This is part four of a fictional dialogue discussing the life of Plato. If you wish to start at the beginning, please see post 57. Young Plato fled Athens for obvious reasons after the death of his teacher Socrates. He spent some time in Cyrene where he learned mathematics, and then he lived in Egypt for about twelve years where he became steeped in metaphysics, Egyptian style. It was there that he was introduced to the concept of Forms.
In this post, Plato leaves the ideal philosophical world and enters the rough-and-tumble world of real-life politics in Sicily. This is apt training for someone about to return to his hometown of Athens.
So, come and join Xenon and the other guests as they once again 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 two days after his death.
Plato’s Early Dialogues
The guests all settled in their respective places as the servants brought them dinner. Everyone was quiet for a little while as they commenced eating. Finally Xenon spoke, “The discussion about Plato in Egypt that we had last evening was fascinating. I would love to continue it since I have a few more – or really, a lot more – questions.”
“I would love to indulge you in this,” replied Damien, “but I am afraid we have to move on and discuss the time Plato spent in Sicily.”
“Very well then,” exclaimed Xenon, “I want to be a willing student!” The other guests smiled at his eagerness. “With that said, I do have one question that I consider very important and relevant to the life of Plato concerning his time in Egypt.”
“For you, my friend, I will make an exception,” chuckled Damien. “What is this burning question of yours?”
“Simply this,” said Xenon, “Were any of Plato’s dialogues written while he was in Egypt?”
“Now that is a great question and goes to show how, as great a story teller as I am, that I was remiss in leaving out the most important aspect of Plato’s life: his dialogues. We can break up Plato’s writing into three chronological sections, the early, middle, and late dialogues. I will discuss the latter two later, but it is important to discuss Plato’s early dialogues because he wrote those while in Egypt.”
Damien continued, “And these early dialogues are important because they centered around the life and teachings of Plato’s teacher Socrates. This makes sense if you think about it because time is not the friend of memory. He wanted to write what he could of his teacher while it was still fresh in his mind.”
“So which of Plato’s dialogues were written during his time in Egypt?” prompted Damien.
“The most important of Plato’s dialogues, and the one he wrote first, is called the Apology because it centers around the trial and death of Socrates. The crucial part of this dialogue is Socrates’ defense at his trial which, I think, will continue to be read for generations.
“The other one of Plato’s dialogues that is important is Crito, in which Plato writes about Socrates’ time in prison before his execution and the philosophical discussions that he had with his friend Crito.”
“What are the names of Plato’s other dialogues?” inquired Xenon.
“I can’t remember all of them offhand, but I think there was one called Protagoras and another called Ion if my memory serves me correctly,” replied Damien.1 These were not works of deep philosophy as is evident in Plato’s later dialogues, but simply a tribute to his hero Socrates. Socrates, by his own admission, was not a philosopher who busied himself with abstract philosophical speculations but was more concerned with practical ideas such as ethics.2 I think one of Plato’s main reasons for writing these dialogues was to make a defense of Socrates’ life and teachings in the face of his detractors.”
“So all of Plato’s early dialogues were written in Egypt?” asked Xenon.
“Exactly,” replied Damien. “Then he moved on to Italy and Sicily. The rest of Plato’s dialogues were not written until his return to Athens.”
Gluttony and Debauchery Among the Greeks of Southern Italy
Damien continued, “So he left Egypt an older and wiser man. Remember that he left Athens when he was twenty and now he’s around forty. Plato did not go straight to Sicily but spent a brief time in Southern Italy. Plato was disgusted with what he found there, experiencing far more of a culture shock than he experienced when he first went to Egypt. Needless to say, he left Southern Italy after a short time.”
“What did he find there?” asked Xenon.
“As Plato told me: ‘banquets and more banquets,'” said Damien.
“What do you mean by that?”
