Benjamin Jowett's Plato

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Benjamin Jowett's Plato

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Aug. 9, 2013, 7:58pm

I've read some old Heritage Press editions of Plato that feature Benjamin Jowett's translations. The introductions to those volumes lavish enormous praise on the great Jowett as being the gold standard of Plato translations.

Last night, I was reading Peter Sutcliffe's book The Oxford University Press: An Informal History (1978), when I came across these passages:

"Jowett's conversation showed that you may be the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford without knowing the most elementary conditions of the formation of the Greek text." -- Mark Pattison on Jowett during a meeting of Oxford delegates in 1863

"In printing Greek texts, Jowett was only interested in cheapness, availability of profit. 'How he hated learning!' as York Powell, a Delegate used to say."

Is Jowett considered a hack by Plato scholars today? If so, how did he achieve such a great reputation? Was it because nothing else was readily available at the time?

Bearbeitet: Aug. 10, 2013, 2:04am

I really don't know. But I do know that Jowett's appointment, and the raising of his salary from £ 40 per year* to a more reasonable sum, caused great controversy at the Oxford of his time (and that it was mostly political). So those remarks do at least need to be seen in that light as well.

* The figure had been set in the 16th century.

Bearbeitet: Aug. 10, 2013, 2:12am

The only thing I know about Jowett is that his were the standard English translations of Plato for about a century and are still frequently used. They are reliable translations for the general reader and are written in graceful Victorian English. I suspect the criticisms may have been of his skills at textual criticism, disputing the accuracy of the texts he based his translations on. IMO the text of Plato was well enough established by Jowett's time to make these criticisms meaningful to academics only, with few exceptions. There are, however, many excellent translations of most dialogues into more up-to-date English. Heritage always used translations that were considered classics in their own right, and Jowett's Plato certainly meets that criterion.

Bearbeitet: Aug. 10, 2013, 8:21am

We only use Jowett's Plato translations anymore because they're in the public domain and we can copy them without charging our students or making them buy a whole book just for one dialogue.

(I do think rather better of his Aristotle, esp. the Politics, but it still ain't the gold standard anymore.)

But when we want accurate translations, we turn to much more modern editions.

Aug. 10, 2013, 8:36am

> 2
Greek was the last of Henry's four professorships to get a raise.

> 1
It goes without saying that the translations are dated. And he made choices between fidelity and readability that aren't considered the best compromise any more. And, in particular, he smoothed over the same-sex relationships in a way that no one feels the need to any more.

Jowett revised the role of classical education at Balliol College in particular and Oxford in general, making it a cornerstone of the system that produced leaders for the Empire. Naturally, we're pretty ambivalent about that now. What Stoppard has A. E. Housman say, “supplying the governing classes with Balliol men who had read some Plato,” isn't far off.

Jowett's translations made Plato accessible to the newly literate middle class, so that they could read him “with feet on the fender,” which Macaulay reserved for scholars.

Bearbeitet: Aug. 13, 2013, 10:16pm

I met C. A. Tripp Ph. D. at a symposium in Scottsdale, Arizona on 18 November 1975, when at my request he signed his new book for me (The Homosexual Matrix). On page 231 of that book Dr. Tripp refers to Jowett's translations of Plato, saying: "Of the numerous translations of Plato into English, ALL (my emphasis) have been censored of much if not most of their homosexual content. And since the Greeks wove personal and sexual relations into the very fabric of government, these expurgations have altered the political and philosophical views of Plato very considerably. His poetic and ethical works have been distorted still further. In the prestigious Jowett translation, for example, both the *Symposium* and *Lysis* have been garbled almost beyond recognition." Tripp goes on to compare three paragraphs translated by Jowett with the same three paragraphs translated at the behest of Alfred Kinsey. Each group of paragraphs is headed thusly: "The Jowett translation says:" ... and ... "Where (What?) Plato actually said:"

