March 20, 2005

Plato Unmasked: The Dialogues Made New, by Keith Quincy

This fascinating book is a new translation of Plato's dialogues, a translation done with two objects in mind. The first was to convey the spice of the original Greek text. Apparently the first English translations of Plato were done in a polite and bowdlerizing era, whereas the Greek text was rather less polite and occasionally outright lewd. The second was to condense Plato's more elaborate rhetorical flights so as to make his philosophical arguments plain and easy to follow without losing any essential nuances.

I predict that this book is going to start a fairly large number of arguments. In the first place, I rather expect it will disjoint the noses of quite a few academic purists. I'm sure that many philosophy departments will ring with the question, "Have you seen the new Reader's Digest version of Plato?" accompanied by snickers and giggles.

The larger number of arguments, though, will be among the groups of people who actually read the book. Now, I have to preface the following remarks by saying that I am not a philosophy major, nor do I speak classical Greek, nor have I read all that much Plato in English translation (and that little almost twenty-five years ago). In short, I am no judge of whether Quincy's condensation is as faithful and nuanced as he claims. On the other hand, I think I can fairly say that it makes for good reading. In the dialogs that I've read so far (Lysis, Euthyphro, Crito, Apology, Phaedo, and Gorgias) I found myself following Plato's arguments without the least bit of difficulty and finding lots of spots where I wanted to argue with him. What's not to like?

And that's why I think the book will start lots of arguments. Because Plato's line of reasoning is so clearly presented, it becomes easier to take exception with it. And as different readers are likely to take exception to different parts, I'd expect discussion to flow fast and furious. In the preface, Quincy notes that he's taught from this translation, and "only in my Plato class have I had to break up a fistfight between students." I expect a book club could have great fun with it.

The dialogs are presented in order of composition; each begins with a historical note (sometimes quite lengthy) about the situation in Athens at the time the dialog supposedly takes place. These are also likely to raise eyebrows, at least for those familiar with Plato and Socrates and not with wider Greek history. We're accustomed to thinking of Plato and Socrates as two of the "good guys"; like almost all human beings, their actual conduct was less than saintly.

Although Quincy claims that his condensed translation captures every important nuance of the original Greek text, he is quick to point out that this book is not intended to replace standard translations of Plato's work, but rather is intended to be an aid to understanding them. In fact, he recommends reading each dialog at least three times: first in a full translation, then in his condensed translation, and then in the full translation once more. For philosophy students I suspect that this is wise council; for the generally curious reader, though, Plato Unmasked stands perfectly well on its own.

Posted by Will Duquette at March 20, 2005 07:59 PM