Notes on Plato’s Seventh Letter

Of the thirteen surviving epistles of Plato (coming from the Greek for “to send along” or “to send news” -a letter) the seventh letter is perhaps the most important, and longest of his letters, buried in the middle of thirteen letters. Also the central teaching of Plato’s political philosophy is also buried in the middle of the seventh letter. It is, in some ways, Plato’s own apology, as the letter contains a defense of his activities in Syracuse (Sicily), as well as an account of his teaching. Scholars have fluctuated as to whether or not, and which, of Plato’s letters are “authentic.” At any rate, we receive these letters as Platonic from antiquity, and thus they are worthy of some consideration.

The seventh letter is addressed to the relatives and friends of Dion of Syracuse (likely after his assassination), a top ambassador for Dionysus I of Syracuse and star pupil of Plato’s Academy. According to legend, Dion orchestrated a meeting between Plato and Dionysus I, but the tyrant was so offended by Plato’s preaching against tyranny, he ordered his death (Plato narrowly escaped only to be sold as an Athenian slave in Aegina). Later, on Dionysus I’s deathbed just before he could hand over power to Dion, his son, Dionysus II, poisoned him and claimed power. He was not an intellectual, and had no idea how to rule. Dion attempted to inculcate in him the principles of good governance but it failed, even under Plato’s tutelage leading much infighting and a civil war in which Dion eventually overthrew Dionysus II after being initially banished. He was eventually assassinated in a coup from Calippus, another pupil of Plato’s. Dion was strangled and stabbed to death in his own home. The life of Dion is featured in one of Plutarch’s famous biographies.

Note that the tyrannies of Dionysus I and Dionysus II were not tyrannies in the 20th century version of the word – that is, they were not totalitarian regimes focused on the moral, spiritual, and brainwashed control of their people. Instead, they were simple tyrannies that ruled by force so that the tyrant, particularly Dionysus II, could gain riches and a life of luxury above the law. In Plato’s Republic, recall the comparison between justice in an individual and justice in the city. If everyone is “minding their own business” in pursuit of their virtue and goodness, rather than vulgar appetites, with the various part of a man reaching their full potential and functioning as a whole, so will the orderly and just city.

At any rate, in the letter to Dion’s relatives and friends, Plato acknowledges he shares their views, insofar that they agree with Dion that the people of Syracuse is deserve to be free and governed by the best laws. Plato then gives an account of how he came to these views:

In his youth, and being his own “master,” he was tantalized by a career in politics. At the time, the people of Athens condemned their constitution so a revolution occurred of 51 men ruling, primarily the 30 tyrants in Athens. Plato’s hope was that they would “bring men out of a bad way of life into a good one.” However, they quickly made the old government seem like “gold” as they started ordering executions, including the famous death of Socrates. First, they warned Socrates and offered for him to join in their iniquity, but he refused risking a great deal. Thus Plato refused to be involved with the Thirty. Then another revolution came and condemned Socrates to death on the charge of impiety.

In politics, it became difficult to find friends. Laws were being written and re-written not in accordance with the Athenian forbears. Thus Plato was forced to say that there would be no end to the political evils of man unless a philosopher is given sovereign power, or a sovereign is educated in true philosophy (the “philosopher king” in The Republic).

Then, when he first came to Syracuse he was disappointed with the Italian lifestyle -one of rampant partying, drinking, sex and so on. A man could never pursue wisdom, human nature, temperance, virtue in such an atmosphere.

Enter Dion, an eager young pupil who takes Plato’s words and hopes to instill them into a perfect political regime in Syracuse, though according Plato, Dion was not a follower of philosophy in the proper sense. After Dionysus I’s death and the ascendance of his trouble-making son, Dionysus II was certainly not at all interested in ruling justly. Thus Plato found it unhelpful to further advise Syracuse – after all a man who advises a sick to pursue health is surely noble, but a man who advises a sick man who does not heed his advise and continues to pursue the wrong course is unmanly and ignoble. Plato’s initial advise to Dionysus (ruler of Syracuse to whom Dion was an ambassador) was to become “master of himself” and to make “friends and loyal supporters.” Plato avoided flattery and instructed Dionysus not to use force against his own country. He praises the model of Darius, the ruler who avoided making enemies inside his own confederacy, and instead made many friends. If the constitution of a particular place is no longer relevant, then the ruler should keep quiet and pray for his country and himself:

“The wise man should go through life with the same attitude of mind towards his country. If she should appear to him to be following a policy which is not a good one, he should say so, provided that his words are not likely either to fall on deaf ears or to lead to the loss of his own life. But force against his native land he should not use in order to bring about a change of constitution, when it is not possible for the best constitution to be introduced without driving men into exile or putting them to death; he should keep quiet and offer up prayers for his own welfare and for that of his country.”

“But Dionysios, who had gathered the whole of Sicily into a single city, and was so clever that he trusted no one, only secured his own safety with great difficulty. For he was badly off for trustworthy friends; and there is no surer criterion of virtue and vice than this, whether a man is or is not destitute of such friends.”

In many ways, Plato’s seventh letter, itself, is a plea for friends. He gives an apology, or a defense, of his activities in Syracuse, in attempt to remove blame from himself among Dion’s well-wishers who knew of his fondness and relationship with Plato. The seventh letter is Plato, the philosopher, being political. It is a peace-making letter, not only between the historical relationships of Dion and Dionysus, but also of Plato and certain people in Syracuse and throughout southern Italy.

Plato gives a fascinating account of true knowledge in the seventh letter -first comes the name, then the definition, third the image, and finally knowledge which is coupled with a postulate of the object itself which is cognizable. Like is a circle or a sphere which is equidistant from all points of perspective from a center point. However a teaching made in writing about a circle is open to criticism, and not necessarily without fault. Therefore, wise and careful men avoid writing so as to avoid the envy and stupidity of the public, for the most important part of man’s writing is never contained within the text of his writings. Thus a tyrant cannot possibly capture a great truth about the nature of being in his writings, nor in his laws.

Since a political-philosopher-king is an impossibility, Plato praised the coming age of the rule of law, the second best rule. He advises men to live moderately and justly. For Plato, good politics requires good men, and the only noble man in Syracuse (Dion) had been murdered. He closes by praising Dion for dying a noble death and living a life in pursuit of the good, and reminds readers of this account as his attempt to ‘correct the record’ of public opinion (so to speak) for his actions and activities in Syracuse. As the opening of the letter indicates, its contents are intended for both ‘old and young men’ as well as a variety of different peoples. It is a public letter containing private lessons to those willing to listen.

For this reading I used an internet-based translation via Project Gutenberg.

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