Clif Mark is the creator and host of the Good in Theory, a political philosophy podcast that includes a full adaptation of Plato’s Apology and Republic. He did a PhD in political theory at the University of Cambridge and spent a few years as an academic before turning to freelance writing and podcasting. You can find his writing in The Atlantic, Aeon and CBC Life et alia.
You’ve made a podcast where you perform Plato’s dialogues. Why did you decide to do that instead of just explaining them?
Actually, I do both. The Plato episodes of Good in Theory have explanation and interpretation interspersed with an adaptation of the entire dialogue. The idea is that I’ll set up a piece of dialogue with any important context, then put on a little radio play. I got some actors to help me perform them and set them mood with some authentic ancient music. Then when a scene is done, I’ll come back in and explain what just happened and talk about the philosophical issues it raises. So it’s a mix of both.
Also, the podcast isn’t just about Plato. It’s a political theory podcast that was supposed to start with Republic. The thing is—and I should have predicted this—I got carried away and wound-up spending nearly two years on Plato. I’ve moved on though.
But you don’t just perform the dialogues as they’re written. You adapted them into modern English. Why?
It sounds a little like you’re asking why I would butcher a masterpiece. But that’s ok, because that’s exactly what I’ve done. You lose a lot in my adaptations of Apology and Republic, but I also hope that you also gain something.
Plato wrote dialogues, not treatises. They’re full of drama and humour and emotion and getting that across is essential to understanding what’s going on. The secondary literature’s always talking about “attending to the dramatic nature of the text” and so on.
But all that drama and humour can get buried because the texts are so difficult to read. I’m not going to deny that Plato was a literary genius. But if he was, he was a literary genius for Athenian ears. They weren’t written for us and it’s work to read these books. If you stick to it, the work will pay off. But all that labour tends to hide all the drama and humour I’m talking about. You’re not going to spontaneously laugh at a surprising turn in conversation if you have to read the same sentence three times and refer to two footnotes.
To actually show the drama and humour of the dialogues, I felt I had to rewrite them. I abridged the text and translated the translations—I don’t know ancient Greek—into “Normal Human English.” Again, I leave out a lot. But at least what I made was written for our modern ears and, I hope, can slip into our minds more easily than the more literal translations.
My text is also easier to act. My actors really try to express what the characters are doing. You hear when Glaucon gets excited about ideas or when Thrasymachus is boasting and seething. I don’t think we could have managed that with, for example, Allan Bloom’s translation.
In short, I butchered Plato’s masterpieces for the same reason anyone butchers anything: to make them easier to eat.
What did you learn from the process of adapting it?
I think I learned how little of these books I’d previously understood, especially Republic. I’d read it several times and even taught the text in universities. But even if you’re writing about Plato, it’s really easy just to stick to the bits you find interesting—the key quotes, the relevant passages. It’s all guided by the question you’re trying to answer.
But since I was adapting the entire dialogue for the podcast, I couldn’t skip anything. I had to decide what I thought every sentence meant. This gave me a much more comprehensive understanding of the book and revealed angles I’d never seen before. It’s probably a fraction of what happens when you actually translate a book but it was still a transformative reading for me. If you want to get something new out of Plato, try performing him.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
If you get very interested in philosophy, you may be poor, but you will not lack for interesting projects. But you probably already know that from Socrates.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
Obviously, just go listen to the podcast. I also do some writing in outlets like Aeon which you can check out, but the main thing is the podcast.
If you want to learn more about Plato and about podcasting, I’d recommend adapting one yourself. It’ll completely change your relationship to the text. Then e-mail me and tell me all about it! I don’t have many people to talk to about that.
Do you have a favourite quote from Plato?
No. There are too many. Even in Republic there are too many.
I always liked when Socrates says that the philosopher “lives 729 times more pleasantly, while the tyrant lives more disagreeably.” It’s puzzling and silly and I’m sure he’s trolling Glaucon and Adeimantus. And I think it’s funny that they play along with him.
Oh, and I also love the part in Apology where Socrates suggests that his penalty should be free lunch for life. It’s such a spectacular middle finger to his jury. It’s Socrates on maximum troll but heroic at the same time. That Socrates can do genuinely moving martyrdom while being ironic and hilarious is true genius.
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.
I would love that. This is one of the great holy sites for anyone who loves philosophy and I’ve never been.