Friday, September 9, 2016


Todd W. Reeser, Setting Plato Straight: Translating Ancient Sexuality in the Renaissance. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. xi, 390. ISBN 9780226307008. $45.00.

Reviewed by Thomas Miller, Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site


Were Plato alive to peruse the "strictly platonic" section of the Personals area of the website craigslist, Todd Reeser suggests, the (flattered? baffled?) philosopher might assume that its denizens were seeking a "not necessarily asexual" relationship between "a man and a boy of fixed age" based on the former's appreciation of the latter's physical beauty (viii). How, then, did Plato's name come to be associated with a type of relationship that is firmly non-sexual, often between men and women (not just between males), and with no implications for relative age? In Setting Plato Straight, Reeser shows that part of the answer to this question lies in the reception of Plato's erotic dialogues in continental Europe in the Renaissance, the period in which the term amor platonicus was coined by Marsilio Ficino.

The dialogues involved were mainly the Phaedrus and Symposium (to judge by Reeser's work, the Lysis played a subordinate role, the Charmides none). As these texts arrived in Western Europe and began to be copied, translated (into Latin, Italian, and French, in the period Reeser studies), and printed, Plato's humanist interpreters had to respond to growing anxiety (which they themselves often shared) that these texts could encourage homosexual activity. Reeser does not want merely to document the transformations that occurred (and indeed, a reader interested primarily in a factual survey will want a different book, e.g. Plato in the Italian Renaissance by James Hankins, to which Reeser acknowledges his debt), but rather to make a theoretical point about "the relation between hermeneutics and Platonic sexuality" (6). As far as I could tell, this point was that dealing with sex in Plato's dialogues forced Renaissance readers to think through and articulate what it meant to them to understand an ancient text. Reeser also aims to explore "what key sociocultural factors influence how Plato gets reread" (8). Cultural and religious attitudes towards male-male sexuality are of course pervasive influences, but ones that Renaissance authors seldom engage with directly. Reeser therefore pays attention to other Renaissance cultural discourses, notably those related to nationality or geography, the status of women, and medicine (education and pedagogy, he notes, are surprisingly absent).

After the introduction, there are ten chapters, which proceed chronologically. In the first, Reeser begins by nicely laying out the ambiguities surrounding the sexuality of both Socrates and Plato himself in ancient sources. He then explains the principles of Renaissance translation, which crucially involve a rejection of the medieval penchant for word-for-word accuracy (translating ad verbum) in favor of translating the sense (ad sententiam). The latter ideal already involved a tension between, on the one hand, entering into the mind of an author, like a method-actor, on the basis of long reading and study, and creating, on the other, a text that was meaningful and accessible for contemporary readers. Now make the topic of the text to be translated pederasty: "What," Reeser asks, "was a faithful yet sexually anxious translator of Plato to do?" (29). The two biggest "textual hotspots," i.e. the passages in Plato that might be taken as most strongly endorsing same-sex activity, are the speeches of Aristophanes and Alcibiades in the Symposium. Renaissance scholars tended to deal with these passages through the omission of words or entire passages (sometimes silently, sometimes not), vague translations, paratextual commentary offering either condemnation or allegorical interpretation, or by claiming that they are not seriously meant. (As far as I could tell, one obvious interpretive move for modern readers—namely, to claim that the characters Aristophanes and Alcibiades do not speak for either Socrates or Plato, but are in fact obliquely criticized—was not common.)

The second chapter deals with Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), the first to translate any of Plato's erotic works into Latin (a partial translation of the Phaedrus, and the Alcibiades speech). One of Reeser's goals is to show the importance of Bruni for the history of Renaissance Platonism, overshadowed though he tends to be for us by his fellow Florentine Ficino (1433-1499). Bruni's fascinating treatise on translation, De interpretatione recta, which sketches the virtues required by an ideal translator, is extremely useful for showing a special connection between hermeneutics and sexuality. The third and fourth chapters turn to Ficino, in particular to his translation of and commentary on the Symposium, in which he rehabilitates Platonic love as an ideal by making it chaste, if still between men. Reeser's main contribution is to use the concept of "purgation"—important both in Ficino's medical theories and in his philosophical ideas about the ascent from corporeality to God—as a lens for understanding how he rids Plato's texts and thought of references to (corporeal) sex. Reeser's case for "textual purgation" is very interesting, although limited by the fact that Ficino never explicitly extends the medical/theological metaphor to his textual work. To jump ahead, the seventh chapter treats the only Renaissance translation of Plato's Symposium from Germany: the Latin version by Janus Cornarius, published in 1546 alongside an essay comparing contemporary German customs with those of ancient Greece. Reeser situates the work alongside Reformation-era appropriations of the Germania of Tacitus that stressed the moral purity of the Germani and their immunity to Roman vices. Cornarius, Reeser persuasively argues, wants to present Germans (in contrast to decadent Italians like Ficino) as safe from ancient Greek vices (viz. homosexuality) as well. Paradoxically, this confidence in his countrymen allows Cornarius to offer the least bowdlerized translation of Plato among those that Reeser considers.

