Archive for the ‘Plato’s Republic’ Category
FOREWARD. The present short article presents two ideas. One is that, contrary to the received opinion, Plato’s Republic is not mainly a book on civil politics, but an allegory for the managing the inner city of ones soul. The second is that one particular way Plato’s theories can benefit modern psychology is that they successfully integrate traditional concepts of morality with the issue of personality integration. Plato’s works, and the Republic in particular, offer a bridge between modern personality psychology and the perennial philosophy.
ONE of the most consistent and important findings in the vast 20th century literature on personality theory is that the psyche is not unitary, but plural. The subselves which jointly constitute the personality have been variously called subpersonalities, subegos, part selves, schemata, complexes, and numerous other terms. While there are some differences amongst these theoretical models, they largely agree. Herein we will use the term subpersonality in a comprehensive sense to include all these other related concepts.
Excellent reviews of this literature have been supplied by Rowan (1990), Carter (2008), and Lester (2010). Lester’s work is especially valuable for present discussion because he has attempted to lay out the principles of subpersonality theory in a compelling, axiomatic way. In the same spirit of axiomatic and scientific development, the present article, which is concerned with the psychological interpretation of Plato’s Republic, builds on the existing framework of Lester (2010) with a series of hypotheses, conjectures, or postulates.
* * *
Postulates and Conjectures
1. Each person has, besides well-developed subpersonalities, a larger number of less well developed complexes which we might call proto-personalities (or part personalities; cf. Carter’s concept of minors and micros). Each desire, interest, appetite, ambition, goal, project, social role, attachment, possession, relationship etc. has its own sub- or proto-personality. The number of such entities may therefore easily range into the hundreds or thousands. Herein we will understand the term subpersonality to include proto-personalities.
2. Subpersonalities have affective and intellectual components. At the intellectual level, a subpersonality may be more, or less reasonable. Many (if not most) subpersonalities have impaired ‘reality-testing.’
3. Subpersonalities may be conscious, subconscious, or unconscious. One benefit of bringing a sub- or unconscious subpersonalities into conscious awareness is that one may then teach them to become more reasonable (i.e., have better reality testing).
4. Subpersonalities have individual construct systems (Kelly, 1955).
5. Construct systems contain first principles and supporting premises. Some construct systems are reality-based; others are fantasy-based.
6. Human beings have certain ultimate innate values. These are experienced as eternal verities (Love, Truth, Beauty, Goodness, etc.) in transient peak experiences and more enduring plateau experiences (Maslow, 1971), and are culturally reinforced in myriad ways.
7. Subpersonalities whose construct systems are founded on eternal verities harmonize more readily with other such ‘truly informed’ subpersonalities. The more subpersonalities there are which are truly informed, the more harmonious the self-community will be.
8. Conversely, in the degree to which subpersonalities are based on narrow self-interest, pleasure-seeking, and distorted beliefs, their construct systems conflict with those of other subpersonalities. Then inner confusion, competition, and disharmony are the norm.
9. Because psychic plurality (i.e., the self as a community of subpersonalities ) is so deeply important to the human condition, we can be certain it has been recognized before modern times.
10. Traditional systems, religious and philosophical, concerned with the attainment of self-realization, happiness, psychic integration, etc., would of necessity have to consider the multiplicity of self.
11. Plato’s unique fame and status as the most eminent Western philosopher testifies to the deep relevance of his writings to the human condition. Inasmuch as Plato is explicitly concerned with promoting psychic harmony, happiness, and a blessed life, we would expect him to address and resolve difficulties associated with psychic pluralism.
12. Plato’s most famous work, the Republic, is an allegory for the governance of the polity of the psyche, and not mainly a work on civil politics. Evidence supporting this hypothesis include:
(12a) Plato says this explicitly in Book 1 (1.368), and reminds us of it repeatedly throughout the work (see Waterfield, 1993, Introduction for a large list of relevant passages).
(12b) This has been recognized by many leading commentators on the Republic (e.g., Annas, 1999; Guthrie, 1986; and Waterfield, 1993, to name a few).
(12c) Unlike Aristotle, Plato’s writings do not stray from the theme of philosophia, that is, the moral salvation of the individual by love of Wisdom and Virtue. (Aristotle, in contrast, delved into every form of science.) It would be strange for Plato to put aside his immense project of individual salvation to embark on a scientific treatise on political science.
