This is part five of a fictional dialogue amongst friends discussing the life of Plato. Please read the previous post for immediate context. If you want to start at the beginning, see post 57. Plato fled Athens after the execution of his friend and teacher Socrates for obvious reasons. Plato traveled for almost two decades afterward, his most significant time being spent in Egypt. After his time in Egypt, he traveled to Sicily where he found himself in hot water with Dionysius I, tyrant of Sicily. We pick up the story at the end of a conversation between Plato and Dionysius that quickly turned sour.
Come and join Xenon and the other guests as they meet at the home of Damien for dinner and conversation about the life of Plato….
Xenon is a businessman from Southern Italy and a guest at the Athens home of businessman/philosopher Damien. They are discussing Plato’s life several days after his death.
Plato Faces Death at the Hands of Dionysius
Damien continued the account of the meeting between Plato and Dionysius.
“The meeting got off to a good start but things went downhill after Plato started telling the truth,” said Damien. “The topic of conversation was virtue, namely the virtues of justice and especially courage. Plato elaborated on the fact that courage was an essential quality for leaders to have but unfortunately, tyrants were the least of all people to have this quality. What Plato said really seemed to strike a chord with Dionysius for he became visibly agitated.
“To add insult to injury, Dionysius then observed that the court audience was greatly intrigued by what Plato had to say about virtue and courage. He became exceedingly angry, almost beyond reason. This proved what Plato taught anyway – that most tyrants are ruled by their lower nature and emotions rather than their higher rationality. The conversation between them ended something like this:
Plato: I came to seek a virtuous man.
Dionysius: Well, by the gods, it appears that you have not yet found such a one. I thought you were supposed to be a wise man, but you talk like an old fart!
Plato: And you like a tyrant!”
“What happened next?” inquired Xenon.
Damien continued, “Dionysius, flush with redness, hastily left the room with Dion running after him. They were gone for what seemed like forever. When they returned, Dionysius seemed calmer. He looked at Plato and asked him if he would like to go back to Athens. Plato seemed very eager to do so as it had been many years since he had seen Athens. So, Dionysius sent Plato away on a trireme to Greece.”
“I’m surprised that Dionysius didn’t have Plato killed,” exclaimed Xenon.
“Your sentiments are actually correct,” replied Damien. “Little did Plato know that when Dionysius had left the room, he expressed his intentions to kill Plato to Dion. Dion talked him out of it, saying that this might cause a disturbance among the crowd. Dionysius relented and decided to have Plato sent away instead.”
“Wow,” replied Xenon, “Dion played on Dionysius’ vice of cowardice – the very thing that Plato had accused him of, the thing that got him upset in the first place.”1
“That’s right,” Damien said. “But while Dion stayed Dionysius’ hand at killing Plato publicly, it didn’t prevent him from plotting Plato’s death nevertheless.”
“I should have known,” replied Xenon, “for in addition to being fearful, tyrants are also as crafty as snakes!”
“Yes, certainly,” Damien responded. “After dismissing Plato and Dion, Dionysius instructed his friend Pollis, whom he was putting on the trireme with Plato, to kill Plato at the first opportunity, making him sleep with the fishes.2 But if he did not get the opportunity to kill him, he was instead to sell him into slavery when they reached the island of Aegina.”
“And all of this from Plato trying to infuse virtue into politics,” commented Xenon.
“It is indeed an uphill battle for a philosopher who desires to bring virtue into politics either in being an advisor or ruling himself,” Damien said. “In fact, this is why Plato’s teacher Socrates eschewed any involvement in public affairs.”
A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time…. Do you think I would have survived all these years if I were engaged in public affairs and, acting as a good man must, came to the help of justice and considered it the most important thing?– Plato quoting Socrates, Apology, 32a, 32e
“Plato was getting a taste of this medicine in his first attempt at political involvement,” Damien continued.
“Yes,” replied Xenon, “It seems that Socrates was acutely aware of the dangers of public life, especially that of coming face to face with tyrants!”
“That is true,” said Damien. “Power can and often does turn rational men into irrational beasts.”
Plato Sold into Slavery
“Plato boarded the trireme with Pollis, thinking that he was returning home as Dionysius had suggested,” said Damien.
“What happened next?” asked Xenon.
“Well, apparently due to lack of opportunity or willingness to kill Plato, Pollis sold him into slavery when they reached the island of Aegina. Plato, of course, was disoriented from all of this. He barely had any time to recover from this unfortunate turn of events when he received even worse news.”
