Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 18.

Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, & Eric Salem (edd.), Plato's Phaedo. With Translation, Introduction and Glossary. The Focus Philosophical Library. Newburyport Mass.: Focus Publishing (R. Pullins Company), 1998. Pp. 110. ISBN 0-941051-69-2. US$7.95.

Robert B. Todd
Department of Classical, Near-Eastern, and Religious Studies University of British Columbia, Vancouver

As a translation, this reasonably priced work (part of series designed for university students) could be used in survey courses in the humanities. However, its idiosyncratic introduction, minimal notes, selective glossary, and restricted bibliography make it rather less useful for departments of philosophy or classical studies, and should ensure that Brann et al. (hereafter BKS) do not displace any of the three principal English versions of the Phaedo currently available.[[1]]

This book is dedicated to the late Jacob Klein, and indeed two of its authors (Brann and Kalkavage) teach at St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland, where Klein taught for forty years. His program of Platonic interpretation (best known for its application to the Meno) involved emphasizing the elements of character and setting in dialogues rather than the isolated analysis of the internal structure of arguments, and the critical evaluation of their strengths and limitations.[[2]] The introduction to the present volume reflects this approach, although the authors are evasive about clearly defining their goals, and do not directly acknowledge any alternative procedure. So after four opening pages devoted to a broad interpretation of the dialogue based on the image of the Minotaur (the commemoration of whose slaying [see 58a10-b1] caused the delay in Socrates' execution; see further below) we are abruptly told that 'The philosophic core of the Phaedo is usually thought to reside not in its drama but in the so-called "proofs for the immortality of the soul"' (p. 4). Consistent with this indirect reference to alternative interpretations, BKS's bibliography omits classic papers by Ackrill and Vlastos on two of the arguments for immortality,[[3]] and does not even include the discussion of the Phaedo in a recent collection of essays on differing approaches to Plato.[[4]]

The rest of this brief review will deal with one major issue in the interpretation of the dialogue, and a few points of detail in the translation.

For BKS the Phaedo is 'a playful recasting' (p. 3) of the myth of Theseus' rescue of fourteen Athenian youths from the Minotaur in Crete.[[5]] Socrates is Theseus; the fourteen friends in the prison are the youths; and Phaedo, the fifteenth, is Ariadne 'whose narrative thread leads us into and through Plato's labyrinth of arguments.' The Minotaur is ambivalently represented as either the fear of death 'slain' by Socrates' various arguments, or as the 'hatred of argument' (misology) that Socrates confronts in defending philosophy itself. But since Socrates himself gives a 'bullish' (TAURHDO/N, 117b5) look just before his death, he himself is also the Minotaur who by dying calmly encourages the surviving youths not to fear death, while using his appearance to scare them into cherishing his arguments more than his person (p. 23).

This reconstruction will, I imagine, provoke scepticism in most readers. Plato may indeed be 'playing' with the myth of Theseus in the Phaedo, but is he also using it to suggest a comprehensive interpretation of the dialogue? At issue is the significance of 'subtext', since the Minotaur is never directly mentioned in the dialogue, and is evoked verbally only through the aforementioned TAURHDO/N (117b5). Yet grant BKS everything they claim, and we are still left with an interpretation of the dialogue only in broad metaphilosophical and metaethical terms, something not easily conveyed to beginning students, who will want to explore the arguments that Socrates uses. For even if these are, as BKS claim, 'deliberately contrived "bad arguments"'(p. 1), their deficiencies still need to be analyzed more rigorously than, for example, at p. 4, where we learn that the psychological dualism in this dialogue is a 'caricature' of Pythagorean asceticism because Socrates (a) had become a father shortly before his death (60a2), (b) could drink with enjoyment (the Symposium is cited for this), and (c) liked stroking Phaedo's hair (89b2-4). Who would want to confront students with this reasoning, and explain why they were reading such a text that was so self- undermining?

