Bury says in the Prefatory Note to the Second Letter: ‘Can we imagine the real Plato … denying that he ever wrote serious books on philosophy?’ (Bury, p. 399) Let us see Bury’s argument against the authenticity of the Second Letter in the light of the Phaedrus, the last section of which is devoted to ‘the question of propriety and impropriety in writing’ (to euprepeias dê graphês peri kai aprepeias, 274b6).
Socrates introduces this subject with an Egyptian myth: Theuth, one of the old gods of Egypt, invented the art of writing and presented it to Thamous, the king of the whole country, called Ammon by the Egyptians: ‘Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories: my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom (274e5-).’ Thamous rebuffed him: ‘If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks; what you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance; for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing; and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.’ Phaedrus remarks: ‘It is easy for you, Socrates, to make up tales from Egypt or anywhere else you fancy.’ (R. Hackforth remarks: ‘The little myth of Theuth and Thamous is apparently Plato’s own invention, though of course the personages belong to Egyptian history and legend.’ R. Hackforth, Plato’s Phaedrus, Cambridge University Press, 1972, p. 157. Translations from the Phaedrus in this entry are by R. Hackforth.) Socrates ripostes: ‘’For you apparently it makes a difference who the speaker is, and what country he comes from: you don’t merely ask whether what he says is true or false.’ – Phaedrus: ‘I deserve your rebuke, and I agree that the man of Thebes (the king Thamous resided ‘in the great city of Upper Egypt which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes’, 247d3-4) is right in what he said about writing.’ (274e4-275c4) – Socrates: ‘Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will provide something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple-minded; he must really be ignorant of Ammon’s utterance (tên Ammȏnos manteian; C. J. Rowe translates more attentively: ‘Ammon’s prophetic utterance’), if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who knows that which the writing is concerned with.’ – Phaedrus: ‘Very true. (275c5-d2)
The myth presents a little textual problem. Burnet in his Oxford edition of Plato gives the text as it stands in the manuscripts: basileȏs d’ au tote ontos Aiguptou holês Thamou peri tên megalên polin tou anȏ topou hên hoi Hellênes Aiguptias Thêbas kalousi, kai ton theon Ammȏna. Hackforth and Row in their translations accept Postgates’ emendation Thamoun for theon. Hackforth translates: ‘Now the king of the whole country at that time was Thamous, who dwelt in the great city in Upper Egypt which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes, while Thamous they call Ammon.’ The italicised words as they stand un-emended in Burnet’s text mean ‘and the god they call Ammon’. After writing the myth in accordance with Postgates’ emendation I went for a walk and I could not help thinking about it. The more I thought about it, the less I liked Postgates’ emendation, which Burnet mentions in his textual notes. Presumably, what led Postgate to his emendation are Socrates’ words at 275c7-8 tȏi onti tên Ammȏnos manteian agnooi ‘he would be really ignorant of Ammon’s prophetic utterance’. When Socrates tells the myth, at 274e5 he puts the utterance into the mouth of Thamous . What stands in between the two are Phaedrus’ words kai moi dokei peri grammatȏn echein hêiper ho Thêbaios legei, which Hackforth translates ‘I agree that the man of Thebes is right in what he said about writing’, and Rowe more attentively ‘it seems to me to be as the Theban says …’ Phaedrus’ words hêiper ho Thêbaios legei ‘as the Theban says’ prompted Socrates to enjoin that it was actually the god Ammon who through the mouth of the king pronounced the negative verdict on the art of writing, thus emphasizing its importance. Rowe notes: ‘Amoun, Herodotus says, is the Egyptian Zeus: a different name, but the same god.’ (Plato: Phaedrus, translation and commentary by C. J. Rowe, Aris & Philips Classical Texts, 1988, p. 209.)
Socrates then compares writing to painting: ‘The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive: but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words: they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing for ever. And once a thing is put in writing (hotan de hapax graphêi), the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place (kulindeitai men pantachou pas logos), getting into the hands not only of those who understand it (homoiȏs para tois epaiousi), but equally of those who have no business with it (hȏs d’ autȏs par’ hois ouden prosêkei); it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not to address the wrong (kai ouk epistatai legein hois dei ge kai mê). And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.’ (275d4-e5)
These words find their resonance in the Second Letter. After enlightening Dionysius on the nature of the First (peri tês tou prȏtou phuseȏs, 312d6)), the King of all (peri ton pantȏn basilea,312e1), about which the human soul (hê anthrȏpinê psuchê) strives to learn (oregetai mathein, 312e4-5), Plato warns: ‘Beware, however (eulabou mentoi), lest these doctrines be ever divulged to uneducated people (mê pote ekpesêi tauta eis anthrȏpous apaideutous). For there are hardly any doctrines, I believe, which sound more absurd than these (toutȏn katagelastotera akousmata) to the vulgar (pros tous pollous), or, on the other hand, more admirable (thaumastotera) and inspired (kai enthousiastikȏtera) to men of fine disposition’ (pros tous euphueis, 314a1-5) … The greatest safeguard (megistê de phulakê) is to avoid writing (to mê graphein) and to learn by heart (all’ ekmanthanein); for it is not possible that what is written down (ou gar esti ta graphenta) should not get divulged (mê ouk ekpesein).’ (314b7-c1, tr. Bury)