“I can’t imagine. Plato being held in slavery is bad enough,” replied Xenon.
“Plato found himself caught up in a larger dispute between the Aeginetans and the Athenians. They were at war with each other and the hatred between the two was particularly intense at this time, so much so that the prosecutor had recently instituted a law stating that any Athenian who so much as set foot on the island would be put to death without a trial. Plato wasn’t on the island more than a day when it was discovered that he was an Athenian and the prosecutor proceeded to indict him of a capital offense, despite already being in the bondage of slavery.”
Plato Sentenced to Death
“It only got worse from there,” continued Damien. “Plato was dragged into court before the assembly in order to be officially sentenced.3 After being whisked into court, he was made to stand before the people. It looked like there was no hope for Plato for like the tyrant in Sicily, these people were being ruled by their emotions and hatred, rather than by sound law. And as you know, lawlessness is the seedbed of injustice. The people scrutinized Plato, pelting him with questions. Others jeered and made fun of him. It was then that something strange and unexpected happened.”
“What was that?” inquired Xenon.
“Plato was unflappable under pressure, be it slavery, death sentencing, or being made a mockery. Plato seemed very calm, almost serene in the midst of all the tumult as he awaited the verdict of slavery or death, and this did not go unnoticed. Finally, someone in the crowd jokingly shouted, ‘I think he is a philosopher!’ With that, the crowd roared with laughter.
“The laughter continued until the prosecutor stepped forward and took his place directly in front of Plato as a silence descended over the room. The prosecutor cocked his head slightly, looked directly at Plato with an inquisitive look on his face, and asked Plato if he was indeed a philosopher. Plato answered in the affirmative. The prosecutor looked around the room and asked if anyone could verify this. Seconds of silence passed that seemed like hours, when finally a voice from the back replied, ‘I know this man well and he is indeed a philosopher who not only teaches virtue but lives that way as well.'”
“Who was that voice from the back, a god who spoke on Plato’s behalf?” Xenon laughingly said.
“Not quite,” chuckled Damien. “It was Pollis. He had come to his senses and realized that a virtuous man was about to be put to death, hoping that the Aeginetans would be reluctant to do so if they knew what kind of man he was.”
“What happened next?” asked Xenon.
“Well, at first the prosecutor acted as if this were no big deal,” replied Damien. “Everyone waited to see what he would do for it was the prosecutor himself who had made the law concerning the execution of any Athenian found on the island. He most certainly would follow his own law. What happened next shocked everyone.”
The Ransoming of Plato
Damien continued, “The prosecutor turned from Plato, looked down at his feet briefly, let out a sigh, and then looked up to face the assembly and resolutely stated ‘I recommend that this prisoner be sold into slavery as a prisoner of war.’ A few gasps were heard. But after recovering from their shock, the people of the assembly, a few at first and then more, nodded their heads in affirmation. And so it was determined that Plato should once again be sold into slavery.
“But that was until Anniceris of Cyrene, who happened to be present, ransomed Plato for thirty minas.4 He sent Plato back to Athens so that Plato could be with his friends, who promptly tried to remit the ransom money to Anniceris. Anniceris refused, stating that the men of Athens were not the only ones who deserved to look after Plato. So, that is the story of Plato’s departure from and return to Athens.”
“So much for the quiet, contemplative life of the philosopher,” quipped Xenon.
“To be a philosopher is one thing, but to live a virtuous life according to your philosophy is another,” replied Damien. “That’s when you get in trouble.”5
Plato Founds His Academy
Damien continued on. “Plato had been away from home for about fourteen years if you factor in the dozen or so years he spent in Egypt as well as his travels before entering Egypt. Regardless, being around forty years of age, he was not only older and wiser but ready to impart his knowledge to others.7 The revolutionary period in Athens that he had experienced when he was in his twenties was now over. The turbulent democracy that had taken the life of his friend Socrates had settled into a more predictable and stable democracy. It was the perfect time to start a school. It is no surprise that Plato chose the place of his fondest childhood memories – near the gymnasium where he had received an intellectual and physical education.”
“What was the location of this place? I know that you mentioned it a few days ago,” asked Xenon.8
“It was located in the suburbs, near the sacred groves of Athena and the hero-god Academus, about a mile and a half northwest of the Acropolis,” replied Damien. “It was Academus who at one time saved Athens from attack by Sparta, which is probably why this location is named after him. This is why Plato called his school an ‘academy.’ When Plato was attending the gymnasium there, it was a beautiful, idyllic place. In addition to the gymnasium and religious shrines, it had a running track and beautiful walking trails that meandered through the various poplar and elm trees.9 Its rustic beauty lent itself to quiet contemplation away from the noise and sophistry of the busy Agora.”
