The Dialogues of Plato — Translation by David Horan

Foreword to these translations of the dialogues of Plato

I am delighted to lend my voice to the celebration of a great achievement in the field of Irish scholarship, the translation of the complete works of Plato by David Horan. Approximately a hundred years ago, it may be recalled, another distinguished figure bearing a certain analogy to David, Stephen MacKenna, embarked on the rather quixotic enterprise of translating into English the treatises of Plotinus, the greatest Platonist philosopher of late antiquity. This project extended for at least thirteen years, from 1917 to 1930, crucially assisted by the enlightened benevolence of the English businessman, Sir Ernest Debenham, and almost destroyed MacKenna, but he got it done in the end, with much groaning and lamenting. David Horan has similarly taken thirteen years, from 2008 to 2021, to complete the translation of a corpus somewhat vaster in extent, though arguably in many of its parts less  troublesome – the works of the great master, Plato himself. A significant difference, though, lies in the fact that, throughout all of this period, David has maintained an active career of instruction, administration, and research, to the great benefit of many, while retaining his equilibrium throughout.

Now one might think, on superficial consideration, that undertaking a new translation of the works of Plato, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, is rather similar to setting out to rediscover America; but such an assumption would be deeply misguided. Of course, the dialogues of Plato, or at least the great majority of them, have been repeatedly translated into English, as well as into a host of other languages, during the course of the last century, but in fact not since the great enterprise of Benjamin Jowett, in the late nineteenth century (first edition in 1871, to be exact), has a single individual, to my knowledge, taken on the challenge of translating the whole corpus single-handed into English.

To a certain extent, all such enterprises as this owe a certain amount to the help of others, as David will readily acknowledge, but nothing can take away from the unremitting effort that such a task must involve. Many of those who take up this volume will have happy memories, as do I, of the use of these translations in the course of gatherings in the Plato Centre, Trinity College Dublin and such venues as Lucca, Delphi, Townley Hall, or indeed many other parts of the world, on many of which occasions adjustments were made to the text; but for what I trust will be a much larger body of readers this will constitute a new experience of discovering the varied riches of Plato’s works through the medium of a fine modern translation by a single hand.

It seems hardly suitable, or even possible, in a foreword such as this, to expatiate at any length on the virtues of this translation. What I propose to do, rather, is to set before the reader a series of David Horan’s versions of key passages from the dialogues, so that they may be compared with notable translations from the past, against which I think they will measure up very favourably. I should specify at the outset, of course, that no translation of Plato is ever going to capture, to the satisfaction of every reader acquainted with the Greek, all the nuances of the original, but that is a problem with translation in general, not with this one.

The samples that I have selected are the following:

(1) The Allegory of the Cave, at the beginning of Book VII of the Republic (514AB):

“Now, I said, after this you should compare our nature in respect of education or lack of education to a condition such as this. Behold men in a sort of underground cave-like dwelling, with a long entrance facing towards the light along the side of the entire cave. They have been in this from childhood, with bonds both on their legs and on their necks, so that they remain looking only at what is in front of them, being unable to turn their heads around because of the bond on the neck.

Light comes to them from a fire burning above and at a distance behind them, and higher up, between the fire and the prisoners, there is a path and you can see a low wall built along the path, just like the screens which puppet makers place in front of themselves, over which they display their puppets.”

(2) The assertion of the immortality of the soul, from the Phaedrus (245C-246A):

“All soul is immortal, because the ever-moving is immortal, but that which moves another and is moved by another ceases living if it ceases moving. Indeed only that which moves itself, since it does not depart from itself, never stops moving and this is also the fount and source of motion for anything else that moves. But source is not generated, for everything that is generated must be generated from source, but it itself must not come from one. For, if source were to be generated from something it would no longer be source. And since it is un-generated it must also be indestructible. For, of course, once source is destroyed it will never be generated from something nor will anything else be generated from it, since all things must be generated from source. Accordingly, whatever moves itself is the source of motion and this cannot be generated or destroyed or else the entire heaven and all the earth would collapse into one and be static without anything from which motion could ever be generated again. And since it has been shown that whatever is moved by itself is immortal, anyone who states that this is the very essence and definition of soul will not be put to shame.  For every body to which movement comes from outside is soulless, but if it comes to it from within itself then that body is ensouled because that is the nature of soul. But if it is the case that whatever moves itself is nothing other than soul, soul would, of necessity, be both un-generated and immortal.”

