Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.15

Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, Eric Salem, Plato's Phaedo: Translation, Introduction and Glossary.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Philosophical Library, 1998.  Pp. 110.  ISBN 0-941051-69-2.  $7.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Colin A. Anderson, Loyola University of Chicago (
Word count: 1650 words

Continuing Focus Publishing's series of translations of Plato's dialogues -- of which the Parmenides and the Sophist have already appeared (see BMCR 97.8.11 and 97.3.12 respectively) -- Brann, Kalkavage, and Salem (hereafter BKS) have produced a new translation of the Phaedo which is sure to attract further attention to this valuable series. There are at least three readily available moderately priced English translations of the Phaedo to which any new edition should be compared. Considered in comparison with these editions, this new translation proves itself to be one of the best, and for certain purposes, hands down the best.1

This edition is comprised of an introduction, the translation, a glossary of certain crucial Greek words, and a very concise bibliography. The introduction is substantive, comprising 25 of the volume's 110 pages, and offers the reader an interpretive thread to follow through the dialogue. It distinguishes itself from introductions found in other editions by virtue of its sensitivity to the dialogue's ambiguities and tensions. The authors do not attempt to resolve these ambiguities or slacken the tensions, rather they utilize these as provocations to the reader to think more carefully about the dialogue and about the issues it raises. On this ground, we may be justified in considering the editors as proponents of one of the "heterodox" readings of the dialogues, conveniently referred to as "non-doctrinal" interpretations.

The authors reject the view that the dialogue's importance lies primarily in its four arguments for the immortality of the soul. They resist this reductive move by showing the philosophical importance of portions of the text frequently passed over hastily if not silently. BKS claim, correctly to my mind, that the conversation of the Phaedo is centered, not simply on the fear of death, but on the hatred of logos -- misology. The fundamental danger which confronts Socrates' companions is not whether a particular argument for the existence of the soul is formally valid or sound, but the more fundamental and existentially concrete problem, viz. whether in the absence of Socrates they can retain their commitment to the philosophical life. If this is true, then it suggests that the importance of the dialogue cannot lie solely in the arguments for the immortality of the soul but must in fact lie in what are sometimes considered the "dramatic" aspects of the text. To fight against misology one cannot offer an argument against misology: Combating misology requires other discursive strategies, and, more importantly, non-discursive strategies.

The dangers involved in the project of a literal translation of Plato's texts have been recognized for some time. Too often the translations stemming from the non-doctrinal interpretive traditions have been hampered by an over-literal rendering of the Greek text, which has led frequently to translations containing awkward if not at times in fact poor English. BKS clearly recognize this difficulty. "Plato's Greek makes sense, and so should our English" (25). And they are quite successful in this goal of rendering the original text in clear and readable English. In addition, they successfully avoid one of the most serious faults of many "literal translations," that is, consistent "under-translation" of words. As BKS recognize, sometimes logos simply does not mean "speech" (see 102).

There is one significant distraction in BKS's otherwise straightforward prose. For a reason unclear to me, BKS have decided to interpret the English word "soul" as having a feminine gender. Aside from certain specific contexts (for example, when soul is personified as a Goddess, or under the protection of "poetic license") there seems no reason to take soul to have a feminine gender in English. Independently of certain social or political reasons for avoiding this, one might suggest that this should be avoided on simply on stylistic grounds, since it sounds at best archaic, or on grammatical grounds, since it may be incorrect.

The translators have included a glossary of certain important Greek words in which they provide explanations of their translations. Few are surprising, except perhaps the translation of phronesis as "thoughtfulness." Most translators render phronesis by "wisdom," and there seems to be good reason for this. In several passages (especially the discussion of the philosopher's view of the body, 65a9-67b) phronesis appears to mean the achievement of knowledge or insight into the truth (e.g., 66e3). Further, phronesis is explicitly identified as that which the philos-sophos loves (66e2-5): In fact, it seems to be the preferred term for marking the object of the desire which characterizes the philosopher.2 Thus, it is easy to take it as a synonym for what in other dialogues is called sophia. In translating it by "thoughtfulness," I take it that BKS intend it in the sense of "reflectiveness" or as the "character of careful reflection and consideration." The advantage of this translation is, as BKS note in the glossary, that it preserves the etymological connection with φρήν. In addition, it allows for the preservation in English of the connection between the Greek words φρόνησις and φρονέω.3 Its drawback lies in it being perhaps too broad. Understood as "reflectiveness," phronesis loses its intrinsic connection with truth. Like episteme, phronesis seems to be by its essence incorrigible -- it is essentially the understanding of the truth. "Thoughtfulness" does not, however, preclude error. It only describes the manner in which we comport ourselves in regard to the world: Being "thoughtful" is compatible with being in error. Wisdom, however, like knowledge, seems to require more than just care in our thought, it must also be successful; it must attain the truth. In addition, it is unclear why "thoughtfulness" should be considered the goal of the philosopher rather than truth, unless there is some necessary connection between the two. This is not, of course, an insurmountable objection. The presence of a glossary which contains a clear discussion of these issues should help the careful reader to avoid misunderstanding.

