Sunday, April 19, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
M. C. Howatson, Frisbee C. C. Sheffield (ed.), Plato. The Symposium. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xxxv, 91. ISBN 9780521682985. $13.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Yancy Hughes Dominick, Seattle University, Seattle, WA

Table of Contents

The laudable mission of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy series is to "expand the range, variety, and quality of texts in the history of philosophy" available in English. In some cases--Cicero, Sextus Empiricus--that mission is accomplished by presenting new translations of less well-known texts and authors; in others--as in Roger Crisp's edition of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics--the series strives to publish translations that pay attention to recent scholarship and that offer fresh and readable texts.

Plato's Symposium is, in the context of that mission, a challenge. Far from lesser-known, it is among Plato's most read works, and it is surely more popular outside of philosophy courses than any other Platonic text. And unlike some ancient works, which have been taken up by relatively few recent translators, there are by my count seven English-language editions of the Symposium that have been published in the last twenty years.1

Publishing a new translation of such a text necessarily presents a range of difficulties. (The same must of course apply to reviewing such a publication. I will clearly not have the luxury, for example, of comparing Howatson's translations of particular passages with a representative sample of other translations, even recent ones.)

Certain questions, then, need asking: does the world need another translation of this text right now? Who is the audience for such a publication? Does this translation offer a clearer access to Plato than others? Or a richer scholarly context? In my estimation, the answers to most of the above are: perhaps, and probably the intended student audience will benefit from this edition, as it contains an informative introduction by Frisbee C. C. Sheffield and an excellent set of notes and glossaries.

The translation itself, however, does not capture enough of Plato's style, and in the interest of bold interpretation occludes certain themes and connections between the various speeches. If I were to assign this to students, it would only be in combination with another, more lyrical translation of this wonderful text.

Sheffield's Introduction does a nice job of explaining the backgrounds of most characters--though more details appear in the Glossary of Names. She also helps the reader understand the significance--within the text and within the historical setting--of both eros and of symposia. She then offers a brief account of each speech, showing how the early speeches relate to each other as well as how each raises aspects of problems confronted in Socrates' speech.

Sheffield then offers a more detailed analysis of Socrates' speech, the speech in which Socrates relates the conversation that he may have once had with a woman named Diotima. Sheffield's account draws on her compelling recent book, Plato's Symposium: The Ethics of Desire.2 A few features of the analysis in this present volume warrant brief discussion. In addition to a thorough, thoughtful discussion of Socrates' intellectualism or "psychological eudaimonism," Sheffield offers an interesting reading of the final stage in the famous "ascent" passage, according to which the "true virtue" that the successful lover gives birth to at 212a is identical with the activity of contemplation of the form of beauty. This interpretation has the benefit of explaining Diotima's claim that the life of contemplation is a life "which most of all a human being should live, in the contemplation of beauty itself" (211d, in Howatson's translation). If some further product were the true goal, this focus on contemplation might sound off-key.

On the other hand, F. C. White has recently made a strong case for seeing the mention of giving birth to true virtue as an indication that the successful lover must do more than merely contemplate the form of beauty,3 and to the extent that that account is compelling, it would have been nice to see Sheffield address it more directly.

One other interesting feature of the Introduction is the time that Sheffield spends on Gregory Vlastos' famous claim that the successful lover described by Diotima cannot love actual, whole persons as a result of that lover's focus on the ascent to the form of beauty. Now that is certainly a fascinating worry, but it surprises me that of all the possible critical discussions of the Symposium, that one should feature so prominently, and should do so in the absence of some of the many fascinating responses, as for example the one found in Martha Nussbaum's account of the dialogue.4

Following the Introduction is a brief Chronology, a regrettably brief bibliography ("Further reading"), a Translator's Note, and the text of the dialogue. The book ends with a very thorough glossary of Greek terms as well as a glossary of names. These last are quite useful, and would clearly benefit both undergraduate and postgraduate readers. There are some small oddities (in such a thorough glossary, why leave out a word like ἀλήθεα? why abandon the Stephanus pagination in the Glossary of Names? transliterated Greek is no easier to read than real Greek, and it looks quite odd--what good does it do anyone?), but on the whole the glossaries serve the reader well. The text ends with a brief index of subjects.

The translation itself is clear and intelligible, and has a helpful if almost frightening number of footnotes (227 notes for the dialogue's 51 Stephanus pages). Some notes offer the transliterated Greek word, while others contain extensive historical or philosophical information for the reader, as with note 15, which details the typical seating arrangements at symposia.