(12d) Read literally, Plato’s Republic contains numerous implausibilities and nonsense, such as the holding of wives in common, the sanctioning of eugenics and slavery, and the endorsement of government lying. Read as a political treatise, the Republic is absurd and amateurish. But read as an allegory it is accurate, sublime, deeply relevant, and a work worthy of someone regarded as the West’s greatest philosopher.
(12e) The most emblematic sections of the Republic, namely the central discussions of the Cave, the Sun, and the Divided Line, have little practical relevance to political science. But they are of utmost importance to solving the problem of how to govern the city of the soul.
13. We now proceed to outline Plato’s model for the optimal governance of the psyche. Our interpretative key is that the citizens referred to in Plato’s Republic correspond to subpersonalities of the individual psyche.
14. Citizens (subpersonalities) are roughly grouped into three categories: Workers, Soldiers, and Guardians. It’s not difficult to see how these may correspond to different classes of subpersonalities, but this detail need not concern us at present; it suffices to note that, in the Republic, each class contains many individual citizens (subpersonalities). Due partly to the sheer number of citizens, some system of government for psychopolis, and one more complex than a simple committee, is needed. We may find models, Plato suggests, by examining how actual cities are governed.
15. In Book 8 of the Republic, Plato considers a variety of forms of civil government: monarchy, aristocracy, timocracy (rule by honor/status), oligarchy, democracy (including mob rule), and tyranny. In each case he makes a point to say that it corresponds to a form of inner self-governance. (Indeed, we can easily see examples of personality structures that correspond to each of these five types of civil government.)
16. When each inner citizen is concerned only with narrow self-interest, there is inevitable conflict in the polity; there then tends to be a progression from more benign to more tyrannical forms of self-government.
17. Plato agrees with modern subpersonality theorists that there is a common tendency towards development of an autocratic or tyrannical subpersonality. However whereas some modern theorists seem most concerned about an overly moralistic autocrat, Plato more often associates inner tyranny with a disproportionate attachment to some pleasure or appetite (e.g., addiction). Mendlovic’s theory of how inner totalitarianism may develop (see Lester, 2012, p. 3) is more in line with Plato’s.
18. Plato’s solution to inner faction and conflict is the Rule of Wisdom (philosophia). In modern terms this would correspond to a psyche where subpersonalities anchor their construct systems on core values (eternal verities), rather than transient pleasures and narrow self-interest.
19. The prisoners in Plato’s cave symbolize subpersonalities which have not attained to right reasoning (based on core values), and are instead chained to egoistic, pleasure-seeking delusion (parataxic distortion).
20. In Plato’s allegory, climbing out of the cave and seeing the Sun symbolizes an ascent of the mind in peak experiences and plateau experiences, giving it a vision of eternal verities, on which basis it may then develop nondistorted construct systems and rules of action.
21. The philosopher king for Plato symbolizes the development of a new ruling or leading (Greek: hegemonikon) subpersonality. One function of this subpersonality is to educate other subpersonalities (expressed allegorically as the philosopher, having himself escaped the cave and seen Truth, returns to help liberate the other prisoners).
22. In a later work, the Statesman, Plato continues to allegorically explore the theme of what qualities make for the best (internal) leader. He likens optimal leadership to art, music, shepherding, and weaving, as opposed to ruling dogmatically and arbitrarily.
23. Throughout his works Plato supplies several means by which a person may experience ultimate truths, thereby helping to constellate the new philosopher king subpersonality, and to educate and harmonize other subpersonalities. Roughly speaking, three means of ascent are presented: dialectic (ascent by Truth), contemplation of Beauty), and moral excellence. In each case we may find parallels in Maslow’s writings to conditions which may trigger peak experiences.
24. Plato’s system differs from much modern personality theory in that it is an explicitly moral system. It allows for, in fact requires, the existence of objective, universally true moral principles. It also acknowledges that humans ought to be moral, and that moral error is something real, and with definite negative psychological sequelae.
25. Modern psychology, in contrast, has tended to follow (or lead) in the broader cultural tendency to consider all morality relative and conditioned (e.g., Freud, Skinner). This overall trend has contributed to a widespread dissociation of a traditionally recognized higher moral faculty (Conscience) from the rest of the psyche. Psychic balance and harmony require integration of moral Conscience into conscious psychic life.