BKS seem to have perverted Jacob Klein's principle (a) 'some casually spoken words [in a Platonic dialogue] may be more important than lengthy, elaborate statements' (my italics).[[6]], into (b) any detail can be inflated to decode a dialogue's general meaning. Only (b) could possibly license their astonishing claim that Socrates' playing with Phaedo's hair 'is surely one of the most remarkable moments in the Platonic dialogues' (p. 11), since it shows that Socrates does not hate 'bodily things'! Such exegesis may recommend itself in departments of literature. Philosophers, however, will want their students to consider arguments, and classicists will want them to have more information than is provided here on the Platonic corpus, as well as on earlier Greek concepts of the soul, and later ancient theories of its immortality.

Turning to the translation, it is, as I have indicated, serviceable, i.e., generally fluent, and with a good feel for metaphors.[[7]] There are some gratuitous Americanisms ('discombobulated', 100d3; 'gotten heavy', 117e4),[[8]] and a peculiar policy of translating YUXH/ by the feminine gender (see e.g. 83b6 for the marvelously banal 'she keeps herself away from pleasures'!), and of using 'thoughtful/thoughtfulness' for FRO/NIMOS and FRO/NHSIS (neither innovation discussed in the Glossary).[[9]] There are also some problems with the underlying scholarship. For example, at 114d it is not 'apparent' that the soul is something deathless when FAI/NESTHAI is being used here with a participle; it is 'evidently' so (Grube). Again, Socrates' last words were not spoken after the anatomically vague 'parts about his lower belly' (TA\ PERI\ TO\ H)=TRON, 118a5) became frigid. The idiom of PERI/ with a bodily part is a way of referring directly to that part, not to its 'surrounding' area.[[10]] Grube's 'as his belly was getting cold' has it dead right.[[11]]

But such problems go deeper when we find unidentified deviations from Burnet's Oxford text (of 1900,) which BKS (p. 25) claim to have used for their version, despite the new OCT having been available for three years.[[12]] Thus at 75d2 they may have been influenced by that new edition's text when (with reference to the forms, Equal, Good and Beautiful identified in that context) they offer: '[our present argument is] about all those things upon which we set the seal "that which is".' Burnet unjustifiably emended the object of 'set the seal' to TO\ " O(/ E)/STI", ('the just what it is' , as he himself translated it [[13]]). BKS's text could be TOU=TO, TO\ "O(\ E)/STI" (Heindorf's combination of the direct and indirect tradition accepted into the new OCT) (or conceivably TO\ "O(\ E)/STI"), and, while they are anyway quite right to reject Burnet's emendation, they should (a) have indicated their decision and its sources, and (b) have followed Gallop in translating this expression as 'what it [sc. any form] is'; i.e., E)/STI should be taken here in a predicative sense, with the whole phrase read as a way of identifying the forms; see Gallop (1975), above n. 1, 130f., and Rowe on 75d2.

Again, at 82d3 'those who . . . don't live to serve the body' does not reflect Burnet's SW/MATI PLA/TTONTES. BKS (like Grube) may have tacitly accepted SW/MATI LATREU/ONTES (Heindorf's emendation, recorded in the new OCT's apparatus criticus, though not by Burnet), or else perhaps read SW=MA PLA/TTONTES (Verdenius),[[14]] and then fudged the participle, which refers to 'exercising' (the activity of 'moulding' practised in a gymnasium; see Rowe ad loc.). The new OCT, anticipated by Hackforth in his translation [see n. 1 above] has the acceptable manuscript reading, SW/MATA PLA/TTONTES.

These kinds of deficiencies might have been less significant had BKS done more to reach the university students most likely to read the Phaedo. But the Pullins Philosophical Library is a very different enterprise from its Classical Library where texts, mainly of Greek dramas, are translated with detailed annotation by major scholars, and are, I have found, pedagogically effective in classics in translation courses. How could the same publisher be producing two such contrasting projects?


