BMCR 2024.02.30

Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus

, Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2023. Pp. 194. ISBN 9781589881778.



The Symposium and the Phaedrus are among Plato’s most read and discussed dialogues and thus need little by way of introduction. They are both also among Plato’s most dramatically rich, and one cannot fully appreciate their philosophical content without some insight into the dramatic situations within which the dialogues unfold. While love does play important roles in many other dialogues (as Gordon 2012 has well shown), nowhere else in Plato is it discussed with such intensity and from such varied positions as it is in the two dialogues under consideration, and so a volume that brings them together from a single translator in a fresh new translation is quite welcome.[1] Joe Sachs is an ideal translator for this pair of dialogues, for he has consistently brought a finely tuned ear for Plato’s use of colloquial language, jokes and puns, and dramatic allusions to others of Plato’s dialogues, many of which he has translated in addition to a series of excellent, illuminating translations of Aristotle’s major works.[2]

Nevertheless, there is an abundance of recent translations of both dialogues, and so any new translation has to prove its merits compared to what’s already on offer.[3] But, as Robert Bartlett has noted in his review of Sachs’s new volume, “Sachs does not state what he regards as the deficiencies of the available versions or the principles guiding his own that would presumably remedy those deficiencies and hence justify his labors here” (Bartlett 2023, 169). Translators must make difficult choices that inevitably block out alternative possibilities latent in the original text.[4] As philosophical hermeneutics has shown, every translation is itself an act of interpretation, even when the translator takes great pains to find suitable locutions that would facilitate the reader’s experience while also attempting to preserve something of the flavor, ambiguity, and nuance of the original. At the end of the day, there is no perfect Plato in English, and any vernacular translation has to be content with bringing someone closer to the original even as the original is obscured in the process. Texts written in ink are, after all, merely “reminders” of those things that ought to be written into the soul (cf. Phaedrus 274c–277a), which are irreducible to human language (cf. 247c). So while Sachs has done an admirable job of bringing his reader closer to Plato, it would be helpful, given the situation, to have some sense of what Sachs hopes to accomplish and why he makes the choices he does.

Who, for example, is Sachs’s prospective audience? Given that Sachs has prioritized readability in his rendering of Plato’s Greek into something amenable to twenty-first century American colloquial English, one might suspect that Sachs is writing for students or for a lay audience. And I would recommend these translations to such an audience since they are accessible and lively, much more so than some of the other translations available. However, if Sachs is writing for the uninitiated, he has been somewhat stingy about providing such readers the standard tools that facilitate novice or Greekless readers’ comprehension.

Compare, for example, Sachs’s extra-textual apparatus to those on offer in the excellent translations of the Phaedrus by Scully (2003) and the Symposium by Brann et al. (2017) published in the Focus series (now owned by Hackett Publishing). Scully and Brann et al. each provide extensive glossary entries that attend to key families of words and their various translational possibilities in English, as well as select bibliographies designed to help the novice reader enter more deeply into Plato’s world, appendices with helpful images and source texts, and lengthy interpretive essays (all of which totals to about 141 pages across the two texts). Brann et al. offer 74 footnotes to their translation of the Symposium, providing references for textual allusions, interpretive guidance, and discussions of translational difficulties; Scully’s Phaedrus offers a whopping 163 such notes. By contrast Sachs only offers a compact 35-page introduction and 91 footnotes across the two dialogues. While the introduction does an excellent job of opening up the dialogues, showing their dramatic and thematic connections and tensions, and while the notes are always insightful (see, e.g., p. 58, note 18, or p. 82, note 36), they won’t suffice for the novice reader.