(3) Diotima’s description of the Ascent to the Good in the Symposium (210A-E):

“Indeed whoever embarks upon this endeavour in the correct manner should begin, whilst young, by approaching beautiful bodies. Firstly, if his guide guides him aright he should love a single body, beget beautiful words with that, and then recognise that the beauty in any body whatsoever is akin to that in any other body, and if he must pursue beauty associated with form, it would be most irrational not to regard the beauty in all the bodies as one and the same. Once he has recognised this, he should become a lover of all beautiful bodies and relax his intensity towards a particular one, despising it and regarding it as a trifle. After this he should regard the beauty in souls as more honourable than the beauty in bodies, so it would be quite enough for him if someone, fair of soul, had even a little physical bloom; he would love that person, care for him and bring forth and seek out such words as make young people better, so that he is compelled, in turn, to behold the beauty present in activities and in laws, and to see that it is all related to itself, and thus regard beauty of body as something trivial. After the activities, he should be led on to knowledge, so that he might then see the beauty of knowledge, and looking then towards the vast beauty, be no longer delighted, like a slave, by the beauty of some particular boy or man, or by a single activity; in base and petty servitude. Turning instead to the open sea of beauty and contemplating that, he brings forth beautiful and magnificent words and reflections aplenty, in an ungrudging love of wisdom, until, strengthened and developed in that, he recognises a single knowledge of this kind; knowledge of a beauty I shall now describe.”

(4) Timaeus’ statement of purpose, from near the beginning of the Timaeus (27C-28A):

Well, Socrates, that is just what anyone with even a little sound-mindedness does before they embark upon any undertaking great or small: they always, I presume, call upon god. And we who are somehow going to make speeches about the universe, how it has been generated, or whether it is actually ungenerated, if we are not to go entirely astray, must call upon the gods and goddesses and pray that everything be spoken acceptably to them in particular, and less importantly, to ourselves.  Now let that be our invocation of the gods, but we must also invoke that which is ours so that you may learn easily, and I may expound my thoughts on the subjects before us as best I can.

        In my opinion, we must certainly make this distinction first: What is that which is always and has no becoming, and what is that which is becoming but never is? Now the former, being ever the same, is comprehended by the activity of Nous along with an account, the latter by opinion along with sense perception devoid of an account; it comes into being and passes away and never actually is.  Again, all that comes into being must come into being from some cause, for it is impossible for anything to be generated without any cause. Now whenever a craftsman looks always to the unchanging, referring to something like this as his model, he will reproduce its form and character, and all that he fashions in this way will necessarily be beautiful, but if he looks to something that has come to be, and uses a generated model, the product will not be beautiful.”

(5) A significant condemnation of ‘self-love’ as a principle of ethical theory, from Book 5 of his last great work, The Laws (731D-732B):

“The greatest of all evils, innate in the souls of most human beings, is one that everyone makes an excuse for, in his own case, and makes no effort to avoid. It consists in the assertion that every person is, by nature, a friend to himself, and that this is the way things should be. But, the truth of the matter is that the source of all faults in each person, in every case, lies in this intense self-love. For the lover is blind to the faults of the beloved, so he is a poor judge of what’s just and good, because he believes he should always honour his own, above the truth. But a man who is to be a great man must cherish, not himself or what belongs to himself, but what’s just, either in his own actions or indeed in the actions of others. From this same fault is born the universal conviction that our own ignorance is wisdom, and so we who, in a sense, know nothing, imagine that we know everything. And since we don’t rely on others to do whatever we ourselves don’t know, we inevitably make mistakes in doing this ourselves. That’s why everyone must flee from this intense self-love, and always keep with someone better than himself, without feeling any shame in doing so.”

And, last but not least:

 (6) from Socrates’ ‘Apology’, or Speech from the Dock, his farewell address to the jurors who have condemned him (41C-42A):

“But you too, gentlemen, judges, should be hopeful in the face of death, and hold this one precept as true: nothing bad comes to a good man either during his life or after death, nor are his affairs neglected by the gods. Nor have my present circumstances come about by accident; rather, it is obvious to me that, at this stage, it is better for me to die and be quit of troubles. That is why the sign did not deter me, and I am not at all angered by those who voted against me, or by my accusers. And yet, this was not what they had in mind when they voted to condemn me, or accused me, no, their intention was to harm me: for this they deserve criticism. Well, I ask this much of them; when my sons are of age, punish them, gentlemen, with the same afflictions as I inflicted upon you, if you think they are caring for money or anything else before excellence, or if they think they are something, when they are nothing; censure them as I have censured you, because they care not for what they ought, and think they amount to something when they are worth nothing. And if you do this, myself and my sons will have received just treatment at your hands. But now, it is time to depart, I to die, you to live; which of us goes to the better lot is unknown to anyone but God.”

These extracts, covering between them a good selection of the high points of Plato’s stylistic and intellectual achievement, seem to me to give the prospective reader a pretty good idea of what he or she may expect from this fine rendition of the works of Plato. It is my view that these renderings can hold their place against any others that have appeared throughout the course of history, as can the translation as a whole, and we in the Plato Centre at Trinity College are proud to have been a small part of it.

John Dillon, MRIA, FBA, Regius Professor of Greek (Emeritus), Trinity College Dublin

2nd February 2021