This past quarter I read Plato’s Crito and Euthyphro in Greek. My classmate Brian pointed out that this was the first time we’ve ever finished a work in Greek — previous classes on Herodotus and Homer clearly didn’t offer that satisfaction, and even when we read Euripides’ Medea we only got through about 2/3-3/4 of it. This quarter’s plan was to read the two dialogues above, but we actually finished before the quarter ended, and got to read Aristophanes’ speech from the Symposium as a treat.
I thought it would be helpful for other Greek students to review the three commentaries we used this quarter: John Burnet’s 1924 critical edition with notes, Chris Emlyn-Jones’ Bristol Classical Press commentaries, and the Bryn Mawr Commentaries on each dialogue. Obviously, I am not a Plato scholar, so I can’t assess how accurate and current each commentary is on Platonic scholarship. But I can speak from my experience as a member of each commentary’s target audience: an intermediate student of Classical Greek. Since it would be impossible to analyze every detail of all three, here I use a test case from the Euthyphro to generalize about all three commentaries and their series.
A Test Case: Euthyphro 10e9-11a3
In this passage Socrates concludes the argument that began in 10a about the difference between something being carried and somebody carrying something. Clearly, the action comes before the state: something is carried because someone carries it, not vice versa. In 10e9-11a3, Socrates crowns this line of reasoning by pointing out that Crito cannot equate piety with being god-loved, because, according to Crito’s logic, something’s being pious makes it beloved by the gods, so defining piety and beloved by the gods is circular reasoning. Here Socrates plays with the distinction between φιλεῖσθαι and ἐφιλεῖτο, between “to be loved” and “someone loves it” (the middle voice cannot be rendered into English). This is one of the most convoluted and difficult to translate passages of this dialogue:
ἀλλ᾽ εἴ γε ταὐτὸν ἦν, ὦ φίλε Εὐθύφρων, τὸ θεοφιλὲς καὶ τὸ ὅσιον, εἰ μὲν διὰ τὸ ὅσιον εἶναι ἐφιλεῖτο τὸ ὅσιον, καὶ διὰ τὸ θεοφιλὲς εἶναι ἐφιλεῖτο ἂν τὸ θεοφιλές, εἰ δὲ διὰ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ θεῶν τὸ θεοφιλὲς θεοφιλὲς ἦν, καὶ τὸ ὅσιον ἂν διὰ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι ὅσιον ἦν:
G.M.A. Grube translates it:
But if the god-beloved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthyphro, and the pious were loved because it was pious, then the god-beloved would be loved because it was god-beloved, and if the god-beloved was god-beloved because it was loved by the gods, then the pious would also be pious because it was loved by the gods…
A real headache-inducer in any language!
John Burnet’s critical edition and commentary on Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Euthyphro is the starting-point for the other commentaries, which both rely on his text. Though he was one of the foremost Plato scholars of his day, by now his references to Plato scholarship are dated, since his text was published in 1924. But his philological help is still good, and he also gives text-critical notes, which the other two do not focus on. Judge for yourself:
But one major frustration with Burnet is that he often assumes a higher level of Greek than most of his readers would have nowadays. We don’t see it here, but sometimes he will throw out a phrase such as “Archilochus writes that…” and quote the Greek of another author as if we have read him and know the work well. Because of this, Burnet’s commentary is not enough for an intermediate Greek student to read Plato without a teacher.
Chris Emlyn-Jones’ Bristol Classical Press commentaries
Chris Emlyn-Jones, who wrote BCP’s commentaries on both Crito and Euthyphro, is a British classicist. His texts come complete with lengthy introductions providing a guide to the arguments in each dialogue and some of the key contemporary scholarship. His commentary provides some philological help, but more often focuses on the argument itself.
I really liked using Emlyn-Jones’ commentaries because they helped with the arguments more than the other two. But having used the Bristol Classical Press commentaries on Homer’s Odyssey last year, I don’t think this is a general feature of the whole series, as those ones were more philological in nature. In sum, if I were only using this commentary, I don’t think I would have been able to read the Euthyphro very well.
Bryn Mawr Greek Commentaries
John Hare‘s commentary on Euthyphro and Gilbert Rose‘s commentary on Crito are both much shorter, and geared strictly toward philology. I had never used a Bryn Mawr Commentary before but this appears to be the modus operandi of the whole series.
Of all three commentaries, this was the best for understand some of the linguistic oddities of the text itself. He helps parse unusual verb forms, explains messy syntax, and gives rough translations when necessary.
Which commentary should you buy? All three, of course! Each has different strengths. Burnet’s is good for the text of Plato. The Bryn Mawr commentaries were the most invaluable in actually reading Plato. Emlyn-Jones’ were the most important for understanding Plato. What’s more, while writing this review I also encountered Jacques Bailly’s commentary on Euthyphro for Focus Classical Commentaries, so there are at least four commentaries. This is good news for anyone who is trying to read Plato without a teacher.
Onward and upward!