Diagramming Hobbes with Timothy Raylor and Drew Rodriguez-Michel ’25

Rodriguez-Michel joined Raylor for a Student Research Partnership this summer, which contributed to Raylor’s new edition of De corpore (Of Body), the foundational work by the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Erica Helgerud ’20 25 October 2023 Posted In:
Photo of a page with two old, complicated geometry proofs.
Two of Hobbes's many diagrams from De corporePhoto:

Timothy Raylor, Stephen R. Lewis, Jr. Professor of English and the Liberal Arts, has been working on one particular project “for more years than [he cares] to mention.” With the final steps at last on the horizon, Drew Rodriguez-Michel ’25 joined Raylor’s project this summer for a Student Research Partnership (SRP) funded by the Humanities Center Trustee Endowed Research Fund.

Professor Tim Raylor gestures as he speaks to two other professors, all of them sitting in chairs.
Raylor speaking to fellow professors at a meeting for Carleton’s Humanities Center

Along with his co-editor—Dr. Stephen Clucas of Birkbeck, University of London—Raylor has long been working on an edition of De corpore (Of Body), the foundational work by the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Raylor and Clucas’s edition will include the first printed edition of the work, written in Latin and published in 1655; the English translation of 1656; a second Latin edition published in 1668; and the various manuscript notes and drafts of the work at various stages in its composition that have somehow survived over the centuries.

A “strange and fascinating work” according to Raylor, Hobbes’s De corpore lays the foundations for the author’s moral and political philosophy by way of a study of body and motion. It begins by setting out the principles of logic, then establishes the foundational principles of Hobbes’s philosophy, before moving into a study of bodies in motion—by way of geometry and applied geometry—and ending with a discussion of physics, including cosmology and meteorology.

“Ours will be the first ever critical edition of the complete work,” Raylor said, “tracing its development over time. It will thus allow scholars and students to situate it both in Hobbes’s intellectual development and philosophical system in particular, and within the development of modern philosophy more generally.”

Rodriguez-Michel helped Raylor with a very specific part of his work around De corpore: producing digital versions of Hobbes’s many geometrical diagrams. Only some of the around 160 total diagrams were engraved for the printed editions of De corpore, so many remain in manuscript; plus, Raylor explained, even those that were printed don’t always match the text.

“This is sometimes because the engraver didn’t understand the import of what Hobbes probably just sketched out roughly,” Raylor said, “and sometimes because Hobbes revised the text and didn’t take the accompanying plate back to the engraver to be recut. All this makes the matter of preparing the diagrams one that involves quite a bit of judgment—we’re not just retracing what’s on the page of the printed text, and those in manuscript are often difficult to interpret.”

Photo of a page full of old, complicated geometry proofs.

The crux of Rodriguez-Michel’s work involved interpreting and transcribing the often obscure drawings, which also meant relying on Raylor’s English translations of Hobbes’s Latin manuscripts for contextual information. 

“At its most tedious, Hobbes or his scribe included re-drawn diagrams next to—or at times overlapping—originals, and without clear indication of which is the final, making for some digging on my part,” Rodriguez-Michel said. “Usually I toggled between manuscripts, previous diagrams, and my own reasoning before asking Tim for input… There was a lot of trial-and-error, and sometimes I created many diagrams before realizing I’d gotten one crucial element wrong and had to go back and scrap it.”

Raylor and Rodriguez-Michel were constantly faced with questions during their work: Why, when Hobbes talks about dividing something into equal parts, doesn’t the diagram show equal parts? Why does he mention in the text a “Point B” that never appears on the diagram? And so on and so on…

“What the task requires,” Raylor said, “is someone who’s able to quickly master complex systems both practical and theoretical—Adobe Illustrator on the one hand and the philosophical assumptions of Hobbes on the other. It demands someone who has some understanding of the principles of geometry; an interest in historical and philosophical questions; and a willingness to take seriously and engage with ideas that are both unfamiliar and often, to our way of thinking, just plain wrong. It requires someone who can read carefully both word and image and think critically about the relations between them—someone who can ask, not just ‘what’s there’ but ‘what’s missing’ and ‘what is this trying to show.’ It is, in other words, an ideal task for a Carleton student! And it’s one that Drew is especially well suited for.”