26. Human beings have a telos, an intended optimal state designed by Nature. There exists a real, innate force of self-actualization. This means we are, so to speak, hard-wired to integrate the personality, which has definite implications for therapy and counseling. There is also an opposing innate self-destructive principle; this also has implications for therapy and counseling.
27. Understanding Plato’s Republic as an allegorical work on psychology has decided benefits. One is that we may mine from it important new insights about personality structure, dynamics, and integration.
28. Another is clinical: for some individuals, the study of Plato may be better for promoting personality integration and self-actualization, or removing obstacles to these, than psychotherapy.
29. Platonism has the same objective as traditional religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Vedanta, Buddhism, etc.) It may therefore be pursued in conjunction with traditional religion, and then the two are mutually supportive.
30. Just as it is helpful to travel with multiple maps, individual self-actualization is best pursued as a venture that is simultaneously scientific, philosophical, and religious.
Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ed. Julia Annas. Ithaca, 1999, pp. 72–95 (Ch. 4).
Carter, Rita. Multiplicity. New York: Little Brown, 2008.
Guthrie, William K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986.
Kelly, George. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York, 1955.
Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.
Lester, David. A multiple self theory of the mind. Comprehensive Psychology, 2012, 1, 5.
Maslow, Abraham. Toward a Psychology of Being. 2nd ed. New York, 1968.
Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990.
Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles: El Camino Real Books, 2012.
Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Online article. Last modified: August 29, 2014; accessed: January 12, 2017.
Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. Online article. Last modified: December 1, 2014; accessed: January 12, 2017.
Uebersax, John. Is Plato’s Republic About Psychology or Politics? What Can Bayes’ Rule Tell Us? Online article. Last modified: December 21, 2015; accessed: January 12, 2017.
Uebersax, John. On the Psychological Meaning of Plato’s Nuptial Number. Online article. Last modified: January 10, 2016; accessed: January 12, 2017.
Uebersax, John. Plato Divinus: Is Plato a Religious Figure? (to appear, Kronos Philosophical Journal, 2017).
Waterfield, Robin (tr.). The Republic of Plato. Oxford, 1993 (re-issued 1998).
v2.0 January 2017
IN HIS Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius cites Thrasylus (d. 36 CE) to the effect that the work of Plato we call The Republic had two Greek titles, Politeia (Πολιτεία) and peri dikaiou (περὶ δικαίου; DL 3.60). From the better-known former one, we get (somewhat indirectly) our title The Republic. We will return to that, but first let’s consider the second title. This is usually translated as On Justice, but that is incorrect. The Greek word for justice is dikaiosune. While derived from the same root (dike), the word dikaiou, a pronoun, means a just man or person. Further, the word ‘just’ here is somewhat misleading. In modern English we tend to equate justice with social justice. In that sense a just man would be one who deals fairly with others. But the Greek concept of dike is broader — more like what we call ‘in right measure’ (the goddess Dike is sometimes pictured holding a balance scale). A more accurate translation of dikaiou therefore is a rightly ordered or righteous person.
The word politeia means a system of government, a form of political regime, or, by extension, a constitution. We get the word Republic not from the Greek word, but from the title of Cicero’s dialogue, Res publica (the public thing), which he styled in imitation of Plato’s work. However, as noted by Tarrant (2012) and others, some manuscripts give this title as politeiai, a plural form. This would be translated as systems of government, constitutions, or regimes.
We end up with the possibility that (although Plato, as far as we know, himself named none of his dialogues) the title of the work we call The Republic would, by ancient readers, have been understood as something like Regimes: On the Righteous Person. This would have made it clear that the dialogue is a work on ethics and psychology, with discussion of city governments supplying an allegorical framework for investigating the good and bad government of ones soul or psyche.
Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. R.D. Hicks (tr.). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA. 1925 (repr. 1972).
Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s Republics. Journal of the International Plato Society, 12, 2012. Online version: mar 2013.
