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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Flowers Bloom (7b)—Bloom's Republic I

[a] Re: public RF
I am supposed to give a series of lectures this week on Allan Bloom, the obscure University of Chicago professor who wrote a blockbuster bestseller on education precisely twenty-five years ago. At this time in 1987, The Closing of the American Mind was climbing the New York Times bestseller list. I am going to try a new approach. Instead of posting what I have written (I do a lot of that here on Round and Square already), I am going to post some of what I have been reading in preparation for the lectures. Consider this week's posts—which will appear under various topics on Round and Square, ranging from "Beginnings" and "Flowers Bloom" to "Displays of Authenticity" and "Endings"—as lecture preparation. 

And, just for the record, regular readers probably already know that I will post the actual lectures not long after they have been given. This week's posts focus on the preparation process, and tackling Allan Bloom's arguments should get your blood pumping. Today's text comes from the original preface to his incomparable translation of Plato's Republic.
Shakespeare   Republic1   Republic2   Emile   Emile1   Emile2   Emile3   Emile 4   Emile5
 ***  ***
[b] Contrast RF
If you saw yesterday's post, you have gotten a little bit of a sense of Allan Bloom and his approach to living and learning. His 1964 book focused on Shakespeare as a way of understanding life, love, politics, and culture. He was only getting started, though. Four years later, Bloom published a translation of Plato's Republic that could not be ignored. Not only did it find a significant niche on the Plato-translation-bookshelves, but Bloom continued to find his voice, as it were, with regard to the developing culture wars that would rise, fan, and flame for the next five decades—right up to the present (to)day. Few readers noticed Bloom's positions until he published The Closing of the American Mind nineteen years later. The preface from which I quote below seems to keep closely to the scholarly-translation shore, but many of his later arguments are adumbrated in this and other texts from the 1960s. The culture wars were crackling, and one of Bloom's contributions—as he himself saw it—was to lay an intellectual foundation for a peculiarly ambitious kind of conservatism.

Conservatism? In academia? I hear you cry...

Yes. As I have already noted in "Flowers Bloom," conservatives love to love Bloom. He has been venerated by the likes of William Buckley, William Kristol, and Rush Limbaugh. Whether Bloom loved them back is another question, and I have my own ideas on that matter after several tens of hours of discussion with Bloom in the late-1980s and early-1990s. Let's just say, for now, that one wouldn't recognize much of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, or Grover Norquist in Professor Bloom, and today's Republican party—while containing the member here or there who has read Bloom's work—often don't know what to do with his unashamedly intellectual focus or his lifestyle.

Of the latter, don't over-interpret. I just mean that he loved France.
[c] Past RF

Bloom was complex, and caricatures of him are facile. This is why I am writing about him twenty-five years after our first meeting. Yes, I found him to be argumentative and often overly-critical of the study of culture and history—especially for someone who spent a lot of time thinking about culture and history.

Nonetheless, he was unquestionably one of the most influential teachers I have ever had. This is because I have read his books without rushing to judgment. Unlike some of my peers back in graduate school, I did not revere Professor Bloom. I wasn't one of the "disciples" (as some of us mocked our Bloomian peers back in the day). This might have been why I read his work carefully and critically. It was a godsend to be able to argue...and discuss...some of these matters with him. In this case, the text below and some of my discussions with Bloom led me to rethink many of my preconceptions about translation just at the time that I was starting to do a good deal of it myself. Greek. Chinese. You might be surprised how engaged in such conversation Bloom could be.

I recommend doing what I did a quarter century ago. Read Bloom. Let him tick you off (he'll try, I guarantee you). Work through some of the nooks and crannies of his positions. It changed my life—no matter how I might have felt about literal translations...and other stuff.

Plato's Republic—Preface to the First Edition
Allan Bloom (1968)
This is intended to be a literal translation. My goal—unattained—was the accuracy of William of Moerbeke's Latin translations of Aristotle. These versions are so faithful to Aristotle's text that they are authorities for the correction of the Greek manuscripts, and they enabled Thomas Aquinas to become a supreme interpreter of Aristotle without knowing Greek.
[d] Big deux RF
Such a translation is intended to be useful to the serious student, the one who wishes and is able to arrive at his own understanding of the work. He must be emancipated from the tyranny of the translator, given the means of transcending the limitations of the translator's interpretation, enabled to discover the subtleties of the elusive original. The only way to provide the reader with this independence is by a slavish, even if sometimes cumbersome, literalness—insofar as possible always using the same English equivalent for the same Greek word. Thus the little difficulties which add up to major discoveries become evident to, or at least not hidden from, the careful student. The translator should conceive of himself as a medium between a master whose depths he has not plumbed and an audience of potential students of that master who may be much better endowed than is the translator. His greatest vice is to believe he has adequately grasped the teaching of his author. It is least of all his function to render the work palatable to those who do not wish, or are unable, to expend the effort requisite to the study of difficult texts. Nor should he try to make an ancient mode of thought sound "contemporary." Such translations become less useful as more attention is paid to the text. At the very least, one can say that a literal translation is a necessary supplement to more felicitous renditions which deviate widely from their original.

