Thursday, July 9, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
C.D.C. Reeve (trans.), Plato: Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005. Pp. 392. ISBN 0872207366. $10.95.
Reviewed by David C. Noe, Calvin College

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes to the author for this review's extreme delay.]

In 1992 Reeve recast G.M.A. Grube's well-known translation of the Republic for Hackett. The reception that work received apparently encouraged Reeve to embark on his own version, for as he says in the work's introduction the "...desire to have a translation of my own proved too strong" [viii]. The result is the present volume, from the same publisher, which he hopes "improves on existing translations" [ibid.]

In a brief paragraph in the preface, Reeve explains succinctly his method as follows: "Every translation, even the most self-consciously and flat-footedly slavish, is somewhat interpretative. There is no avoiding that. But I have tried to make this one as uninterpretative [sic] and close to the original as possible." [ibid.] He proceeds to list the one "conscious deviation" from this method, namely recasting oblique speech as direct, and cites Eucleides from the Theatetus as support. Reeve says that "Decades of teaching the Republic have persuaded me that the minimal loss in literalness involved in adopting Eucleides' stratagem is more than made up for in readability and intelligibility" [ibid.] BMCR readers may be more inclined to fault Reeve for striving for literalness than for accommodating his diction to English ears. Although this is not the venue for an extended discussion of theories of translation, and the reader can judge Reeve's success for himself later from the adduced passages, nevertheless we find in Waterfield, Grube, and Shorey (arguably Reeve's chief competitors) somewhat different approaches.1.

Reeve devotes eighteen pages (ix-xxvii) to a helpful introduction, in which he ably explains various aspects of the dialogue. Sections include: brief biographical portions on Plato and Socrates; a thesis statement and outline of the Republic; discussion of the theory of the forms, The Forms and the Good, Specialization and the Structure of Kallipolis, The Lies of the Rulers, Private Life and Private Property, and Freedom and Autonomy. A good example of Reeve's even-handed approach, and also his care not to corrupt student's perceptions before they have encountered the text directly, is found in this final section, where he writes: "A person's needs, wants, and interests are determined by the natural genetic lottery, by education and upbringing, and by actual circumstances. They also depend on his beliefs, which in turn depend to some extent on the same factors as do his needs, wants, and interests themselves" (xxv). At the conclusion of the same section, Reeve provides a nice summary evaluation of what he believes to be the dialogue's merits: "...even if we retain our liberal suspicion about the possibility of a science of values, we might still, by coming to see merit in the idea of deliberative freedom, also come to see the Republic, not as predominantly a totalitarian hymn to the benefits of repression and unfreedom, but as an attempt to design a city whose members enjoy as much real happiness, and as much real freedom, as possible"(xxvii).

A very select (two-page) bibliography follows, as well as competent, one-paragraph synopses of each book of the dialogue. Finally, there is a brief note to the reader explaining that Stephanus page numberings are taken from Burnet, while S.R. Slings' text was employed as a basis for the translation.

The footnotes provided to the text of the translation itself are modest but still valuable. Readers can form some sense of their frequency by noting that they range from a total of 29 in book I to 68 in book III. Many simply send the reader to the glossary (e.g. pp. 3, 5, 6, 7, 11, 13, etc.) Some provide helpful references to passages outside the text (e.g. note 12 to Odyssey 19 on p. 9) or are intra-textual (e.g. note 19, p. 19). Still others provide helpful clarification.2 A very few of these notes are argumentative in nature,3 and some are extensive and erudite.4 Following the text there is a short Glossary of Terms, with most English terms paired with Greek originals in parentheses.5 The volume concludes with a combined Glossary and Index of Names, and a very thorough and useful General Index.

On the whole the auxiliary elements are more complete than what one finds in Waterfield or Grube, but very similar in scope and quality to Bloom's Basic Books edition.

In order to give the reader some sense of the quality of Reeve's work two representative passages are selected for comparison. The first is a typically stichomythic portion from Book 6.

Reeve (201) construes the conversation between Socrates and Adeimantus on the guardian's interaction with the constitution as follows:

S: But won't our constitution be perfectly ordered if such a guardian, one who knows these things, oversees it?

A: It is bound to be. But you yourself, Socrates, do you say the good is knowledge of pleasure, or is it something else altogether?

S: What a man! You made it good and clear long ago that other people's opinions about these matters would not satisfy you.

A: Well, Socrates, it does not seem right to me for you to be willing to state other people's convictions but not your own, when you have spent so much time occupied with these matters.

