As I have argued, Plato wrote the Parmenides after returning from his journey to Sicily in 366 and before he went to Sicily in 361 to help his disciples in the Academy to protect the theory of Forms against arguments that had been or might be raised against it; the introduction to the dialogue points to the Republic, so that the Parmenides and the Republic were designated to work jointly as a protective shield against any hostile questioning of the theory, and as the road leading to the Forms. Then I noted that the introductory scene in the Symposium is dramatically linked to the introductory scenes in the Parmenides and in the Republic. In 'The Parmenides and the Symposium - their dating’ I suggested that Plato wrote the Symposium after the Parmenides to present the ascent to the Forms in a concise and appealing manner, so that these three dialogues could represent Plato in the Academy after his leaving it. The question is whether Plato’s Letters, which are related to this period, can shed any light on this trio of dialogues, especially the Seventh Letter, in which Plato explains why he undertook his journeys to Sicily, and the Second Letter, which he wrote to Dionysius after he returned from Sicily, in 364.
In the Seventh Letter Plato explains that from his youth he wanted to do politics in Athens, but that as he looked at all the States which then existed, he ‘was compelled to declare’: ‘The classes of mankind will have no cessation from evils until either the class of those who are right and true philosophers attains political supremacy, or else the class of those who hold power in the States becomes, by some dispensation of Heaven, really philosophic.’ (326a5-b4, tr. Bury). In the Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon: ‘Until philosophers are kings in their cities, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness (dunamis politikê) and wisdom (philosophia) meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest of their evils.’ (Rep. 473c11-d5, tr. B. Jowett)
In the Parmenides we meet Glaucon and his brother Adeimantus in the opening sentence of the dialogue: ‘When we arrived at Athens from our home in Clazomenae, we met Adeimantus and Glaucon in the Agora’ (126a1-2, tr. Allen). In the Republic these two brothers compel Socrates to transcend his philosophic ignorance (Republic 357a-368c) and construct the state ruled by philosophers.
The thought that human society can be properly governed only if philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers profoundly influenced Plato’s subsequent life. In the Seventh Letter he says: ‘With this thought in mind I came to Italy and Sicily on my first visit’ (326b5-6), ‘being then about forty years old’ (324a6). This thought he implanted in the soul of Dion, brother-in-law and son-in-law of Dionysius I. When Dionysius died in 367, Dion believed that under the guidance of Plato the young Dionysius might become the philosopher-king of Plato’s ideal state; he urged Plato to come to Syracuse ‘by all means with all speed (327d8-e1) … And these were the terms in which his request was couched: “What opportunities are we to wait for that could be better than those that have now been presented by a stroke of divine good fortune?” And he dwelt in detail on the extent of the empire in Italy and Sicily and his own power therein, and the youth of Dionysius, mentioning also how great a desire he had for philosophy and education, and he spoke of his own nephews and connections, and how they would be not only easily converted themselves to the doctrines and the life I always taught, but also most useful in helping to influence Dionysius; so that now, if ever (he concluded), all our hopes will be fulfilled of seeing the same persons at once philosophers and rulers of mighty states (327e8-328b1) … what plausible answer should I have had to such pleadings? There is none. Well then, I came for good and just reasons so far as it is possible for men to do so; and it was because of such motives that I left my own occupations, which were anything but ignoble.’ (329a5-b2, tr. Bury)
Clearly, Plato had no time to prepare his disciples for the Academy after his departure, the Academy without him.
But the things did not go as Dion and Plato expected: ‘On my arrival I found Dionysius’ kingdom all full of civil strife and of slanderous stories brought to the court concerning Dion. So I defended him, so far as I was able, though it was little I could do; but about three months later, charging Dion with plotting against tyranny, Dionysius sent him aboard a small vessel and drove him out with ignominy. After that all of us who were Dion’s friends were in alarm lest he should punish any of us on a charge of being accomplices in Dion’s plot; and regarding me a report actually went abroad in Syracuse that I had been put to death by Dionysius as being responsible for all the events of that time. But when Dionysius perceived us all in this state of mind, he was alarmed lest our fears should bring about some worse result; so he was for receiving us all back in a friendly manner; and, moreover, he kept consoling me and bidding me be of good courage and begging me by all means to remain.’ (329b7-d5, tr. Bury)
Plato stayed with Dionysius for a year and left Sicily in 366, agreeing to return: ‘At that time there was a state of war in Sicily. Dionysius said that, when he had put the affairs of his empire in a position of greater safety for himself, he would send for Dion and me again … I agreed to come again on these conditions.’ (Seventh Letter, 338a4-b2, tr. J. Harward). He had thus five years to prepare his disciples for his ultimate departure, for life in the Academy without him; he returned to Sicily in 361.
