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Jowett, Benjamin (1817-1893)  
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Benjamin Jowett was a classical scholar and unorthodox theologian. For glbtq purposes, he is remembered especially for his translations of Plato's erotic dialogues, his investigations of "Greek love," and his influence on Matthew Arnold, John Addington Symonds, Algernon Swinburne, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins, E. M. Forster, and others.

However, inasmuch as his translations bowdlerized Plato and obscured the homoerotic relationships in Greek literature, Jowett's contribution to the glbtq literary tradition is decidedly mixed. He might best be remembered as a poignant example of the hypocrisy and embattled relationships with sexuality that resulted from the of the Victorian age.

Jowett was born in Camberwell on April 15, 1817. His family supported the Evangelical movement in the Church of England. After attending St. Paul's School in London, Jowett obtained a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford in 1836. In 1838, he was awarded a fellowship and graduated with first-class honors one year later. As a student, he soon got involved in the Tractarian movement and flirted with High Anglicanism.

Jowett stayed at the university as a tutor and was ordained a clergyman in 1842. In the 1840s, he also became a student of German skeptical criticism. Although he was rejected for the mastership at Balliol in 1854, the following year Jowett was appointed to the Greek professorship. He became Master of Balliol in 1870. He died on October 1, 1893, regarded as one of the great Hellenists of his time.

Jowett is remembered for his Greek translations and studies, some of which were quite controversial. The Epistles of Saint Paul (1855), for example, aroused controversy among theologians because the work was a (too) liberal interpretation of the writings of the apostle. Essays and Reviews (1860), of which Jowett was a co-author, even led to charges of heresy, but he was acquitted by a chancellor's court at Oxford.

More famously, Jowett translated Plato's dialogues in four volumes (1871; second and third editions in five volumes in 1875 and 1892), as well as Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (1881) and Aristotle's Politics (1885).

In Victorian England, where homosexuality was the sin not to be mentioned among Christians and, as Oscar Wilde termed it, the love that dare not speak its name, translating Plato proved problematic. He is the most eminent of Greek writers on homosexual themes, and homoerotic activity is a crucial subject of his writing. For all his willingness to court controversy in his Biblical translations, Jowett showed a lack of courage in his translations of Plato, which may be why they were so well received and remained the standard texts for almost a century.

Jowett sought to establish Hellenistic studies as an attractive alternative to Christian theology and also to prevent his students from investigating too deeply matters of Greek love and glorifying a "Uranian" counterdiscourse of male homosexuality. Jowett proudly extolled Platonic studies--"Aristotle is dead, but Plato is alive"--but bowdlerized his translations in order to make Plato conform to Victorian mores. Frank Turner quotes Jowett's questionable rationale: "Had [Plato] lived in our times, he would have made the transposition himself." (Jowett may actually have a point, but it is hardly a view to which a translator should subscribe.)

A memorable scene in E. M. Forster's Maurice makes Jowett's dilemma clear. Maurice and Clive are attending a Greek translation class; when they come to some particularly suggestive passages, Mr. Cornwallis exhorts them: "Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks." Of course, just like Jowett's efforts to tone down the erotic and physical in Plato, so the dean's injunctions actually draw his students' attention to the censored material.

For example, in his Introduction to the Symposium, Jowett downplays Phaedrus' great encomium to homoerotic love and to Achilles and Patroclus and instead blows the minor (heterosexual) example of Alcestis' love for her husband out of proportion. For Plato's stance on homoerotic love, Jowett uncritically and one-sidedly refers the reader to the Laws: "it is impossible to deny that some of the best and greatest of the Greeks indulged in attachments, which Plato in the Laws, no less than the universal opinion of Christendom, has stigmatized as unnatural."

Next, Alcibiades bears the brunt of Jowett's grudges: "in his drunken state [he] is able to tell of things which he would have been ashamed to mention if he had been sober." Socrates is not immune from criticism either: "[he] does not appear to regard the greatest evil of Greek life as a matter of abhorrence." Plato himself fares hardly better: "Nor does Plato feel any repugnance, such as would be felt in modern times, in bringing his great master and hero into connection with nameless crimes."

Finally, Jowett neutralizes gender markers, preferring harmless terms such as "friend," "lover," and "beloved" to "boy," "man," and "boyfriend"; more specifically, in Pausanias' speech in the Symposium, Jowett too coyly translates hupourgein and charizesthai as "yield any compliance" and "yield with honor," while the verbs actually mean "to give sexual pleasure."

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Top: A portrait of Benjamin Jowett.
Above: A caricature of Benjamin Jowett by Carlo Pellegrini published in 1876.
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