Sachs’s principle for offering notes is also unclear, for he provides references to allusions in some cases but not others, leaving obscure many figures to whom Plato has his characters refer and not providing citations for each quotation Plato’s characters utter (whereas Scully and Brann et al. do so exhaustively).[5] Likewise, Sachs comments in depth on some translational points while leaving other notoriously difficult terms and passages undiscussed. For example, as Bartlett (2023) points out, while Sachs has multiple notes pointing out his variety of translations for hubris in the Phaedrus, he offers no guidance for his similar variety of translations for sōphrosunē and related words, switching between “temperance,” “moderation,” “self-control,” and “self-restraint” (see, e.g., 216d, 231d, 238a, 244d, 247d, and 253d). As a result, more seasoned readers with a greater command of Greek and interest in minutiae will, like novice readers, find something wanting here, especially since Sachs frequently switches between different translational choices without acknowledgement, even in succeeding lines,[6] or, contrariwise, uses the same word for terms better kept distinct (e.g., sophia and phronēsis). Sachs often translates key words in ways that will obscure their connections to related words in the text.[7] As a result, readers who desire more scaffolding and readers who desire greater literalism and consistency in translating key terms and their lexical neighbors will likely prefer Scully and Brann et al. Offering more scaffolding would obviate this inconsistency issue to some extent.[8]

The translations are very fluent, often with quite nice turns of phrase (“bowled over” for ekplēttein is quite visceral). There are a number of places where Sachs opts for translational roads less well trod, forcing the reader to rethink the sense at hand. I especially appreciate Sachs’s choice of using more neutral phrases like “looking down” for kataphronein (210b) and “lifting its gaze” for huperidein (249c) rather than the ordinary translations of these verbs as “look with contempt/disdain,” since the more neutral phrases better conform to the metaphysics of the ascent passages, properly understood.[9] As Bartlett (2023, 171) puts it, “all students of Plato should welcome Joe Sachs’s contributions.” Despite some misgivings about this volume,[10] I too welcome it and look forward to any future translations Sachs should undertake.

In addition to those typographical errors that Bartlett 2023, 171, has noted, platanos is misspelled on p. 169, n. 27.



Bartlett, Robert. 2023. “Book Review: Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 50.1: 169–71.

Brann, Eva, et al, trr. Plato. 2017. Plato: Symposium, or Drinking Party. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Brown, Ryan M. 2022a. “The Liberation of Virtue in Plato’s Phaedrus.” Aretē in Plato and Aristotle. Eds. Ryan M. Brown and Jay R. Elliott. Sioux City: Parnassos Press, 45–74.

Brown, Ryan M. 2022b. “The Lovers’ Formation in Plato’s Phaedrus.” Epoché 27.1: 19–50.

Brown, Ryan M. 2023a. “Plato’s Use of Mogis (Scarcely, With Toil) and the Accessibility of the Divine.” Apeiron 56.3: 519-554.

Brown, Ryan M. 2023b. “The Thematic Significance of the Scenery in Plato’s Phaedrus.” Ancient Philosophy 43.2: 399–423.

Gordon, Jill. 2012. Plato’s Erotic World: From Cosmic Origins to Human Death. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schindler, D.C. “Plato and the Problem of Love: On the Nature of Eros in the Symposium.” Apeiron 40.3: 199–220.

Scully, Stephen, tr. 2003. Plato’s Phaedrus. Newburyport, MA: Focus Philosophical Library.



[1] Though the two dialogues appear together in larger collections, such as John Cooper’s Plato: Complete Works (Hackett 1997) (translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff) and, along with the Lysis, the new Loeb Classical Library edition (translated by Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy), which replaces the older translations by Fowler and Lamb, the Symposium and the Phaedrus have shown up together recently only in translations by Tom Griffith (Everyman’s Library 2001) and William S. Cobb (SUNY 1993).