The remaining chapters are not primarily concerned with translations or commentaries. The fifth shifts to France to discuss Symphorien Champier's reception of Ficino in his proto-feminist text The Ship of Virtuous Ladies (1503). Reeser sees Champier as an "important hinge figure" who allows Platonic love to be a chaste relationship between men and women as well as between men. The sixth concerns the reception of the figure of Socrates, in particular tropes from the speech of Alcibiades, in Erasmus and Rabelais. The eighth juxtaposes translations produced in France under François I with the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre; here male-male love is heterosexualized, sometimes for proto-feminist ends. The ninth chapter, to me one of the best in the book, turns to the topic of Platonic eros between women in the Renaissance, beginning with a survey of evasive Renaissance renderings of ἑταιρίστρια, Plato's mysterious hapax legomenon in the Symposium, and ending with an exploration of why the male poets of the Pléiade wrote poems in the voice of a woman in love with an absent woman. (The interesting treatment of Sappho and her alignment with Socrates in this chapter showed the difficulty of keeping a study of the reception of Platonic sexuality from becoming a study of the reception of ancient Greek sexuality more generally.) The hero of the tenth chapter (and, in some ways, of the entire book) is Montaigne. Rather than beginning from, say, the role of Plato in "De l'amitié," Reeser focuses on showing the Pyrrhonist background to a remark in the "Apologie de Raymond Sebond" where Montaigne criticizes the way in which Renaissance readers (like Ficino, whose translation he read) force arbitrary interpretations on Plato and "faict desadvoüer à son sens les mœurs licites en son siecle, d'autant qu'elles sont illicites au nostre."

This may reflect my bias as a Classicist, but these chapters concerned with literary works at a further remove from Plato did sometimes seem only loosely integrated into the book's project. The Heptameron, for instance, is clearly fascinating evidence for the process of "inventing heterosexuality," but in the absence of explicit references to Plato and Platonism I was less clear on how it belonged within this particular story. It might have been interesting and relevant instead to hear more about, say, the debate on Platonic sexuality between George of Trebizond and Cardinal Bessarion, to which Reeser merely alludes (87). Another reservation that may be due merely to a different disciplinary perspective has to do with the book's treatment of the Platonist tradition in late antiquity (arguably the site of an earlier attempt to "rewrite" Platonic sexuality). It would be sadistic to demand that a scholar already undertaking such an ambitious interdisciplinary project also be familiar with the vast wilderness of late antique Platonist texts, but the three-and-a-half pages Reeser devotes to Ficino and Plotinus seemed inadequate. Elsewhere he sometimes seemed to write without a real awareness of the earlier tradition, e.g. quoting Ficino and Louis Le Roy calling Plato a Greek-speaking Moses without noting that both are repeating a remark by Numenius (37; 340 n. 11). Absent in the treatment of Ficino on purgation were references to the Greek term κάθαρσις, to the Phaedo (φρόνησις is a καθαρμός, says Socrates at 69c), or to the purgative virtues in Plotinus. More generally, what Reeser sees as unresolved tensions in e.g. Ficino's attitude to corporeality are to my mind really inherent in the entire tradition going back to Plato himself (and are in fact much of what makes Platonism interesting in the first place as an attempt to understand the human condition).

Much of Reeser's study involves scrutinizing the fidelity of Renaissance translations. His linguistic criticisms often hit the mark —but not always. Consider a case that he treats in his opening pages and often refers back to as paradigmatic (1-4). At issue is Bruni's translation of a remark by Socrates in the Phaedrus, when he thinks Phaedrus has the speech of Lysias under his cloak: τοπάζω γάρ σε ἔχειν τὸν λόγον αὐτόν (228d). Admitting the difficulty of finding an equivalent for λόγος, Reeser sees Bruni's rendering of the last three words with librum ipsum rather than with a form of sermo as significant: the "mobile" λόγος is replaced by a "fixed, codified" text (a significant shift in light of the critique of writing later in the dialogue) and an innuendo disappears, with the removal of "the implied parallel between scroll and male member." But a fixed, written text is present under the cloak regardless, even if here it is referred to as a λόγος (Plato calls it τὸ βιβλίον at 228b), and the innuendo is not necessarily lost in translation (a Classical liber was, after all, a scroll). Even if Bruni was imagining a non-phallic codex, translating logos with sermo instead would not, unless I am missing something, produce a "penile double entendre."

All Greek is transliterated. Texts are always quoted in English; Greek, Latin, and French originals are judiciously provided in whole or in part. The general index includes important Greek and Latin terms, but there is no index locorum. Irritatingly, Reeser does not use Stephanus numbers to cite Plato—also ironically, given that they are tangible reminders of the enduring importance of his Renaissance reception. The use of endnotes and the lack of a bibliography also made it somewhat difficult to follow his engagement with other scholars.

In sum, this book exemplifies the enormous promise of studies of Classical reception as well as a few possible pitfalls. In his concluding remarks, Reeser seems to see himself as having presented a revisionist historical narrative: a "cursory understanding of the reception of Platonic eros" involving a "homoerotic-homosocial-heterosexual trajectory" would not be wrong, per se (he says), but "does cover up numerous complications" and should not be viewed as "the natural or teleological order of things" (307). But this seems like fighting a straw man. To me, the value of this book lies more in the journey than in any such destination. Given this, the journey for Classicists could sometimes have been made smoother with more patient introduction of background information about unfamiliar Renaissance texts. If any larger conclusion does emerge, it sometimes risks being the rather depressing one that Renaissance humanists were deeply steeped in the anxieties and the prejudices of their time. I found Setting Plato Straight most stimulating at the moments when Reeser moves away from writing "the history of homophobia" (10) and considers Renaissance readers more sympathetically, as trying to make the Classics speak to their contemporaries or even discovering in them new, counter-cultural possibilities. These are after all the tasks, one hopes, that the philologists of the future will see us today as engaged in.

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