Friday, February 25, 2011


James A. Arieti, Roger M. Barrus (ed.), Plato's Protagoras: Translation, Commentary, and Appendices. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Pp. x, 144. ISBN 9781442201330. $70.00.

Reviewed by Thomas Miller, Princeton University (

Version at BMCR home site

Plato's Protagoras is both a literary gem and a work of considerable importance for students of philosophy and intellectual history. This new edition by James Arieti and Roger Barrus offers an introduction (31 pages), a full translation of the dialogue, a glossary of key terms, a brief bibliography, and an index, which includes, under the names of ancient authors, all passages cited in the introduction and notes. There are also four appendices: a diagram showing a possible reconstruction of the layout of the house of Callias, where the dialogue is set; an essay discussing techniques of translation; a full text and discussion of the Simonides fragment analyzed by Socrates; and a list of some deceptive argumentative tactics drawn from Aristotle's Sophistical Refutations.

In the introduction, Arieti and Barrus argue that the Protagoras is essentially a prose comedy in the style of Aristophanes (8-13). The dramatic and comic elements in the dialogue are obviously very important, and Plato certainly makes frequent use of specific Aristophanic ideas and motifs. But not all readers will be convinced of the strict formal parallels that Arieti and Barrus wish to draw. For instance, Socrates' conversation with Protagoras does not seem to me to resemble a comic agon, except perhaps in an extremely general way, which would of course also apply to many other Platonic dialogues. Nor does the interruption of the conversation by the comments of Callias and others at 335c-338e remind one much of a comic parabasis, in which the chorus usually speaks directly to the audience in the voice of the poet.

The authors' interpretation of the Protagoras as primarily a comedy leads them to give little or no attention to issues that interest historians of philosophy, e.g. the question of the unity of the virtues or the denial of akrasia from hedonist premises. (Some studies of a philosophical nature are included in the bibliography but are not referenced in the introduction or notes.) Arieti and Barrus instead view the dialogue as principally "a dream-world vision of the nonsense that can and will arise when logos is used with a love not of wisdom but of victory" (31). It is thus an example of "applied philosophy" provided through the medium of "comic entertainment," perhaps "written to be diversion from the rigors of study at the Academy" (Ibid.). To my mind, this gives at best an incomplete picture of why the Protagoras is worth reading. While many scholars take too narrow a view as to what is of properly "philosophical" interest in Plato, Arieti and Barrus go too far in the other direction by neglecting the dialogue's playful exploration of key theses in Socratic ethics.

The introduction also treats the intellectual background of the work and provides biographical information about its cast of characters. The authors make some sweeping and insufficiently supported claims about intellectual history – for instance, that victory in the Persian Wars was "the aphrodisiac that made the Greek world fall in love, so to speak, with the possibilities of reason and inspired an enthusiastic self-conscious application of logic to numerous areas of human life, with the goal of practical, worldly success" (2). There are also pompous moments: "People who like their philosophy spoon-fed are better off not reading the dialogues of Plato" (6).

On to the dialogue itself. Arieti and Barrus claim to offer an extremely faithful translation, holding "the text itself as sacrosanct" (ix). Let me say here that I am personally very sympathetic to the practice of translating Plato literally. A good translation (I believe) uses consistent, literal renderings not only for overtly philosophical terms, but also for any words that might be part of a literary motif, even retaining oaths and formulae of assent when they can give a clue to a character's tone. But it would be silly to deny that this method involves compromises and interpretative decisions, and these decisions can be made more or less successfully. I found those of Arieti and Barrus to be, on the whole, unsuccessful.

Consider, for instance, the crucial moment at 319a, where Socrates says that Protagoras seems to be claiming to teach a πολιτικὴ τέχνη. C. C. W. Taylor (in the Oxford World Classics edition) renders this phrase as "the art of running a city," while Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell (in the Hackett Complete Works) give us "the art of citizenship." What Socrates means is an open and important question, and if two such different interpretations are possible (how to govern citizens vs. how to be a citizen) a more literal rendering is in order. Arieti and Barrus accordingly offer "the technical skill of polis-craft," explaining in a footnote that to use the words "politics" or "state" would amount to "minimizing the difference between the ancients and ourselves" (52). Instead of a strange neologism, I would have preferred a straight-forward rendering ("the political art") with a footnote that actually canvassed different possibilities of what this could mean, perhaps drawing a contrast with the modern idea of "political science" or giving references to Plato's other uses of the phrase (e.g. Gorgias 521d).

