Tag Archives: Plato

Review: Commentaries on Plato’s Crito and Euthyphro.

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

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:

Burnet1

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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.

CEJ1

CEJ2

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.

Hare1

Hare2

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.

Conclusions

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!

Review: Two Greek Philosophical Lexicons.

Since I have been studying Plato this past quarter, I thought I would order F. E. Peters’ Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon to see what I could glean from it.  I later discovered J. O. Urmson’s The Greek Philosophical Vocabularyanother book with the same objective.  Here I review both as a student of Greek, not a scholar of ancient philosophy.

Introducing the Competition

F. E. Peters, an ex-Jesuit classicist and scholar of Islam, wrote his short book in 1967.  J.O. Urmson‘s background is slightly different: he was also trained as a scholar of Greek philosophy, and translated Aristotle for Penguin, but went on to do work in moral philosophy.  Both market their books to intermediate students of Greek language and philosophy who perhaps have studied little to no Greek but still want to understand the ambiguous philosophical terminology they encounter in ancient texts.  Having taken a several philosophy courses, including three specifically on ancient Greek philosophy, I think I’m in his target audience.

Urmson

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Urmson’s book seems to be to be better for beginners.  In his introduction, he writes that his book has 500-600 entries, so he clearly covers more terms than Peters does.  For example, Urmson has 79 entries under A, while Peters has only 31.

Urmson’s definitions are much simpler and to the point.  He never runs over one succinct paragraph, always with quotes in both transliterated Greek and English from various philosophers.  For example, see his entry on kakos (evil, bad):

Urmson1

Urmson 2

And so on, so that we get a good sense of what the word means and where to go to look it up.  I do wish Urmson hadn’t transliterated the Greek: it doesn’t help the Greekless reader, and it gives me a headache because, well, Greek should be in Greek!

One of my major frustrations with this book is that Urmson seems to base his work far too heavily on Plato and Aristotle.  For example, under phusis I found no mention of the pre-Socratics, only 8 citations of Plato and Aristotle.  I found little on any later philosophers.  Also, Urmson could have put something in his introduction about how his work differs from Peters’.

Peters

41a2rcDf6BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Peters’ book, on the other hand, seems better for more advanced students.  Rather than providing a concise explanation for each word, he gives a history of its usage.  That way the reader doesn’t try to read, say, the Platonic use of eidos (form) into the pre-Socratics or Aristotle.  For many entries, Peters also explains how the word was used in pre-philosophical texts such as epic poetry.  His entry on phusis runs for five paragraphs, divided by thinker:

  1. Heraclitus
  2. Parmenides, Empedocles, Atomists, Plato
  3. Aristotle
  4. Stoics
  5. Plotinus

For each thinker, he cites specific passages, making this book far more useful for anyone seeking to trace the history of a term in Greek philosophy.  As a comparison to the entry on kakon in Urmson, here’s Peters’ version:

Peters1

Peters2

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This format means that Peters’ entries are longer, though he covers fewer words.  For example, his entry on kakon runs for two pages, versus Urmson’s one paragraph.  But there are some words not in here that I felt should be.  Since I was reading Crito and Euthyphro, I looked up the words discussed in those two dialogues.  I found dike, eidos, episteme, kakon, and pathos, but found no mention of idea, which Urmson included.  Neither lexicon included eusebeia or hosion.  Hosion, which means holiness or piety, is a pretty major oversight, since that is the entire subject of Euthyphro.  Nor were “holiness” or “piety” in the English-Greek index.  If these words are missing, what else might be?  To be fair, this book is only 200 pages, and not everything can fit.

In the back of the book, there is also an English-Greek index, so readers who want to know, say, the Greek word for “justice” or “intellect” can figure out where to look.  He provides entries for many English words to account for the diversity of translations, but sometimes still misses the mark, as when he omits “right,” a possible translation for the Greek word dike.

Despite these advantages, Peters’ book might be information overload for beginners.  This book is not very useful for the student who doesn’t know philosophy as well.  I was hoping for something that explained terms on a more basic level, as Urmson does, rather than giving brief references to various thinkers.  I don’t merely want to know that a particular thinker used a term a particular way.  I’d like a brief summary of the text, or a quote from that text.  Without those things this book is less useful to the student of Greek who is just starting her study of philosophy.  Also, it is more dated than Urmson’s book: Peters’ book came out in 1967, while Urmson’s debuted in 1990.

Recommendations

Ideally, you should get both of these, as neither is obviously better than the other. Both Urmson and Peters [1] [2] were reviewed favorably by academics.  But if you’re on a tight budget, I would go with Peters, because his entries make it clearer how different authors define a word, and tend to be more comprehensive in covering a wide range of Greek thinkers.

Translating Plato: what gets lost in translation?

Now, at the end of the term, I have finally finished the paper for which I was reading Allan Bloom on translating Plato.  My paper, “Justice In Translation: Rendering Platonic Drama in English,” analyzes Plato’s characterization of Crito and Socrates in the Crito.  Through an examination of each character’s style of speaking in particles, syntax, and forms of address, I conclude that Plato’s dramatic portrait of each character is inseparable from the philosophical arguments contained in the dialogue.  For Plato, poetry and philosophy, form and content, are one.  (Imagine what Plato would be like if he had wrote treatises rather than dialogues!)  In the second part, I look at six contemporary translations, and I find that none of them render Plato’s literary element in a satisfactory way.  They seem to be focused only on the content of each character’s arguments.

Anyway, if you’re interested, my paper is here.  It was fine to write because it pushed my philological skills, and it made me look at the Greek particles systematically (and use Denniston) for the first time.

Allan Bloom on Translating Plato.

After I wrote my paper on translating Medea last quarter, I am continuing with that theme in this terms’ Plato course.  We are reading Crito and Euthyphro.  I’m focusing on the Crito, but am also reading literature about other Plato translations.  I don’t agree with his method, but I do appreciate Republic translator Allan Bloom’s honesty.

This book is intended to be a literal translation.  […]  Such a translation is intended to be useful to the serious student, the one who wishes and is able to arrive at his own understanding of the work.  He must be emancipated from the tyranny of the translator, given the means of transcending the limitations of the translator’s interpretation, enabled to discover the subtitles of the elusive original.  The only way to provide the reader with this independence is by a slavish, even if sometimes cumbersome, literalness — insofar as possible always using the same English equivalent for the same Greek word. (xi)

Literal translation makes the Republic a difficult book to read; but it is in itself a difficult book, and our historical situation makes it doubly difficult for us.  This must not be hidden.  Plato intended his works essentially for the intelligent and industrious few, a natural aristocracy determined neither by birth nor wealth, and this translation attempts to do nothing which would contradict that intention. (xviii)

(Taken from the Preface to Allan Bloom, trans., The Republic of Plato, 1968.)