Plato’s epistles 2: thinking and reading

The first part of this blog on Plato’s epistles will be found in the previous week’s blog. The final two sections will appear the week after this.

Plato‘s epistles 2: Thinking and reading

Action-in-the-world – the philosopher as political strategist

Plato was born in Athens in c427 BCE. He comments he was a member of the elite class of men seen as destined to take an active role in Athenian and wider political life. However, although politics was certainly an important dimension of his philosophical thought, this did not happen. In the seventh epistle, he writes that he could not identify with any of the then-existing political parties or networks and even less so the regimes they were part of.The democratically-reached decision to execute Socrates on a charge of impiety added to his remove and figures in many of the dialogues. All existing governments are bad and ‘The human race will have no respite from evils until those who are really philosophers acquire political power or until, through some divine dispensation, those who rule and have political authority in the cities become real philosophers’ (326a-326b). And it is important to remember here that the version of democracy that existed in Athens at the time was a crowd variety, could be swayed by demagogues, and so was subject to volatile decision-making and political practice.

However, as reading the thirteen epistles confirms, this did not mean Plato gave up on his ambition to see his philosophy produce political change in the world. These letters are concerned with one or other of his three visits in 387, 367 and in 362-361 to Sicily, Syracuse in particular; and they discuss his attempts to influence the tyrant Dionysius, his friendship with Dion including in the period Dion ruled Syracuse, and his advice to Dion’s associates after this man’s assassination. The scent of a possible convert in Dionysius was in Plato’s nostrils. The well-known seventh epistle, for instance, is largely concerned with how to produce a philosopher-king, what proofs were needed to demonstrate that the conduct of the king did indeed embody the standards of Platonian philosophy, and how to pinpoint things that prevented achieving this. And indeed, the other letters also touch on such matters and include within the fold of the correspondence numbers of men who were important players in the Athenian and Sicilian political arena.

First reading the letters

Epistle I, to Dionysius. There is no formal opening or dating, indeed there is no dating in any of the epistles, it plunges into an ‘I’ that questions a ‘you’ over ‘your’ behaviour. Apart from the named man who is the bearer of the letter, ‘I’ and ‘you’ are the only people mentioned. It has a winding down but not a definite closing. Its content is not so much accusatory as upfront critical. ‘I’ dominates. And although Dionysius is alluded to as a tyrant and a kind of employer or patron of Plato, there is no sense of deference, Plato writes as on a par.

Epistle II, to Dionysius. There is no opening, it plunges straight into an interlocutory set of things. Various other people are mentioned including Dionand others in the opening sentences, so a named ‘they’ appears earlier on in it. Who these men are is taken for granted and not explained. There is no winding down or discernible closing, conveying a heterotopic small world aspect. The tone of this letter is one of questioning, but is not upfront critical in the way the first letter was about Dionysius’s personal conduct. It is fairly long. It discusses the context in which people misrepresent things, and proposes using letters between them to check what are the real facts before reacting. It discusses their past meetings and comments, ‘If you are contented with my doctrines, then you should hold me also in special honour’ (page 4). This epistle is primarily about doctrines and standards of behaviour in particular in the political sphere and it has the names of other men in it.

Epistle III, to Dionysius. This epistle has an opening salutation. It then immediately and in detail questions this and other modes of epistolary address and the work they do. What he is urging Dion to do as well as Dionysius is enact a (second-best) replacement of tyranny with monarchy. The discussion is also concerned with changes in Plato’s political actions and why this occurred regarding Dionysius. There are many details about this and why Plato left Syracuse, because nothing positive was resulting. Plato had asked whether Dionysius’s behaviour is what he had advised and got laughed at mockingly. This letter is about the details of their relationship and how Plato sees the failures, and the way his advice is ignored or overturned. There is no winding down or formal ending, it finishes in the midst of things.

Epistle IV, to Dion. There is no formal beginning. The content immediately plunges into Plato’s activities and wanting to see them completed. It is all about his ideas and views given the political context. This context is that Dionysius has been overthrown, and so what will happen to Plato’s political initiatives. The epistle is rather short and there is a perfunctory closing.

Epistle V, to Perdiccas. There is no formal opening.

This letter starts with the messages exchanged between them and Plato’s advice about how Perdiccas should conduct himself. The writer constructs ‘Plato’ as a character within the text, on the first page (15) of this epistle. There is a short and perfunctory closing and this is a short letter.

Epistle VI, to Hermeias, Erastus and Coriscus. There is no opening, this epistle plunges into the writer giving advice which he hopes they will accept with grace. He gives suggestions about what they should do, and he adds Erastus to the other two. All three of them should read his letter and reach agreed conclusions as to their conduct. There is no closing.

Epistle VII, to associates of Dion after his assassination. This is the best known of the epistles, it is extremely long and considered to be important. It defends Plato’s political activities in Syracuse as well as being concerned with the nature of philosophy and pure forms. There is a formal opening. In the opening passages there is more of ‘you’ and less of ‘I’, and this is a composite ‘you’ with the particular men concerned not named. It is written in a more general and narratively descriptive way than the previous letters. It covers what he had advised Dion to do and the results of Plato’s different voyages to advise both Dion and Dionysius. It is self-justificatory. It is very detailed and reads like he is clearing his mind and setting out a justified position for the rightness of what he did. There is a winding down, but there is just a mention of the account given being rational and supplying sufficient excuse, and there is no formal ending.

Epistle VIII, to associates of Dion. This epistle is addressed to the companions of Dion and seems to have been written after letter VII and before Dion’s assassin had been driven out. There is no opening, it plunges straight into matters of policy and securing the well-being of the men he is addressing. There is more of ‘you’ and general sentence construction and less of a presence of ‘I’. Its contents advise the compromise position of a monarchy limited by laws that are agreed. It is quite long and there is no formal ending. It winds down with plans which the writer hopes will produce a good result.