A week later, after having read Tripp's book, I wrote him, asking if he knew whether the Kinsey Institute planned to publish any of their many translations, particularly Plato. Below is Dr. Tripp's response:

"I can't help you with the Plato. My own copy is a volume of Jowett in which I transcribed all the changes I had time to record one day when Kinsey suggested I might want to make a few of these notes. Little did I know at the time that my notations would probably be the only ones from their massive work that would ever see the light of day. I doubt if the present staff of the Institute for Sex Research could even find their originals (buried as they are in a huge mass of untapped data) -- and I'm positive that they would not feel free to release such material if they could find it. Even the little bit that I've published has brought charges of my "hawking" homosexuality, a protest that would be much louder should any research group backed by university and government funds dare to go further. A fact of life is that the facts of life often cannot be factually reported."

I, for one, would like to know if, when "we turn to much more modern editions", we are yet getting the "facts" of life, or if it's just a lot more blather. As Tripp wrote: "In the politics of getting their volumes chosen by schools and colleges, they (publishers and timid. erudite scholars) have shown a remarkable readiness to actually distort their texts."

Aug. 13, 2013, 2:36am

"A fact of life is that the facts of life often cannot be factually reported."
Still true today :(

Bearbeitet: Aug. 13, 2013, 11:20am

> 6
Tripp gives three brief comparative translations (by Hazel Tolliver; maybe the same ones) in his chapter on Kinsey in Before Stonewall, which may be easier to find.

ETA: Previously discussed here.

Bearbeitet: Aug. 13, 2013, 9:04am

To say Jowett's Symposium and Lysis are "garbled almost beyond recognition" is overdoing it. Notice Doctor Tripp was still relying on Jowett, despite the bowdlerization. He must have been able to recognize the substance of it. If you're looking for a lot of explicit discussion of sex, you're not going to find it in Plato no matter who the translator is. Try Aristophanes. And how does Doctor Kinsey come to be an authority? Dr. Tripp may have been looking for more in Plato than is there. That would explain why he couldn't find it in ANY translation.

Aug. 13, 2013, 11:48am

Okay, Jowlett bowdlerized Plato - I get it. But I still think those (near) contemporary remarks may have more to do with politics of their times. Jowlett was up to his knees in university reforms and theological debates. He was seen - and even tried - as a heretic.

So I do think those remarks about him only being interested in profit might possibly simply be inspired by the row about his raise.

Aug. 13, 2013, 3:08pm

It seems that the OP raised two questions: (1) why this contemporary animosity around the Press and his Vice-Chancellorship and (2) are the translations considered any good now-a-days.

On the first, politics (both internal and imperial) and money certainly were in play. A former fellow even has a Pattison v. Jowett page.

Aug. 13, 2013, 4:38pm

In school I was told that the best translation for The Republic was by Allan Bloom.

Aug. 13, 2013, 4:45pm

>12 barney67:: Bloom's is great at bringing out certain literal features of the text, but it can sometimes be less than readable, shall we say. I'll use it when preparing to teach The Republic, but what I actually have the students read is the Desmond Lee translation that appears in the Penguin edition (also because it's cheap, and lessening the financial burden on my students is always an important consideration for me when I assign textbooks).

Aug. 13, 2013, 9:18pm

1 - There are good translations in Penguin Classics and in Oxford World's Classics. The Princeton University Press edition of the Complete Dialogues is full of good translations by a number of hands, including Jowett. Many people swear by the Loeb Classical Library translations of almost everything, though except for the Republic their Plato is mostly from the 1920's. For the major dialogues there are numerous translations available from Amazon and independent booksellers, used and new. Heritage Press reproduced Jowett because they always used old translations, I don't know why, maybe copyright reasons, and their business was elegant illustrated versions of old books. If you are doing a close study of philosophy or Plato in particular, you probably don't want Jowett. If you want to read some Plato for general education, Jowett will do well. If you just like Heritage Books, you're in good company. IMO.

