Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.23

Dirk Baltzly, John F. Finamore, Graeme Miles, Proclus: Commentary on Plato's 'Republic'. Volume I: Essays 1-6.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xii, 431.  ISBN 9781107154698.  £79.99.  

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University in St. Louis (


This modestly aniconic, sturdy volume—produced by Cambridge University Press in a style that recalls the era when books were conceived as κτήματα εἰς ἀεί—represents a surprising moment in the history of the study of Greece and Rome, and specifically of Greek philosophy, in the English-speaking world. It is the first of the three projected volumes of the first complete translation into English of the only surviving ancient commentary on the most widely read work (the Republic) of the most influential philosopher of Antiquity (Plato), a commentary written by the most influential (non-Christian) philosopher of his own century (Proclus, ca. 410-485 CE). The work runs to over 650 (Teubner) pages in the only modern edition of the Greek text,1 itself preserved in a single, damaged ninth- or tenth-century manuscript with a fascinating history in its own right.2

Why would such a work remain so long unavailable in English? The translators discuss this issue in the "General Introduction" (1-33), but the reasons come down to three: first, until Wilhelm Kroll's 1899-1901 edition of the exceptionally difficult manuscript, much of the work was not widely known or studied; second, A.-J. Festugière's expert and richly annotated scholarly translation into French (1970) represented both a tremendous advance and a very difficult one on which to improve; and third, Proclus' (and his tradition's) reading of the Republic has seemed tendentious and unhelpful to most readers not already fascinated by the baroque prolixity of the thought of the late-antique Platonists.

Time, in various ways, has gone far toward removing these obstacles. Kroll's edition (itself now a rare book that cries out for a reprint) is quite serviceable, though so conservative that the reader must explore its apparatus and appendices for many manifestly correct conjectures and readings that the editor shied away from inserting into his text; after a half century, Festugière's translation and notes can be improved upon, though surprisingly rarely;3 and finally, and most important, the later Platonists have, in recent decades, gained a degree of respectability and importance for the history of philosophy—and arguably, even for philosophy itself—that they had not enjoyed for centuries.

These stand out among the factors that make an English translation of the Commentary on the Republic both desirable and overdue, and Baltzly, Finamore, and Miles, are in the process of admirably filling the gap.

One of the great strengths of their enterprise lies in its relationship to the six-volume translation of Proclus' Commentary on the Timaeus likewise published by Cambridge, over a decade in progress and brought to completion in 2017. Three of its volumes were completed by Baltzly. 4 The two projects are uniform in presentation and abundantly supplied with indices and aids to facilitate access to these important and difficult texts. These include a Greek word index for each volume indicating the translations adopted by the various translators in various contexts for the "significant vocabulary" (378) in Proclus' text. In the volume under review this index runs to 45 pages. Such indexing might seem an unjustifiable luxury in the absence of a Greek text—and indeed, it is difficult to understand its usefulness to the targeted readership here, specifically said to extend "beyond...those experts who could read the text in Greek if they wanted to" (x)—but for anyone interested in Proclus' language and in particular his technical vocabulary, it is a valuable bonus.

There is a fourth factor that may have led to the relative neglect of Proclus' commentary over the years, and that is the problem of the very nature of the work itself. It is not a commentary in the sense that Proclus' Timaeus commentary is: a detailed, phrase-by-phrase discussion of the text, intimately linked to the mechanics of teaching the dialogue in a classroom situation. (Marinus tells us [Vit. Proc. ch.13] that the massive Timaeus commentary was completed when Proclus was only eighteen, but evidently he returned to it and repeatedly supplemented it throughout his long career of teaching the dialogue.) Rather, the manuscript of the Republic commentary represents a collection of 17 "essays" (one of them now missing and two incomplete) that differ in length and format. For instance, we have on the one hand a concise, focused analysis of the theological τύποι of Republic 2 (Essay 4: I, 27-41 Kroll) and on the other a lengthy phrase-by-phrase analysis of Republic 10, 613e-621d2, the Myth of Er, in the manner of the Timaeus commentary (Essay 16: II, 96-359 Kroll). The unity (or lack thereof) of the commentary as a whole—or "commentaries" as Kroll and the Italian translator Michele Abbate seem to prefer—is discussed here (9-15 and passim), if somewhat inconclusively. A clear case is made for unity in the sense of comprehensive sequential coverage of the dialogue (14-15) and while considerable differences of style and projected audience in the various essays are acknowledged, the translators maintain that it would be a mistake to view the composite work as "made up of parts that are radically different in character" (20, their emphasis). They nevertheless supply all of the separate essays with their own separate introductions, which collectively represent over one fifth of the text (exclusive of general introductory material and indices, etc.) and in so doing they have effectively provided an essential foundation for future work on the commentary while fulfilling their stated goal of making it accessible to a Greekless readership.5