Epistle IX, to Archytas. This epistle is very short and there is no formal opening. Its content takes the form of relaying news – two men and a group have arrived bringing the letter from this addressee, so Plato is writing back saying what he is doing. There is no winding down or ending. It is more a kind of note acknowledging receipt than it is a letter.

Epistle X, to Aristodorus. This epistle is extremely short and it is a statement that Plato believes that his is a genuine philosophy, and other approaches he calls parlour tricks. There is a brief formal ending, ‘so farewell and continue in the same disposition’ (page 52).

Epistle XI, to Leodamas. There is no opening. Plato had written to him before, that what he says is of great importance and he should come to Athens. The next best thing is that Plato or Socrates should go to him, but Socrates is ill. There is a winding down and kind of ending, ‘Good fortune attend you!’ (page 53).

Epistle XII, to Archytas. This epistle has no formal opening. It mentions being pleased with something sent. There is no winding down or ending. It is a note rather than a letter. Has it been edited to be like this, or is this how it was originally written?

Epistle XIII, to Dionysius. This is out of chronological order. There is a kind offormal start to the letter in its opening statement, ‘let this greeting not only commence my letter but serve at the same time as a token that it is from me‘(page 55). It is quite chatty, remembering a feast they were both at, and has some reported conversation. There is more ‘you’ and less ‘I’ than in some other letters. This one is in part concerned with Dionysius’s studies of philosophy. Plato also comments about Dion and that he will write about it when he gets letters which will bring him up-to-date.

There is a sign or code which Plato says he uses to indicate which of his letters are serious and which are not (capitalised God at the head of the serious, and lower case god at the head of the less so), and Dionysius should give attention to the serious ones (with the conundrum here is that none of the thirteen letters have either of these at the start of them). In this particular letter, there is a kind of winding down comment about Dionysius preserving this letter or a précis of it, but no formal ending.

General thoughts from the first reading:

  1. Some, most, of the epistles are dominated by ‘I’. The letter-writer is very much the protagonist in all of them and comes across as insistently so in some. This is so regardless of the relative social standing of the men concerned. Plato as the letter-writer is pursuing his own trains of thought, ideas regarding right ways to behave, and putting across his own political strategies and recommendations. This prevalence of ‘I’ is linked to the instructional role he takes up with regard to his addressee, but it also comes across as stronger than this, that Dionysius is a bad pupil, and Dion has faults too.
  2. The epistles read as edited versions, whether by Plato or more likely an unknown hand. Given that some of them have an opening formal address, and he comments on his typical one, the likelihood is that most/all will have had such but these have been removed. Similarly so with the winding down of content at the end and providing a final ending. Some of the epistles also appear to have had content removed in addition to openings and closings, although at least one seems to have been written as a note rather than a letter. Tentatively, the indications are that someone started collecting together letters which showcased the important matter of Plato’s practical involvement in political life and strategising in Syracuse, but at some point in the past before the Greek versions were translated into Latin, the intention to produce a collection was abandoned.
  3. The tone of the epistles is assured and indeed instructional or commanding as well as advisory. They are written by someone certain of their position and standing in relation to their correspondents. In this they add up to the representation of a persona of the philosopher as political strategist and advisor. The point at which the writer self-reflexively refers to himself by name reinforces this. This textual Plato rejects views ascribed to him by others in a commanding way, as the source of true knowledge.
  4. Although various of the epistles are focused on particular events and the role of the person to whom the particular epistle is addressed, they also invoke letter-writing as a shared communicative medium involving exchanges between large numbers of men when away from theirpolitical base in Athens. In them, for instance, the textual Plato comments on having received letters, writing letters, waiting for letters to arrive, invoking someone who bears letters to other people, also reflecting on the capacity of letters to convey privy information, and letters with signs or codes that signal true opinions and facts distinguished from others.
  5. The content of the epistles is particularly concerned with political strategies, manoeuvring, and providing advice on ways to behave and courses of action as political life and change unfolds. It is therefore curious that when Plato’s political writings are discussed in scholarly accounts, usually The Epistles are not mentioned. However, they are a key place where he is discussing practical political action in the world and its outcomes in relation to his philosophical perspective and understandings. It is not clear in the published literature why this silence might be so, but there is perhaps an assumption that letters are too trivial a form to be taken seriously, or that the provenance of these particular letters is such that they are not seen as genuine.
  6. The reader always comes late and this is particularly so regarding letters from antiquity which have such a complicated history as these by Plato, or rather by the represented textual ‘Plato’. The intended reader comes late, because the letter-writer has produced a version of what he wanted to convey, and this has travelled across time and space before the reader ever sets eyes on it let alone reads it. And always and forever the events and times the recipient reads about have gone by, the moment of writing has gone, it is the past tense although usually written in the present tense. The reader is also always late because not part of the immediate action beingnarrated. There are three aspects of this worth noting.

The first is how immersed in a small world these letters are, in which the intended reader can be relied upon to know enough of everything in the letter not to be puzzled and want to seek out biographical or historical information in order to comprehend it. The present-day reader is not situated like this, there are always puzzles and mysteries.

The second is that a curious ontological shift occurs, because the later reader reads the words written by the letter-writer and in doing so puts themselves in the subject-position of that writer as the written words resonate in the reading mind. The later reader is also a writer in this sense.

And the third is that with such letters from antiquity there is always another writer, usually a set of other writers. There are the scribes or others who helped write the originals, there is the person whose name claims authorship, there are the unknown hands that saved and collected, there are the translators and transcribers, there are the editors and publishers, and all these stand between us, we later readers, and ‘Plato’s epistles’.


Last updated: 10 June 2022