Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.06

Avi Sharon (trans.), Plato's Symposium. Focus Philosophical Library.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing, 1998.  Pp. 76.  ISBN 0-941051-56-0 (pb).  $7.95.  

Reviewed by Beau David Case, Ohio State University
Word count: 1337 words

This edition marks the fourth in the Focus Philosophical Library (complementing the dozen or so volumes in the Focus Classical Library). These editions are welcome both for their inexpensive price and for their textual quality. This new volume maintains the Focus tradition.

Avi Sharon received his Ph.D. from Boston University in 1994, having written the dissertation "Drama as Opera: The Musical Theater of Classical Athens" under the direction of Donald Carne-Ross. Sharon has authored articles in the field of classical studies, and, more importantly for the purpose of this review, is the author of a number of diverse and well-received translations.

The Symposium is undoubtedly the most popular of Plato's dialogues -- at least this is true in the context of undergraduate syllabi. As a result, translations of the work abound. A recent search in Books in Print yielded nine other translations. This new translation compares well to the others in terms of price, being cheaper than most; however, a Dover Thrift Edition of Jowett's translation1 is one dollar total, and the recent Hackett edition of Nehamas and Woodruff2 is one dollar less than this new edition.

Sharon's fourteen-page introduction is average in length relative to other editions. It covers many topics useful to the first-time reader: definitions of the terms eros and philia; an explanation of the symposium itself; a discussion of "Platonic love," Greek homosexuality, and the Socratic method; and summaries of the speakers and their speeches. Unique among all currently available translations is the inclusion of several photographs of red-figure pieces which illustrate well Sharon's points.

Sharon's edition is rather sparse on bibliography, having only ten items very briefly annotated (although some instructors may welcome this). Sharon's notes, on the other hand, are numerous, having seventy-nine for the translation. The notes are of two varieties: basic information for the first-time reader and quite dense notes for the more demanding reader. The basic notes usually explain proper nouns, historical events, and so on. For example:

"Hesiod was second only to Homer among the Greeks. His Theogony is a Greek version of the Biblical Genesis, a cosmogonic tale of the beginning of all life" (p. 23).
The second variety of note tends to provide additional details beyond the text, while at the same time keeping in mind that the book is for a general audience. For example:
"The original version of the proverb, quoted by the comic poet Eupolis (Fr. 289 Kock) runs like this: 'Good men go uninvited to bad men's feasts.' Notice that Socrates has only evened out the equation (good men to good men) while Homer had utterly reversed it (bad men to good men). Menelaus, called a 'limp fighter' at Iliad 17.588, arrives at Agamemnon's feast in Iliad 2.408" (p. 18).
Sharon has achieved an excellent balance, and certainly more so than other editors. More advanced and extensive bibliographies, introductions and/or notes, however, are to be found in the Oxford World's Classics edition of Waterfield,3 in the SUNY edition of Cobb,4 and in the Hackett edition.

The translation also compares well to its competitors. Below is Sharon's rendering of a portion of Aristophanes' memorable speech (189c-190b), followed by each of the translations cited above.

"Even more unusual, however, all three types of these aboriginal humans were compounds, two bodies joined together front to front with their backs and sides forming a circle. Each one had four arms, four legs and two identical faces upon a rounded neck. There was just one head apiece with the two faces looking out in both directions. Everyone had two backs, arched and facing outward, which joined together at head and hips. They had four ears and two sets of sexual organs and all the other parts in duplicate, just as you would imagine from what I've already said. With their four arms dangling at their sides, they walked in an upright position, just as we do now, in any direction they chose. But if they wanted to run at full speed they would stiffen and extend all eight of their limbs and twirl round and round like gymnasts doing cartwheels" (Sharon, p. 36).
"In the second place, the primeval man was round and had four hands and four feet, back and sides forming a circle, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. When he had a mind he could walk as men now do, and he could also roll over and over at a great rate, leaning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast" (Jowett, pp. 15-16).
"My second point is that the shape of each human being was completely round, with back and sides in a circle; they had four hands each, as many legs as hands, and two faces, exactly alike, on a rounded neck. Between the two faces, which were on opposite sides, was one head with four ears. There were two sets of sexual organs, and everything else was the way you'd imagine it from what I've told you. They walked upright, as we do now, whatever direction they wanted. And whenever they set out to run fast, they thrust out all their eight limbs, the ones they had then, and spun rapidly, the way gymnasts do cartwheels, by bringing their legs around straight" (Nehamas and Woodruff, p. 25).
"Secondly, each person's shape was complete: they were round, with their backs and sides forming a circle. They had four hands and the same number of legs, and two absolutely identical faces on a cylindrical neck. They had a single head for their two faces (which were on opposite sides), four ears, two sets of genitals, and every other part of their bodies was how you'd imagine it on the basis of what I've said. They moved around in an upright position, as we do today, in either of their two forward directions; and when it came to running, they supported themselves on all eight of their limbs and moved rapidly round and round, just like when acrobats perform that circular manoeuvre where they stick their legs out straight and wheel over and over" (Waterfield, p. 25).
"Now, the form of all three types of people was completely spherical, with their backs and sides making a complete circle. They had four hands and a similar number of legs, and two faces that were exactly alike on top of a circular neck. The two faces were turned in opposite directions on a single head that had four ears. There were also two sets of genitals, and all the other characteristics one could infer from these examples. They walked upright in the present manner, in whatever direction they wanted to, and whenever they set themselves to run quickly, they would revolve in a circle, like acrobats doing cartwheels, with their arms and legs sticking straight out. At that time, of course, they had eight limbs to support themselves on while they rapidly revolved" (Cobb, p. 29).
Although the sample passages are just that, sample passages, and although only about half of the available translations are included, it is nonetheless fair to say that Sharon's translation is among the best. Moreover, Sharon states that his "intention with this version was to underline the dramatic elements in the work by accentuating the verbal characterization (sometimes verging on ridicule) which Plato has given each speaker" (p. 13). The translator is mostly successful in this attempt. Yet, at times the tone and vocabulary are not particularly over-emphasized so as to make clear to readers with no Greek text at hand (or with no knowledge of Greek at all) Plato's characterization. Despite this small criticism, the translator has achieved more in this regard than have others, as Sharon himself points out. Thus, instructors, and certainly all libraries, cannot go wrong with the purchase of this new edition.


1.   Jowett, Benjamin, trans. Symposium and Phaedrus. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. Pp. 92. $1.00. ISBN 0486277984.
2.   Nehamas, Alexander and Paul Woodruff, eds. and trans. Symposium. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1989. Pp. xxvii, 80. $6.95. ISBN 0872200760 (pb.).
3.  Waterfield, Robin, ed. and trans. Symposium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. xlv, 104. $6.95. ISBN 0192829084. See BMCR 94.6.15.
4.   Cobb, William S., ed. and trans. The Symposium and the Phaedrus: Plato's Erotic Dialogues. SUNY Series in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. Pp. 214. $14.95. ISBN 0791416186 (pb.).

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