Review of “Plato’s Meno” by Anastaplo and Berns

by William A. Welton

Loyola College in Maryland

a book review in The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 58, p. 871 (June 2005)

ANASTAPLO, George and Laurence BERNS, Translators and Annotators, Plato: Meno. – Newburyport, Mass.: Focus Publishing, 2003. viii 85 pp. Paper, $9.95.

            This new translation of the Meno by Anastaplo and Berns has several distinctive features that make it useful for teaching and studying the dialogue. Generally achieving a balance between clarity and faithfulness, it includes valuable annotations, two appendices (one of which illustrates each step of the geometrical problem Socrates discusses with the slave-boy), and an innovative division of the text through the provision of numbers for each of its speeches.

            The translation itself is rather literal, striving for consistency in the rendering of Greek terms. Its style would perhaps be best appreciated by those who admire Allan Bloom’s translation of the Republic or Thomas Pangle’s translation of the Laws. Although one might quibble with some of the translators’ choices, the overall result is a text that would give a reader unschooled in Greek a fairly reliable sense of the flow of ideas in the original.

            In addition to the standard Stephanus marginal pagination, the translators have numbered each speech in the dialogue; this innovation makes possible an added level of precision and ease of reference. The text is annotated with over 150 endnotes, many of which are extensive and provide interesting comments on Greek words and historical personages, as well as noteworthy references to other dialogues, other ancient texts and, occasionally, modern commentators. There are also numerous cross-references among the notes themselves, some of which could lead even an experienced reader of the Meno to consider new connections between different parts of the text.

            The translation is accompanied by two Appendices. Appendix A (p. 77) provides two lists of all the oaths that occur in the Meno. The first list is organized by the characters who speak the oaths (so that we can see at a glance that Socrates and the slave-boy each make two oaths, while Meno and Anytus each make four), and the second list presents the oaths in order of their appearance in the dialogues. Both lists indicate the words of each oath in English translation, the person uttering it, the speech number in which it occurs, and the corresponding Stephanus pages. Anyone interested in the drama of the dialogue may find such an Appendix interesting, even if one fails to share the Straussian enthusiasm for keeping track of oaths.

            Appendix B (pp. 79-85) provides geometrical diagrams that illustrate Socrates’ geometrical inquiry with the slave-boy. The diagrams take one through every step of the problem, which the translators have broken down into sixty-four steps, providing a diagram for each. Some of the diagrams are identical to one another, representing different times that Socrates refers to the same line or square. The translators helpfully provide a list of these repetitions on p. 79, together with a list of those of their endnotes that are relevant. As Anastaplo and Berns indicate in their introduction, the detail of their illustrations “can help counteract the habit of the modern student of mathematics to leap as quickly as possible to the solution of a problem” (p. vii); they note that Socrates is interested not primarily in the solution itself but in how one comes to understand the problem and its solution. Using the diagrams to follow along with the geometry problem has the effect of making the reader share the vantage point of the slave-boy and feel as though guided through the problem by the questions of Socrates.

Concerned with virtue, knowledge, and the relationship between them, the Meno continues to be one of the more popular Platonic texts for use in undergraduate teaching. The Anastaplo and Berns translation, with its speech numbers, its terminological consistency, annotations, and appendices, could be a useful tool for bringing to light more of the dialogue’s hidden depths.

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