the will of the dead; which I here dischardge, with my promise (1667) to my old friend Mr. T[homas] H[obbes], in publishing his life and performing the last office to my old friend Mr. Thomas Hobbes, whom I have had the honour to know [from] my child-hood, being his countreyman and borne in Malmesbury hundred and taught my grammar by his schoolmaster. [¶] Since nobody knew so many particulars of his life as myselfe, he was willing that if I survived him, it should be handed to posterity by my hands…
(Bodleian Library, Aubrey MS 9, f. 29r; qtd. Clark 17–18)

The schoolmaster in question was Robert Latimer, to whom Hobbes had presented his translation of the Medea and under whose tutelage Aubrey would be educated many years later, if only briefly due to Latimer's death (Clark 35). Indeed, it was at Latimer's house that Aubrey first met Hobbes in the summer of 1634, while the elder was visiting his former teacher (Clark 331–32; Bodleian Library, MS Wood F 39, f. 334r). Aubrey, who was only eight years old, recalled that Hobbes's "conversation about those times was much about Ben: Jonson," who was "his loving and familiar friend and acquaintance" (Clark 332, 365). (Aubrey would use a Jonsonian phrase—"the most worthy men have been rock't in meane cradles"—as a motto for his Life of Hobbes [Clark 356, Bennett 757].) Their friendship as adults seems to have begun in the 1650s: in a list of his Amici, Aubrey dates his friendship with Hobbes from "165—" (43). By this point Hobbes was already famous as the author of De Cive and the Leviathan, and Aubrey an admirer. On 30 August 1661, in his earliest extant letter to Hobbes, Aubrey wrote to express "my hearty thankes for the trouble I gave you to sitt for your Picture, wch is an honor I am not worthy of, & I beg yor pardon for my great boldnes, but I assure you no man living more prizes it, nor hath greater Devotion for You then my selfe" (Correspondence 2:520, interlineation regularized). The two remained friends for the remaining two decades of Hobbes's long life.

Aubrey was uniquely invested in Hobbes's biography. As he would later recall, "In 1665, or 1666, I told mr Hobbs, that I would make to bold to desire him to write his owne Life: for it would be written, & not well […] He thanked me for my advise, & told me he would doe it" (Aubrey to Anthony Wood, 30 December 1679, Bodleian Library, MS Wood F 39, f. 334r). Hobbes would write Latin autobiographies in both verse and prose, but Aubrey seems to have early on envisioned writing his own biographical account of Hobbes's life as early as 1667 (see quote above). Hobbes's autobiographical writings were published almost immediately after Hobbes died, and Aubrey seems to have formally undertaken his own work as a supplementary commentary to the Latin autobiography, beginning in December 1679 (Bennett xc). While Aubrey never published his Life of Hobbes in its entirety, it survives in manuscript (Bodleian Library, Aubrey MS 9) and was used as a source by Richard Blackburne for his own Latin biography of Hobbes, published in 1681.

In the Life of Hobbes, Aubrey offers two alternative chronological references for when he undertook his search of Hobbes's "Medea" among the papers of their late tutor: either "Twenty odde yeares agoe" (that is, c. 1659–60) or "25+ yeares agoe" (that is, prior to 1655). It seems that Aubrey's memory of this event is comparable to his dating "165—" as the beginning of his friendship with Hobbes and that he undertook his search shortly after they renewed their acquaintance as adults. Since Hobbes had already amply demonstrated his mastery of classical languages—his translation of Thucydides was published in 1629, and he frequently wrote in Latin—he likely recalled to Aubrey his debt to their mutual schoomaster Latimer, whom Aubrey describes as "a good Graecian, and the first that came into our parts hereabout since the Reformation" (Clark 329). Perhaps it was in this context that Hobbes mentioned his translation of Euripides to Aubrey, along with his desire to revisit his juvenile achievements, thereby prompting Aubrey to visit Latimer's house to try and recover the text for his illustrious friend.


