In the Seventh Letter Plato speaks of his meeting with Dionysius after arriving at Syracuse: ‘On my arrival, I thought that first I must put to the test the question (toutou prȏton elengchon dein labein) whether Dionysius had really been kindled with the fire of philosophy (poteron ontȏs eiê Dionusios exêmmenos hupo philosophias hȏsper puros), or whether all the reports which had come to Athens were empty rumours (ê matên ho polus houtos elthoi logos Athênaze). Now there is a way of putting such things to the test which is not to be despised and is well suited to monarchs, especially to those who have got their heads full of erroneous teaching (parakousmatȏn; Bury ‘borrowed doctrines’) which immediately on my arrival I found to be very much the case with Dionysius. One should show such men what philosophy is in all its extent (ho ti esti pan to pragma hoion te), what the range of studies is by which it is approached (kai di’ hosȏn pragmatȏn), and how much labour it involves (kai hoson ponon echei). For the man who has heard this, if he has the true philosophic spirit (ean men ontȏs êi philosophos) and that godlike temperament which makes him akin to philosophy and worthy of it (oikeios te kai axios tou pragmatos theios ȏn), thinks that he has been told of a marvellous road lying before him (hodon te hêgeitai thaumastên akêkoenai), that he must forthwith press on with all his strength (suntateon te einai nun), and that life is not worth living if he does anything else (kai ou biȏton allȏs poiounti; Bury: ‘and that life will not be worth living if he does otherwise’). After this he uses to the full his own powers (meta touto dê sunteinas autos te) and those of his guide in the path (kai ton hêgoumenon tên hodon), and relaxes not his efforts (ouk aniêsin), till he has either reached the end of the whole course of study (prin an ê telos epithêi pasin) or gained such power (ê labêi dunamin) that he is not incapable of directing his steps without the aid of a guide (hȏste autos hauton chȏris tou deixontos dunatos einai podêgein).’ (340b1-d1; tr. J. Harward)
Plato’s parakousmatȏn at 340b6, which Harward translates ‘erroneous teaching’, Bury ‘borrowed doctrines’, and Liddell&Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon as ‘thing heard amiss’, ‘false notion’ with reference to 338d in the Seventh Letter, can be properly understood only if viewed in its context. Plato speaks about the pressures to which he was exposed by his friends: ‘Dion now kept urging and entreating me to make the voyage; for in truth constant accounts were pouring in from Sicily how Dionysius was now once more marvellously enamoured of philosophy; and for this reason Dion was strenuously urging me not to decline his invitation (338b4-8) … There were some others in Syracuse who had had some teaching from Dion (Diȏnos te atta diakêkootes), and others again who had been taught by these (kai toutȏn tines alloi), men who were stuffed with what they heard on philosophy (parakousmatȏn tinȏn emmestoi tȏn kata philosophian). These men, I believe, tried to discuss these subjects with Dionysius, on the assumption that Dionysius was thoroughly instructed in all my systems of thought.’ (338d1-6). I translate parakousma ‘what they heard on philosophy’; it clearly refers to what those people heard second hand concerning Plato’s philosophy. At 340b6 Plato refers to the same parakousmata.
Plato’s words ‘hearing some things from Dion’ should be viewed in the light of Plutarch’s Dion. Plutarch says that when Dionysius became the ruler of Syracuse ‘Dion exhorted him to apply himself to study, and to use every entreaty with the first of philosophers to come to Sicily, and when he came (elthonti de), to become his disciple (paraschein hauton), in order that his character might be regulated (hopȏs diakosmêtheis to êthos) by the principles of virtue (eis arêtês logon), and that he might be conformed to that divinest and most beautiful model of all being (kai pros to theiotaton aphomoiȏtheis paradeigma tȏn ontȏn kai kallistȏn), in obedience to whose direction the universe (hȏi to pan hêgoumenȏi peithomenon) issues from disorder to order (ex akosmias kosmos esti); in this way he would procure (mêchanêsetai) great happiness for himself (pollên men eudaimonian heautȏi), and great happiness to his people (pollên de tois politais)… Since Dion frequently gave him such advice, and artfully mingled with it some of Plato’s doctrines (kai tȏn logȏn tou Platȏnos estin houstinas hupospeirontos), Dionysius was seized with a keen and even frenzied passion for the teachings and the companionship of Plato.’ (Plutarch, Dion X. 1-XI. 1, tr. Bernadotte Perrin)
