27 November 2006

You Can't Tell a Book from the Way It's Covered

Suzanne Obdrzalek has a tautly-argued review in BMCR of Terry Penner and Chris Rowe's recent commentary (with translation) of Plato's Lysis.

I so much enjoyed the sharp writing of her review that I read it twice, to make sure I did not miss anything.

Obdrzalek raises many interesting questions, for instance: How can the 'primary object of love' (prw~ton fi/lon 219d1) of the Lysis be wisdom, as Penner and Rowe claim, if we love wisdom, but not the primary object of love, for the sake of other things? (After all, wisdom makes us and what we deal with useful and good.)

Again, Obdrzalek is rightly unconvinced by Penner and Rowe's explanation of the argument that the love of a genuine lover will be reciprocated. She writes:

One difficulty raised by P & R is how Socrates can legitimate moving [sic] from the claim that the beloved is oikeion to the lover to the claim that the lover is oikeion to the beloved--this slide is needed to reach the conclusion that boys mustn't spurn true lovers. P & R's proposal is that if x loves y, then y is oikeion to x and is a means to x's acquisition of wisdom; in that case, x will be oikeion to y. It is difficult to see why the insertion of wisdom into this erotic equation should render philia reciprocal. P & R essentially make the lover loveable by converting him into the beloved, i.e. a means to wisdom.
And, perhaps only for the sake of argument, she gives a brave defense of Vlastos' 'utilitarian' interpretation of the dialogue at the end of her view.

I'd very much like to post on these topics, and maybe I will.

But here I simply wish to lodge an objection against what I think is an unfortunate paragraph near the beginning of Obdrzalek's review:
P & R's book will be of primary interest to scholars of ancient philosophy, particularly those familiar with contemporary analytic debates in the philosophy of language and moral psychology. It should be noted that, though the book presents itself as a translation and commentary, it is not suitable for looking up isolated passages of the dialogue, since it offers a cumulative interpretation. The translation itself is highly literal, and hence less fluid than Lombardo's; it will be of most use for those wishing a stand-in for the Greek. P & R do not provide much discussion of textual or linguistic issues, nor do they provide socio-historical background for the dialogue. These limitations are undoubtedly due to the fact that P & R intend the work as a philosophical commentary on Plato, and in this it excels. Plato's Lysis does a splendid job of giving a sense of what it is like to read a Platonic dialogue through the eyes of two readers who are at once keenly sensitive to literary nuance and deeply philosophically engaged.
The paragraph is unfortunate, as it gives an completely wrong impression of the book.

"highly literal, and hence less fluid"-- that inference needn't hold, and I don't think it does hold in this case. From my brief inspection, I find Penner and Rowe entirely as fluid as Lombardo--easy and good English, idiomatic, natural. If their translation is also more literal, then it is better in every respect. (Here one could wish that Obdrzalek, to support her point, had compared the two translations, as is sometimes done in BMCR reviews.) Penner and Rowe are not giving us some kind of Eek!

"of primary interest to scholars in ancient philosophy" -- I think, rather, the book aims at a general, educated audience, and in my view it succeeds. It is a wonderful example of humanity (in the old sense). It is definitely not a book in 'analytic philosophy', although it is lucid and concerned about arguments.

"P & R do not provide much discussion of textual or linguistic issues, nor do they provide socio-historical background for the dialogue." This is emphatically not true. The translation (as it is presented in the much longer commentary section of the book) is accompanied by frequent, detailed notes, which give fascinating and suggestive remarks on language and background. (But how could Rowe, at least, have a hand in a book which was not like that?)

"it is not suitable for looking up isolated passages of the dialogue, since it offers a cumulative interpretation" -- another non sequitur. Actually, the book has a very detailed TOC which makes it eminently suitable for finding the commentary corresponding to any passage. The cumulative interpretation complements, rather than obscures or obliterates, what is said about passages considered on their own.

On the other hand, it would be correct to say that the book discourages the reading of texts out of context, as if they are giving arguments in isolation. But on that point I should have liked to hear Obdrzalek say something about the goal of the series to which the volume belongs ("Cambridge Studies in the Dialogues of Plato"). Does she agree with that goal? And, in her view, do Penner and Rowe execute that task well?

FYI, here is the statement of principle from the CUP website:
Plato's dialogues are rich mixtures of subtle argument, sublime theorising and superb literature. It is tempting to read them piecemeal - by analysing the arguments, by espousing or rejecting the theories or by praising Plato's literary expertise. It is equally tempting to search for Platonic views across dialogues, selecting passages from throughout the Platonic corpus. But Plato offers us the dialogues to read whole and one by one. This series provides original studies in individual dialogues of Plato. Each study will aim to throw light on such questions as why its chosen dialogue is composed in the complex way that it is, and what makes this unified whole more than the sum of its parts. In so doing, each volume will both give a full account of its dialogue and offer a view of Plato's philosophising from that perspective.