Freely He Gave, to Plato’s Sacred Page

Today we mark the nativity of one of my heroes: Thomas Taylor, born 15 May 1758. Taylor was known as “the English Platonist” for his voluminous and preternaturally astute writings and translations, and as “the English pagan” for his habit of pouring libations to Greek and Roman Gods in the back garden.

Portrait of Thomas Taylor by Sir Thomas Lawrence (via Wikimedia Commons)

Among his many, many works, Taylor gave us pioneering English translations of the complete works of Plato, the complete works of Aristotle, and substantial portions of Proclus, Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and many others, along with original essays of his own.

The more time I spend with Taylor’s work, the more I appreciate the immensity of his achievement. His translations are not the sort of things we get from modern scholars, thanks to Taylor’s intense focus on the mature commentarial tradition. The introductions and notes to his translations of Plato and Aristotle include substantial portions of the surviving Platonic commentaries, from the likes of Simplicius, Olympiodorus, and Proclus, as well as Taylor’s own insights, as himself a thoughtful member of that tradition, with an impressive mastery of it. I know of no other English translations of Plato and Aristotle that take the Platonic tradition so seriously, as to connect text with commentary, in a living frame. Taylor’s work is unique, at least in the Anglophone world, for so clearly presenting the Platonic tradition as a single, organic unity.

To be sure, there have been significant advances in scholarship since Taylor’s time, particularly where the discovery of additional manuscripts has allowed for vastly improved editions of the Greek and Latin texts. But for the breadth of his writing, and the depth of his philosophic understanding, Taylor’s work remains a monumental achievement, whose magnitude has (finally!) begun to be acknowledged by at least some university-affiliated scholars. And for the reader without Greek, who is reading these texts exclusively in translation, because Taylor’s editions all come from the same hand, they have the invaluable advantage of consistency in technical vocabulary across authors and texts, making it crystal-clear when the same terms and concepts and being employed, and once again showing their interconnected unity..

Since Taylor died in 1835, his works have long been in the public domain, and scans of many of the original editions can be found online. In addition, the Prometheus Trust has published a magnificent edition of Taylor’s complete works, in a whopping 33 volumes. The Trust has done an splendid job of transcribing the texts, as well as adding modern scholarly references (Stephanus and Bekker numbers, etc.) and uniform cross-references between the volumes.

For myself, when I consider all that Thomas Taylor accomplished, and under what challenging life circumstances, I am awed. And I’m also encouraged, by his example of what is possible, to redouble my own efforts, and my dedication to a life of truth, learning, the pursuit of wisdom, and the worship of the Gods.

Hail Thomas Taylor! Be honored and remembered!

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