“According to Plato, the Italians had two banquets a day, eating to excess both times, and again at night,” explained Damien. “They made sure they were not without a bed partner, whomever that may be. Plato, always looking for wisdom, realized that he could not find it among such a people for he thought it wholly incompatible with any man under heaven possibly attaining wisdom, for human nature is not capable of such an extraordinary combination. As such, in the mind of Plato, temperance as well as virtue are also out of the question for such a man.”3
“But I feel that there was more to it for Plato regarding the effect that this life of debauchery would have on an individual,” Xenon said.
“You guess correctly now that you are starting to understand Plato a little better,” replied Damien. “Can you expand on what you just said?”
“Of course,” replied Xenon. “I would imagine that Plato’s chief concern since leaving Athens was ultimately to find the perfect political system to promote the common good of any society. A government will only be as virtuous as its people, and for such a people that he found in Southern Italy, there was no hope for virtuousness.”
“Now you are thinking like Plato!” exclaimed Damien. “Consider the following quote as I read an excerpt from a letter of Plato.”
No city could remain in a state of tranquility under any laws whatsoever, when men think it right to squander all their property in extravagant, and consider it a duty to be idle in everything else except eating and drinking and the laborious prosecution of debauchery. It follows necessarily that the constitutions of such cities must be constantly changing, tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies succeeding one another, while those who hold the power cannot so much as endure the name of any form of government which maintains justice and equality of rights.4– Plato, excerpt from his Seventh Letter
“He makes a direct link, a causation if you will, between the virtue of a people and the quality of its government,” said Damien. “I’m sure this was reinforced in his mind from the corruption that he saw in Athens. Remember that as a young man, he lived through an oligarchic coup, a democratic revolution, and the execution of his beloved teacher Socrates to top it all off.”5
“But at face value, this seems perfectly obvious,” retorted Xenon.
“You’re correct,” said Damien, “except that if society is comprised of mainly stupid people, people are too stupid to understand their own ignorance and errors. As Socrates said, ‘The first step in gaining wisdom is to realize that you are ignorant.’ Anyway, let’s talk about Plato in Sicily.”
Plato Crosses Over to Sicily
Damien continued, “Plato crossed over to Sicily hoping to find a more enlightened Greek colony than he did in Southern Italy. But when he arrived in the city of Syracuse, he was again disappointed.6
“In Syracuse, he found the same debauchery as he did in Southern Italy,” Damien lamented, shaking his head back and forth. “In many ways, the depravity and corruption that Plato found in Sicily was worse than that in Southern Italy. The government was full of suspicion, bribery, hedonism, debauchery, and violence, and that was on a good day.”
“It seems that Plato was always looking for that ideal Greek society but could never quite find it,” said Xenon. “This must have troubled Plato since the Egyptians had more virtue than the Greeks.”
“That is true,” said Damien, “but that did not deter him. Plato never gave up his dream of the ideal political system grounded in virtue and wisdom. Certain, almost miraculous events occurred after Plato arrived in Sicily that caused him to consider the city to be a testing ground for his ideas about virtue. Doors were opened through which Plato could have great influence in the government of Syracuse. If he could not find the ideal Greek society, he would try to bring one about. And why not try his ideas on one of the most powerful Greek city-states? For if he could change that city, that could – and most likely would – affect the rest of the Greek world for good.”
“How would you summarize his ideas?” asked Xenon.
“Basically, I would refer to one of Plato’s dialogues, the Republic. It is in that dialogue that Plato discusses the concept of the ‘philosopher-king’ that you mentioned earlier. The philosopher-king would be a virtuous person who would rule using the principles of wisdom and knowledge that he learned through philosophical study. I remember a great quote by Plato which capsulizes this idea.”
Unless, said I, either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence, while the motley horde of the natures who at present pursue either apart from the other are compulsory excluded, there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either.– Plato, Republic 473d-e
“Wow, you have a great memory, quoting from Plato’s dialogues verbatim!” exclaimed Xenon.
“I attribute that to the god Oogle,” replied Damien.
Plato Meets Dion in Sicily
“What happened next, Plato attributed to divine guidance,” said Damien. “In fact, he says as much in his letter.”