HAT Plato’s Republic is not a literal work on political science, but a carefully crafted allegory for the internal governance of ones mind and soul seems to me beyond doubt. Several lines of evidence support this conclusion, beginning with dozens of explicit statements by Plato to the effect throughout the work (Annas, 1999; Uebersax, 2014a,b; Waterfield, 1993). Nevertheless I also know that before realizing this, I had, like most everyone else, uncritically accepted the received opinion that the Republic is Plato’s effort to describe a utopian society. So even though it may be wrong, the literal view of the Republic, widespread and deeply entrenched, can’t simply be brushed aside.
Recently it occurred to me that a strong argument for understanding the Republic as a psychological allegory can be made on the basis of formal probabilistic reasoning. Specifically, I refer to a principle called Bayes’ rule. This is a formula (named after Rev. Thomas Bayes, an 18th century mathematician) by which one can quantify the degree to which evidence supports a given conclusion. While Bayes’ rule is often considered something modern, it actually corresponds to how we naturally form inferences from empirical data. We will, in any case, omit details here. (Those interested in more background can find ample material on the web.) It is, however, assumed that the reader has at least a little knowledge of basic probability and associated notation.
First let us define the problem: we want to choose as more likely one of two hypothesis, H1 and H2, as follows:
H1: The Republic is a psychological allegory.
H2: The Republic is a literal work on political science.
We take H1 and H2 here to be mutually exclusive hypotheses: they cannot both be true. (If we like, we could add words like ‘mainly’, ‘mostly’, or ‘primarily’ to both hypotheses to make this more clearly so.)
Let E denote some empirical evidence. This can be any sort of evidence, but for present purposes we take it to be the entire text narrative of the Republic.
Our task is to choose whether H1 or H2 seems more likely after considering evidence E. In terms of probability theory, we wish to estimate the value of two conditional probabilities:
P(H1|E) = the probability that H1 is true, given E 
P(H2|E) = the probability that H2 is true, given E 
We may then decide in favor of H1 (allegorical meaning) if  is greater than , or in favor or H2 (literal meaning) if  is greater than .
As it happens we cannot directly estimate the values of  and . But this is where Bayes’ rule comes in. Bayes’ rule is an extremely simple formula that describes the relationship between a conditional probability and its converse — that is, between P(X|Y) and P(Y|X).
Again, we’ll skip the details here. All that matters is that a simple application of Bayes’ rule in the present case leads to the two following equations:
P(H1|E) = c × P(H1) × P(E|H1) 
P(H2|E) = c × P(H2) × P(E|H2) 
Thus, given some evidence E, we can decide whether H1 or H2 is more likely by evaluating and right sides of equations  and  and seeing which is larger.
The term c here is a constant, and as it appears in both  and  we can ignore it. Hence we need only know which product is larger: P(H1) × P(E|H1) or P(H2) × P(E|H2). If the former, we would opt for an allegorical reading of Republic; if the latter, a literal one.
Note that we’ve introduced two new categories of probabilities:
- P(H1) and P(H2) are the a priori or plausibility probabilities of our two hypotheses H1 and H2 — that is, these express how likely H1 and H2 are considered to be before considering evidence E. Here these reflect how likely we deem it a priori (i.e., before we consult the Republic) that Plato would have wanted to write a psychological allegory vs. a political treatise. For example, we might consider what we know about Plato’s personality and motives, the contents of his other dialogues, and so on.
- P(E|H1) and P(E|H2) are entailment probabilities. These express the degree to which H1 and H2 would, if true, lead to or entail the evidence E. In other words, how much sense does the evidence (i.e., the content of Republic) make under the alternative assumptions of allegorical vs. literal intentions by Plato.
Now comes the fun part. In truth, we have no way of attaching precise numerical values to any of the terms P(H1), P(H2), P(E|H1), and P(E|H2). Yet we can fairly easily make two judgements of comparative magnitude. Specifically, if one considers all the available background evidence besides what’s in the Republic, one can say whether this inclines more in the direction of supporting an allegorical or a literal meaning. Similarly, one can make a reasonably confident judgment about whether the details of Republic are more consistent with an allegorical vs. a literal reading. If these two comparative judgments line up in opposite directions, we cannot draw any firm conclusions. But if they line up the same way, we can.
For example if P(H1) > P(H2) and P(E|H1) > P(E|H2), then P(H1) × P(E|H1) > P(H2) × P(E|H2), and, from equations  and , we can assert that P(H1|E) > P(H2|E). That is, taking into account both background evidence and the text itself, we would judge it more likely Plato meant the Republic as an allegory. We address the two constituent pairwise comparisons, viz., between the two plausibility probabilities and the two entailment probabilities, below.