“I thought you said earlier that the gymnasium and surrounding park were public property. How could Plato start a school on property owned by the city of Athens?” asked Xenon.
“This is where it gets very interesting,” answered Damien. “There was a small garden in the midst of the park that had been owned by a particular aristocratic family going back many years. They sold the land to the city, except for this one part that they retained for who knows what reason. Maybe they wanted to keep a toehold in an area that had much religious significance.
“Anyway, Plato, being of aristocratic stock himself, approached the family to inquire about buying the land. They agreed, not because they particularly wanted to sell, but because it was Plato who was asking. You see, by this time, everyone could see that there was something special about Plato.
“As another indication that the gods were looking favorably upon Plato, a small miracle occurred to validate this whole endeavor. Remember that when Anniceris of Cyrene ransomed Plato out of slavery for 30 minas, he refused to be reimbursed by Plato’s friends.”10
“Yes, that’s correct,” replied Xenon.
“Well, that’s not the end of the story, for when Anniceris heard that Plato wanted to buy that garden in order to start his academy, he instructed that the money be used for that purpose,” Damien said.11
“Amazing!” exclaimed Xenon.
“It certainly is,” replied Damien. “So now Plato was set. Being an aristocrat, he didn’t have to work. He was now free to practice and teach philosophy at his leisure.”
“Since Plato’s ransom money was used to start his academy, it is as though Plato’s entire life was invested into that sacred ground,” Xenon said.
Inspiration for the Academy
Xenon paused for a moment and averted his gaze upward as if in deep thought.
“What are you thinking, Xenon? I see the wheels turning,” Damien observed.
“Well,” said Xenon, “it seems that Plato’s Academy was the first of its kind. I’m curious about where he got his motivation for such an idea.”
“Great question,” replied Damien. “In order to answer that fully, we need to talk about motivation and inspiration. The motivation is clear, as I have been saying all along. Even though Plato abandoned political ambitions for himself after he met Socrates, he never gave up on the idea of influencing politics for the good by finding virtuous leaders – the philosopher-kings. The negative experience Plato had with Dionysius I did not deter him, far from it. It made him even more resolute. His motivation was to find men and to train them up as philosopher-kings or as men who could teach others to do so. So, no matter what type of philosophy Plato taught at the Academy, he never lost sight of this overall goal. In Plato’s mind, philosophy that did not affect change and make a practical difference was worthless. Plato learned this from Socrates and his experience with Dionysius solidified this idea.”
“Very interesting,” Xenon said. “This makes perfect sense with what you said about Plato, but the more I think about it, as a native of Southern Italy myself, I recall that the Pythagoreans had a similar school much like Plato’s Academy. Maybe the Pythagoreans were the first to come up with such an idea.”
“You are partially correct, but Pythagoras’ philosophical school was more like a religious community than a school. Yes, much learning went on there and continues to this day, but it’s all in the context of religious practice and worship. The Pythagoreans were more secretive, whereas Plato meant his Academy to be more public and to serve the public directly. One could say that the School of Pythagoras was more a prototype of the academy Plato created.
“Nevertheless, having said all of that, Plato did indeed derive his inspiration for his Academy from the Pythagoreans. Remember that before he went to Sicily, he spent time in Southern Italy. It was there that he met the Pythagorean philosopher Archytas of Tarentum. In addition to being a philosopher, Archytas was a mathematician, inventor, scientist, and statesman – the complete package, if you will. Now, Archytas influenced Plato in two ways.”12
“Please continue,” said Xenon.
“Well, first of all, Archytas introduced Plato to the Pythagoreans at the school and even saw their manuscripts, copies of which Plato later acquired and put in his library. Visiting the school provided Plato with a template in his mind that he used as an inspiration to start his own academy. Secondly, and most importantly, Archytas himself was a man of virtue. He was elected as leader of Tarentum for seven years in a row at a time when the law allowed for only one term.”
“Why was that?” asked Xenon.
“Being a man of virtue, he was loved by the people who were prosperous and happy under his rulership. With Archytas, Plato saw his ideal of a virtuous ruler. He was the model for the philosopher-king,” replied Damien.