With a mind full of these thoughts (of his negative experience in Southern Italy), on the top of my previous convictions, I crossed over to Syracuse – led there perhaps by chance – but it really looks as if some higher power was even then planning to lay a foundation for all that has now come to pass with regard to Dion and Syracuse – and for further troubles too.– Plato, excerpt from his Seventh Letter
“This is really getting interesting,” exclaimed Xenon. “What exactly happened while Plato was there in Sicily?”
“Well, it wasn’t long after arriving in Syracuse that Plato attracted a group of young men to himself – his wisdom, virtue, and philosophical understanding being quickly apparent,” said Damien. “Among these young men was a fellow named Dion who exceeded the rest of his peers in intelligence and eagerness to learn.7 And if that weren’t enough for Plato, he found out that Dion was the brother-in-law and an advisor to Dionysius I, Tyrant of Syracuse.8 Not only did Plato have a willing and able disciple, but possibly, through Dion, the ear of Dionysius I himself.”
Damien continued, “Plato sat down with his new disciple and explained everything to him. Dion soaked up everything like a sponge. The most important thing to Plato, though, wasn’t the fact that Dion wanted to learn philosophy but that he wanted to practice virtue. Finally, Plato found a person of virtue in the midst of all the debauchery he had witnessed in Southern Italy and Sicily. Let me read another excerpt from Plato’s letter.”
I was brought into close relationship with Dion who was then a young man, and explained to him my views as to the ideals at which men should aim, advising him to carry them out in practice. In doing this I seem to have been unaware that I was, in a fashion, without knowing it, contriving the overthrow of the tyranny which subsequently took place. For Dion, who rapidly assimilated my teaching as he did all forms of knowledge, listened to me with an eagerness which I had never seen equaled in any young man, and resolved to live for the future in a better way than the majority of Italian and Sicilian Greeks, having set his affection on virtue in preference to pleasure and self-indulgence. The result was that until the death of Dionysius he lived in a way which rendered him somewhat unpopular among those whose manner of life was that which is usual in the courts of despots.– Plato, excerpt from his Seventh Letter
“The remarkable thing in this case is that before he met Plato, Dion was living a life of dissipation like the rest of his colleagues in Sicily,” Damien said. “He had been raised in the habit of fearful subservience and ostentatious service under a tyrant, and in a court that esteemed vulgar luxury, pleasure, and excess as its highest virtues.”9
“But we can’t much blame the boy,” Xenon said, “for he knew nothing else.”
“Until Plato, that is,” said Damien. “Even though he wasn’t practicing the virtuous life to the fullest, we know that he was disposed to a life of virtue because after he met Plato, he completely changed his ways, almost acting as if he had just been released from prison.”
“In a true sense, he had,” said Xenon, “for anyone who gives themselves over to their own pleasures is a slave to those pleasures. He is not free.”
“Truly well said,” replied Damien. “You are wise beyond your years. There are those people who are disposed to good but are held back by the corrupt ways around them. They cannot improve because there is no one to enlighten them. Dion is a great example of such a person. Plato described him as a person of high character who was magnanimous and courageous. Yet despite this, he lacked direction. But as soon as he got a taste of a rational philosophy, which led the way to virtue, Plato saw that Dion’s soul was speedily on fire – from his own ready obedience to the call of higher things.
“He resolved to live for the future in a better way than the majority of Italian and Sicilian Greeks, having set his affection on virtue in preference to pleasure and self-indulgence. And as you can imagine, this set him at odds with those in the court who continued in their corrupt ways as is usual in the court of a despot. It is a natural thing that people develop animosity toward those who do not indulge in the same dissipation and debauchery as they do.”
Plato and the Importance of Virtue
“That is true,” Xenon said. “It seems that Plato had learned well from Socrates. Both men stressed the importance of living a virtuous life.”
“Yes,” replied Damien, “Socrates taught Plato that the most important thing in life is to strive for virtue. Having said that, there was a major difference between the two men. Can you guess what that is?”
“I think it’s clear,” Xenon said, “that Plato was highly interested in politics, whereas Socrates eschewed any type of political involvement.”