Aug. 13, 2013, 10:31pm

Yes, MMcM, thanks for finding the previous discussion ... I was too preoccupied to search for it. Tripp actually compared five translations in his book ... final two on page 232. Here's Kinsey's translator's version of Tripp's final selection:

"Now I thought he was eager for my bloom of youth and I believed that it was a windfall and my marvelous piece of good luck that it should fall to me to sexually gratify Socrates in order to hear everything he knew." (Unpublished works of Plato, Institute for Sex Research, 1952.)

Here's Jowett's version: Now I thought he was seriously enamoured of my beauty and this appeared to be a grand opportunity of hearing him tell what he knew." (Jowett, B., translator, The works of Plato, New York: Tudor Publishing Co., undated.)

Aug. 13, 2013, 11:01pm

Aug. 14, 2013, 10:14am

"Now I thought he was eager for my bloom of youth and I believed that it was a windfall and my marvelous piece of good luck that it should fall to me to sexually gratify Socrates in order to hear everything he knew."

Wow. Is that considered an accurate translation?

Bearbeitet: Aug. 14, 2013, 10:39am

So the key phrase in question is μοι χαρισαμένῳ Σωκράτει, "for me to χαρίζομαι Socrates" (by listening to everything he knew).

So what does χαρίζομαι mean? Well, it is a verb constructed from the noun χάρις (equivalent to the Latin gratia), which basically means a favor, grace/graciousness, kindness, or pleasure. The basic meaning of the verb, then, it to do someone a favor, to show them kindness or graciousness. Or, to quote the full entry in the Middle Liddell:
I. to say or do something agreeable to a person, shew him favour or kindness, to oblige, gratify, favour, humour, Lat. gratificari, c. dat. pers., Hom., Hdt., attic:—absol. to make oneself agreeable, court favour, comply, Aesch., Dem.; c. dat. modi, μή μοι ψεύδεσσι χαρίζεο do not court favour with me by lies, Od.; τῶι αὐτῶι by the same arts, Thuc.
2. in attic to gratify or indulge a humour or passion, like Lat. indulgere, θυμῶι Soph.; γλώσσηι Eur.; etc.
3. to humour another in argument, i. e. let him have the best of it, Plat.
(N.B. because the participle in this case has taken an object in the dative {Σωκράτει}, it takes this first general meaning; the second and third entries in the Middle Liddell, which I have not copied here, are for uses with object in the accusative and with the passive, respectively.)

I'm sure that it's possible or even probable that word did, indeed, also have a sexual connotation. But in this context, that sexual connotation is nowhere to be found, especially since listening to someone is not an inherently sexual act.

It takes a particularly warped mind to assume that the obscure sexual meaning of a word should be the dominant one when more common, non-sexual meanings make more sense in context.

Or to offer an analogy: "screw" is well-known as a euphemism for having sex. Does that mean that every time you see the word "screw", you should assume its sexual meaning? When an engineering textbook describes a "good screw", do you think it's talking about sex or about a well-built mechanical devise?

(And thus, to answer GiltEdge's question: that Kinsey translation is not widely accepted as accurate. For obvious reasons, Kinsey had sex on the brain and saw sex everywhere he looked, despite the fact that it wasn't always there.)

Bearbeitet: Aug. 14, 2013, 12:10pm

It does seem that "sexually gratify" is a bit in your face, when just "gratify" would probably suffice. But, with respect, to deny that there is any sexual context is to mischaracterize Alcibiades's story. He is convinced that Socrates wants him as a lover and tries everything to make it happen: he sends the attendant away; he invites him over for late dinners. That this does not work does not change what he is talking about.

Again I will suggest that Stoppard has done a good job of capturing the importance of Jowett's translations and educational reforms in English (British) culture and English(-language) literature. He has Jowett and Ruskin agree, "Nowhere was the ideal of morality, art and social order realized more harmoniously than in Greece in the age of the great philosophers." ... "Buggery apart." And then there is a debate with Pater, featuring Pattison as a minor character.