In the Second Letter, in which Plato responds to a letter he received from Dionysius, he reflects on his first attempt to transform him into a philosopher: ‘You say you have not had a sufficient demonstration of the doctrine concerning the nature of “the First” (peri tês tou prȏtou phuseȏs) … The matter stands thus: Related to the King of All (peri ton pantȏn basilea) are all things (pant’ esti), and for his sake they are (kai ekeinou heneka panta), and of all things fair he is the cause (kai ekeino aition hapantȏn tȏn kalȏn) … About these (peri auta), then, the human soul (hê oun anthrȏpinê psuchê) strives to learn (oregetai mathein poi’ atta esti ), looking to the things that are akin to itself (blepousa eis ta hautês sungenê), whereof none is fully perfect (hȏn ouden hikanȏs echei). But as to the King and the objects I have mentioned, they are of quite different quality. In the first place the soul inquires (to dê meta touto hê psuchê phêsi)– “Well then, what quality have they (alla poion ti mên)?” But the cause of all the mischief lies in this very question (tout’ esti to erȏtêma ho pantȏn aition esti kakȏn), or rather in the travail 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 really attain the truth (tês alêtheias ontȏs ou mê pote tuchêi). You, however, declared to me in the garden, under the laurels, that you had formed this notion yourself and that it was a discovery of your own; and I made answer that if it was plain to you that this was so, you would have saved me from a long discourse (pollȏn an logȏn eiês eme apolelukȏs). (312d5-313b2, tr. Bury).
Bury remarks on the words ’if it was plain to you that this was so, you would have saved me from a long discourse’: “This phrase echoes Theaet. 188c.” The reference is wrong; František Novotný in his Latin commentary correctly refers to Theaet. 185e, where Socrates says to Theaetetus: ‘you’ve done me a favour: you’ve let me off a very long argument’ (eu epoiêsas me mala suchnou logou apallaxas, 185e5-6, tr. McDowell). It appears that Bury was led astray by the Theaetetus version, where the logos is in the singular, for in the Second Letter pollȏn an logȏn is in the plural. We realize the significance of the plural, if we remember that ‘the King of All’ of the Second Letter, to whom all things are related, for whose sake they all are, and who is the cause of all fair things, can be identified with the Good of the Republic, where Plato says: ‘The Good not only infuses the power of being known into all things known, but also bestows upon them their being and existence, and yet the good is not existence, but lies far beyond it in dignity and power (159b6-10, tr. B. Jowett).’ In the ascent to the Idea of the Good in the Republic Plato’s philosophy culminates. Had Dionysius reached the Good on his own, had he really seen it, he would have saved Plato from all discourses leading towards it; they could simply contemplate it together. But the very fact that Dionysius was puzzled about it (aporoumenos) and asked Archedemus to tell Plato that he did not sufficiently demonstrate it to him (ouch hikanȏs apodedeichthai soi, 312d5-6) clearly shows that Dionysius was far from getting it. And so Plato writes to him:
‘You fancied you had a firm grip on the proofs of it, and so you omitted to make them fast; thus your view of the truth sways now this way, now that, round about the apparent object; whereas the true object is wholly different. Nor are you alone in this experience; on the contrary, there has never yet been anyone, I assure you, who has not suffered the same confusion at the beginning, when he first learnt this doctrine from me; and they all overcome it with difficulty, one man having more trouble and another less, but scarcely a single one of them escapes with but a little.’ (313b6-c5, tr. Bury)
While Plato’s image of the ‘King of All’ in the Second Letter points to the Republic, the subsequent lines recall the Theaetetus, beginning with the line ‘the travail 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 really attain the truth (tês alêtheias ontȏs uou mê pote tuchêi)’ (313a4-6), which recalls Theaet. 151a-c, where Socrates says to Theaetetus: ‘There’s another experience which the people who associate with me have in common with women in childbirth: they feel pain (ȏdinousi gar), and they’re full of difficulties (kai aporias empimplantai) … I suspect you’re suffering pain – as indeed you think yourself – because you’re pregnant with something inside you. So put yourself in my hands … and do your best to answer whatever I ask you as well as you can. And if, when I inspect the things you say, I take one of them to be an imitation, not something true (hêgêsomai eidȏlon kai mê alêthes), and so ease it out (eita hupexairȏmai) and throw it away, you mustn’t be angry with me.’
It appears that Plato presupposes that Dionysius knows the Theaetetus, for if he does, Plato’s related words in the Second Letter obtain much greater pregnancy. Plato’s following words in the Second Letter indicate that Dionysius was well versed in Plato’s dialogues: ‘Seeing that you are testing my doctrines (epei gar basanizeis auta) both by attending the lectures of other teachers (sungignomenos te allois) 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, if the test you make is a true one (ei alêthês ho basanos), not only will these doctrines implant themselves now in your mind (nun soi tauta te prosphusetai), but you also will be devoted both to them and to us (kai oikeios toutois te kai hêmin esêi).’ (313c7-d3, tr. Bury) Let me add here the testimony of Plato’s Thirteenth Letter, which Plato wrote shortly after return from Sicily in 366. Plato asks Dionysius to send three tunics as a gift for the daughters of Cebes: ‘You know well the name of Cebes (epieikȏs de gignȏskeis t’ounoma Kebêtos), for he is depicted in the Socratic discourses conversing with Socrates, in company of Simmias, in the discourse on the soul (en tȏi peri psuchês logȏi, i.e. in the Phaedo) (363a3-7).
This means that the Parmenides and the Symposium, which I have dated as written after Plato’s return from Sicily in 366 and before his leaving Athens for Sicily in 360, were written not only to protect his disciples against the hostile questioning of the theory of Forms after his leaving the Academy, but to prepare Dionysius for Plato’s promised return to Syracuse as well. If so, these two dialogues were written with special urgency, for they were of vital importance to Plato himself; I believe that Plato’s Letters can corroborate this hypothesis.