Hobbes's Allusions to Medea

Apparently the part of the Medea legend most memorable to Hobbes was the episode in which the sorceress tricks the daughters of Pelias into murdering their father. It is invoked in De Cive (written in the late 1630s and published in Latin in 1642), the political installment of Hobbes's early "elements of philosophy." In the section "Of the internall causes, tending to the dissolution of any Government," Hobbes writes of the causes of sedition, especially those ambitious men who can manipulate the common people through their eloquence:

for folly and eloquence concurre in the subversion of government in the same manner (as the fable hath it) as heretofore the daughters of Palias King of Thessaly, conspired with Medea against their father; They going to restore the decrepit old man to his youth again, by the counsell of Medea, they cut him into peeces, and set him in the fire to boyle, in vain expecting when he would live again; So the common people through their folly (like the daughters of Palias) desiring to renew the ancient government, being drawne away by the eloquence of ambitious men, as it were by the witchcraft of Medea, divided into faction, they consume it rather by those flames, then they reforme it.
(Philosophicall Rudiments, p. 189)

An almost identical use of the story is found in the discussion of rebellion in his political treatise The Elements of Law, completed in 1640 and first published in 1650:

Seeing then Eloquence and want of Discretion concur to the stirring of Rebellion, it may be demanded, what part each of these acteth therein. The Daughters of Pelias King of Thessaly, desiring to restore their old Decrepit Father to the Vigour of his Youth, by the Counsel of Medea, chopped him in pieces, and set him a boyling with I know not what Herbs in a Cauldron, but could not revive him again. So when Eloquence and want of Judgement go together, want of Judgment like the Daughters of Pelias consenteth through Eloquence, which is as the Witchcraft of Medea, to cut the Common Wealth in pieces, upon Pretence, or Hope of Reformation, which when things are in Combustion, they are not able to effect.
(De Corpore Politico, pp. 175–76)

The episode is invoked yet again, if more cursorily, in the thirtieth chapter of Leviathan (1651), again illustrating the deleterious results of disobedience:

they that go about by disobedience, to doe no more than reforme the Commonwealth, shall find they do thereby destroy it; like the foolish daughters of Peleus (in the fable;) which desiring to renew the youth of their decrepit Father, did by the Counsell of Medea, cut him in pieces, and boyle him, together with strange herbs, but made not of him a new man.
(Leviathan, p. 177)

It should be noted that the mythological episode of the Peliades' parricide is recalled but not actually depicted in Euripides' play.

Another of Hobbes's allusions to Medea occurs as a result of his dispute with John Bramhall, bishop of Derry, although this instance has an ostensibly un-Euripidean source. Bramhall, in his critique of Hobbes's theory of liberty and necessity, at point writes: "It is true indeed the will should follow the direction of the understanding, but I am not satisfied that it doth evermore follow it. Sometimes this saying hath place, Video meliora probo[que]; Deteriora sequor" ("I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse") (p. 247). Hobbes, recognizing the passage from Ovid's version of the Medea story in the Metamorphoses (7.20), responded: "the saying (as pretty as it is) is not true: for though Medea saw many reasons to forbear killing her Children, yet the last dictate of her judgement was, that the present revenge on her husband outweighed them all, and thereupon the wicked action followed necessarily" (p. 249). Importantly, this is not the context of the quote in Ovid: Medea in this passage is at an earlier point in her life, torn between her loyalty to her father and her desire for the foreigner Jason. Samuel C. Rickless writes: "Interestingly, Hobbes does not tackle the case of Medea's decision to marry Jason, but rather her later far more calculated and cold-blooded decision to kill the children she had borne him" (400n). Perhaps Hobbes's mistaken recollection was colored by his youthful immersion in the tragic action of Euripides' play. (Bramhall, for his part, ignored the mistake and replied that "the strength of the argument doth not lye" in the story of Medea, "which is but a fiction," but rather "in the experience of all men, who find it to be true in themselves" [p. 251].)


Works Cited

Bennett, Kate, ed. Brief Lives with An Apparatus for the Lives of our English Mathematical Writers. By John Aubrey. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.
Bramhall, John and Thomas Hobbes. The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance. London, 1656. Wing H2257.
Blackburne, Richard. "Vitæ Hobbianæ Auctarium". In Thomæ Hobbes Angli Malmesburiensis Philosophi Vita. London, 1681. Wing H2268.
Clark, Andrew, ed. 'Brief Lives,' Chiefly of Contemporaries, Set Down by John Aubrey, Between the Years 1669 and 1696. 2 vols. Oxford, 1898.
Hobbes, Thomas. De Corpore Politico. Or the Elements of Law, Moral & Politick. London, 1650. Wing H2219.
———. The Correspondence. 2 vols. Ed. Noel Malcolm. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.
———. Leviathan. London, 1651. Wing H2246.
———. Philosophicall Rudiments Concerning Government and Society. London, 1651. Wing H2253.
Malcolm, Noel. "Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/13400
Martinich, Aloysius. Hobbes: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Parkin, John. "Blackburne, Richard (1651/2–1716)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/2517
Rickless, Samuel C. "Will and Motivation." In The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Peter R. Anstey. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 393–414.


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