Plutarch’s kai tȏn logȏn tou Platȏnos estin houstinas hupospeirontos, which Perrin translates ‘artfully mingled with it some of Plato’s doctrines’, simply means ‘sowing some of Plato’s words’. In his relation to Dionysius Dion assumed the role of a philosopher whom Plato in the Phaedrus likens to a competent farmer sowing seeds in suitable ground (speiras eis to prosêkon, 276b7). Like such a farmer, the philosopher ‘selects a soul of the right type (labȏn psuchên prosêkousan), and in it he plants and sows (phuteuêi te kai speirêi) his words founded on knowledge (met epistêmês logous)’ (276e6-7; tr. Hackforth) Dion drew on the Phaedran love-song, the Palinode on Eros, where Plato depicts philosophers as followers of Zeus – ‘we follow Zeus’ (hepomenoi meta Dios hêmeis, 250b7) – ‘the mighty leader in heaven (ho megas hêgemȏn en ouranȏi) who is beautifully ordering all things and caring for all’ (diakosmȏn panta kai epimeloumenos, 246e4-6). Philosophers ‘belong to Zeus (hoi men dê oun Dios) and seek (zêtousi) that the one they love (ton huph’ hautȏn erȏmenon) should be someone like Zeus (dion tina zêtousi) in respect of his soul (einai tên psuchên); so they look to see (skopousin oun) whether he is naturally disposed towards philosophy and towards leadership (ei philosophos te kai hêgemonikos tên phusin), and when they have found him and fall in love (kai hotan heurontes auton erasthȏsi) they do everything (pan poiousi) to make him of such a kind (hopȏs toioutos estai).’ (252e1-5; tr. C. J. Rowe)
Dionysius failed the test, and the question is, how could Plato leave the test only after his arrival to Sicily, venturing the journey on the basis of mere hearsay, however well-meaning, trustworthy, and well known to him were those ‘who all brought the same report (êngellon pantes ton auton logon), that Dionysius had made remarkable progress in philosophy’ (hȏs thaumaston hoson Dionusios epidedȏkȏs eiê pros philosophian, 339b2-4; tr. J. Harward). Couldn’t he test Dionysius before leaving Athens for Sicily? In fact, the Second Letter can be viewed as such a test.
To Dionysius’ request that he and his friends should refrain from doing or saying anything bad about him, excepting Dion, Plato replied: ‘Now your saying this, that Dion is excepted, implies that I have no control over my friends; for had I had this control over you and Dion, as well as the rest, more blessings would come to us all and to the rest of the Greeks also, as I affirm (310c1-5; tr. Bury). Bury’s ‘that I have no control’ stands for Plato’s hoti ouk archȏ; archȏ means ’lead’, ‘rule’, ‘govern’. If Plato is to accept Dionysius’ invitation, he must submit to Plato’s guidance.
Dionysius must change: ‘You showed that you did not fully trust me (ephainou ou panu emoi pisteuein su) but wished rather to get rid of me somehow (all’ eme men pȏs apopempsasthai ethelein) and invite others in my place’ (heterous de metapempsasthai, 312a4-5) … If you altogether despise philosophy, leave it alone. If, again, you have been taught by someone else or have yourself invented better doctrines than mine, hold them in honour. But if you are contented with my doctrines, then you should hold me also in special honour.’ (312b4-7, tr. Bury)
Dionysius complained that Plato did not sufficiently explained to him the nature of the First (ouch hikanȏs apodedeichthai soi peri tês tou prȏtou phuseȏs, 312d6-7). So Plato explains: ‘All things are related to the King of All (peri ton pantȏn basilea pant’ esti), for his/its sake all things are (ekeinou heneka panta); and it (i.e. to agathon, the Good; Plato’s thought slides from the King of All to the Good, which is neuter; the two are identical) is the cause of all beautiful things’ (kai ekeino aition hapantȏn tȏn kalȏn, 312e1-3) … Nothing is like (ouden estin toiouton ) the King and all those beautiful things of which I spoke (tou de basileȏs peri kai hȏn eipon) – the soul then says (to dê meta touto hê psuchê phêsi) – “but of what quality is it?” (alla poion ti mên), and this is the question that is the cause of all the mischief (to erȏtêma ho pantȏn aition esti kakȏn) [František Novotný in his Latin commentary to the Epistles notes: questio animi interrogantis quale (poion ti) non quid (ti) sit illud primum – ‘a question of the soul asking “of what quality” not “what” is that First’. (František Novotný , Platonis Epitulae, Brno 1930)], or rather the travail which this question creates in the soul (mallon de hê peri toutou ȏdis en têi psuchêi engignomenê); and unless a man delivers himself from this (hên ei mê tis exairethêsetai) he will never attain the truth (tês alêtheias ontȏs ou mê pote tuchêi, 313a3-6).’