There are many passages in the dialogue whose translation and interpretation are still disputed. In their rendering of most of these, BKS do not differ greatly from other recent translators. There is, however, one difficult passage in which BKS depart significantly from their recent predecessors and which deserves careful discussion. At the conclusion of the "Right Exchange Passage" (69a6-c3), Socrates invokes a distinction between the "shadow-painting" of arete and true arete. In describing the true arete, Socrates says:

τὸ δ' ἀληθὲς τῷ ὄντι κάθαρσίς τις τῶν τοιούτων πάντων καὶ σωφροσύνη καὶ δικαιοσύνη καὶ ἀνδρεία, καὶ αὐτὴ φρόνησις μὴ καθαρμός τις (69C1-3).

It has become customary since Burnet to place a comma after the ἀνδρεία and take φρόνησις as the subject of the second verb. (E.g., Gallop "whereas truth to tell, temperance, justice, and bravery may in fact be a kind of purification of all such things, and wisdom itself a kind of purifying rite.") BKS, however, rejecting Burnet's punctuation, take all four ἀρεταί as the compound subject of the second verb. They translate "But maybe the true and genuine virtue is a sort of purification from all these things, and maybe moderation and justice and courage and thoughtfulness itself are nothing but a kind of purifier." Grammatically this is plausible and in fact, before Burnet it was the preferred reading. It results from construing the initial τὸ δ' ἀληθές as the subject of the first verb rather than adverbially. If this is correct, then one must either take the first three ἀρεταί in apposition to τὸ δ' ἀληθές, as Burnet himself does, or take all four ἀρεταί together as BKS have done. In contrast to these construals, most recent translators, while accepting Burnet's punctuation, do not take τὸ δ' ἀληθές as the subject, but rather adverbially (see Gallop's translation quoted above). When τὸ δ' ἀληθές is taken adverbially, the first three ἀρεταί are understood to be the subject of the first verb.

On either Burnet's or Gallop's reading, the three virtues are καθάρσεις, or states in which certain pleasures and fears, etc. have been exchanged for φρόνησις. φρόνησις is the καθαρμός, or that which brings about these "states" of purity. But on BKS's construal this opposition disappears. To translate as BKS have done requires the weakening of the distinction between κάθαρσις and καθαρμός -- at the least, it requires that they are not related as means and end.4 Such a way of understanding the difference is proposed by Luce, but to a different purpose. He claims that the difference between the two is best understood as a difference between the more abstract and the more concrete terms for the same thing.5 Exploiting this here would allow the second clause to be understood as an explication of the first by concretization.

The implications of this interpretation are significant, though this is not the place to give them full discussion. The strongest reason in support of this construal, it seems to me, is that it may aid in the resolution of an important tension in the passage. This tension lies between the notion that phronesis is a means to virtue and the expected "Socratic" view which identifies phronesis (or sophia, or episteme) with the virtues. This tension is strong enough that Roslyn Weiss has argued that the passage contains an explicit rejection of the "Socratic" identification of virtue and knowledge.6 BKS, restore the coordination of virtue and wisdom through their translation and thus offer a solution to this passage.

The virtues of this edition are numerous and its faults few. It deserves to be widely adopted in introductory philosophy courses, as well as in courses which take a broad "liberal arts" perspective towards Plato's dialogues. For the more advanced student, it is to be highly recommended as offering the best of the virtues of a "non-doctrinal" approach to the dialogue without their sometime companion, a stilted and awkward translation. The translators have set a standard for their colleagues by offering both a perceptive interpretation and a lucid and graceful translation of this dialogue in an affordable edition.


1.   The Grube translation from Hackett Publishing is available in both a stand-alone edition and in an edition with four other dialogues (Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Crito, Apology, Meno and Phaedo). These editions both lack substantive introductions. Tredennick's Last Days of Socrates (Penguin Books) includes three other dialogues with the Phaedo. Its introduction is very brief and does not discuss the Phaedo in any depth. Gallop's edition for Oxford's World Classics series has probably been the edition of choice for most. (Mention can also be made of the Jowett translation which is available in a reprint from Prometheus Books.)
2.   The few instances of sophos and its variants, as BKS point out in their glossary, seem to bear a certain pejorative sense. See sophoi at 63a6, b7; sophias at 100c10, 101e5, 96a7.
3.   Most translators render the verb by "think," but the noun by "wisdom."
4.   But if this is how BKS understand the passage, then their translation obscures the point, since they translate as though katharmos is the means (sc. "purifier") and katharsis the result (purification). If there is a difference in meaning between "katharsis" and "katharmos," then there should be a correlative difference between their respective subjects, i.e., "true and genuine virtue" and "sophrosune, dikaiosune, andreia, and phronesis itself." But to what this difference amounts is not obvious.
5.   See, Luce, J.V. 1944. A Discussion of Phaedo 69a6-c2. Classical Quarterly 38:60-64. See also Reynen, Hans. 1968. Phaidoninterpretationen. Hermes 96:41-60. Loriaux, R. 1969/75. Le Phedon de Platon. 2 vols. Namur. Verdenius, W.J. 1958. Notes on Plato's Phaedo. Mnemosyne 11:133-243.
6.   See, Weiss, R. 1987. "The Right Exchange: Phaedo 69a6-c3". Ancient Philosophy 7: 57-66.

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