Roosevelt Montás, now a lecturer at Columbia University, has described how, as a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic in the 1980s, he found some volumes of Shakespeare and Plato thrown away beside the street in New York.
In my case, the great treasure I found was a set of books that my neighbours had thrown away. I was a sophomore in high school. My English wasn’t really up to speed, but I managed to pick up two volumes from a gorgeous series called the Harvard Universal Classics. I picked up a volume containing a few of Plato’s dialogues and a volume containing some of Shakespeare’s plays. This was a fortuitous and transformative find for me.
Here at The Walled Garden we readily sympathise with the excitement of a student who discovers Shakespeare and Plato for the first time.
I was brought up with Shakespeare, but I was an undergraduate studying classical Greek when I first read Plato. It wasn’t, I’m afraid, a great experience. It was one of the middle books of Republic, and there was no level on which I ‘got’ it. Why ‘justice’? What on earth was Socrates doing? He was so annoying! (Somewhat like Falstaff, another annoying person in literature whom people seemed to love.) Plato left me completely cold.
Fast-forward over a decade, jobs, marriage, unwell parents, two children at school…and I had the opportunity to undertake some research on the history of virtue. After Homer and the poets, Plato was the key source. I started reading the Jowett translation. And suddenly Plato was a revelation.
Of all the great writers, there is none who was a master in so many aspects of literature. The dialogue form, of course, is the main vehicle for the ideas, of cosmology, language, politics, laws, and ethics. But in addition, Plato creates myths; he preserves verses; he forms narratives; his characters are sketched unforgettably; he makes us feel as if we are there on the streets and houses of Athens. Oh, and he’s funny: Aristophanes’ myth in Symposium, in which Plato pretends to be the great comic playwright, parodying a Platonic myth, is a delight.
Plato’s successors in antiquity, recognizing his importance, nearly all claimed (with varying levels of plausibility) to be his heirs. Had there been no Plato’s Academy there would have been no Aristotle’s Lyceum, Epicurus’s garden, or Zeno’s Stoa. These were the schools that spread throughout the known world, from Asia to Africa and Rome itself, and eventually to Christian Europe.
St Augustine, whose works appeared in every monastery library, retained much that was Platonist in his Christian worldview. One of the most circulated books in the early Middle Ages (apart from the Bible) was Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, a 6th-century CE Platonist work. These indirect channels through which Plato trickled through Christian culture became all the more important because direct knowledge of his works was limited. When St Thomas Aquinas, in the mid-thirteenth century, came to write his works which aligned Christian thinking with the ideas of Aristotle, he had direct access to few of Plato’s writings.
Western Europe only gained this access two hundred years later, once texts were brought from Constantinople after its seizure by the Ottomans in the mid-fifteenth century. Translations into Latin followed, and – along with the rediscovered books of Cicero (himself greatly influenced by Platonism) – Plato once more proved a revelation. There would have been no Renaissance without them. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, among other things, owed much both to the creative mining of Plato and the Hellenistic writers. So Plato had a double, triple or greater influence on his readers, through the Aristotelian, Stoic, or Christian forms in which he travelled, ‘incognito’ as the great historian Peter Gay put it, through the works of his successors. In sum, we cannot grasp the history of the West without trying to understand what was so profound and so various in Plato’s works.
That, at nineteen I seemed to gain nothing from Republic, is not a problem. One insight I learned from a much older friend is that when one reads a great book and doesn’t ‘get’ it, it is still absorbed at another level. And when one returns to it later, it will have already enacted something transformative within us, such that now we can see its greatness as if for the first time (spectator novus, ‘as a new viewer,’ in the Stoic Seneca’s phrase, Letter 64.6).
Which translation to read?
As the story by Roosevelt Montás indicates, the best translation of Plato is the one you can beg, borrow, find, or buy – whichever one you have ready to hand! Any is better than none. Benjamin Jowett’s (available free online via the Gutenberg editions), having appeared in the 1870s, is obviously outdated, but it’s generally accurate. If you have access to a recent version, such as in the Penguin Classics, or the John M. Cooper-edited complete works, lucky you.
What Comes Next
In The Walled Garden, through writings and events, we will be looking at some of the key themes raised in Plato and the other ancient philosophers: morality, the gods, and nature. What did the ancient writers understand by these concepts? How do we understand them today? How can we use these understandings to improve our lives? We will laugh as we learn, in a community with friends both living and dead, as we explore the ideas, language, characters, and imagery presented in classic works of literature and philosophy.