[[1]] These are David Gallop, Plato: Phaedo (Clarendon Plato Series) (Oxford 1975), the version of choice for philosophers because of its detailed notes, though these are omitted in its revised version in 'The World's Classics' (Oxford 1993); G.M.A. Grube, Plato: Phaedo, (Indianapolis 1980[2]), also in Grube, Five Dialogues (Indianapolis 1981) 93-155, and J.M. Cooper (ed.), Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis 1997) 49-100; and H. Tredennick and H. Tarrant (tr.), Plato: The Last Days of Socrates (London 1993), a version with notes accessible to non-philosophers. The translations by R.S. Hackforth (Cambridge 1955) and R.S. Bluck (London 1955), now out of print, are also still worth consulting by philosophers. I shall refer to some of these translations below by the authors' names, as also to C.J. Rowe (ed.), Plato: Phaedo (Cambridge 1993), which is a Greek text with commentary.

[[2]] See Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato's Meno (Chapel Hill 1965). His Plato's Trilogy: Theaetetus, the Sophist, and the Statesman (Chicago 1977) 1f., provides a succinct statement of his exegetical principles.

[[3]] These are J.L. Ackrill, 'Anamnesis in the Phaedo: Remarks on 73c-75c,' in E.N. Lee et al. (edd.), Exegesis and Argument (Assen 1974) 177-95, repr. in Ackrill, Essays on Plato and Aristotle (Oxford 1997) 13-32; and G. Vlastos, 'Reasons and Causes in the Phaedo,' Philosophical Review 78 (1969) 291-325, repr. in Vlastos, Platonic Studies (Princeton 1981[2]) 76-110.

[[4]] See Joachim Dalfen and Kenneth Dorter in chapter 13 (pp. 215-32) of Charles L. Griswold (ed.), Platonic Writings: Platonic Readings (New York and London 1988).

[[5]] See Klein, Plato's Trilogy [[2]] 1, for 'playfulness' as a quality that permeates the seriousness of a Platonic dialogue. BKS think that commentators too can be 'playful'; at least they say (p. 5) that they will 'playfully' divide the dialogue into fourteen sections, corresponding to the number of Socratic followers!

[[6]] Klein, Plato's Trilogy [[2]] 2.

[[7]] Yet BKS are typical in failing to respect the Platonic idiom of explicating metaphors. Thus at 106a10 Plato is not pleonastically saying that at the approach of fire something imperishably 'un-cold' will 'never be extinguished or perish': OU)/POT' A)\N A)PESBE/NNUTO OU)D' A)PW/LLUTO. He is instead clarifying the metaphor in 'be extinguished' by adding 'in other words, not be destroyed'. There are numerous examples of this usage in the Phaedo, which translators invariably render misleadingly as either a disjunctive or conjunctive expression; see 62b5-6, 69b8, 70c1-2, 87d2-3, 106b3-4. On the idiom see R. Renehan, Studies in Greek Texts (Goetingen 1976) 136f., and E.R. Dodds (ed.), Plato: Gorgias on Gorgias 447a3 at p. 189.

[[8]] Cebes' Boetian I)/TTW ZEU/S (62a8) becomes via what is, I believe, an American regional dialect, 'Doan Zeus knowet', an equivalence that can join the curiosity list with 'Guid sakes, yes!' (Hackforth), or 'You better believe it' (Rowe ad loc.).

[[9]] On both these points see further the recent review by C.A. Anderson, BMCR 99.3.15 (at

[[10]] See P.T. Stevens, 'Aristotle and the Koine', CQ 30 [1936] 212.

[[11]] For scholars so concerned with the dramatic form of Platonic dialogues, BKS (p. 21f.) rather surprisingly take this whole death scene at face value. One might have expected them to be sympathetic to the kind of position advocated by C. Gill, 'The Death of Socrates,' CQ n.s. 23 (1973) 25-28, who sees it as an ahistorical representation of a purification ritual.

[[12]] E.A. Duke at al. (edd.), Platonis Opera: Tomus I (Oxford 1995).

[[13]] This is in his edition with commentary, Plato's Phaedo (Oxford 1911) ad 75d2.

[[14]] W.J. Verdenius, 'Notes on Plato's Phaedo', Mnemosyne ns 4.12 (1958) 193-243 (at p. 217), accepted by Gallop [[1]].