The a priori plausibility evidence, in my opinion, strongly favors an allegorical reading of Republic. Perhaps the most telling argument is that Plato everywhere else shows an intense concern for the moral improvement of the individual. For Plato the stakes of moral salvation are infinitely high: nothing less than the fate of man’s immortal soul. It seems very implausible that Plato would suddenly drop his life’s work of teaching philosophia — a religious transformation of ones life based on personal holiness and the love of Wisdom and Virtue — in order to speculate about politics.
Further, a vast body of modern psychological literature has persuasively argued that (1) at some very fundamental levels, each one of us is a community of subselves; and (2) to manage these numerous competing and conflicting parts is one of the most difficult and important tasks we face as human beings (for reviews see Rowan, 1993 and Lester, 2010). We cannot suppose this basic fact of human psychology would have escaped the notice of the ancients. This insight, for example, is at the center of Philo’s vast psychological exegesis of the Old Testament (Uebersax, 2012). Said another way, to justify Plato’s singular reputation as the greatest philosopher of the Western tradition, we would expect him to have recognized and tried to address a reality so vital to our psychological and spiritual well-being.
Conversely, the background arguments supporting the literal reading are flimsy, or at least open to considerable question. The argument ‘from tradition’ — that Plato’s Republic has traditionally been understood to be about politics — is quite useless. One might as well argue that the Garden of Eden myth of Genesis was not meant as a moral allegory because generations of uncritical exegetes have taken it literally.
The Seventh Letter might potentially imply political interests of Plato, but this is offset by extremely strong doubts as to the letter’s authenticity. There remains Aristotle’s comments about the Republic in his Politics, which take a literal meaning by Plato for granted. However these highly polemical remarks seem far more concerned with advancing Aristotle’s own views than faithfully explaining Plato’s, and so must be discounted. Surveying all the background information, then, the only thing we can be sure of is Plato’s intense and abiding concern with personal morality and religion, and this favors the view that the Republic is a psychological allegory.
The second question is whether the details in the narrative of the Republic would be more likely if Plato meant the work as an allegory, or if he intended it as a literal work. Here the case is even clearer. As Waterfield (1993) especially has noted, if read at a literal level the Republic abounds in absurdities, incongruities, and gaps. We are not given anywhere near the level of detail that would be required to run a real city. Further, many details that Plato does supply are utterly outrageous — so absurd in fact, that they can seem almost calculated to tease literally-minded readers. If Plato intended to describe an actual city-state, we cannot believe he would have advocated such notions as infanticide, eugenics, communal wives, and intentional lying to citizens by rulers.
We can, however, make definite sense of these otherwise absurd suggestions if we read the Republic as a psychological allegory. For example, one may wish to abort negative or unproductive chains of thought soon after their conception; or, following similar lines of analogy, to encourage marriage and begetting of offspring by the more positive and virtuous elements of ones nature.
By the above, then, we have argued that (1) an allegorical understanding of Plato’s Republic is both more probable a priori than a literal interpretation, and (2) the content of the Republic is more consistent with psychological vs. literal intentions by Plato. By means of Bayes’ rule applied in connection with equations  and , these two comparative judgments allow us to conclude that, considering all available evidence, the Republic is more likely a psychological allegory than a literal political work.
The present is only a very brief treatment of the topic, intended more to introduce the leading principles than to arrive at final certainty. Much more work can go into identifying, evaluating, and comparing the plausibility and entailment probabilities. Herein we have taken the evidence E to be the complete text of the Republic. However the same sort of reasoning could be applied to individual passages; thus we could allow that some sections Plato wished to be taken literally, but in others, say that concerning the Noble Lie, he is writing allegorically.
I personally think that the deeper one delves into the Republic, the stronger the assurance that it is an allegory — but political philosophers may have other ideas, and probably aren’t likely to give up without a fight. In any case, the present supplies a framework in which the issue can be investigated impartially, scientifically, progressively, and in an edifying way.
Annas, J. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1999; Chapter 4, The Inner City, pp. 72−95.
Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.
Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990.
Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.
Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. 2014a. Online document. Satyagraha website.
Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014b. Online document. Satyagraha website.
Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993.
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.