Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Edited or mutilated?

Projection is risky business.  Last night I was skimming the intro to Thomas Hobbes' book Leviathan.  Within about 30 seconds, I was wishing that I had more carefully selected the edition I'd bought.  Hobbes wrote two versions of his work: one in Latin (the scholarly language of that day), and one in English (for the common man).  In the version I was holding, an editor had translated the first two sections of Leviathan from the Latin, and amputated the last two sections (because, he said, they were interesting only to people of that day).  He had modified the punctuation and even the construction of the work, to clarify Hobbes' meaning for the modern reader.

This annoyed me, because I would much prefer to read Hobbes' original work, and not some editor's conception of Hobbes' meaning.  Plus, the introduction was not incredibly well-written, and I wondered how the author convinced himself that he was capable of improving Hobbes' style.

But this was just the beginning.  Toward the end, the editor explained why Hobbes used Scripture throughout his work.  According to the editor, Hobbes only quoted from the Bible because people of his day were by and large influenced by Scripture.  He didn't personally believe in God or His Word.  He just used the Bible because other people were swayed by it.

I find it simply incredible that this editor can look back over four hundred years and read a man's mind.  It would have impressed me if he had read my mind as I sat in the same room as him.  But this editor's mind-reading abilities are capable of penetrating the inner sanctum of a man and discerning his thoughts, though the two of them are separated by four centuries and six feet of dirt.

I wondered where I had heard this type of argument before.  Then I had it: during one of the very first discussions I had with some grad students on campus, we were talking about U.S. History.  I was saying that most of the Founding Fathers were believers in Christ, and that's it time to get back to our historical roots.  Two other students disagreed, saying that the Founders quoted from the Bible because they knew what kind of influence it had over the common people of that time.  They didn't actually believe the Bible.

It struck me at the time at how arrogant this view was.  It assumes that the Founding Fathers were insincere opportunists, and allows no room for the Founders having a sincere, Scripture-enriched view of government.  Hearing the Leviathan editor's words brought me back to the same position that previous conversation had brought me to: how on earth do you know?

A follow up question for the editor is, Are you projecting?  Perhaps you do not believe in God, and cannot imagine a scholar or Founding Father using Scripture because they believe in God.  But can you separate your beliefs from those of others?  Or do you think that every scholarly, successful person believes as you do?

I was not convinced that the editor could make the distinction.  I was concerned that in the process of "clarifying" Hobbes' message, the editor would end up inserting his own interpretation into Hobbes' original work.  So I ordered the full version of the original.

It's 700 pages long, which is much more formidible than the thin edited version I started with.  One reason for the length is that the last two sections amputated by the editor are included.  I wondered earlier why the editor did not stop to describe the sections he was axing.  After all, Hobbes must have had some reason to include them in his original work.  If the editor does not understand why they were included, perhaps he does not understand other portions of the work he is editing.
     I wonder now if these two sections are in keeping with the editor's view that Hobbes used the Bible only because it was convenient for him, and not because he believed it.  The two sections describe "The Christian Commonwealth" and "The Kingdom of Darkness."  That last section compares the actions of Hobbes' society to Scripture's standard, and shows where society is coming up wanting.  This is hardly the kind of thing a man would do if he was trying with all his might to get on society's good side by using a book they respected but he distrusted.  In that case, he would want to pander to them by every possible means, not point out their sins!  It sounds to me (you'll notice I make no claims to mind-reading) that he cared more about the truth of Scripture than the passing fancies of society.

1 comment:

api said...

Heidi is a classic that has been "multilated" as well by so called editors.