The difference from age to age in the notions of the translator's responsibility is in itself a chapter of intellectual history. Certainly the popularization of the classics is one part of that chapter. But there seem to be two major causes for the current distaste for literal translations—one rooted in the historical science of our time, the other rooted in a specific, and I believe erroneous, view of the character of Platonic books.

[e] Text RF
The modern historical consciousness has engendered a general scepticism about the truth of all "world views," except for that one of which it is itself a product. There seems to be an opinion that the thought of the past is immediately accessible to us, that, although we may not accept it, we at least understand it. We apply the tools of our science to the past without reflecting that those tools are also historically limited. We do not sufficiently realize that the only true historical objectivity is to understand the ancient authors as they understood themselves; and we are loath to assume that perhaps they may be able to criticize our framework and our methods. We should, rather, try to see our historical science in the perspective of their teachings rather than the other way around. Most of all, we must accept, at least tentatively, the claim of the older thinkers that the truth is potentially attainable by the efforts of unaided human reason at all times and in all places. If we begin by denying the fundamental contention of men like Plato and Aristotle, they are refuted for us from the outset, not by an immanent criticism but by our unreflecting acceptance of the self-contradictory principle that all thought is related to a specific age and has no grasp of reality beyond that age. On this basis, it is impossible to take them seriously. One often suspects this is what is lacking in many translations: they are not animated by the passion for the truth; they are really the results of elegant trifling. William of Moerbeke was motivated by the concern that he might miss the most important counsel about the most important things, counsels emanating from a man wiser than he. His knowledge of the world and his way of life, nay, his very happiness, depended on the success of his quest to get at Aristotle's real meaning.

[f] Platon RF
Today men do not generally believe so much is at stake in their studies of classic thinkers, and there is an inclination to smile at naive scholastic reverence for antiquity. But that smile should fade when it is realized that this sense of superiority is merely the preservation of the confidence, so widespread in the nineteenth century, that science had reached a plateau overlooking broader and more comprehensible horizons than those previously known, a confidence that our intellectual progress could suffer no reverse. This confidence has almost vanished; few scholars believe that our perspective is the authoritative one any longer; but much scholarship still clings to the habits which grew up in the shadow of that conviction. However, if that is not a justified conviction, if we are really at sea so far as the truth of things goes, then our most evident categories are questionable, and we do not even know whether we understand the simplest questions Plato poses. It then behooves us to rediscover the perspectives of the ancient authors, for the sake both of accurate scholarship and of trying to find alternatives to the current mode of understanding things.

It is not usually understood how difficult it is to see the phenomena as they were seen by the older writers. It is one of the most awesome undertakings of the mind, for we have divided the world up differently, and willy-nilly we apply our terms, and hence the thoughts behind them, to the things discussed. It is always the most popular and questionable terms of our own age that seem most natural; it is virtually impossible to speak without using them. For example, H.D.P. Lee, in describing his view of a translator's responsibility, says, "The translator must go behind what Plato said and discover what he means, and if, for example, he says 'examining the beautiful and the good' must not hesitate to render this as 'discussing moral values' if that is in fact the way in which the same thought would be expressed today." (The Republic [London: Penguin, 1956], p. 48) But if one hurries too quickly "behind" Plato's speech, one loses the sense of the surface. Lee shares with Cornford and many other translators the assurance that they have a sufficient understanding of Plato's meaning, and that meaning is pretty much the kind of thing Englishmen or Americans already think. However, it might be more prudent to let the reader decide whether "the beautiful and the good" are simply equivalent to "moral values." If they are the same, he will soon enough find out. And if they are not, as may be the case, he will not be prevented from finding that out and thereby putting his own ideas to the test...[1]

[1] Plato, Republic [Translated with an introduction by Allan Bloom] (New York: Basic Books, 1968), xi-xiii.

Plato, Republic [Translated with an introduction by Allan Bloom]. New York: Basic Books, 1968.
[g] Big trois RF

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