“So as a result of his travels, it seems that Plato returned to Athens with a positive leadership model in Archytas and a negative one in the Tyrant Dionysius,” Xenon stated enthusiastically, proud of his new insight.
“You are very astute,” replied Damien. “The positive example of Archytas as a philosopher-king outweighed the negative example of Dionysius, and this really motivated Plato. In fact, he used these two examples for the basis of his “philosopher-king” and “tyrant” in his great dialogue Republic. And this is why Plato wasted no time in establishing the Academy as soon as he returned from Sicily.”
Plato Teaches and Writes His Middle Dialogues
“At first,” Damien said, “Plato’s school was an informal gathering of aristocratic men. Plato did not charge any fees.13 The students met in Plato’s house in the garden but also had the luxury of traversing the idyllic paths of the surrounding park. It was an ideal situation for sure. Plato’s house had several rooms that included a library for all of the books and manuscripts as well as an exedra, a conversation room.”
“Imagine the discussions that occurred in that room,” mused an excited Xenon. “I can picture Plato and his students sitting in the exedra in the afternoon, discussing philosophy with a gentle, cool breeze flowing through the room from the garden as they ate figs and drank wine.”
“Certainly; without a doubt,” replied Damien.
Damien continued, “After establishing the Academy, Plato wasted no time in creating a shrine dedicated to the nine Muses who were the goddesses of learning and education.14Plato also put a small mouseion, a place dedicated to the Muses, on his property.
“Prior to Plato’s Academy, schools in Athens were mainly for children and adolescents. Plato grew up in such schools, in fact in the very location where the Academy is located now.15 Emphasis was placed on physical education as well as letters, arithmetic, and the works of the lyrical poets.16After graduating, they were expected to get involved with civil life.
“As an adult, educational opportunities were limited. Those who desired to improve their public speaking in order to advance themselves politically or in the courts went to the Sophists for training. As far as advanced philosophical training, there was none. Plato changed all of that with his Academy.
“Plato’s entire goal,” continued Damien, “was to use philosophy to develop virtuous people who would then benefit society politically and otherwise. The setup of the school symbolized this well in the fact that Plato’s private home was situated in the midst of a public park so there was always that interchange between public and private life.
“Fortunately for the world, Plato wrote much of what he taught to his students in his dialogues. As I mentioned prior, he wrote his first set of dialogues during his time in Egypt, much of it about his mentor Socrates. During the period surrounding founding his Academy, Plato wrote his second set of dialogues, many of which had more of a political emphasis, the greatest of which is Republic.17
Plato and the Well-Trained Mind
“I would like to emphasize that what made Plato unique is not that he taught his students what to think, but how to think.”
“Interesting,” said Xenon. “I imagine that he learned this from his teacher Socrates.”
“You are as right as the day is light,” said Damien. “Using Socrates’ method in order to teach subjects such as virtue and mathematics would force the student to examine himself in order to better understand his areas of knowledge and ignorance – especially ignorance, for realizing one’s ignorance is the first step toward wisdom and knowledge. It was Plato’s goal, then, to train the students’ minds in such a way that not only did they gain wisdom but they learned how to think. He was more concerned with training minds than leaving a system of doctrine behind that he expected people to learn and memorize.”
“Some say that Plato never contradicted himself, that he left an airtight system of thought,” Xenon said.
“Those who say that are as wrong as the day is long,” said Damien. “It is true that Plato did leave a record of his beliefs in his dialogues, but at the same time, he would posit sound arguments against his own theories.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Yes,” replied Damien. “You may have heard that Plato was a big proponent of his theory of Forms. Forms are the ideal ideas of the material world. Well, in his dialogue Parmenides, Plato has Parmenides almost completely dismantle his theory of Forms, much to the chagrin of a young Socrates. And on top of that, he gives no resolution to the problem. He leaves the reader to figure things out. Most philosophers try to strengthen their own ideas, whereas Plato would often attack his own ideas. Plato would frequently leave arguments unsolved for this very reason, and also because he may have not known the answer either. Plato sometimes contradicted a perspective in one dialogue that he affirmed in another.
“Plato was more than an instructor; he saw his task as being a moderator of problem solving. In summary, you can read the various philosophers in order to try to understand their ideas, but if you want to learn how to think, then Plato is the only philosopher for you.”18
The Legacy of the Academy
“Plato’s Academy was a raving success. It attracted students from all over. One student was purported to come all the way from Mesopotamia,” Damien said.19
“How did they find out about the Academy?” asked Xenon.