Phaedrus fully approves Socrates’ censure of the written word and Socrates turns his eyes to the spoken word: ‘But now tell me (Ti d’), is there another sort of discourse (allon horȏmen logon), that is brother to the written speech (toutou adelphon), but of unquestioned legitimacy (gnêsion)? Can we see how it originates (tȏi tropȏi te gignetai), and how much better (kai hosȏi ameinȏn) and more effective it is than the other (kai dunatȏteros toutou gignetai)? – Phaedrus: ‘What sort of discourse have you now in mind, and what is its origin (Tina touton kai pȏs legeis gignomenon)? – Socrates: ‘The sort that goes together with knowledge, and is written in the soul of the learner (Hos met’ epistêmês graphetai en têi tou manthanontos psuchêi); that can defend itself (dunatos men amunai heautȏi), and knows to whom it should speak and to whom it should say nothing (epistêmȏn de legein te kai sigan pros hous dei). – Phaedrus: ‘You mean no dead discourse, but the living speech, the original of which the written discourse may fairly be called a kind of image.’ Rowe’s translation is more long-winded, but more accurate: ‘You mean the living and animate speech of the man who knows (Ton tou eidotos logon legeis zȏnta kai empsuchon), of which written speech (hou ho gegrammenos) would rightly be called a kind of phantom (eidȏlon an tis legoito dikaiȏs).’ – Socrates: ‘Precisely’ (Pantapasi men oun). (275e6-276b1)
Socrates rounds off the discussion on the written and the spoken word with a message ‘to Lysias and all other composers of discourses, secondly to Homer and all others who have written poetry whether to be read or sung, and thirdly to Solon and all such as are authors of political compositions under the name of laws: to wit, that if any of them has done his work with a knowledge of the truth, can defend his statements when challenged, and can demonstrate the inferiority of his writings out of his own mouth, he ought not be designated by a name drawn from those writings, but one that indicates his serious pursuit.’ – Phaedrus: ‘Then what names would you assign him?’ – Socrates: ‘A name that would fit him would be “lover of wisdom” (philosophon).’ (278c1-d6)
In the light of the Phaedrus only a philosopher’s pursuit is a serious pursuit, and this pursuit has nothing to do with writing. If he writes, he does so by way of pastime (paidias charin, 276d2); he can’t be called a philosopher on account of what he has ever written. If therefore Plato maintains in his Second Letter that he has never written anything on the subject of philosophy, it is in full accord with what he says on this matter in the Phaedrus.
Let me note that Plato’s words in the Second Letter ‘I have never written anything on these subjects’ have a very different sound if they point to the Phaedrus, which according to the ancient biographic tradition was his first dialogue (Diog. Laert. III. 38), than if they hang in the void. Modern Platonic scholarship dates the Phaedrus after Plato’s Sicilian adventures. C. J. Row writes: ‘I believe … that the Phaedrus is certainly later than the Republic and other middle dialogues like the Phaedo and the Symposium; certainly later than the Timaeus, possibly or probably later than the Parmenides, the Theaetetus, the Sophist and the Statesman; and probably earlier than the Philebus.’ (Rowe, p. 14) How Plato could have written in the Phaedrus his eulogy on the power of the spoken word after his disastrous attempt to transform Dionysius into a philosopher-ruler neither Rowe nor any other interpreter of Plato has ever asked.
When Plato in the Second Letter says: ‘I myself have never yet written on these subjects (ouden pȏpot’ egȏ peri toutȏn gegrapha), and no treatise by Plato exists or will exist (oud’ esti sungramma Platȏnos ouden oud estai), but those which now bear his name belong to a Socrates who became fair and young (ta de nun legomena Sȏkratous esti kalou kai neou genomenou, 314c2-4, tr. Bury),’ he wants to be understood in the light of the Phaedran discussion of the written and the spoken word. Yet the confidence with which Plato in the Phaedrus speaks of the power of the spoken word is missing in the Second Letter. Referring to what he has said ‘concerning the nature of the First’ (peri tês tou prȏtou phuseȏs, 312d7), he says: ‘It is through being repeated and listened to frequently (pollakis de legomena kai aei akouomena) for many years (kai polla etê mogis) that these doctrines are refined at length, like gold (hȏsper chrusos ekkathairetai), with prolonged labour (meta pollês pragmateias). But listen now (akouson) to the most remarkable result of all (ho de thaumastotaton autou gegonen). Quite a number of men there are (eisi gar anthrȏpoi) who have listened to these doctrines (tauta akêkootes) – men capable of learning (dunatoi men mathein) and capable also of holding them in mind (dunatoi de mnêmoneusai) and judging them by all sorts of tests (kai basanisantes pantê pantȏs krinai) – and who have been hearers of mine for no less than thirty years (kai ouk elattȏ triakonta etê akêkootes) and are now quite old (gerontes êdê); and these men (hoi) now declare (nun arti sphisi phasi) that the doctrines that they once held to be most incredible (ta men tote apistotata doxanta einai) appear to them now the most credible (nun pistotata kai enargestata phainesthai), and what they then held most credible (ha de tote pistotata) now appears the opposite (nun tounantion).’ (314a5-b5, tr. Bury)
What Plato now emphasizes is the long philosophic intercourse lasting many years, not the power of the spoken word as such. In the Parmenides, which he wrote in preparation for his third Sicilian visit – as I have argued in my blog entry of January 10 ‘Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides’ – and which thus belongs to the same period as the Second Letter, he speaks similarly concerning the Forms: ‘If someone should say that it doesn’t even pertain to the characters (ta eidê) to be known if they are such as we say they must be, one could not show him (ouk an echoi tis endeixasthai) he was wrong (hoti pseudetai) unless the disputant (ho amphisbêtȏn) happened to be a man of wide experience and natural ability, willing to follow many a remote and laborious demonstration (etheloi de panu polla kai porrȏthen pragmateuomenou tou endeiknumenou hepesthai).’ (133b4-c1, tr. R. E. Allen)