From Pater's student Oscar Wilde we get the deliberately outrageous claim at his trial that, "The Love that dare not speak its name ... Plato made the very basis of his philosophy." And likewise how The Symposium appears in, say, Corydon or A Lover's Discourse.

Can we hope that today's students will take this all in stride, as part of the story, but not the whole story, for ancient Greek philosophy or early 20th century European literature? And, therefore, that they can actually get the gist even from Jowett's translations?

Bearbeitet: Aug. 14, 2013, 12:19pm

>19 MMcM:: "It does seem that "sexually gratify" is a bit in your face, when just "gratify" would probably suffice. But, with respect, to deny that there is any sexual context is to mischaracterize Alcibiades's story."

You are absolutely right about the sexual context of the story, and I should have acknowledged that.

And I think you hit it on the head: the verb may include that sexual context, but to translate it as "sexually gratify" artificially narrows the semantic field to exclude other areas of gratification--specifically, intellectual, I suppose--that the verb also seems to carry.

As much as we would do Plato a disservice by rendering the sexual context mute, we would do just as much damage if we overly emphasized the sexual context to the point of ignoring what is, in fact, the whole point of the Symposium: to relate the connection between various kinds of love that range from the strictly physical all the way up to the Good.

Aug. 14, 2013, 2:47pm

It does seem rather silly for Jowett to translate Plato to have Alcibiades say that since Socrates is besotted with his, Alcibiades, beauty ... that when in his presence Socrates, grateful for the company, would forget his besotted-ness and merely talk philosophy. Students of the Classics certainly can't be *that* naïve. Not anymore.

I particularly value your translating abilities, Nathaniel Campbell, but it should be noted that Kinsey didn't translate Plato. The Institute hired translators. It might be valid to say the translator may have had "sex on the brain", though of course we don't know that to be true, either. Very early in his career as a Marriage Course instructor at Indiana University, as well from his and his wife's own personal experiences following their marriage, Kinsey saw how destructive ignorance and guilt are to normal, healthy sexual relationships. Over the years he sought to shed light on every aspect of human sexuality ... and if that translates to "sex on the brain" ... more power to him. I don't know about anyone else, but I lived through some of those dark years of ignorance and guilt, and I thank Kinsey for having the guts to speak, and seek, truth.

Aug. 14, 2013, 3:19pm

>21 Rood:: That's all fine and good, but it becomes a problem when sex has to be brought in to everything as a result. Thinking that everything has to do with sex is just as destructive as being ignorant and guilty about it.

(This, of course, is more Aristotelian than Platonic, but there you go...)

Aug. 14, 2013, 9:44pm

Whatever the value of identifying sexual references in things dead people wrote, I can understand that Kinsey probably had a research interest in what Plato was talking about in the Symposium. The fact that he was working in the '50's would explain his hiring a translator, for the translations then available could not be trusted in this context. The translation that resulted was probably useful for him, but it falls into the same kind of translatorial error as Jowett's, making Plato's ambiguous word more explicit than it actually was, instead of Jowett's more or less ignoring it. I wonder what Agathon thought it meant. It was his party, so he could laugh if he wanted to.

To GiltEdge: if you are worried about missing something, read a recent annotated translation, these issues are explored in the notes.

Aug. 15, 2013, 8:06am

So, is there a modern English translation of Plato that neither ignores nor exploits the socio-sexual context of the works?

Aug. 15, 2013, 6:46pm

Perhaps Plato wrote what the readers of his time understood, implicitly, and he should be faulted for not being more explicit for the benefit of 21st Century readers. It must be similar to what many if not most people think, today, when they hear that two men or two women are having "sex". We think we know what that means, but we really don't. Today, in same-sex relationships we'll probably find more variations than exist in the purely heterosexual world. Indeed, some supposedly heterosexual men believe they are purely heterosexual, though they occasionally play the active role in same-sex relationships. As long as they don't kiss, or hug, or display any emotional give-and-take, they feel completely confident in their heterosexuality. On the other hand I have heard of some gay men who never do anything but engage in mutual masturbation.

