on 13 May 2016
Publishers have tended to give attention to the longer and more well known dialogues, such as the Republic, the Phaedrus etc., than some of the shorter ones. Hackett, using Grube’s translations published a ‘Five Dialogues’ (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo), or dialogues have been paired – although the rationale for the pairing has not always been obvious. One problem for the reader with this approach who wants to read a particular dialogue, is a duplication of translations. I now, for example, have four different translations of the Meno, and if I want to look up anything the tendency is to refer to a particular translation. So what could be different in different translations? Two factors present themselves: the first is that a later translation can take on board more recent criticism of the particular text; while the second is the choice of idiom, which will influence both accessibility and readability.
The other three dialogues here are Charmides, Laches, and Lysis, and because I have found Robin Waterfield to provide clear and accessible translations – the Republic, and the Phaedrus in the same OUP series, rather than hunt around, I chose this edition. The cover blurb states ‘In these four dialogues Plato considers virtue and its definition. Charmides, Laches, and Lysis investigate the specific virtues of self control, courage, and friendship; the later Meno discusses the concept of virtue as a whole, and whether it is something that can be taught.’ Near the end of the Republic, Socrates says that ‘Virtue has no master’, although the individual virtues, it could be argued, can be taught. In the excellent introduction Waterfield says, with reference to the original Greek word, arête, that he prefers to translate it as ‘excellence’, rather than as virtue. While most translators, admitting that arête cannot be simply translated into English, translate it as virtue – as does the cover blurb, because the word virtue has established connotations, for example in the Cardinal virtues (i.e. the Platonic ones of Courage, Justice, Temperance, Truthfulness). Most people if asked to say what the main idea in the Meno is, would say, ‘Learning is recollection’ – which in context, does not refer to virtues. In the Phaedo, the that assertion that ‘learning is recollection’ is questioned, suggesting that it is the result of skillful questioning. The problem with it is that Socrates uses it to ‘prove’ reincarnation, and reincarnation ‘proves’ that the soul is immortal.
That said, the tone of the three dialogues, is a change, because Socrates is among friends, and the discussions have a narrower focus, so there is a lightness and freedom from the combative streak of Socrates’s we find in Alciabiades I and Gorgias. This is a welcome addition to a corpus of good translations, and as usual with Waterfield, the notes, name glossary, and bibliography, are excellent. Nice one Oxford.