S: What ? Do you think it is right to speak about things you do not know as if you do know them?

In contrast, Waterfield (232) gives:

'So the constitution and organization of our community will be perfect only if they are overseen by the kind of guardian who has this knowledge, won't they?'

'Necessarily,' he said. 'But Socrates, do you identify goodness with knowledge or pleasure, or with something else?'

'Just listen to him!' I exclaimed. 'It's been perfectly obvious all along that other people's views on the matter weren't going to be enough for you.'

'That's because I don't think it's right, Socrates,' he said, ' for someone who's devoted so much time to the matter to be in a position to state others' beliefs, but not his own.'

'But you do think it's right,' I responded, 'for someone to talk as if he knew what he doesn't know?'

Finally, the unrevised Grube (160-161) has:

Our constitution then will be perfectly ordered when such a man looks after it -- that is, a man who has this knowledge.

Necessarily, he said, but you also, Socrates, must tell us whether you consider the good to be knowledge, or pleasure, or something else.

What a man! I said. It has been clear for some time that the opinion of others on this subject would not satisfy you.

Well, Socrates, he said, it does not seem right to me to be able to tell the opinions of others and not one's own, especially for a man who has spent so much time as you have occupying himself with this subject.

Why? said I. Do you think it right to talk about things one does not know as if one knew them?

The similarities between Reeve and Grube are unmistakable nor unexpected, as Reeve's revision of Grube must have contributed broadly to his own sense of the translation. It is hoped the three provide the reader with an opportunity to compare the virtues of idiomacy versus literalness. Of them only Reeve has cast the exchange in direct speech, and no doubt it will be a matter of taste whether Waterfield's more conversational style suits.

A second sample for comparison is drawn from one of Plato's poetic flights of fancy, the Myth of Er in Book 10. In a description of the souls' journeys Reeve (320) offers:

Through one of the openings in the heavens and one in the earth, he saw souls departing after judgment had been passed on them. Through the other two, they were arriving. From the one in the earth they came up parched and dusty, while from the one in the heavens they came down pure. And the ones that had just arrived seemed to have come from a long journey, and went off gladly to the meadow, like a crowd going to a festival, and set up camp there.

Waterfield (372) provides:

'From where he was, he could see souls leaving, once they'd been judged, by one or the other of the two openings in the sky and in the earth, and he noticed how the other two openings were used too: one was for certain souls, caked in grime and dust, to arise out of the earth, while the other was for other, clean souls to come down out of the sky. They arrived periodically, and he gained the impression that it had taken a long journey for them to get there; they were grateful to turn aside into the meadow and find a place to settle down. The scene resembled a festival.'

Grube, again the closest to Reeve, has (257):

He said he saw souls leaving by either opening into the heavens and into the earth after their judgment. As for the other two openings, from one souls emerged from the earth covered with dust and dirt, by the other souls came down from heaven clean. And all the time those who arrived appeared to have been on a long journey; they gladly went and camped in the meadow, like a festival crowd.

I suggest, uncontroversially, that the translator has more scope for style and expression in these narrative portions than in the choppy elenchus. In my estimation both Reeve and Grube provide lucid and direct renditions that would serve well as a trot for the beginning student or in a course on ancient philosophy. Waterfield, at least in this passage, clearly makes a more successful attempt at readability by breaking up longer clauses and offering more variety in Plato's strict parallelism.

In conclusion, I believe Reeve's translation is highly commendable for its student helps, simple accuracy, and affordability. It hews more closely to Bloom (also in print) in its approach to translation, and gives off the typical Hackett air of accessibility and ease of use.


1.   I have selected these three, from Oxford World's Classics, Loeb, and Hackett respectively, as they are nearly ubiquitous. This selection is not intended as criticism of the renderings of Cornford, Ferrari, or Lee (all still in print as well) as each has its merits.
2.   "Euetheia, kakoetheia: Thrasymachus uses euetheia in the bad sense, to mean stupidity. Socrates takes him to mean it in the good sense of being straightforward, and so contrasts it with kakoetheia -- deviousness. See 400e1" p. 26.
3.   E.g. notes 13 (p. 45) and 24 (p. 57).
4.   The best examples are note 10 p. 241, and note 24 on p. 291.
5.   Here are two representative examples: "being (ousia) Abstract noun derived from einai (to be). The being of (e.g.,) justice is what justice really is" (p. 327); also "physical training (gymnastike) Includes dance and training in warfare, as well as what we call physical training. Effects characterized at 401d5-402d9, 410b10-412b1, 522a3-b1" (p. 328).

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