The Gay & Lesbian Review, November-December 2001

Love, Athenian Style

Plato's The Banquet
Translated by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Edited by John Lauritsen
Pagan Press. 96 pages, $8. (paper)
Alcibiades the Schoolboy
by Antonio Rocco Translated by J. C. Rawnsley
Entimos Press (Amsterdam) 120 pages, $19.95 (paper)

Reviewed by William A. Percy III

Each of these small books contains its own delights. Plato's dialogue on love is a famous text, but few people are even aware that Shelley translated it. Alcibiade fanciullo a scuolo — Alcibiades the Schoolboy — published in Venice in 1652 under the initials D.P.A., now thought to be Antonio Rocco, has enjoyed no such celebrity; yet it is a witty, historically instructive tale. Now both works are available in new editions.

John Lauritsen has penned a Foreword to The Banquet and included Shelley's preface to his own translation, as well as the poet's “Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks.” The book is handsomely produced, with beautifully readable typography and a striking cover, illustrated with a Pompeiian fresco of Cupid and goats. Meanwhile, the new edition of Alcibiades, the first English translation ever, also includes an English version of five poems on sodomy that were printed with the Italian story and presents, in English, the preface that accompanied the 1891 French translation.

Shelley was 26 when he completed his translation of the Symposium, or “The Banquet”, as he translated Plato's title, in 1818. The dialogue consists of speeches in praise of Love offered by various prominent Athenians gathered at the home of the beautiful playwright, Agathon. While all assume that the type of love in question is that between an older man and his male pupil, most define love in terms of mutual honor or the fulfillment of social obligations (to instruct and to learn, to give gifts and to receive them graciously, and so on). But Socrates denies that the ultimate object of love is another person and defines it in terms of what he calls “the Good”. In love, Socrates argues, we begin with the beauty we observe, specifically in the faces and bodies of beautiful boys and young men, but we then pass on to the unseen beauty of the soul and eventually to the Form of beauty and the Good, which is absolute and eternal.

Shelley chose this dialogue because he found it “the most beautiful and perfect of all the works of Plato.” The work was not published in Shelley's lifetime and remained in manuscript form until 1840, when the poet's widow Mary, working from the transcript she had done in 1818, collaborated with Leigh Hunt to produce a bowdlerized version of the translation. Since male love was unmentionable in 19th-century England, they changed “men” to “human beings”, “love” to “friendship”, and “his beloved” to “the other”; and they eliminated entire passages in which sex was apparent. For almost a century, this was the version the world knew. It was not until 1931 that Roger Ingpen, the general editor of the complete works of Shelley, obtained the original text from a descendant of the poet and published the correct translation, producing a private edition of only a hundred copies. This is substantially the work that the Pagan Press edition offers, though with some changes reflecting more recent scholarship.

In his Foreword, John Lauritsen enthusiastically describes the Shelley translation as “a masterpiece of world and English literature [that] towers over all others because it is alive.” Certainly this is a very readable and pleasurable translation. Shelley manages to capture the banter of the Athenian men, who represented the intellectual and social elite of Athens' Golden Age. The poetic parts of the dialogue are rendered into fine English prose, the humorous parts are authentically funny, and the philosophical arguments are clear and cogent. According to classical scholar Beert Verstraete, who checked the translation for accuracy, “Shelley's translation is not only very fine as a work of literature in its own right. but also captures something of what I would term the æsthetic ‘eidos’ [individuality] of the original.”

Shelley's version is not a literal, word-for-word translation, but his intention was to convey Plato's meaning to a modern English-speaking audience. Sometimes Shelley condenses a long Greek passage down to its essence; at other times he adds interpolations of his own. Also. it must be admitted, in a few places he de-sexualizes the Greek text. For example, in Socrates' speech he substitutes “correct system of Love” for the original “correct system of pæderasty.”

A major figure in The Banquet is Alcibiades, a notorious Athenian aristocrat known in his lifetime and beyond as “Alcibiades the Beautiful”, who regales the dinner guests with his youthful efforts to seduce his middle-aged mentor, Socrates. Swallowing his self-esteem, he admits to having failed. Antonio Rocco's Alcibiades the Schoolboy is a play on this famous episode in which the situation for Alcibiades is reversed: Philotimes, a middle-aged schoolmaster, attempts to persuade Alcibiades, his adolescent tutee, to submit to sodomy. The upper-class boy resists, advancing the traditional arguments against pæderasty. No matter how forcefully Philotimes succeeds in refuting Alcibiades' objections, the boy can always find more learned queries to put to his tutor. Nevertheless, Alcibiades eventually yields to argument. “It is your desire to instruct me, more than [any?] other reason, that decides me”, Alcibiades declares. Nevertheless, as Rocco's text makes clear, the nature of the instruction to be had is entirely physical rather than philosophical.

An “Afterword” by Donald M. Mader provides a helpful discussion of the 17th-century story's printing history, authorship, and much-debated intent. He defends his own reading of the work as a “homosexual” text, concluding that it constitutes “the first clear expression of a homosexual identity and subculture in the modern West.” At one point Rocco has Alcibiades ask his mentor, “Cannot men, all of the same age, give themselves together to this pastime?” And while Philotimes replies, “The true love of the male is the love of a boy”, it is interesting to note that Rocco at least contemplated a different model of homosexual relations.

In presenting The Banquet, John Lauritsen does not overstate the excellence of Shelley's language. However, when he states, based on the poet's correspondence, that Shelley “had no serious thought of publishing” the dialogue and his “Discourse,” the facts paint a more nuanced picture. In 1821 Shelley did write to a friend that he had “no intention of publishing” his translation. But that was not his original thought. His 1818 statement: “Not that I have any serious thought of publishing either this discourse or the Symposium”, is followed immediately by: “at least til I return to England, when we may discuss the propriety of it.” In 1818, publication did seem a possibility, even though Shelley realized that a text which spoke so directly about pæderasty presented enormous difficulties.

Thomas Love Peacock, the correspondent with whom Shelley proposed to discuss the matter when back in England, encouraged the poet to go forward: “You have done well in translating the Symposium, and I hope you will succeed in attracting attention to Plato, for he certainly wants patronage in these days.” The stumbling block to an appreciation of Plato in England, even in the universities, was precisely the matter of pæderasty. This problem Shelley's “Discourse” attacked head-on: “Nothing is at the same time more melancholy and ludicrous than to observe that the inhabitants of one epoch, or of one nation, harden themselves to all amelioration of their own practices and institutions and soothe their consciences by heaping violent invectives upon those of others.”

As it turned out, Shelley never returned to England or saw Peacock again. While still in Italy he drowned in a boating accident in 1822, along with his beloved companion Edward Ellerker Williams and an 18-year-old sailor, Charles Vivian. Had Shelley lived longer, he may well have attempted to have the translation published, if not in England, then in Europe. We should remember that in Shelley's time men and boys were being hanged in England for having sex with each other. On the other hand, thanks to the Code Napoléon, in Italy it was legal for males over the age of consent to have sex with each other.   

William A. Percy III is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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