In some cases, however, something seems to have gone wrong. Page 9 contains eleven notes, ten of which inform the reader of the Greek words that correspond to words in the translation. That seems like a lot, but I could forgive simple excess. That same page, however, which presents the translation of 178b-179b, contains three uses of forms of the word καλός. The first occurrence, translated as "good" (at 178c6) is noted, but the other two are not, which is especially problematic because they are each translated differently--"honourable" at 178d2 and "noble" at 178d4. Those are all fine translations (though I admit to being partial to using "beautiful" as often as possible), but in the context of this many notes on translation, I object to the silence concerning the uses here of such an important word. To put it another way, page 9 either needs far fewer notes, or at least a few more.

My purpose here is not to quibble over the particulars of the translation, but I do want to mention three more areas. First of all, Howatson's choice of "right" and "wrong" as translations of καλός and αἰσχρός in Pausanias' speech strikes me as ill-conceived. As Howatson herself acknowledges, those who question that translation "have a strong case" (p. 12 n. 55). More worrisome to me, though, is the fact that this translation masks the continuity between various speeches. Part of the movement of the dialogue involves the various characters' attempts to develop and respond to each others' claims about ideas like love and beauty. When Agathon, for example, asserts that Love is "supreme in beauty" (195a7), readers without Greek would have a hard time recognizing that as the same term at work in Pausanias' speech. When the translation covers up these lexical parallels, readers lose out.

The second section that concerns me is Agathon's speech (194e-197e). It's a lovely, silly speech, and first-time readers need to be able to see that. It's also a speech that employs some painfully bad logic of course, and Howatson does a nice job of offering a clear and readable text, which helps highlight the fallacies. Agathon's bad reasoning loses its force, however, if it doesn't sound all too pretty. Here are some lines from Howatson's translation of the final moment (197d1-6):

It is Love who takes from us our sense of estrangement and fills us with a sense of kinship; who causes us to associate with one another as on this occasion, and at festivals, dances and sacrifices is the guiding spirit. He imparts gentleness, he banishes harshness; he is lavish with goodwill, sparing of ill-will; he is gracious and kindly; viewed with admiration by the wise and with wonder by the gods . . .

After the speech concludes, Socrates' jokes that Agathon has "stunned every listener with the beauty of his language" (198b4-5). Readers of Howatson's translation would, I dare say, be surprised by that assertion. Her translation is lucid, and it is true to the content. But the style is almost the entire point of Agathon's speech, especially in that closing bit. Nehamas and Woodruff come closer, and to me suggest some of what Howatson omits:

Love fills us with togetherness and drains all of our divisiveness away. Love calls gatherings like these together. In feasts, in dances, and in ceremonies, he gives the lead. Love moves us to mildness, removes from us wildness. He is giver of kindness, never of meanness. Gracious, kindly--let wise men see and gods admire!

Obviously, the fact that Howatson fails to capture Agathon's lyricism does not by itself entail that her translation fails. It does, however, point to one of the key difficulties with this text and with this particular translation. The Symposium is a beautiful book, not just a book about beauty. Howatson acknowledges this challenge in her Note (xxxiv), but it's not always clear that she compromises in the right places.

I also want to mention Howatson's version of the ascent passage. Overall, it's a very good translation, in many ways better than other recent versions. To have Diotima say that beauty itself is not "like a discourse or a branch of knowledge" (211a7), for example, makes nice, concise sense of a difficult bit of Greek (οὐδέ τις λόγος οὐδέ τις ἐπιστήμη). (Nehamas and Woodruff offer "one idea or one kind of knowledge," which to me just adds unnecessary confusion.) When Howatson gets to the word μονοειδές at 211b1, however, she offers "single in substance," which both raises a number of distracting connotations and fails to square with the glossary in this very volume, where the much more mild-mannered "single in form" appears.

Finally, Howatson has Alcibiades tell his listeners that his method will be to make "comparisons" (215a4-5). That is a fine translation of εἰκόνες, but again Howatson hides fruitful parallels from readers. Earlier, Diotima had described the successful lover as birthing no images (212a3-4); later, Alcibiades describes Socrates' discourse as full of "images of virtue" (222a4). The choice of "comparisons" at 215a works against readers like myself, who wish to examine the various attitudes towards things like images in Plato's texts.

These points are relatively minor, and do not of course make the translation overly problematic or unreadable. They do, however, remind of the difficulty and challenge posed by a text like the Symposium. Although I view this volume--and especially its notes and glossaries--as a useful addition and aid for students and scholars, I'm afraid that I can do so only in spite of the translation.


1.  Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Hackett, 1989); R. E. Allen (Yale, 1991); Avi Sharon (Focus, 1997); Christopher Rowe (Aris and Phillips, 1998); Robin Waterfield (Oxford, 1998); Seth Bernardete (Chicago, 2001); Christopher Gill (Penguin, 2003).
2.  Oxford, 2006.
3.  "Virtue in Plato's Symposium," in The Classical Quarterly (2004) 54.2, 366-378.
4.  The Fragility of Goodness, Updated Edition (Cambridge, 2001). pp. 165-199.

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