[2] To date, Sachs has translated Aristotle’s De Anima, Metaphysics, On Memory and Recollection, Nicomachean Ethics, Physics, Poetics, Politics, and Rhetoric, as well as Plato’s Cratylus, Euthydemus, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Protagoras, Republic, and Theaetetus. He has also translated Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

[3] In addition to the translations listed in note 1 above, the Symposium has been translated into English by Seth Benardete (Chicago), Eva Brann et al. (Focus), Christopher Gill (Penguin), M. C. Howatson (Cambridge), Avi Sharon (Focus), and Robin Waterfield (Oxford), and the Phaedrus has been translated by James Nichols (Agora/Cornell), Christopher Rowe (Penguin), Stephen Scully (Focus), and Waterfield (Oxford).

[4] For example, translating sōphrosunē and related terms with “moderation” can facilitate the reader’s understanding by indicating that sōphrosunē has something to do with not going to excess in one’s desires (e.g., for food or drink), but it obscures the etymological sense of sound-mindedness (sōs + phrēn), which is crucial for understanding the drama and strife within the soul as depicted in the Phaedrus (see Brown 2022a).

[5] For example, at 178b–c, Sachs provides a reference for Phaedrus’s quotation of Hesiod but then doesn’t provide one for the quotation of Parmenides in the next line.

[6] See, e.g., 191d, where Sachs translates sumbolon as “broken piece” and then “matching piece” in the same sentence without any note on what a sumbolon is and what role it plays in archaic Greek culture; accordingly, the translation of lispai as “broken dice” at 193a obscures the connection to the sumbolon with which Aristophanes defines human nature.

[7] Sachs translates pharmakon in the Phaedrus as “formula” (230d, 274e, 275a). Though “formula” works in context as a translation for pharmakon, the connection to Pharmakeia (and the possibility that Oreithuia was, as the demythologizers imply, playing around with drugs when she was knocked off a cliff by a strong wind; cf. 229c) and to Phaedrus forcing a speech from Socrates through “witchcraft” (katapharmakeuthentos, 242e) would be obscured. Likewise, Sachs translates the key word psuchagōgia (261a, 271c) by which Socrates defines the art of rhetoric and the intrinsic power of speech as “moving souls,” and this obscures the term’s connection to a number of other key words with the same root (agein, to lead) used throughout the dialogue. I briefly discuss the prominence of these terms in Brown 2022b, 20–24, and go into more depth on the katagōgē in Brown 2023b, 410–20.

[8] The inconsistency issue is especially prominent with kalos. While it is difficult to translate kalos consistently with any one choice (“noble,” “fine,” or, best, “beautiful”) without leading to some strange phrasing, jumping back and forth between the possible senses as Sachs does (see, e.g., 180e–183b for such vacillation) obscures for the reader the fact that the speakers in these dialogues are nevertheless using the same word. Given that beauty plays such a prominent role in both the Symposium and the Phaedrus, the two dialogues that more than any other seek to sing praises to Beauty Itself, every use of “noble,” “fine,” “right,” “well,” etc., prevents the reader from seeing how the metaphysical disquisitions on Beauty itself reframe each of the major movements of the dialogue. For example, translating kalos in Socrates’s question about how it is that we can speak and write kalōs (259e) as “good” obscures the fact that beautiful writing is a way by which beauty itself reveals itself to us in a way that far surpasses the other forms’ capacities to reveal themselves to us in a way that is accessible to us (250a-e). Given that Sachs showcases the prominence of kalos in the introduction of his translation to the Nicomachean Ethics, it’s surprising not to see a similar treatment here.

[9] Rather than take the ascent as going up a ladder only to kick it away upon reaching the acme, as many have thought, the better sense is that by going up the ladder, we see relative things as relative, properly contextualized for the first time by a real recognition of what’s absolute, whereby we are able to appreciate the relative things as themselves more genuinely. See Schindler 2007 for this argument with respect to Diotima’s speech and Brown 2023b for this argument with respect to the Palinode.

[10] For example, Sachs follows most other translators in taking mogis at 248a in the phrase mogis kathorōsa to mean “barely” rather than “with difficulty,” an issue which I’ve addressed at length in Brown 2023a, 533–41.