“Very keen insight,” replied Damien. “Socrates even said that he was ordered by divine revelation to not get involved in politics in any way, shape, or form, so he always felt that it was his divine purpose to call all men to live virtuously. He felt that if he did that, society would change since those in charge would be virtuous men. The irony, of course, was that rather than responding to his message, they killed the messenger.
“This could possibly be why Plato saw it necessary to take a more active role in developing a system of government based on wisdom and virtue. He turned his back on political ambition once he met Socrates, but after Socrates’ death, Plato decided to reenter politics not as a politician but as a philosopher. I think that the end goal of all Plato’s philosophy, even that which deals with the nature of the cosmos and forms, etc., is to find expression in a virtuous society and government. He mused that if there was an order and beauty to the universe, those same principles could be applied to make a well-ordered society.”
“He was very idealistic,” exclaimed Xenon.
“Yes, and he never lost that idealism, even in the face of the most profound corruption. Plato tried to solve the problem of how to have a government with rulers of virtue. The problem is that power attracts bad people while good people do not strive after it. So….the question and age-old problem is how do we ensure that we are governed by wise and virtuous people, the kind of people who would never seek office in the first place?”10
Dion – A Zealous Evangelist for Virtue
Damien kept on, “Once Dion became enlightened, it was only a matter of time until he started finding applications to this newfound knowledge. He thought to himself that if he benefited greatly from such insight, surely he should not confine these ideas to himself. He realized that human nature being what it is, such wisdom would never have mass appeal, for anything that appeals to the masses is by definition base.11 But, it is not necessary to have mass appeal of such ideas. Even Heraclitus said that most people are too stupid to understand such things.”
“How can we have hope, then, that societies can be well-ordered and well-governed?” asked Xenon.
“Your question gets to the heart of Plato’s ideas,” replied Damien. “Plato saw that all we really need is a small, enlightened group of philosopher-kings who would not only govern the people well, thus bringing happiness to all, but also who would act as examples of virtue for others to follow.
“This is why Dion thought that he only needed to reach a few with his message – not just anyone, but those with influence. Perhaps, with the aid of the gods, Dionysius could become a new convert. Dion reasoned that if such a thing did come to pass, the result would be a life of unspeakable happiness both for himself and for the rest of the Syracusans.12After he came to this conclusion, he wasted no time beckoning Plato to the court of Dionysius with the utmost possible speed to be his partner in these plans for Sicily, remembering how readily a friendship with Plato had produced in him a longing for the noblest and best life. He had great hope that if Plato could have a similar effect on Dionysius, then Dionysius could introduce this true life of virtue and happiness throughout the whole territory without bloodshed and the loss of life.”
“What a perfect opportunity,” Xenon said.
“Yes,” said Damien, “that is why Dion earnestly set to work and at last brought it to pass that the tyrant, in a leisure hour, should meet Plato and hear him discourse on these matters.”
Plato Meets Dionysius I
“Finally, the meeting was arranged,” said Damien.
“And how did it go?” asked Xenon.
“Well, at first it was 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. This really seemed to strike a chord with Dionysius for he reacted strongly in anger as if struck to the heart with conviction.”
Xenon said, “I would think that in a debauched court, Plato would have focused more on the virtue of temperance than on courage.”
“At first you would think so,” replied Damien, “but if you think about it, most of the harm that tyrants do to their people is fueled by none other than fear. Fearful people with power are some of the most dangerous, and Plato knew that. But he was willing to take a risk because without the truth, there is no hope of change.
“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 then 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 the two then went something like this:
Dionysius: Plato, why did you come to Sicily anyway?
Plato: I came to seek a virtuous man.
Dionysius: Well, by the gods, it appears that you have not yet found such a one!
“With that,” said Damien, “Dionysius started plotting Plato’s assassination in such a way that he would not be implicated for he feared the people.”
(To be continued….)
Any thoughts? Please leave your comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!