“Word spread fast about the quality of learning,” replied Damien. “But probably more influential was the fact that copies of many of Plato’s dialogues made their way to various parts of the world. One of his most famous and entertaining dialogues, the Symposium, attracted people to the Academy because it talked about love and was intellectually stimulating.20 People came to the Academy hoping to find a real life Symposium.
“One of two female students, Axiothea, came to the Academy after reading the Republic. A farmer from Corinth named Nerinthos joined the Academy after reading Gorgias. I say all of this to point out that there were many such stories as these and all of them unique. For example, one of his brightest, if not the brightest student, came from Macedonia and joined the Academy at the young age of eighteen.”
“What was his name?” asked Xenon.
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Footnotes and Endnotes:
- See the end of the dialogue in post 60.
- Like Luca Brasi, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsRvgCsLXWw.
- Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch, edited by James Miller, hardcover, p. 104, Oxford University Press; Annotated edition (May 14, 2018)
- Perhaps the grandfather of Anniceris the Cyrenaic philosopher who flourished around 300 B.C.
- This reminds me of what St. Paul stated in his second epistle to St. Timothy, that “everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Virtue is an affront to evil people in general in whatever form it presents itself, philosophical or spiritual.
- Imagine how different history would have been if Plato had been executed on the island. Without Plato, would Aristotle have become the great philosopher that he became? It reminds me of the story of when Abraham Lincoln was a child, he fell into a turbulent creek near his house and would have most certainly drowned if it weren’t for his childhood friend, Austin Gollahar, who just barely saved him from the waters. Imagine how history would have been different if Austin, who could not swim himself, was not able to help his friend. Of course, we always factor in God’s providence, but it is interesting to look at these situations from merely a human point of view.
- A common date given for the founding of the Academy is 387 B.C., but in my opinion that does not give enough time to account for Plato’s dozen or so years in Egypt and his other travels during this period of his life. I have also found a late date of 380. I think it is safe to say that Plato founded his Academy sometime in the mid to late 380s.
- See post 57.
- Trelawny-Cassity, Lewis, Plato the Academy, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- An agricultural worker earned about 3 minas per year, so this would translate to about 10 years’ wages for the average worker. Jesus uses the mina unit in a parable in Luke 19:11-27.
- There are several versions of how Plato obtained the land. Some say it was family land that he inherited. I chose the version that I thought would be the most interesting for historical fiction. For a more detailed discussion of this topic, please see Dillon, John. “What Happened to Plato’s Garden?” Hermathena, no. 134, 1983, pp. 51–59. JSTOR
- Robertson, Donald, “David Fideler: A Short History of Plato’s Academy”, Plato’s Academy Centre, June 7, 2021
- Kalligas, Paul, Plato’s Academy, p. 76, Cambridge University Press; Annotated edition (July 15, 2021)
- Ibid. Robertson states, “These shrines to the Muses were standard features of all Greek schools, including elementary schools; and this ancient word, mouseion, is the source of our modern term museum: a place devoted to learning.”
- See post 58.
- Robertson, Donald, “David Fideler: A Short History of Plato’s Academy”
- The famous Middle Dialogues: Cratylus, Symposium, Phaedo, Republic, Phaedrus. The post-Republic phase includes Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Politicus, Timaeus, Philebus, Laws, and Critias.
- This is one of the biggest benefits that I get from Plato and why I return to him again and again. Plato really challenges my argumentation and critical thinking skills. It is like a mental “boot camp.” After immersing myself in Plato, I noticed that my clinical thinking skills have considerably sharpened as an optometrist.
- Robertson, Donald, “David Fideler: A Short History of Plato’s Academy”
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch, edited by James Miller, hardcover, Oxford University Press; Annotated edition (May 14, 2018)
Kalligas, Paul, Plato’s Academy, Cambridge University Press; Annotated edition (July 15, 2021)
Plato, Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Cooper, John M., translator, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; Second Edition, 2 (October 1, 2002)
Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, The Complete 48 Biographies, Engage Classics (December 29, 2020)
Reid, Heather L., and nine other authors, Plato at Syracuse: Essays on Plato in Western Greece with a new translation of the Seventh Letter by Jonah Radding, The Heritage of Western Greece Series, Parnassos Press – Fonte Aretusa (February 18, 2019)
Spariosu, Dr. Mihai Iuliu, The Seventh Letter: A Philosophical Mystery at Plato’s Academy, M Spariosu (April 29, 2022)