If Plato Only Knew

The Republic of Plato

by Alan Bloom
Basic Books, 512 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Plato: The Dialogues, Second and Third Periods The Bollingen Series

by Paul Friedländer, translated by Hans Meyerhoff
Princeton, 634 pp., $7.50

It was Plato’s own fault. His manifold magics had to attract to him the large tribe of unphilosophical interpreters who have been fascinated by the Platonic dialogue as literature, drama, biography, sermon, prophecy or jeremiad, or else as vignette of Athenian social and cultural life, but have been incompetent to appraise their arguments. There did, of course, exist that golden Plato of theirs who is now at his ease in Heaven in the company of Dante, Cervantes, Bunyan, Swift, Boswell, Blake, Burke, and Aristophanes. But there did also exist the steelier Plato who is now at his especial ease in Heaven in the company of their bêtenoire, Aristotle.

There is another, much smaller tribe of interpreters whose prime interest is in Plato’s arguments. His dialogues are, for them, not just vivid conversation pieces or improving homilies; they are disputations in which things are or purport to be proved. These interpreters try to do justice to Plato’s reasonings by Aristotelianizing them. They dessicate the Socratic debates into premises and conclusions. The thuds of fists and cudgels are hushed for the squeak of chalk on blackboard.

Of the three authors whose books on Plato are here under review Bloom and Friedländer belong to the larger tribe of the commentators who are unphilosophers, Sayre to the smaller tribe.

1). Alan Bloom’s The Republic of Plato is, in the first instance, a new translation of the Republic. Rejecting Cornford’s principles of translation, Bloom undertakes to give us a blunt, literal, and nearly word-for-word rendering of Plato’s Greek into philosophically untendentious English. A few random checks show that he succeeds pretty well, though not perfectly. Bloom’s Englishings of Greek vocatives, like anyone else’s, make us giggle or choke; a repeated rendering of a Greek preposition by “depend on” creates a philosophical muddle of which Plato was innocent; Bloom’s verbs “to craft” and “to intellect” are not even mistranslations, since they are not English; “City of Sows” is no improvement of “City of Pigs,” and “ideas” (in italics) is no improvement on “Forms”; and so on. But for the most part the translation should—price apart—prove as satisfactory for the student of philosophy as the translations of Shorey and Lindsay, or even of Cornford, Davies & Vaughn, and Jowett. Most of the points over which these translations differ do not, philosophically, matter twopence; and on the points of interpretation and assessment over which, philosophers differ the rival translators usually have no help to give.

Bloom also provides 130 pages of an “Interpretive (sic) Essay.” This Essay is not a bit satisfactory. It has the outward appearance of a running précis of the Republic, but it constantly slides, without signals, into speculative elucidations, into objections, and into expressions of Bloom’s own sentiments, including some understandably anti-utopian ones. He ought to warn the student that it is not in Plato’s but in Bloom’s mind that “Socrates constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what …

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Letters

Plato April 9, 1970