The English educator and Greek scholar Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) is famous for his translation of the dialogues of Plato and for his academic reforms at Oxford.
Benjamin Jowett was born on April 15, 1817, at Camberwell, London. He was educated at St. Paul's School and Balliol College. In 1838, while still an undergraduate, he achieved the unusual distinction of being elected a fellow of Balliol. He received his bachelor's degree in 1839 and his master's in 1842, and in the same year he was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church and appointed to a tutorship in the college. In 1845 he became a priest.
In his summers Jowett traveled on the Continent, making the acquaintance of leading German scholars. At that time he was fascinated with the philosophy of Hegel. He was especially attracted by Hegel's published lectures on the history of philosophy. By 1848 Jowett had also become a student of Plato and was lecturing on political economy. In the 1850s he was engaged in university reform, favoring the entry of more poor students, and in the reform of the Indian civil service.
However, Jowett's chief interest during this period was theology. His commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul (1855) is regarded as a landmark in the history of liberal theology. He argues that since St. Paul's thoughts transcended his power of expression, his meaning must be determined by the context rather than from a strictly grammatical and syntactical analysis of the words, a position which offended not only the more conservative theologians but also the leading philologists of the age. Despite the condemnations of conservative churchmen, Jowett was appointed in the same year to the prestigious regius professorship of Greek at Oxford.
Jowett began a series of lectures on Plato's Republic and on the fragments of the early Greek philosophers, the tremendous success of which greatly stimulated Greek scholarship throughout and beyond the university. In the following 10 years Jowett fell under even greater suspicion for his heterodox theological views. The publication of his essay "On the Interpretation of Scripture" caused an uproar in the Anglican Church and led to Jowett's civil trial for heresy, with the prosecution eventually being dropped.
From 1860 to 1870 Jowett accomplished a prodigious amount of work. He sponsored various administrative reforms in the university which relaxed the harsh student regulations, inspired reform of curriculums, and added to the physical plant. He was also influential in introducing reforms of elementary and secondary education throughout England, and in his own administration as master of Balliol he stressed teaching above research. In 1871 he published his famous four-volume translation of the Dialogues of Plato; a revised edition of five volumes appeared in 1875. He also published a two-volume translation of Thucydides's History (1881).
Jowett was vice-chancellor of Oxford from 1882 to 1886. Despite administrative preoccupations, he put out a translation of Aristotle's Politics with notes, but without the introductory essays which he did not live to finish. The strain of this enormous amount of work led to an illness in 1887 from which he never fully recovered. Neverthless, he was able to put out a third revised edition of Plato in 1892 and to continue work on an edition of the Republic, upon which he had then labored 30 years and which was published posthumously. Jowett's view of Plato's thought, which is one of the leading interpretations, was that no unified or comprehensive systematic philosophy exists in Plato, that his view changes in different dialogues, and that in some no definite conclusion is ever reached. It was therefore better to treat each dialogue separately.
Jowett died on Oct. 1, 1893. Through his own work and through his pupils he exerted a lasting influence on scholarship. He was largely responsible for the influential movement known as Oxford idealism (English Hegelianism).
Primary sources on Jowett are his Letters (1899) and selections of his letters in Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell, Jowett's Life and Letters (2 vols., 1897). Studies of Jowett include L. A. Tollemache, Benjamin Jowett: Master of Balliol College (1895); Leslie Stephen, Studies of a Biographer (1898); and Geoffrey Cust Faber, Jowett: A Portrait with a Background (1957). For relevant background see Wilfrid P. Ward, W. G. Ward and the Oxford Movement (1889). □
J. A. Cannon