Cultural Psychology

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Blinding Polyphemus Gently

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Arnold Böcklin (Swiss), Odysseus and Polyphemus, 1896

ODYSSEUS’ problems, you’ll recall, began in earnest after he blinded the cyclops, Polyphemus. He might have proceeded straight home without incident, but instead gloated as he sailed away, revealing his name and identity.  It was then that Polyphemus, armed with that information,  asked his father, Poseidon to take revenge — setting the stage for many perils Odysseus faced.

A common view since antiquity is that the Odyssey has an allegorical and philosophical meaning: a return of the mind to its natural homeland of peace, clarity, right reason and wisdom.  The ancient Greeks summed all these things up in one word: sophrosyne, meaning soundness of mind. The events of Odysseus’ journey home symbolize the hazards and milestones in our own psychological process of return — a journey we make daily.  As often as we become disturbed and upset, losing composure and mental clarity, we are like Odysseus, cast into a churning sea and must make our way back.

In Polyphemus — an oafish, anti-social giant, concerned with nothing beyond eating, drinking, sleeping and satisfying primitive biological instincts — we easily see a symbol of our most base nature, more or less corresponding to the Freudian id. Polyphemus’ having only one eye means he sees only the realm of sense perception, oblivious to all that’s spiritual, ideal and eternal.

Despite some of his crew being devoured (symbolizing a disruption of our clear rational consciousness by intrusive thoughts and mental agitation caused by ungratified appetites), Odysseus escapes by using his intelligence.  Some commentators see in the sharpened, fire-hardened pole with which he blinds Polyphemus a symbol for dialectic — e.g., analyzing urges with sharp, incisive reasoning, instead of instantly giving in to them.

But, as we’ve said, Odysseus pays a price, because Poseidon makes his subsequent journey very difficult. [1] This suggests a rather grim picture of life. Is our only choice to either gratify every appetite, or else suffer for not doing so?

Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus (the first Neoplatonist), thought otherwise.  In his short essay, On the Cave of the Nymphs — a landmark in the allegorical interpretation of Homer — he considers a later episode of the Odyssey that, like the Polyphemus story, involves a cave.  When Odysseus, with the help of Athena and the splendid Phaecians, arrives at Ithaca, he lands at the Cave of the Nymphs.  Homer describes the cave in a few lines (Od. XIII 102–112) densely packed with imagery.  Porphyry sees a parallelism between this cave and that of Polyphemus:  once again Odysseus leaves a cave, but this time more fortunately.  Following earlier advice given by the prophet Tiresias in the underworld, Odysseus walks inland until he finds a “land that knows nothing of the sea,” where he plants an oar from his ship and offers appeasing sacrifice to Poseidon.

Porphyry interprets this to mean that, while we should oppose our base nature (Polyphemus), we should do so wisely, and, one might say, with diplomacy. We don’t want an outright confrontation that will elicit Poseidon’s wrath.

Porphyry explains it thus at the end of Cave of the Nymphs:

16. In this cave [of the Nymphs], therefore, says Homer, all external possessions must be deposited. Here, naked, and assuming a suppliant habit, afflicted in body, casting aside everything superfluous, and being averse to the energies of sense, it is requisite to sit at the foot of the olive and consult with Minerva [Athena] by what means we may most effectually destroy that hostile rout of passions which insidiously lurk in the secret recesses of the soul. (tr. Taylor)

He means that the cave is like the haven of our mind which we return to in contemplation, withdrawing our attention from the world of sense.

Indeed, as it appears to me, it was not without reason that Numenius and his followers thought the person of Ulysses in the Odyssey represented to us a man who passes in a regular manner over the dark and stormy sea of generation [genesis = becoming, a Platonic term for the sensory world] and thus at length arrives at that region where tempests and seas are unknown, and finds a nation

“Who ne’er knew salt, or heard the billows roar.” (Ibid.)

Above Porphyry is explaining the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey as a mental journey, attributing this approach to the earlier Platonist philosopher, Numenius.

17. Again, according to Plato, the deep, the sea, and a tempest are images of a material nature [i.e., our biological nature]. (…) But from Thoosa the Cyclops was born, whom Ulysses deprived of sight. And this deed of Ulysses became the occasion of reminding him of his errors, till he was safely landed in his native country. On this account, too, a seat under the olive is proper to Ulysses, as to one who implores divinity and would appease his natal daemon [the id] with a suppliant branch. For it will not be simply, and in a concise way, possible for anyone to be liberated from this sensible life, who blinds this daemon, and renders his energies inefficacious; but he who dares to do this, will be pursued by the anger of the marine and material gods [gods = inner energies and/or archetypal complexes?], whom it is first requisite to appease by sacrifices, labours, and patient endurance; at one time, indeed, contending with the passions, and at another employing enchantments and deceptions, and by these, transforming himself in an all-various manner; in order that, being at length divested of the torn garments (by which his true person was concealed) he may recover the ruined empire of his soul.

Nor will he even then be liberated from labours; but this will be effected when he has entirely passed over the raging sea, and, though still living, becomes so ignorant of marine and material works (through deep attention to intelligible concerns) as to mistake an oar for a corn-van [or winnowing fan — i.e., to be so far inland that people there don’t know what an oar is]. (Ibid.)

Porphyry explains this principle of intelligent resistance to our ‘inner Polyphemus’ more directly in his book advocating vegetarianism for spiritual aspirants, On Abstinence from Animal Food.

32. But this departure [from sense, imagination, and irrationality] may be effected by violence, and also by persuasion and by reason, through the wasting away, and, as it may be said, oblivion and death of the passions; which, indeed, is the best kind of departure, since it is accomplished without oppressing that from which we are divulsed. (…) And this negligence is produced by an abstinence from those sensible perceptions which excite the passions, and by a persevering attention to intelligibles. And among these passions or perturbations, those which arise from food are to be enumerated. (tr. Taylor)

So he’s recommending a moderate, reasoned approach to handling troublesome appetites and passions, instead of a direct confrontation. To put this in practical terms, instead of going on a crash diet, it’s better to wean oneself gradually from over-eating — by, for example, phasing out delicacies that keep us constantly thinking about the next meal.  Have tofu for dinner once in a while, or enjoy a meatless Friday.  Let Polyphemus go gradually to sleep, instead of waging war.

A more general lesson from this is how, allegorically understood, the Odyssey is concerned with practical psychological issues in life.  The same is, of course, also true with the Iliad — and with Greek myths generally (see, e.g., my page here).


  1. A further issue here is the problem of hubris. At first Odysseus is content to call himself “nobody.” Only while sailing off does he tempt the gods by revealing his name and identity. Psychologically, calling himself nobody corresponds to ones ego acting, as it should, on behalf of the entire Self, and exerting a healthy and natural control over the appetites.  The latter situation occurs when the ego becomes too strongly identified with opposing appetites.


Clark, Gillian. Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals. London: Duckworth, 2000. Reprinted: London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Lamberton, Robert. Porphyry: On the Cave of the Nymphs. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1983

Taylor, Thomas (tr.). On Abstinence from Animal Food . In: Thomas Taylor (tr.), Select Works of Porphyry, London: Rodd, 1823, (pp. 1−170).

Taylor, Thomas (tr.). On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Thirteenth Book of the Odyssey. In: Thomas Taylor (tr.), Select Works of Porphyry, London: Rodd, 1823, (pp. 171−200). Reprinted: London, John M. Watkins, 1917.


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.  < >.  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

Written by John Uebersax

January 13, 2015 at 2:17 am