Plato’s epistles 1: The lineage

Plato’s epistles 1: The lineage

Among the complete surviving works of philosopher Plato are a group of thirteen epistles or (semi-public, because written with the expectation of sharing) letters. Many translations exist, including in English and modern Greek among other languages. They have a common source. This is linked to the activities of poet, letter-writer and scholar Francesco Petrarch. In the 1340s Petrarch became interested in earlier, Greek philosophies and their absence in languages other than the original Greek. Working with friends and colleagues, they learned Greek in order to collect rare Greek works and translate these into Latin, with Plato a particular focus. This scholarly lineage links Petrarch with Leonardo Bruni and associates, and through him with Marsilio Ficino.

During this period, the early Middle Ages, Plato’s dialogues remained inaccessible to the learned classes because they were not available in Latin. Explicitly following Petrarch, Renaissance scholars and humanists such as Bruni translated, among other things, various of Plato’s dialogues into Latin. This was then followed by Ficino’s complete Plato translation, a full Latin edition of all the extant work. Ficino finished his translation in the 1460s and it appeared in print in 1484. This increased the available sources on early Greek philosophy and thereby came to change the form and content of world philosophy thereafter.

Marsilio Ficino was, then, the first person to translate all of Plato’s works from Greek to Latin. This translation of the complete works is still considered authoritative and the 1588 edition of his Platonis Omnia Opera has been scanned and each dialogue made available as a PDF. There are also now, not surprisingly, many more translations from the Greek, including excellent scholarly online versions. Early English language translations, particularly from the start of the 19th century, often worked from Ficino’s Latin versions, although increasingly there was a return to the Greek; but for present purposes it should be recognised that in some cases this is a transcription in Greek made in the Middles Ages from an ‘original’ version no longer extant.

The edition of The Epistles used in this present discussion is a translation into English made by Robert Gregg Bury in the 1890s, using using a Greek version translated by Joannes Serranus and published by Henricus Stephanus in Paris in 1578 (3 volumes). This was for centuries the standard version, with the text appearing in it in both Greek and Latin; and it provides the now ubiquitous Stephanus numbering system (drawing on Aristotle) for referencing the manuscript versions.

There are various controversies that swirl around Plato‘s epistles, in particular regarding provenance and whether they are fake or genuine. It seems that for centuries they were all regarded as genuine Plato letters, and then for philological and other reasons, various of them came to be seen as suspect. Over time, presumption lurched in the opposite direction, that they were all fake. The situation now is that some of them are seen as possibly genuine and others of them are seen as possibly fake. It is however not clear what ‘fake‘ means in this context, when there are so many layers of translation involved and with these originating from an ‘original‘ which was itself a copy or a transcription and not in a direct way from ‘the hand of Plato’ himself.

The approach adopted here is that these matters about fake or original can be suspended, in favour of looking in detail at what these epistles are like as letters, whosoever they are by. Relatedly, whosoever they are by, they have common features and are likely to derive from the same source even though this is difficult to pin down. The author is represented as a textual version of ‘Plato’, and they tell much of how letters were written and edited and represented in the 400s/360s BCE, and how these letters in particular were written and with what effects.

As is well known, most of Plato’s extant writings come under the heading of Socratic dialogues. Rather than Plato himself, the key figure is Socrates, a textual figure who acts as the agent at work in these writings and is often portrayed in an interlocutory context of him enquiring, proposing, requiring, and so on. The epistles are different, because in these the key agent playing this role is Plato himself, or rather an ‘I‘ surmised to be representing Plato, as is discerned from the content of the epistles and also the way they are written.

Four of the epistles are addressed to Dionysius II, the tyrant or sole ruler of Syracuse; one is addressed to this man’s uncle, Dion; six are to other men known to Plato and associated with political life in Sicily; and two were written after the assassination of Dion and have a more general address to men who were Dion’s associates. These epistles are generally seen as Platonic dialogues, because of the way the textual Plato is located within these texts and that there is a dialogue or exchange between this ‘I’ and the textual ‘you’ that is variously invoked.

The more detailed discussion of the content of Plato’s thirteen epistles which will follow in later blogs will discuss a number of aspects, not necessarily in the order or with the titles given here:

First reading the letters
The lateness of the reader
‘I’ as a moving shadow across the page
The interlocutor components
‘You’ as addressee
Traces of ‘we’
Signs of an epistolary ethics
Correspondence, letterness and the collection

It will also address the important question, who wrote Plato‘s letters?

Last updated: 2 June 2022