Satyagraha

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Harry Spens and the First English Translation of Plato’s Republic

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Stephanus MANY 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 [1852] 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.

Spens, Harry. The Republic of Plato. Glasgow: R. and A. Foulis, 1763. Reprinted several times by Richard Garnett (Ed.), London, 1906–1922.

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.MR decoration

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Written by John Uebersax

January 13, 2015 at 2:17 am

Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic

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IN a series of articles I’ve proposed that we should devote more effort to understanding Plato’s Republic as a psychological allegory. The table below summarizes interpretations of key elements of the Republic. The basic reasoning behind these, as previously described, is as follows:

  1. The Republic is mainly a work on individual psychology, morals, and religion. It is also a practical work, in that Plato aims to help readers advance in these areas. We agree with Hoerber (1944), Guthrie (1986), Waterfield (1993), Annas (1999), Blössner (2007) and others who suggest that any interests Plato may have had in political science are subordinate to these greater concerns of his. As Socrates states explicitly in 2.368d–369a and reminds of us frequently, the ideal city is presented as a conceptual tool that enables us to better understand the ‘politics’ our interior life.
  1. Plato succeeds in this because the human psyche can, in fact, be accurately likened to a commonwealth of citizens (the city-soul analogy). Modern psychology has confirmed this seminal insight of Plato. Psychic pluralism is recognized by dozens of modern personality theories (for reviews see Rowan, 1990 and Lester, 2010; see also Carter, 2008). Different theories give different names for these inner ‘citizens’: subselves, subpersonalities, complexes, schemas, ego states, potential selves, etc.; but for convenience we may select the term sub-ego as roughly meaning any or all of these things.
  1. We have a separate sub-ego associated with, at the very least, every one of our social roles, personal relationships, jobs, affiliations, projects, goals, hopes, plans, self-images, appetites and desires, passions and emotions, and so on. And these are only our conscious sub-egos. Nobody knows how many more ‘people’ there are within us operating at a sub- or unconscious level. Our psyche, therefore, may easily contain hundreds or thousands of autonomous or semi-autonomous sub-egos of varying complexity, each vying to attain its interests.
  1. This commonwealth of the psyche — psychopolis — can be well or poorly governed, congenial or conflict-ridden, integrated or fragmented, harmonious or discordant (see e.g., Lester pp. 55−62, 77−80, 90f., 151f.; Rowan pp. 86, 89f. 92f., 200−206, 211−215). Plato’s aim in the Republic is to instruct us how to achieve a well-governed, harmonious psyche by a moral regimen he terms philosophia, the love of Wisdom.
  1. A major and distinctive feature of the Platonic system is that ethics and epistemology are inseparable. In a poorly integrated and conflicted soul-city, each sub-ego seeks only its own narrow interests. In a well-governed and integrated soul-city, each sub-ego looks to the good of all, as well as to its own interests. For example, in a vicious soul-city, a money-seeking sub-ego might seek to acquire wealth by questionable means, putting it into conflict with other sub-egos. Psychic harmony and integration result when sub-egos consult the innate moral sense (moral noesis; vision of the Good) and moderate their activity accordingly.
  1. The soul-city analogy supplies Plato with a metaphoric language that enables him to describe aspects of the structure and dynamics of the psyche for which other terms and concepts are inadequate. Many details of his model city would be impossible, absurd, or injurious to implement literally; we should instead understand these as metaphors that illustrate principles of the interior life. It is, for example, like telling someone, “I can’t find exact terms to describe how intelligent Sam is, but if intelligence were height he’d be 10 feet tall.” The analogy makes perfect sense. But it doesn’t mean that human beings are or can be 10 feet tall. Similarly when Plato describes implausible details of his theoretical city (e.g., a caste system, a ruling class, eugenics, common wives, that rulers should lie to citizens, etc.) we should not assume that he means them literally, but only as metaphors for psychological principles.

Table 1 supplies psychological interpretations for some of the key elements of the Republic. These should be understood as illustrative rather than certain or dogmatic. It is important in any case that allegorical interpretation be guided by an explicit theoretical foundation, to avoid imposing wrong and idiosyncratic meanings (a constant danger with this approach). Our guiding premise here is that Plato is concerned with the moral salvation of the individual — something we can assert with a fair degree of confidence by considering, among other things, his other works, the writings of later Platonists, and his cultural influence generally.

