A review of Republic, by Plato, translated by Joe Sachs
The Republic, by Plato, translated by R.E. Allen


Plato's mother's cousin was a tyrant." So begins the Introduction by G.R.F. Ferrari that graces Tom Griffith's conversational translation of Plato's Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Nothing quite so promising emerges from the introductions to these two new efforts, but the translations that follow prove to be more accurate and useful.

With talk of "noble lies" very much in the air today, it is worth looking at the passage from the Republic in which Socrates first considered their use. Here is how Joe Sachs, a tutor at St. John's College in Annapolis, renders the lead-up to Socrates' disclosure of the content of the lie:

"Then could we come up with some contrivance," I said, "from among the lies that come along in case of need, the ones we were talking about just now, some one noble lie told to persuade at best even the rulers themselves, but if not, the rest of the city?"

"What sort of thing?" he said.

"Nothing new," I said, "but something Phoenician that has come into currency in many places before now, since the poets assert it and have made people believe; but it hasn't come into currency in our time and I don't know if it could—it would take a lot of persuading."

What follows is Socrates' claim that the citizens of the city must come to believe that their education happened before their birth; that they and their "brother" citizens were born from the earth; and that the division of the city into guardians, auxiliaries, and craftsmen/farmers corresponds to the different metals mixed into each individual's soul at birth.

The passage from Sachs shows signs of his debt to Allan Bloom's 1968 translation, which he considers "by far the most accurate available." The ostensible occasion for offering a new one is the recent updating by S.R. Slings of John Burnet's 1903 Oxford University Press edition of the Greek text. Yet Sachs acknowledges that for all Slings's minor emendations, nothing of substance has been added or taken away by the revision. Thus "the mere fact that [Bloom's translation] has held the field since 1968 is reason enough to try to discover whether a worthy alternative to it can be provided."

Unlike Bloom, Sachs adds summaries and outlines of the argument at the beginning of each of the Republic's ten books. If such intrusions tend to diminish the immediacy of the reader's engagement with Plato, they also serve their stated purpose of helping to keep track of a long, complicated dialogue. Sachs's footnotes are also a double-edged sword. For the most part they provide useful cross-references to passages in the Republic or other Platonic texts, but on occasion they strike a false note. When Thrasymachus complains of Socrates' irony, Sachs correctly wants to prevent the reader from confusing the term with sarcasm, and provides this gloss: "The Greek word refers only to the gracious self-deprecating way of speaking that was a specialty of Socrates." Irony can certainly be gracious. One side of an ironic statement is often meant to keep up polite appearances. Yet the other side always remains, carrying with it the distinction between those in the know and those out of it. The ironist certainly deprecates, but his self-deprecation is always a lie. Socrates is not humble and that's important to know.

Sachs adds another reassuring footnote in much the same vein to a passage in Book VI where Socrates claims "a multitude is incapable of being philosophic":

Notice that Socrates is not saying that most people are incapable of philosophy, but only that a large group of people has no such capacity when acting or thinking as one mass. Socrates would probably say that, given enough time in one-on-one discussion with someone who has begun to grasp philosophic possibilities, there would be hope for anyone.

Here Sachs sounds less like a Socratic than like a proponent of universal enlightenment.

Nonetheless, liberation from the conventional opinions of one's own time and place is precisely what Sachs claims to be the purpose of the Republic, and his translation facilitates this end. His treatment of the prologue to the noble lie allows the reader to connect that passage to an earlier one where Socrates maintains that "everyone would least of all stand for telling and having told a lie to the soul about the things that are, and to be ignorant and to have and hold the lie there, and hates it most in such a case." Is the good man modeled on the good city to accept, as does the city, a lie in his soul? Is the analogy then between city and man a sound one? The contradiction in Socrates' presentation compels one to reflect. And on reflection, one must wonder whether Plato is in fact a straightforward supporter of noble lies? If so, he would seem to commit the same mistake as Thrasymachus, who, had he actually believed that justice means taking advantage of others, would have done well to make this easier by keeping his mouth shut or even filling it with conventional pieties. Plato's open insistence on the political necessity to indoctrinate with lies brings out the tension between what's good for the city and good for the individual—precisely the difficulty the lie seeks to obscure. Political life may thrive on blurring sharp distinctions, but philosophy much less so.

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Rousseau maintained that those who judge books by their titles mistake Plato's Republic for a work about politics, when in fact it is the most beautiful treatise on education ever written. Sachs echoes Rousseau and reminds us that the genuine education Plato presents in the Republic is neither the indoctrination of the guardians, nor even the studied cultivation of philosopher-kings who are somehow compelled to contemplate the Forms. It is rather the education Socrates gives to Glaucon, Adeimantus, and the others who were fortunate enough to have been present that night in the Piraeus; and at yet a higher level, the education Plato gives his readers by showing us how Socrates educates.

