From my diary

I came across someone online who professed that the transmission of texts from antiquity was so full of mistakes that the modern copies are not reliable sources of information about the past.  I demurred, and the response was:

We might say that Plato was right all along, what we see is but shadows projected on to the wall of the cave.

Naturally I pointed out that our source for these words of Plato is itself a literary text transmitted in the manner which he had just dismissed.

But it lead me to the question: just how is Plato’s Republic transmitted?  How do we get our text of Plato?

For Latin texts we have the marvellous volume by L.D.Reynolds, Texts and Transmissions, which presents an overview of the question for each Latin author in turn, compiled by a team of classical scholars including Michael Reeve.

Sadly I never knew L. D. Reynolds.  But I did meet Michael Reeve, who very kindly took me to lunch at high table, and bore my questions and my ignorance with admirable patience.  He was, indeed, grieving for Reynolds who had just died, so it was a very bad time for him.  He told me that all of the contributors got a bound copy of the book, with blank sheets bound into it on alternate pages to add notes and updates.  He wondered where Reynolds’ copy now was, as might we all.  Dr Reeve still stands in my memory as an example of what a classical scholar should be.

But no such volume exists for Greek classical texts.  Anybody who wishes to know how we get the texts before us must sift through masses of material in critical editions.  Most of this material is both over-detailed and over-narrow in scope for the newcomer to the field.  If the last critical edition is old, then it may well be out of date also.  The writer may also simply omit material about which he does not know.

I have spent a bit of time yesterday and today doing exactly this, with the aid of pirate book sites, and I think the effort involved would deter most people.  This is why a group of professionals really do need to produce a summary volume!

So far I have learned that the dialogues were gathered into groups of four (“tetralogies”) during the reign of Tiberius; that the earliest manuscripts are 9th century; that papyri do exist, but bring nothing new to the discussion; that the Coptic translation of portions of the Republic, found at Nag Hammadi, was really incompetent and is useless for establishing the text; and that Eusebius in his Praeparatio Evangelica is an indirect witness useful for the text, and is also the actual source of quotations in later sources like the Suda, rather than the original text.  I have also learned that the main edition, the Oxford Classical Text, edited by Burnet, is 120 years old, and relies on collations of manuscripts which are really unreliable; and that Lachmann’s method of analysing manuscript traditions is really really important when studying Plato’s manuscripts.

I will try to produce a short article containing the key points!


3 thoughts on “From my diary

  1. I remember having used a recently published book in Spanish, about thirty years ago, which contained exactly the kind of history you mention for a handful of Greek authors, including Plato, even with information on the major scholia (I hope I did not dream this!). I can’t remember now if it was originally a work in Spanish. I suspect it was a translation from French, or even English, and sadly the details escape me now.

    In any case, there are specific studies like Jonkers’ The Textual Tradition of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, and maybe you will find something useful in this handy list?

    Surely, I would expect, there must be something in German or Italian; I bet Luc Brisson knows! Anyway, if those details emerge from my memory, I’ll be in touch.

  2. 1) There is a volume by LD Reynolds and NG Wilson called Scribes & Scholars that describes the transmission of Greek and Latin texts generally and has long discussions of some authors, including Plato. This may not be quite what you want but it might be worth consulting.

    2) I was under the impression that there was a new Oxford volume that would supersede Texts and Transmission and having dug around a little bit it appears that I learned about that from you! I wonder where that stands.

  3. The 1992 volume,
    Les problèmes posés par l’édition critique des textes anciens et médiévaux,
    Jacqueline Hamesse, editor, includes contributions in Spanish and other languages.

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