Table 1: Psychopolis

Plato’s Republic as Psychological Allegory

Figure Psychological Interpretation
The polis The community of ones psyche, personality, mind or soul; psychopolis
Citizens of the polis sub-egos, complexes, dispositions, etc.
Rulers Specialized sub-egos responsible for inner government; rational in nature.
Auxiliaries, soldiers Sub-egos concerned with protecting the ‘city’ from inner and outer threats, and enforcing laws of the rulers. These are also associated with: (1) seeking social recognition and honor, and (2) incensive passions like indignation and anger.
Artisans, workers Appetitive sub-egos concerned with gratifying desires, material gain, etc.
Sophists Sub-egos which deceive us with false reasoning, biased judgment, wishful thinking, etc.
Poets (of the bad sort) Like sophists, but associated with nonrational fancies, delusions, follies
Philosopher-king A special ruler sub-ego which seeks harmonization and integration of entire personality based on Wisdom, Virtue, and ones innate moral sense (vision of the Good)
Education of rulers Measures taken to develop the philosophical sub-ego(s): e.g., by dialectic, virtue, contemplation, music, etc.
Prisoners (Cave Allegory) Sub-egos ‘chained’ to faulty (distorted by self-interest) notions of goodness and associated false reasonings
Regimes Alternative systems by which psychopolis is governed
   Spartan/Cretan Natural, wholesome following of instinct; playful, childlike, spontaneous, innocent.
   Monarchy/Aristocracy Government by the best and most virtuous elements of ones soul
   Timocracy Rule by honor-seeking or self-righteous sub-ego(s); may lead to over-control and rebellion by appetitive sub-egos.
   Oligarchy Government by sub-egos concerned with material gain
   Democracy Short-sighted hedonism; ‘if it feels good, do it’; no consistent course.
   Tyranny Obsessive, destructive pursuit of single desire or appetite (e.g., addiction)
Men ‘Male’ elements of personality: logic; impersonal idealism; action and initiative; anger and aggression; the intellect.
Women ‘Female’ elements of personality: feelings, sensations; affections; the will.
Children Newly conceived sub-egos
Golden/Silver races Nobler (more virtuous, wise, authentic) sub-egos and thoughts
Bronze/Iron races Baser (less virtuous, etc.) sub-egos and thoughts
Intermarriage Sub-egos of differing nobility may interbreed, producing children of a mixed nature. We must test sub-egos to determine their quality, and cannot rely on pedigree alone to judge worthiness to be rulers.
Tyrant’s progress (Books 8 & 9) A non-virtuous regime tends to invite further weakening our virtue, wisdom, and discernment, so that the next regime is usually worse. There is a characteristic trajectory of decline through the regimes of aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. One may, however, avoid this descent by means of philosophia.
Reincarnation (Myth of Er) Like above; one personality structure succeeds another according to lawful principles. For example through neglect of virtue one may become an animal (i.e., irrational).   Improvement is also possible (cf. Phaedrus 248b−250c: a philosopher will fare well in the ‘next life.’)

While above we have considered how modern personality theory may inform our understanding of Plato’s Republic, it is the reverse question that is perhaps more important: what insights about psychology does this, the greatest philosophical book the West has produced, contain, and how may we apply them in fields like personality theory, counseling and psychotherapy, and cognitive science? This would seem at face value an enormously promising question. Is it just possible that the Republic supplies a bridge, as it were, between the ancient wisdom of humankind — the perennial philosophy — and the modern, scientific mind? Final judgment must await further study. However I believe the existing evidence is sufficient to warrant a much more concerted effort than we have yet seen for psychologists to study the Republic and Plato’s other works.  We may, however, make some preliminary conjectures. The Republic, at a minimum, may contribute to modern personality theory the following concepts:

  • There is a somewhat hierarchical structure to sub-egos; some are acquisitive and appetitive; others rule or govern; an intermediate class enforce ‘laws’ and protect the psychic community.
  • There is a natural telos or optimal end point for personality development and the organization of psychopolis. We are designed by nature to reach a point of harmonious mental integration. Therefore psychotherapy and counseling should seek to align themselves and cooperate with this natural process.
  • Human beings have an innate moral nature. Self-actualization is an inherently moral process. Traditional concepts of virtue, morality, religiosity, and even sin (moral error) cannot be dismissed, but rather need to be understood and included in modern personality theory.
  • Human beings have a mode of intellectual knowing above discursive reasoning. This is noesis: an immediate apprehension or ‘seeing’ of first principles of logic and mathematics, morality, and religion (Uebersax, 2013). Incorrect reasoning that originates from narrowly defined self-interest (egoism) is remedied by an ascent to noetic experience.
  • Plato, in effect, proposes a technology for achieving what Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) called peak and plateau experience and ‘Being‘.
  • There are several common regimes, better and worse, by which individuals govern the internal community. There are also common patterns of transitions from one regime to another. Vicious regimes tend to become more vicious.   Specific means are available (dialectic, contemplation, piety, ‘fair thoughts, true words, and good works’) by which one may progress from worse to nobler and better integrated regimes.

References

Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ch. 4, pp. 72–95), Ithaca, 1999.

Blössner, Norbert. The City-Soul Analogy. In: Ed. G. R. F. Ferrari, The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch. 13, pp. 345–385 ), Cambridge, 2007.

Carter, R. (2008) Multiplicity. New York: Little Brown.

Guthrie, William K. C. History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986. (See e.g., pp. 434–435 & note on p. 561.)

Hoerber, Robert G. The Theme of Plato’s Republic. Dissertation. Washington University, St. Louis, 1944.

Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York, 1968.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York, 1971.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990 (repr. 2013).

Uebersax, John. Higher Reason.  Paso Robles, CA: Californians for Higher Education Reform,  November 2013.

Uebersax, John. Psychology, Philosophy, and Plato’s Divided Line. Online article. Author website. 2014.

Uebersax, John S. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 29 August 2014. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Platonism as Psychotherapy. Christian Platonism.  26 June 2014.  Accessed 1 December 2014.

Uebersax, John. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. Online article. Author website. 2014.

Waterfield, Robin (tr.). The Republic of Plato. (Introduction). Oxford, 1993 (repr. 1998).

rev. 30 Dec 2015