From Amazon: “This book is born from a desire to understand how Plato influenced and was influenced by the intellectual culture of Western Greece, the ancient Hellenic cities of Sicily and Southern Italy. In 2018, a seminar on Plato at Syracuse was organized, in which a small group of scholars discussed a new translation of the Seventh Letter and several essays on the topic. The seminar was intense but friendly, having attracted a diverse group of scholars that ranged from graduate students to senior professors, hailing from at least three different continents, and representing a variety of academic specialties. We tried to create a book that would invite further study of the topic by identifying new questions to be asked while addressing enduring issues. The essays consider the historical, political, and philosophical implications of Plato’s involvement in Syracuse.”
Footnotes and Endnotes:
- The entire list of Plato’s early dialogues is as follows – Apology, Crito, Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis, and Protagoras. Cf. Kraut, Richard, “Plato”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- Ideas and quotes taken from Plato’s Seventh Letter.
- I find it interesting that Plato makes a direct link between the virtuousness of a society and the stability and benevolence of its government. When we think about it in that way, it makes perfect sense, but in the modern West, this idea seems preposterous. It reminds me of President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s. When asked about his suitability for office as a liar and adulterer, Clinton’s supporters retorted, “Character doesn’t matter!”
- Romeo, Nick and Tewksbury, Ian, “Plato in Sicily”, Aeon; Plato arrived in Sicily around 388 B.C. Remember that he left Athens around 400.
- Syracuse was a very powerful Greek city-state that equaled Athens in size during this time, cf. Morris, Ian(2008). “The Great Athenian State”. In Morris, Ian; Scheidel, Walter (eds.). The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. p. 115; Cicero would later say that it was “the greatest of the Greek cities and the most beautiful of them all.” Cf. Marcus Tullius Cicero (1903). “Against Verres”. In Yonge, C.D. (ed.). The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero. London: George Bell & Sons.
- Plutarch, “Life of Dion”, 4:6, Plutarch’s Lives; this is the Dion of Syracuse, not the Dion who sang Runaround Sue.
- The world “tyrant” in ancient Greece had both a neutral and slightly negative connotation, meaning anything from a ruler who came to power illegitimately to a heavy-handed autocrat. In the classic sense of the word, then, not all tyrants were heavy-handed. As time went on, the world became increasingly negative and eventually, the word took on the absolute negative meaning that it has today.
- Plutarch, “Life of Dion”, 4:6-7
- The same is true today. If we look at just the federal government in the United States, for example, it is apparent that it is rife with scoundrels. Aristotle discusses this in his writings. Those most qualified to rule, the virtuous, often do not seek power. Ironically, one of the qualifications for power is not grasping for it. Considering this, then, how does one get good people into office?
- Mass appeal is not the same as critical mass, a concept unknown to the Greeks. While it is true that a demos or mob rule is not desirable, nevertheless there has to be a certain percentage – and not necessarily a majority – of the people in addition to wise and virtuous leaders in order to transform culture. Those who appeal to the masses appeal to them most often for nefarious reasons. Also, when I talk of the masses, I am not talking about economic status, e.g., the lower middle class, etc.; rather, I am talking about those who do not have the ability to think critically. In my experience, I often find more critical thinkers in the ordinary population than in the more wealthy, educated segments of society. Maybe that is one reason that Jesus spent most of his time with the downtrodden instead of the upper echelons of Jewish society. I’ve met plumbers with more common sense than some college professors whom I know. By “masses,” I mean that large swath of society, regardless of social position, that is incapable of critical thinking. The goal is to reach critical mass, because the masses will usually go along with the current trends whatever they are.
- See Plato’s Seventh Letter.
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch, edited by James Miller, hardcover, Oxford University Press; Annotated edition (May 14, 2018)
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)
Rowland, Ingrid D., The Divine Spark of Syracuse (The Mandel Lectures in the Humanities at Brandeis University). Brandeis University Press; 1st edition (November 20, 2018)
Spariosu, Dr. Mihai Iuliu, The Seventh Letter: A Philosophical Mystery at Plato’s Academy, M Spariosu (April 29, 2022)