In the Republic Plato maintains that states will be properly ruled only if philosophers become kings or the kings philosophers, ‘so that political power and philosophy meet in one (kai touto eis t’auton sumpesȇi, dunamis te politikȇ kai philosophia), and the plentiful natures of those who now pursue either to the exclusion of the other (tȏn de nun poreuomenȏn chȏris eph’ hekateron hai pollai phuseis) are of necessity compelled to stand aside’ (ex anankȇs apokleisthȏsi, 473c11-d5).
In the Sophist Socrates opens the discussion by directing a question at the Stranger from Elea, a disciple of Parmenides (237a), a true philosopher (216c6), what philosophers in his country, in Italy, think about sophist, statesman, and philosopher: ‘I want to know whether by his countrymen they are regarded as one or two (poteron hen tauta panta enomizon ȇ duo); or do they, as the names are three (ȇ kathaper ta onomata tria), distinguish also three kinds (tria kai genȇ diairoumenoi), and assign one to each name (kath’ hen onoma hekastȏi prosȇpton)?’ (217a6-8, tr. Jowett) The Stranger answers that they are considered to be three, but that to define clearly the nature of each is no easy task. Implored by Socrates and the company, the Stranger agrees to define the three. Plato wrote only the Sophist and the Statesman, but he makes it abundantly clear that the Stranger from Elea viewed the nature of true statesman and true philosopher as separate from each other. The Statesman opens as follows:
Socrates: ‘I owe you many thanks, indeed, Theodorus, for the acquaintance both of Theaetetus and of the Stranger.’ – Theodorus: ‘And in a little while, Socrates, you will owe me three times as many, when they have completed for you the delineation of the Statesman and of the Philosopher, as well as of the Sophist.’ – Socrates: ‘Sophist, statesman, philosopher! O my dear Theodorus, do my ears truly witness that this is the estimate formed of them by the great calculator and geometrician?’ – Theodorus: ‘What do you mean, Socrates?’ – Socrates: ‘I mean that you rate them at the same value, whereas they are really separated by an interval, which no geometrical ratio can express.’ (257a1-b4) – Theodorus: ‘I must now ask the Stranger, who will not, I hope, tire of his goodness to us, to proceed either with the Statesman or with the Philosopher, whichever he prefers.’ (257b8-c`1 – Eleatic Stranger: ‘After the Sophist, then, I think that the Statesman naturally follows next in the order of enquiry.’ (258b2-3, tr. Jowett)
This stands in stark contrast to Plato’s view in the Republic, which allows us to date the composition of the Sophist and the Statesman; I shall argue that Plato wrote these two dialogues after his return from Sicily in 366 B.C. and before his leaving Athens for Sicily in 361 B.C.
In 367 B.C. Plato came to Sicily at the insistence of Dion, brother-in-law and son-in-law of Dionysius I. After the death of Dionysius I, with Plato’s help, Dion hoped to transform Dionysius II from a tyrant into a philosopher-ruler. Plato’s Seventh Letter leaves us in little doubt that Dion (and the young Dionysius at Dion’s insistence) invited Plato to Sicily with the prospect of establishing in Sicily a state governed by philosophers: ‘now, if ever (eiper pote kai nun)’, Dion pleaded, ‘all our hopes will be fulfilled (elpis pasa apotelesthȇsetai) of seeing the same persons at once philosophers and rulers of mighty states (tous autous philosophous te kai poleȏn archontas megalȏn sumbȇnai genomenous, 328a6-b1, tr. Bury). But the situation in the court of Dionysius was not auspicious: ‘On my arrival I found Dionysius’s kingdom all full of civil strife and of slanderous stories brought to the court concerning Dion … about three months later, charging Dion with plotting against the tyranny, Dionysius sent him aboard a small vessel and drove him out with ignominy.’ (Seventh Letter 329b7-c4, tr. Bury) As far as Plato was concerned, Dionysius begged him by all means to stay (edeito pantȏs menein, 329d4-5).
