We appreciate the pedagogical focus of Thomas Miller’s brief and often positive review of our new translation and analysis of Plato’s Charmides. Nevertheless it misrepresents our work in several ways.
While Miller is right that undergraduates are a principal audience for the book, providing a text aimed at introductory students was not our or our publisher’s only goal. We also designed the book for those students’ instructors, for seminar use, and as a go-to resource for scholars of Plato and ancient ethics (a recent notice in Greece and Rome 66.2 evaluates it in these respects). We took inspiration from other Hackett publications, including Burnyeat’s Theaetetus and Reeve’s New Hackett Aristotle series. Thus we believe it unfair to charge our book, whose cover advertises it to have an introduction, notes, and analysis, as having “simply an excessive (undisciplined?) amount of commentary” (about 100 pages).
In our Preface we offer guidance for approaching the book:
Many readers may wish to start with the translation and its footnotes. The Introduction provides fuller background on Plato’s authorship of the Charmides, the dialogue’s literary genre, its historical context, its characters, and the nature of sôphrosunê and our translation of it as “discipline.” The Analysis following the translation outlines the dialogue’s major narrative elements and argumentative progressions, and it suggests thematic connections, questions for investigation, and the shape that answers to some of those questions might take. None of our claims stands as decisive for any particular interpretation or use of the dialogue; our hope is simply to model the kind of reflection the Charmides promotes.
Miller judges that our “forbiddingly extensive scholarly arsenal” (the footnotes, analysis, and multi-lingual list of references) is liable to overwhelm new readers of Plato or do too much interpretative work for them. Perhaps; but when we and colleagues have used this and similar texts, we have not encountered such a problem. The reason: students, in our experience, read mainly what is assigned to them. Faculty may direct their classes to the parts they think most useful; if students want to go deeper, they have the means. As Miller has, so we too have worried about the message the “paratextual environment” of a book gives to students, but we believe that Platonic dialogues can be just as alienating—i.e., philosophically unproductive—when presented austerely as when presented with historical and literary context. So we strove to help students and their instructors see what about the dialogue makes it more than a merely bewildering “definitional dialogue.”
Criticism of our particular translation choices is welcome, but Miller makes some misleading claims. The most important is his critique of our translation of sôphrosunê, the dialogue’s target virtue for definition, as “discipline.” He writes that it “misses the cognitive nuance suggested by the Greek word’s etymology.” Sôphrosunê includes the root phrên (LSJ: “midriff,” “heart,” seat of passions and other mental faculties), and phronein eventually comes to mean “think” or “understand”; yet related compounds, such as euphrosunê or philophrosunê, do not have a marked “cognitive” aspect. As we show in our Introduction (xxix–xxxi), earlier and contemporaneous uses of sôphrosunê do not tend strongly toward a cognitive meaning (perhaps no more than andreia and dikaiosunê do). Miller observes the possibility that it would be odd to think of sôphrosunê qua discipline as an epistêmê (as the definitional discussion in the dialogue’s latter half involves), but this would be no charge against the gloss: it may have sounded odd to Socrates’ audience in the palaestra, too, since four different accounts of the virtue—each distinctly non-cognitive—are rejected before anyone suggests that sôphrosunê involves gignôskein. At any rate, the word “discipline” comes from the Latin discere, “to learn,” which strikes us as cognitive.
A few more minor points. We translate ἐννοήσας at 160d not as “think,” as Miller writes, but as “think about,” which we take to be equivalent to “reflect on” or “consider.” We translate ἠσχύνετο at 169c not as “was embarrassed” but as “felt embarrassed”; this is closer to “feels shame” (αἰσχύνεσθαι) at 160e—though admittedly not transparent—but we decided that “embarrassed” at 169c better accounts for Critias’ rambling.