Arguing against the authenticity of Plato’s Second Letter Bury asks: ‘Can we imagine the real Plato … trotting out a long list of sages and potentates to suggest his own magnanimity and the magnificence of Dionysius?’ (Bury, Prefatory Note to the Second Letter, vol. IX. of the LCL edition of Plato, pp. 399-400). To consider his argument, let me begin with what Plato actually says in his letter to Dionysius:
‘Now as for you and me, the relation in which we stand towards each other is really this. There is not a single Greek, one may say, to whom we are unknown, and our intercourse is a matter of common talk; and you may be sure of this, that it will be common talk also in days to come, because so many have heard tell of it owing to its duration and its publicity. What, now, is the point of this remark? I will go back to the beginning and tell you. It is natural for wisdom and great power to come together, and they are for ever pursuing and seeking each other and consorting together. Moreover, these are qualities which people delight in discussing themselves in private conversation and hearing others discuss in their poems. For example, when men talk about Hiero or about Pausanias the Lacedaemonian they delight to bring in their meeting with Simonides and what he did and said to them (Bury notes: ‘Hiero, the elder, was tyrant of Gela and Syracuse 485-467 B.C. Pausanias defeated the Persians at Plataea 479 B.C. Simonides of Ceos was a famous lyric poet.’); and they are wont to harp on Periander of Corinth and Thales of Miletus, and on Pericles and Anaxagoras, and on Croesus also and Solon as wise men with Cyrus as potentate (kai Kuron hȏs dunastên). The poets, too, follow their example, and bring together Creon and Tiresias, Polyeidus and Minos, Agamemnon and Nestor, Odysseus and Palamedes; and so it was, I suppose, that the earliest men also brought together Prometheus and Zeus. And of these some were – as the poets tell – at feud with each other, and others were friends; while others again were now friends and now foes, and partly in agreement and partly in disagreement … I certainly think that, had it been in their power to rectify what was wrong in their intercourse, those men of the past whom I have mentioned would have striven to the utmost to ensure a better report of themselves than they now have. In our case, then - if God so grant - it still remains possible to put right whatever has been amiss in word or deed during our intercourse in the past. For I maintain that, as regards the true philosophy, men will think and speak well of it if we ourselves are upright, and ill if we are base.' (310d6-311e2, tr. Bury)
Plato’s appeal on Dionysius has bearing on the authenticity of the Second Letter. But to assess it properly, we must view it in the broader historical context and in the light of what is known about Dionysius’ last years.
In 357 B.C. Dion led a small expedition to Sicily (his soldiers numbered less than eight hundred, Plutarch, Dion XXII. 8) and succeeded in liberating Syracuse. Some four hundred and fifty years later Plutarch wrote: ‘Among the illustrations men give of the mutations of fortune, the expulsion of Dionysius is still to this day the strongest and plainest.’ (Dion L, tr. Bernadotte Perrin) In Timoleon Plutarch writes: ‘After Dion had driven out Dionysius the tyrant, he was at once treacherously slain, and those who had helped him to free Syracuse were divided among themselves. The city, therefore, was continually exchanging one tyrant for another … At last Dionysius, in the tenth year of his exile, collected mercenaries, drove out Nisaeus, who was at that time master of Syracuse, recovered the power again, and established himself as tyrant anew; he had been unaccountably (paralogȏs) deprived by a small force of the greatest tyranny that ever was, and now more unaccountably still (paralogȏteron) he had become, from a lowly exile, master of those who drove him off.’ (Plutarch. Timoleon I.) The Syracusans sent an embassy to Greece, asking Corinthians for assistance against Dionysius. Timoleon of Corinth arrived to Sicily with a small expeditionary force and Dionysius surrendered to him. Plutarch writes: ‘Dionysius … after he had been conveyed to the camp of Timoleon, where for the first time he was seen as a private person and in humble garb, he was sent off to Corinth with a single ship and a small treasure, having been born and reared in a tyranny which was the greatest and most illustrious of all tyrannies, and having held this for ten years, and then for twelve other years, after the expedition of Dion, having been involved in harassing struggles and wars, and having surpassed in his sufferings all his acts of tyranny. For he lived to see the violent deaths of his grown-up sons and the violation of his maiden daughters, and the shameful abuse of the person of his wife, who was at the same time his sister, and who, while living, was subjected to the most wanton pleasures of his enemies, and after being murdered, together with her children, was cast into the see (Bernadotte Perrin notes: ‘The cruelties described were committed by the revolting people of Locri, to whom Dionysius had made himself odious during his residence there from 356 to 346 B.C.’)
But as for Dionysius, after his arrival at Corinth there was no Greek who did not long to behold and speak to him … For that age showed no work either of nature or of art that was comparable to this work of Fortune (ouden gar oute phuseȏs ho tote kairos oute technês hoson ekeino tuchês ergon epedeixato), namely, the recent tyrant of Sicily in Corinth, whiling his time away at a fishmonger’s or sitting in a perfumer’s shop, drinking diluted wine from the taverns and skirmishing in public with common prostitutes, or trying to teach music-girls in their singing, and earnestly contending with them about songs for the stage and melody in hymns. Some thought that Dionysius did these things as an aimless loiterer, and because he was naturally easy-going and fond of licence (phusei raithumon onta kai philakolaston); but others thought that it was in order to be held in contempt (huper tou kataphroneisthai) and not in fear by the Corinthians (kai mê phoberon einai tois Korinthiois), nor under suspicion (mêd’ hupopton) of being oppressed (hȏs barunomenon) by the change in his life (tên metabolên tou biou) and of striving after power (kai pragmatȏn ephiemenon), that he engaged in these practices and played an unnatural part (epitêdeuein kai hupokrinesthai para phusin), making a display of great silliness (pollên abelterian epideiknumenon) in the way he amused himself (en tȏi scholazein).’ (Plutarch, Timoleon XIII-XIV, tr. Bernadotte Perrin)
What bearing has all this on the authenticity of Plato’s Second Letter? Bury says in his ‘Introduction to the Epistles’: ‘We have it on Galen’s authority that good prices were paid by the libraries for letters signed with illustrious names. This put a premium upon forgeries, especially skilful forgeries; so that it was well worth while for an unscrupulous man of letters to study the style of a celebrated author such as Plato with a view to foisting on the learned world a plausibly fabricated epistle.’ (Bury, op. cit. p.391)
The question of plausibility is to the point. How could any skilful and unscrupulous man of letters impersonate Plato ‘trotting out a long list of sages and potentates to suggest his own magnanimity and the magnificence of Dionysius’ after what became of Dionysius II? And if he did, how could such a forgery be included in Plato’s Letters preserved by the Academy? In my view, the Second Letter was accepted as Plato’s only because its authenticity was indubitable.