If Alkibiades was surprised to find that Socrates merely enjoyed observing his youthful beauty as he tried to teach him to think, logically ... well, perhaps the joke is on us, too. The unanswered question is what did Alkibiades expect in the way of sexual pleasure ... was it just a peck on the cheek, mutual masturbation, Dover's intercrural (diamerion) sex, anal or oral intercourse ... ? Why didn't Plato spell it out.

Aug. 15, 2013, 8:21pm

Probably he was thinking, "I have enough on my mind, I can't be bothered with this, one of these days Rood will come along and spell it out for me."

Aug. 16, 2013, 10:17am

Perhaps because he wasn't necessarily thinking about a physical action per se, but was focused (as I said above) on the whole point of the Symposium, which is to link various stages/manifestations of love to their pinnacle in loving the Good?

Aug. 16, 2013, 4:48pm

That was my point ... Plato didn't say what he meant because he didn't have to expound. He knew his (then) readers knew what he meant when had Alkipides say that he was looking forward to sexually gratifying Socrates. Plato's concerns were elsewhere, concerns infinitely more profound. Thus, the only question is why do we, today, beat around the bush? Why is it so difficult for us to understand his meaning, to acknowledge what we seem unable to acknowledge ... that ordinary men in Classical Greece were having .... sex ... openly and unashamedly.

Aug. 17, 2013, 12:55am

It's not difficult at all, Rood. You have just demonstrated that.

Sept. 8, 2013, 2:46pm

#26: AW: Probably he was thinking, "I have enough on my mind, I can't be bothered with this, one of these days Rood will come along and spell it out for me."

Anthony, if asked I'm confident Rood would say that of the many members of the group, "Ancient History", he is the least qualified to comment on Plato or anyone else. Why he doesn't even speak Greek, and only poorly reads the language. What he does seem to have is a nature that is curious, a nature that wants to know, and that seeks the truth wherever it may be. Perhaps it stems from something that happened when he was barely past the age of five, when his parents moved their little family from a one-church town to a somewhat larger community.

Nursing a newborn child, her husband off at work hundreds of miles away, his mother sent Rood and his slightly older sister off to Sunday School that first week, telling them to walk several blocks to the main road through the town, and to then turn left and continue on until they came to the (Lutheran) church. Reaching the main road, they found the church right there, cattycorner to where they stood. Crossing the two streets, the two young children marched up the several church steps to the front doors, only to find them soundly locked. No sound emanated from the church, either, no parked vehicles lined the road, and no one approached during the few minutes they waited. Perplexed and confused, the two could only return home.

That's when they discovered their new home town had more than one church ... that the warm, comfortable, family-like atmosphere of their former home-town was not at all characteristic of the Nation or the world ... that the Christian Church itself was in some disarray, dozens of different sects holding somewhat contrasting and opposing beliefs, and that their Lutheran Church was several blocks down from that first corner, that the church whose steps they first ascended was the seat of the local Seventh-Day Adventist Congregation. From that moment on Rood learned to question authority ... and to wonder at the inability of so-called authorities to agree on the most salient aspects of life.

Today, therefore, when Rood reads something that contradicts established wisdom, he wants to learn the truth of the matter ... and he will question authority, and dig as deep as he can until truth will out. It doesn't mean that he knows, or even that he knows more. It only means that he wants to learn ... and that he trusts the superior knowledge of members of the Forum to help establish the truth. If he seems arrogant, it's only that he's impatient ... that by being provocative he may goad someone into telling the truth for once, instead of prevaricating.

