Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.14


Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (trans.), Plato, Phaedrus. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995. Pp. xlvii + 94. $27.95 (hb). $5.95 (pb). ISBN 0-87220-221-6 (hb). ISBN 0-87220-220-8 (pb).


Reviewed by Beau David Case, Indiana University (Bloomington).

Over the course of the past three decades, Alexander Nehamas (Department of Philosophy, Princeton University) and Paul Woodruff (Department of Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin) have written extensively on Plato, including five well-received translations published by Hackett, one of which, the 1989 edition of the Symposium, was a collaborative effort. Their latest collaborative effort is yet another excellent translation: a dense volume containing a preface, a 34-page introduction, an "outline of the Phaedrus," the translation itself annotated with nearly 200 footnotes, an appendix of early Greek erotic poetry, and a selected bibliography. Each of these sections will be discussed briefly below.

The preface states that Woodruff translated the three speeches in the dialogue and wrote the notes to the entire translation, that Nehamas translated the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus and wrote the introduction, and that each author edited the work of the other.

Nehamas' introduction serves two purposes: to provide background information for the reader familiar with neither ancient Athens nor the Phaedrus, and to present an interpretation of the Phaedrus which, to the best of the reviewer's knowledge, has not been previously published. The introduction begins by discussing the possible, or rather impossible, dates for the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus, as well as the possible dates when Plato could have written the dialogue. Also included is a discussion of pederasty, rhetoric, and a detailed summary of the Phaedrus.

After such general remarks the questions of the structure and meaning of the Phaedrus are taken up. Earlier notions that the Phaedrus is "a treatise on eros with an irrelevant, long discussion on rhetoric tagged on" is soundly and thankfully rejected in favor of a reading which emphasizes "a sustained discussion of rhetoric in which Plato constructs three speeches on the topic of love as examples of what rhetoricians are capable of doing as objects of criticism or praise" (p. xxxviii). Such a reading leaves one significant question unanswered, according to the author: why the topic of eros? The reason given for this is complex. First, it is stated that since most people lack knowledge of philosophy, or even the proper soul for it, eros, with which most are in fact knowledgeable, represents the closest state that one will come to philosophy: "eros knows how to awaken souls and give them wings, raising them from the deathlike condition which is what Plato believes life on earth is" (p. xl). And, since Socrates states that true rhetoricians will bring an audience as close to truth as possible, the topic of eros is therefore apt. The result, then, is that "Plato makes Socrates present picturesque views of Forms and souls to delight Phaedrus and to direct his soul toward philosophy" (p. xliv).

But the author is not satisfied with this explanation alone. Relying upon a careful examination of all the works of Plato, he asserts that, at the time of the writing of the Phaedrus, Plato no longer held the theory of Forms as it is presented in Socrates' Great Speech. Furthermore, after the Great Speech, Plato never again uses the theory of recollection. And, although Plato does refer to the theory of the tripartite soul after the Phaedrus, it is altogether different by the time of the Timaeus. The author then concludes: "Since Plato treats these theories no longer as ends in themselves but as means, we can now read Socrates' Great Speech as Plato's farewell to the theory of Forms it describes. What the speech shows is that the middle theory of Forms is as good as a good story -- good enough to lead some people to philosophy" but not good enough to reveal the truth about philosophy (p. xliv-xlv). Finally, the author states that since Plato first introduced the Forms in the Symposium by means of a speech on eros, it was only fitting that Plato abandon this middle theory of Forms with another speech on eros. All of this, the author admits, relies upon accurate dating of Plato's works. Although such a position is really indefensible, the argument is nonetheless sound and convincing.

The introduction as a whole may be beyond the reach of most undergraduates, but the first part of the introduction which provides background notes and a summary of the work will be of great value to them. The remainder of the introduction will certainly appeal to graduate students and scholars from all fields, including classical studies, philosophy, and comparative literature, who might mistakenly overlook this work as being too general for or outside of their interests.

The ease with which the English translation reads can be captured in any number of passages, such as the following speech of Socrates, translated by Woodruff: "Then be quiet and listen. There's something really divine about this place, so don't be surprised if I'm quite taken by the Nymphs' madness as I go on with the speech. I'm on the edge of speaking in dithyrambs as it is" (p. 18). Or, take for example this passage, translated by Nehamas: "Well, Phaedrus, becoming good enough to be an accomplished competitor is probably -- perhaps necessarily -- like everything else. If you have a natural ability for rhetoric, you will become a famous rhetorician, provided you supplement your ability with knowledge and practice. To the extent that you lack any one of them, to that extent you will be less than perfect" (p. 70). It is interesting to note that, although the two authors shared the responsibility of translation, no distinguishable variation exists in their methods or styles of translation. Nehamas and Woodruff throughout their work also have been able to capture contemporary colloquial English without diminishing the content of the original Greek, such as in the first passage quoted above: "SIGH=| TOI/NUN MOU A)/KOUE. TW=| O)/NTI GA\R QEI=OS E)/OIKEN O( TO/POS EI)=NAI. W(/STE E)A\N A)/RA POLLA/KIS NUMFO/LHPTOS PROÏO/NTOS TOU= LO/GOU GE/NWMAI, MH\ QAUMA/SH|S. TA\ NU=N GA\R OU)KE/TI PO/RRW DIQURA/MBWN FQE/GGOMAI" (238C-D).

The bibliography of a few dozen items will neither corrupt the young nor disappoint the elders -- Nehamas and Woodruff are spared from the hemlock here. Standard philological works, commentaries, and translations by John Burnet, Gerrit Jacob de Vries, R. Hackforth, George Kennedy, and W.H. Thompson are included, and have been supplemented by recent, popular, or tangentially-related works by Jacques Derrida, K.J. Dover, and Michel Foucault. Also included are a number of articles and monographs published within the past two years which should be easily accessible in most college and university libraries. A few of the items in the bibliography, to the authors' credit, are those with which they do not necessarily agree, but which are included undoubtedly to provide an opposing viewpoint. Some readers will, of course, take exception to the brevity of the list and perhaps to the absence of works by G.C. Field, Paul Friedländer, Benjamin Jowett, Paul Shorey, and A.E. Taylor; however, the bibliography is essentially a list of works cited by the authors in the introduction and notes. It is not a comprehensive list of suggested readings.

The classics or philosophy scholar will undoubtedly find many of the footnotes superfluous due to their general nature. However, for the most part the notes are informative, providing references to secondary readings, other primary sources, and cross references to the text itself, defending translations of words and passages and identifying departures with other translations, and so on. Another function of the notes is to make reference to the appendix, which includes translations of Anacreon, Ibycus, Pindar, and Sappho, and notes. This is, in fact, the closest that an organic text can come to a hypertext link in an electronic text, and it works with a high degree of success. Authors and publishers in the future may want to include additional textual material rather than simply to leave the footnote "cf. such and such." It would have been nice, although not really essential, to have had references within the poetical translations referring the reader (hypertextually) back to passages in the Phaedrus. This concept is certainly fit for mention here, given the discussion about the merits of the spoken word over the written word in the Phaedrus, and given our own contemporary debate regarding the merits of printed works and those of electronic texts. Plato somehow always manages to keep up with the times.

This new edition of Plato will be of interest to all readers -- undergraduate and graduate students, scholars in all disciplines, and the general reader. It undoubtedly soon will be held as the standard translation of the Phaedrus.