With regard to the translation itself, I confess that I raised my eyebrows at the translators' initial claim to have moved beyond Festugière, who (along with certain more recent translators) "frequently preserves much of Proclus' complex sentence structure" (ix-x), and to have done so in favor of "an English translation that makes the reading of Proclus a somewhat more inviting proposition" (x). A translator's first job is to maintain the fiction of his own credibility as a transparent medium, effecting as exact as possible a passage for the writing (that is, the style and the content) of the source text to the target language. This constitutes the tenuous and somewhat deceptive ideal, yet this fiction is essential to effective translation. In practice, of course, myriad compromises intervene, including the breaking down of sentences so long and tortuous that they exceed the tolerance of English style, but Baltzly and his collaborators seem here to have been willing to abandon the necessary fiction from the start. Lest, then, anyone think that the result is what we might call "Proclus light," I am happy to report that a small (and statistically meaningless) sample of sentences in which I compared Kroll's Greek with Festugière, Lamberton, and Baltzly et al. failed to support the translators' claim. Proclus' sentences (frequently in excess of one hundred words in the original) seemed as likely to survive in the form of long, difficult sentences (sometimes—inevitably—a good deal longer than the Greek) in one translation as in another.6 Clearly we have all done what we could to develop a credible equivalent in English for Proclus' voice, and I think that that voice comes through in each translation, whatever notions we may have (explicit or not) about the uniqueness of our own efforts.

Furthermore, given the fact that the translation of a such a difficult text is a cumulative effort, and each new translation gets some things right that its predecessors failed to grasp or to communicate clearly, this extraordinarily careful and scholarly rendering is clearly destined to remain the principal access in English to Proclus' thoughts on the Republic for the foreseeable future.7


1.   Wilhelm Kroll, ed, Procli Diadochi in Platonis Rem Publicam Commentarii, 2 vols., Leipzig: Teubner, 1899-1901. Other works mentioned below include: Michele Abbate, trans. Proclo: Commento alla Repubblica di Platone: Dissertazione I, III-V, VII-XII, XIV-XV, XVII, Pavia: Bompiani, 2004. André-Jean Festugière, trans. Proclus. Commentaire sur la République, Paris: Vrin, 1970. Robert Lamberton, Proclus the Successor on Poetics and the Homeric Poems: Essays 5 and 6 of His Commentary on the Republic of Plato, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.
2.   See ix; cf. Kroll's addendum 2 to vol. 1 of his edition, trans. in Lamberton 2012, xxxiii-xxxv.
3.   Perhaps more to the point here is the fact that the same half century has greatly increased the distance between Anglophone readers and scholarly translations into the major European languages, in a way that does not bode well: for students, in particular, if it is not in English it is very unlikely to be read with a high level of comprehension.
4.   Proclus, Commentary on the Timaeus. Edited and translated by Harold Tarrant et al. 6 vol. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007-2017. There were two reviews in BMCR: 2008.08.01 and 2010.01.27
5.   The Cambridge series clearly identifies its purpose and projected readership and, without wishing to redesign what is in fact an excellent format, I do regret the absence of a Greek text in these volumes. For readers with any Greek at all, bilingual editions provide access of a far more intimate sort than freestanding translations, along with the opportunity for the kind of scrutiny that can lead to genuine advances in the understanding of a difficult text. Also, as mentioned above, there is a pressing need for a new edition of the Greek, or at the least a reprint of Kroll's Greek text.
6.   There are some instances where the translators have deliberately and explicitly broken up Proclus' sentences (see 188 with note 64). Still, since I am one of those correctly identified as having followed in Festugière's footsteps and like him imitated Proclus' long and sometimes ponderous sentences ("though perhaps to a lesser extent" [x]), I checked out a small sample. Here is an example: I, 73, lines 17-31 Kroll, a reasonably representative 111-word Proclan sentence, rather stingily punctuated by Kroll with just 7 commas to guide the reader through it. Festugière rendered it as a single sentence of 161 words, with 13 commas and tags for two footnotes. I managed to squeeze it into 151 words with 15 commas, a dash, and one footnote. Baltzly et al. likewise rendered it as a single sentence, of 176 words (4 of them in supplements, indicated by square brackets) with 14 commas, 2 dashes, 1 footnote, and (notably) 5 transliterated Greek words inserted as glosses. (On these insertions, see x; for all their usefulness, they undeniably do interrupt the rhythm of the prose, especially in these formidable sentences, and concerning the choice of forms for insertion——singular vs. plural, etc.—the editors discreetly note that their "policy is sure to leave everyone a little unhappy" [xi].)
7.   I would like to thank the translators for their discussion of many specific points in my own translation of Essays 5 and 6, both for the errors and omissions they have corrected and for those instances where they have expressed support for a choice of mine over those of others. More importantly, they have earned the thanks of all of us for bringing us a good deal closer to an understanding of what Proclus meant.

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