Probably the most unorthodox translation choice is to render σοφιστής as "reasoner," mainly in order to avoid the negative connotations of the English word "sophist," for which Arieti and Barrus claim Plato is himself largely responsible (134). This justification seems to me to attach too little weight to pre-Platonic critiques of sophistry; the early speech Against the Sophists by Isocrates, for instance, is not mentioned in the introduction or notes. Moreover, given that Arieti and Barrus themselves interpret the dialogue as an all-out Platonic satire of various famous sophists, their insistence on not prejudicing the reader's judgment through the use of the standard term seems somewhat odd.

Also problematic is their choice of "to reduce" to translate the key verb ἡττάομαι in the argument against akrasia (352a-357e). Their footnote (97n212) seemed to me to give the impression that the verb is a Platonic coinage, rather than a common word for being defeated or proved inferior. Some other questionable translation choices that I noticed: "mortal genera" for θνητὰ γένη in the myth of Protagoras (320c8); "Mytilenian voice" instead of "Mytilenian dialect" for τῇ φωνῇ τῇ Μυτιληναίων (346d8-e1); "arithmetic" for λογισμούς (318e2) vs. "number theory" for ἀριθμητική (357a3); and "slipping some under their weapons" for ὑποδῶν τὰ μὲν ὁπλαῖς (321b1) rather than "shoeing some with hoofs." (The last example in particular does not inspire confidence, since the translators appear to have taken the participle as a form of ὑποδύω rather than ὑποδέω and the noun as dative plural of ὅπλον rather than ὁπλή.) Frustratingly, Arieti and Barrus do not indicate anywhere which Greek text they followed, and the standard OCT of Burnet is not listed among editions of the dialogue in the bibliography.

The most significant problem with the translation, however, concerns its readability. The translators often maintain Greek word order and sentence structure, and religiously place brackets around all English words that do not correspond directly to a Greek one. The following is a representative sample of the result (311d-e):

"Well," I said, "when once we've arrived at Protagoras' side, shall we, you and I, be ready to give him [our] money in your behalf, if our money is sufficient and we persuade him by this [money] – but if it isn't [sufficient], shall we spend, in addition, the [money] of our friends? And so if someone should ask us while we are thus wildly enthusiastic about this, 'Tell me, Socrates and Hippocrates, you have in mind to pay money to Protagoras – as being whom?' – what would we answer him? What other name do we hear said of Protagoras, in fact, as, for example, we hear about Pheidias [that he is called an] image-maker and about Homer [that he is called] a poet? What do we hear in the same way about Protagoras?"

Arieti and Barrus certainly recognize that the dialogue is a work of great literary charm, but I do not think that students reading Plato for the first time with their translation will be inclined to share this view. The appendix "On Translating" is more a rhapsodic meditation on the difficulties of rendering Plato into English than a real defense of the method employed.

The translation is divided into forty numbered sections, as in the 1893 commentary of Adam and Adam; Stephanus numbers are present, but unfortunately buried in the text on the page rather than in the margins. Footnotes are copious, especially in the first half of the dialogue, though of uneven quality. Most helpful, to my mind, are the frequent references to parallel discussions in other Platonic dialogues or the Aristotelian corpus. On the other hand, the five footnotes on the opening exchange (309a-b) fail to clarify the essential (but perhaps not obvious) point: Socrates' companion is criticizing him for continuing to court Alcibiades past the appropriate age. At 320c, there is no footnote at all to signal or elucidate the contrast between μῦθος and λόγος. When Socrates remarks on the pride Spartan women take in their education at 342d, Arieti and Barrus comment: "Plato is fond of jokes about educating women. For him the notion that a woman could be educated was about as sincere as the notion that a dog is philosophical (a notion Plato has Socrates assert at Republic 376b)." This seemed to me like a rather debatable claim to make in a footnote without further defense.

There are, I think, many defensible approaches to translating and presenting a Platonic dialogue, and different editions can serve different audiences. Still, despite some thoughtful aspects of this volume's design, it is hard to imagine any group that would be well served by it. Putting aside all concerns about accuracy and eccentricities of interpretation, beginners will want a more fluid and readable text, while intermediate students will appreciate greater engagement with scholarly literature. Specialists who need to pay meticulous attention to Plato's language will be able to consult the original Greek with greater profit and enjoyment.

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