The fault was not with Plato not explaining all this sufficiently: ‘You, however, declared to me in the garden (su de touto pros eme en tȏi kêpȏi), under the laurels (hupo tais daphnais), that you had formed this notion yourself (autos ephêstha ennenoêkenai) and that it was a discovery of your own (kai einai son heurêma); and I made answer (kai egȏ eipon) that if it was plain to you that this was so (hoti touto ei phainoito soi houtȏs echein), you would have saved me from a long discourse (pollȏn an eiês logȏn eme apolelukȏs). I said, however, that I had never met with any other person who had made this discovery (ou mên allȏi ge pot’ ephên entetuchêkenai touth’ hêurêkoti); on the contrary most of the trouble I had was about this very problem (alla hê pollê moi pragmateia peri tout’ eiê). So then, after you had either, as is probable, got the true solution from someone else (su de isȏs men akousas tou, ‘you probably heard it from somebody’ ), or had possibly (by Heaven’s favour) hit on it yourself (tacha d’ an theiai moirai kata tout’ hormêsas), you fancied you had a firm grip on the proofs of it (epeita autou tas apodeixeis hȏs echȏn bebaiȏs), and so you omitted to make them fast (ou katedêsas); thus your view of the truth sways now this way (all’ aittei soi tote men houtȏs, ‘thus it darts for you now in this way’), now that (tote de allȏs, ‘now in a different way’), round about the apparent object (peri to phantazomenon); whereas the true object is totally different (to de ouden esti toiouton). [Novotný notes that to signifies ‘res ipsa per se, idea’ = ‘thing itself’, and that toiouton points to hoion to phantazomenon, ‘like the imaginary object’]. Nor are you alone with this experience (kai touto ou soi monȏi gegonen); on the contrary, there has never yet been anyone, I assure you, who has not suffered the same confusion at the beginning (all’ eu isthi mêdena pȏpote echein allȏs pȏs ê houtȏs kat’ archas), when he first learnt this doctrine from me (mou to prȏton akousanta, ‘who hears it from me for the first time’); and they all overcome it with difficulty (mogis apallattontai), one man having more trouble (ho men pleiȏ echȏn pragmata) and another less (ho de elattȏ), but scarcely a single one of them escapes with but little (schedon de oudeis oliga).’ (313a6-c5) – If Dionysius wants Plato back, he must accept him as his teacher, become his disciple, and stop playing at being wise.
Plato then determines how they are to behave to each other in future: ‘So now that this has occurred (toutȏn dê gegonotȏn), and things are in this state (kai echontȏn houtȏ), we have pretty well found an answer (schedon hêurêkamen), as I think (kata tên emên doxan), to the question (ho su epesteilas) how we ought (hopȏs dei) to behave towards each other (pros allêlous hêmas echein). For seeing that you are testing my doctrines (epei gar basanizeis auta) both by attending the lectures of other teachers (sungignomenos te allois means simply ‘in company with others’, which implies ‘discussing my views on philosophy with others’; ‘attending the lectures of other teachers’ appears to be implied) and by examining my teaching side by side with theirs (kai paratheȏmenos para ta tȏn allȏn), as well as by itself (kai auta kath’ hauta), then (nun), if the test you make is true one (ei alêthês hê basanos), not only will these doctrines implant themselves now in your mind (prosphusetai), but you also will be devoted both to them and to us (kai oikeios toutois te kai hêmin esêi).’ (313c5-d3)
Plato does not say in the Seventh Letter what Dionysius replied to him, but he says that he wrote a very long letter (epistolên panu makran, 339b5), from which he mentions only what Dionysius said concerning Dion: ‘Since he knew how I was disposed towards Dion and also Dion’s eagerness that I should make the voyage and come to Syracuse,’ Dionysius wrote ‘If you are persuaded by us and come now to Sicily, in the first place you will find Dion’s affairs proceeding in whatever way you yourself may desire – and you will desire, as I know, what is reasonable, and I will consent thereto; but otherwise none of Dion’s affairs, whether they concern himself or anything else, will proceed to your satisfaction.’ (339b5-c7) Yet it is clear from the words in which Plato reflects on the letter that Dionysius devoted the main part of his letter to responding more than satisfactorily to Plato’s strictures, demands, and hopes. In other words, in Plato’s view Dionysius had passed the test of the Second Letter: ‘And I felt also myself (autȏi de moi hupên) that there would be nothing surprising (hȏs ouden thaumaston) if a young man (neon anthrȏpon), who was apt at learning (eumathê), attained to a love of the best life (pros erȏta elthein tou aristou biou) through hearing about subjects of importance (parakouonta axiȏn logou pragmatȏn). So it seemed to be my duty to determine clearly (dein oun auto exelenxai saphȏs) which way the matter really stood (hopoterȏs pote ara echoi), and in no wise to prove false to this duty (kai tout’ auto mêdamêi prodounai).’ (339e3-6; Bury’s translation with some changes: Bury translates 339e3-5 ‘And I felt also myself that there would be nothing surprising in a young man, who was apt at learning, attaining to a love of the best life through hearing lectures on subjects of importance (parakouonta axiȏn logou pragmatȏn).’ Bury’s translation can only mean that Plato is thinking about the possible effect of his own lectures which he would give after arriving in Syracuse. But parakouonta axiȏn logou pragmatȏn cannot mean ‘through hearing lectures on subjects of importance’. Plato must be referring to reports about his own teachings, which came to Dionysius’ ears, and of which Dionysius wrote in his long letter to Plato; J. Harward translates: ‘hearing talk of the great truths of philosophy’.)