Harry Spens and the First English Translation of Plato’s Republic
ANY know that the noble and estimable Thomas Taylor published the first English-language edition of Plato’s complete works in 1804. Although Taylor suffered poverty and obscurity in his day, his name will live on — if for no other reason than due to the influence of his work on English and American Transcendentalism. Thus, while John Stuart Mill and other British intellectuals severely criticized Taylor’s translations as, among other things, overly influenced by Neoplatonism, Ralph Waldo Emerson praised them.
However the name of another translator, Harry Spens (c. 1714–1787; sometimes listed as Henry Spens), remains obscure to this day. Here we aim to set the record straight and give Spens due credit as the first to translate Plato’s Republic into English in 1763.
The following are excerpts taken from the Introduction which Richard Garnett attached to his edition of Spens’ translation, reprinted several times from 1906 to 1922.
“That service to Plato … is no sure passport to immortality is evinced by the complete oblivion which has overtaken the translation of Plato’s Republic, by Dr. Harry Spens, although its priority to all other English translations, had it no other claim, should have kept it in remembrance. Published in 1763 at the Press of the University of Glasgow, by Foulis, the most eminent Scotch printer of the age, and dedicated to the Prime Minister, it appears to have attracted no notice from contemporaries, and has never been reprinted until now….
“Spens, it appears, was the son of James Spens, Writer to the Signet, and was born in 1713 or 1714 at Kirkton, Alves, Elginshire, where his father possessed a landed estate which had been in the family for generations, which he transmitted to his son. Spens was educated at King’s College and the University, Aberdeen, where he graduated M.A. in 1730. He was licensed to preach in 1738, was ordained minister of Wemyss, Fifeshire, in 1744, and received the degree of D.D. from the University of Aberdeen in 1761. In 1771 he married Anne Duncan. On December 29, 1779, he was installed Professor of Divinity in St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, and on May 25, 1780, received the high distinction of being elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland….
“On the whole, Spens’s version should not be lightly esteemed. It is clearly the work of a scholar and a man of considerable literary ability, who might have rivalled his successors if the standard of his age had been higher, and if he had possessed the apparatus criticus at their disposal. They had magnificent libraries at their command, which gave access to a mass of Platonic literature which did not exist in his day. His labours suffer much in comparison by the absence of the illuminating comment which imparts such zest to the versions of Davies  and of Jowett [1871, 1875, 1892]. This arises in great measure from their special attention to the needs of students, while Spens considers only the general reader, who, by a pleasing fiction, was supposed to be able to read Plato without note or comment.
“[In a] long disquisition upon Plato which Spens has prefixed to his translation … he deplores the decay of the taste for ancient literature, and agrees with almost all contemporary writers in lamenting the luxury of the age, and the universal propensity to read for mere amusement. The perusal of the Republic, he deems, may allure the thoughtless reader: ‘It is handled in an elegant manner, and many things collateral and in connection with the principal subject are most delicately touched; so that the reader is perpetually delighted with the variety of the matter the beauty of the illustrations, the union of the whole, and, in particular, with that genuine air of real life which everywhere appears.’ … The dedication to Lord Bute, exempt from servility as it is, would not at that juncture recommend it to any but North Britons, and it may probably have been little heard of south of the Tweed. It merited a better fate as the first English translation, as a courageous undertaking carried out with exemplary diligence; and also from the amiable character of the translator. He does not say how long his work had occupied him, but intimates that be had used no other translator or commentator than Ficinus.”
Taylor’s translation of Republic borrowed liberally from Spens’ version. Taylor listed Floyer Sydenham, who had contributed nine translations to the Works, alongside his own name on the title page. Spens, however, was given only a brief mention in the Introduction:
Of the translation of the Republic by Dr. Spens, it is necessary to observe, that a considerable part of it is very faithfully executed; but that in the more abstruse parts it is inaccurate; and that it every where abounds with Scotticisms which offend an English ear, and vulgarisms which are no less disgraceful to the translator than disgusting to the reader. Suffice it therefore to say of this version, that I have adopted it wherever I found it could with propriety be adopted, and given my own translation where it was otherwise. (Taylor & Sydenham, 1804, vol. 1, p. 2)
In retrospect, Taylor’s allusion to offensive “Scotticisms” is amusing. (One almost expects to find words like gang and auld!) What Taylor found so vulgar or offensive readers will have to determine for themselves. Without judging Taylor too harshly on this count, we may observe the irony of comments made by Henry Davis in the Preface to his own 1849 translation of Republic:
It will be found strikingly to differ from the uncouth, obscure, un-English, and often extremely erroneous version of Taylor, — the only English dress in which this great philosopher has till now appeared. (Davis, 1849, Preface; italics added)
Was Davis was really unaware of the Spens version of 1743? In any case, just as Taylor had relied heavily on Spens’ earlier version, Davis often retained or made only slight changes to Taylor’s. No doubt Davis and Taylor made important substantive changes; but the fact remains that in both cases a considerable amount of material was recycled from the earlier translation.
To give an example, the following shows the concluding paragraph of Republic (10.621c-d) in each version.
“But if the company will be persuaded by me, accounting the soul immortal, and able to bear all evil and all good, we shall always hold the road which leads above. And justice with prudence we shall by all means pursue in order that we may be friends both to ourselves and to the Gods, both whilst we remain here, and when we receive its rewards, like victors assembled together; and, we shall both here, and in that thousand years’ journey we have described, enjoy a happy life.” (Spens [repr. 1922], p. 348)
“But if the company will be persuaded by me; considering the soul to be immortal, and able to bear all evil, and all good, we shall always persevere in the road which leads above; and shall by all means pursue justice in conjunction with prudence, in order that we may be friends both to ourselves, and to the Gods, both whilst we remain here, and when we receive its rewards, like victors assembled together; and we shall, both here, and in that journey of a thousand years which we have described, enjoy a happy life.” (Taylor & Sydenham, p. 478)
“But if the company will be persuaded by me; considering the soul to be immortal, and able to bear all evil and good, we shall always persevere in the road which leads upwards, and shall by all means pursue justice in unison with prudence, that so we may be friends both to ourselves and the gods, both whilst we remain here, and when we afterwards receive its rewards, like victors assembled together; and so, both here, and in that journey of a thousand years, which we have described, we shall be happy.” (Davis, p. 312)
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has an entry for Spens, but I am unfortunately unable to access it and cannot say how much information it contains.
Concerning Taylor, while he was not the first to translate the Republic into English, his other accomplishments were great and many, and perhaps another time we shall be able to remark upon them.
References & Links
Axon, William E. A. Thomas Taylor, the Platonist. London, 1890.
Davis, Henry. The Republic, Timaeus and Critias. London, 1849. Vol. 2 of Henry Cary, Henry Davis, George Burges, The Works of Plato, 6 vols. (Bohn’s Classical Library.) London, 1848–1854.
Evans, Frank B., III. Platonic Scholarship in Eighteenth-Century England. Modern Philology, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Nov., 1943), pp. 103–110.
Prometheus Trust. Thomas Taylor: The English Platonist. < http://www.prometheustrust.co.uk/html/thomas_taylor.html >. Accessed 26 January 2014.
Taylor, Thomas; Sydenham, Floyer. The Works of Plato. 5 vols. Vol. 1. The First Alcibiades, The Republic. London, 1804.