The late Reginald Edgar Allen, Emeritus Professor in Classics and Philosophy at Northwestern University, has already published translations of a sizable chunk of Plato's corpus, as well as a number of scholarly studies in Platonic metaphysics. He belongs to the school of thought that finds Plato's various accounts of his so-called Theory of Ideas contradictory and wanting, but resolves such difficulties by assigning their expressions to either the early, middle, or late Plato. His Republic, based on the 1903 Burnet text, maintains the high standard set by his other translations. Here is his version of the preamble to the noble lie:

How might we then devise one of those needful falsehoods we were just mentioning? I replied. A single noble and generous fiction, to persuade especially the rulers themselves, but if not, the rest of the city?

What sort of fiction? he said.

Nothing new, I replied, only a kind of Phoenician tale about something which has already happened in many places, as the poets tell and have persuaded us. But it has not happened among us, nor do I know if it could have happened. It would take a great deal of persuasion to believe.

The first thing to note is that Allen remains true to the form in which Plato casts the Republic, that is, as Socrates' narration to some nameless listener of a conversation he had had the previous night. He therefore dispenses with the quotation marks used by other translators to distinguish between the contributions of different interlocutors; he manages to avoid confusion by the use of paragraph breaks and indentations. One immediate benefit of this approach is to make more palpable to the reader the fact that Socrates' (to say nothing of Plato's) poetic imitation would have been banished, on stylistic grounds alone, from the city he proposes: only the unmixed imitator of the decent is welcome there, whereas in his retelling Socrates goes so far as to imitate even the angry Thrasymachus. This observation should arrest our attention, for it is among the first of several suggestions that Plato's presentation of philosophy and philosophic education in the Republic is less than straightforward.

The second thing to note in Allen's translation is the way he renders Plato's gennaios pseudos as "noble and generous fiction." Word for word translation between languages is of course impossible, and English lacks a precise equivalent forgennaios: "well born" or "excellent for its kind" perhaps comes close. "Noble" is the traditional translation here, and Allen chooses to expand on it with the addition of "generous." (Allen is consistent in translating gennaion euetheian at 348d as "a generous good nature." But in the Introduction he translates this very phrase as "a kind of noble simplemindedness or stupidity." The superiority of this rendering inclines me to consider Allen's departure from his own translation as dating from a later and more mature stage of his development.) Now the Latin generosus is a precise match for gennaios, but, unfortunately, to render this as "generous" in English gives too much the impression that the Guardians are here being done a favor. A similar tendency is at work in Allen's choice of "fiction" for the Greek pseudos, a word that means quite straightforwardly "lie" or "falsehood" and lacks the element of poetic or imitative production contained in the English "fiction." It does turn out that the "excellent for its kind lie" is in fact an imaginative production modeled after what poets have made people believe in many other places. But to transform this "well born" or even "excellent" lie into a "noble and generous fiction" dulls the sharp blade of Plato's analysis. He means for the characterization to grate and therefore provoke, for the justice in the origins of this or any other city does not bear looking into. In the sentence immediately preceding and in the earlier passage about the lie in one's soul, Allen does translate pseudos as "falsehood." But his accuracy in these instances only makes it more difficult for the reader to bring the passages together.

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Allen's defensive translations of passages that might call into question the seriousness of Plato's immediate political intent in the Republic would seem to be guided by his understanding of the dialogue. Allen suspects, and rightly so, that Socrates never quite gets around to answering Glaucon's challenge to prove that justice is something good in and of itself. What Socrates offers in its place is a concrete solution for "controlling the mischiefs of faction," a problem which Allen (if not Plato) considers to be "the political problem." Indeed, according to Allen, "we may legitimately read the Republic as an essay in constitutional law"; and he goes on to contrast it directly with James Madison's Federalist #10. For Allen, the two works operate on the same plane or level of thought. Yet it would be one thing for a constitutional scholar, or even a Supreme Court justice, to speak of the Declaration of Independence as if it were a "noble lie." But had James Madison himself said this publicly, one would be compelled to question the edifice he built on that foundation. So, too, with Plato, which is just what he intends.

Faction is a serious political problem. Socrates proposes to overcome it by abolishing privacy, the family, and private property. Here is how he justifies these extreme and even ridiculous measures (in Allen's translation): "Can we state any greater evil for a city than what rends it asunder and makes it many instead of one? Or a greater good than what binds it together and makes it one?" Yet not seven pages before this claim, he justified equal education for men and women on the grounds of producing excellence: "Is anything better for a city than that the best possible men and women should come to be present in it?" Well, what is best for the city, unity or excellence? Now there is a contradiction ripe for reflection, and one that cannot be dismissed or hidden from view by recourse to imagined distinctions between Plato's early, middle, and late periods of development.

Socrates may not fully meet the extreme demands Glaucon places on justice, but this does not mean their conversation is to no effect. At the beginning of the dialogue, Glaucon is full of political ambition and even tempted by the prospect of tyrannical rule. Yet when Socrates suggests in Book VII that the philosophers who have escaped from the Cave be compelled to return there and rule, Glaucon objects, "Then we'll do them an injustice? he said. We'll cause them to live a worse life when they're capable of better?" Glaucon could not have made this objection if he had not somehow been led by Socrates to glimpse, however inadequately, the superiority of philosophy to political life. And from the perspective of philosophy, dissent, to say nothing of faction, is hardly a vice. So, too, in the realm of translation, excellence has been well served by the current availability of several different Republics.

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For Correspondence on this review, click here.