Collin Smith ’22 was the first Carleton student to work on this substantial task with Raylor during Carleton’s winter break in 2021–22. Smith figured out the best approach and recreated most of the diagrams, but didn’t have time to finish them, and even the diagrams Smith and Raylor did prepare need tweaking as Raylor and his co-editor undertake their final revisions into next summer. 

Raylor especially enjoys bringing students like Smith and Rodriguez-Michel into this kind of work because of how it “takes them behind the curtain” of classic texts.

Photo of a page full of old, complicated geometry proofs.

“We tend to see editions of classic texts as things that have always existed, fully formed, having dropped from the heavens or something,” Raylor said. “This work allows one to see how everything we take for granted and assume is just there is really the product of a whole series of judgements—critical, textual, bibliographical—all of which are open to question and revision.”

When working with Rodriguez-Michel, for example, Raylor didn’t just instruct them to transcribe something; he asked for their critical input. When a point is mislabeled, do they correct it to make the diagram work, or do they leave it as is? This in turn raises the question of the authority of the source Raylor and Rodriguez-Michel are looking at—did Hobbes get it wrong or change his mind, or did a scribe misread their copy? In their work with Raylor, Rodriguez-Michel got to help make those decisions, which has led to a much deeper knowledge of those “behind the curtain” kinds of details.

“This project is proving important to me personally because it’s opening my eyes to the behind-the-scenes publication processes, which is something I’m interested in for my own endeavors down the line,” Rodriguez-Michel said. “So, while I’m no Hobbes nerd, this project is certainly helping me realize the paths I can take as an English major.”

Hobbes nerd or not, one of Rodriguez-Michel’s favorite parts of the summer was hearing all of Raylor’s interesting facts about the philosopher, as well as learning the “twists and turns” of Adobe Illustrator.

“Learning Tim’s Hobbes facts [has been one of my favorite parts], because he has many and they’re not the kind of things you can learn online,” Rodriguez-Michel said. “As for working in Illustrator, Adobe’s creative cloud is sometimes beastly, so doing summer research that requires me to master it, at least in part, is a blessing in disguise. It’s also just incredibly fun to sketch all day.”

“Hobbes’s geometry enemies” is a particular favorite anecdote of Rodriguez-Michel, so to conclude this peek into their work, Raylor has provided some more historical context:

The diagrams take us into a really important and controversial area of Hobbes’s philosophy, because he convinced himself that he’d figured out a method of solving the insoluble problems of classical geometry—in particular, squaring the circle (i.e. producing a square with the same area as a given circle using only compass and straight-edge). He was so convinced he’d succeeded that he put the word out and pointed to his success in this field as proof of the legitimacy of his method in other, more obviously contentious areas—like that of political philosophy, about which his views were regarded as extremely dangerous. Unfortunately for Hobbes, some of his friends with whom he shared the proofs pointed out that he’d gone wrong and he had to rewrite the whole account, drawing new diagrams, and getting it all reworked while the book was in press. Even more unfortunately, not only were his enemies better geometers, they also managed to get hold of the original proofs, which had gone out to booksellers with instructions for cutting and replacement. They were thus able to reconstruct the whole debacle: the original effort, the revised effort, and the attempt to cover his tracks. One of these opponents, the professor of geometry at Oxford, did a thorough demolition job, quoting lengthy extracts from the canceled proofs. It was a nasty attack, initiating a pamphlet war between the two men that rattled on for years, forcing Hobbes to dig himself into a deeper and deeper geometrical hole, as it moved into disputes over everything from classical mythology (what, exactly, was an Empusa?), to finer points of Latin grammar and questions of style and manners (was it unseemly to quote from the canceled proofs, or were these fair game?), along with accusations of political and religious heterodoxy. It makes modern academic disputes look very polite and decorous!

Erica Helgerud ’20 is the news and social media manager for Carleton.