Bearbeitet: Sept. 16, 2013, 2:11am

Hi. As a student I relied on Jowett's Politics (Aristotle) a lot. I was strongly aware that it was substantially different to the Penguin (T.A. Sinclair via Trevor Saunders), but I had a couple years of Greek, and I felt that I can wear one translation being different from another - personal experience tells me it doesn't have to be because of an agenda - translation can just differ. But it concerns me if you think he had a political agenda, and wasn't just choosing to miss the homosexual aspect because he was really straight and didn't like to think of it like that. I used Jowett because Oxford has a proper index :-)

But, Rood you are overdoing things a bit to say men were having sex openly and unashamedly. It was really different to the way it is thought of now, but it was nevertheless not the usual way of things. In some states it seems like a normal part of a boy's education, but something to be put aside as an adult. Plutarch didn't have a negative view of it, but seems to implicate that others found something wrong in the relationship between Lysander and Agesilaus when Agesilaus became an adult. In plays and stuff, isn't it usually the butt of jokes? In Thebes it seemed to be a normal activity in one fighting regiment, and since Spartans never lived around their women and spent all their time singing and dancing and looking after their appearance ... well - I just assume it was pretty normal (I have to run to Xenophon now and look for why I made that assumption). But the record that survives indicates that it was not the conventional way of things. Athenian men seemed to live a non-stop sex party, but the references are for hetairai, not hetairoi (women not men). Anyway, you've got me thinking about Jowett, and I'm realising how slavishly I've trusted him for The Politics (which I used for social attitudes!)
edited to add bit about Xenophon

Okt. 8, 2013, 9:01pm

Cremorn ... I have no idea why Jowett (and others) translated the Greeks as they did. May we assume it was because homosexuality was almost a forbidden subject when they were translating ... that a more truthful translation might shock the tender eyes and ears of contemporary readers (as still happens today, as we have seen), which would automatically put the translators in danger of general opprobrium, automatically endangering both their professional and social careers. Nevertheless, we may safely assume the subject didn't bother Jowett at all, personally. After all, wasn't, isn't, aren't English Public Schools notorious for their liberal attitude toward male/male relationships? I don't know anything whatever about Jowett's sexual preferences ... not a thing. Apparently he didn't have a sexual life, having entering Oxford University at age 18, remaining there, unmarried, for the rest of his long life. At any rate his sexuality is beside the point.

As for Greek males putting "something ... aside", after they became adults ... Gosh, homosexuality in Classical Greece was an established tradition. True, the tradition had rules of behavior ... saying who could do what to whom, at what age, how, when, and where. The rules were much the same in England for men pursuing prospective wives, during the Victorian Era. Aiskhines successfully prosecuted Timarkhos on the basis that Timarkhos prostituted himself. Likewise, young Alkibiades apparently went out of bounds when he pursued the older Socrates (instead of the other way around). But to believe that Athenian men were only after hetairai belies the evidence of the many Athenian pots that illustrate male/male sex. Those vases are more evidence of Victorian prudery ... indeed, most of the vases depicting same sex relationships remain hidden in Museum basements to this very day.

As for plays ... goodness, The Importance of Being Earnest ... Lady Windermere's Fan, and many others plays from the Victorian Era... all dramas facetiously and wittingly depicting ordinary male/female relationships ... without ever suggesting that such relationships could ONLY be the butt of jokes. Male/male relationships in Classical Greece were essential to the social fabric.

Also, for an interesting take on Lysander and Agesilaus, see:

Jul. 3, 2014, 11:43am

I just ordered a used copy of the Princeton Plato aware that the translations were not the best, but attracted by price. I believe the Greek texts can be found on line at this point. Having taken classical Greek many a year ago that would be an ambitious project. Greek sexuality does get underplayed by moderns looking back. When you get down to it we bowdlerize most culture's works through our historic Puritan lens. The modern era less so, but I suspect market conditions still influence publishers. Would the most frank depictions make it into a library? And yes, read Aristophanes for bawdy truths. Lysistrata seems a good answer to war still.