Plutarch says in his Life of Dion: ‘Dionysius conceived a passion for Plato that was worthy of a tyrant (ȇrasthȇ tyrannikon erȏta), demanding that he alone should have his love returned by Plato and be admired by all others, and he was ready to entrust Plato with the administration of the tyranny if only he would not set his friendship for Dion above that which he had for him. Now, this passion of his was a calamity for Plato, for the tyrant was mad with jealousy, as desperate lovers are, and in a short space of time would often be angry with him and as often beg to be reconciled; for he was extravagantly eager to hear his doctrines and share in his philosophic pursuits, but he dreaded the censure of those who tried to divert him from this course as likely to corrupt him. At this juncture, however, a war broke out, and he sent Plato away, promising him that in the summer he would summon Dion home.’ (XVI, 2-4, tr. B. Perrin)
Plato himself says that Dionysius ‘became indeed more and more devoted as time advanced, according as he drew more familiar with my disposition and character, but he was desirous that I should praise him more than Dion and regard him rather than Dion as my special friend, and this triumph he was marvellously anxious to achieve. But the best way to achieve this, if it was to be achieved – namely, by occupying himself in learning and listening to discourses on philosophy and by associating with me – this he always shirked owing to his dread of the talk of slanderers, lest he might be hampered in some measure and Dion might accomplish all his designs. I, however, put up with all this, holding fast the original purpose with which I had come, in the hope that he might possibly gain a desire for the philosophic life (330a3-b6) … What happened next was this: I urged Dionysius by all means possible to let me go, and we both made a compact that when the peace was concluded (for at that time there was a war in Sicily) Dionysius, for his part, should invite Dion and me back again … and I gave a promise that upon these conditions I would return’ (338a3-b2, tr. Bury).
Plato’s return to Athens, which was to last a year, became protracted, and in his absence Dionysius appears to have lent his ears to sophists unfavourable to Plato. This becomes clear from Plato’s Second Letter, written to Dionysius in 364 B.C., two years after his departure from Sicily: ‘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) … if you honour me and take the lead in so doing, you will be thought to be honouring philosophy; and the very fact that you have studied other systems as well will gain you the credit, in the eyes of many, of being a philosopher yourself (312c1-4) … For seeing that you are testing my doctrines both by attending the lectures of other teachers and by examining my teachings side by side with theirs, as well as by itself, then, if the test you make is a true one, not only will these doctrines implant themselves in your mind, but you also will be devoted both to them and to us’ (313c7-d3, tr. Bury).
But if Plato were to have any hope that Dionysius might be allowed by his courtiers to accept him and his doctrines, he had to modify them, for as Plutarch writes, ‘there were some who pretended to be indignant that the Athenians, who in former times had sailed to Sicily with large land and sea forces, but had perished utterly without taking Syracuse, should now, by means of one sophist, overthrow the tyranny of Dionysius by persuading him to dismiss his ten thousand body-guards, and abandon his four hundred triremes and his ten thousand horsemen and his many times that number of men-at-arms, in order to seek in Academic philosophy for a mysterious good, and make geometry his guide to happiness.’ (Dion, XIV, 2-3, tr. B. Perrin)
Plato had to show that his view on the nature of statesman and philosopher differed from the view expressed in the Republic. In the Second Letter, referring to the ‘King of All’ (peri ton pantȏn basilea, 312e1) – i.e. the Form of the Good (hȇ tou agathou idea, Rep. 505a2), which is set over the intellectual world (basileuein noȇtou genous te kai topou, Rep. 509d2) – he writes to Dionysius that the views about the most important philosophic truths cannot be written down: ‘For this reason (dia tauta) I myself have never yet written anything on these subjects (ouden pȏpot’ egȏ peri tauta gegrapha), and no treatise by Plato exists (oud’ estin sungramma Platȏnos ouden) or will exist (oud’ estai), but those which now bear his name (ta de nun legomena) belong to a Socrates (Sȏkratous estin) become fair and young (kalou kai neou gegonotos, 314c1-4, tr. Bury). This remark was to be viewed by Dionysius, I believe, as referring in the first place to the Republic, which is narrated by Socrates in its entirety.
But as Plato’s stay in Athens, which was to last a year, became protracted, writing was the only means by which Plato could exercise any influence on Dionysius. In the Sophist and the Statesman Socrates figures only in the introduction; both these dialogues are led by the Stranger from Elea. (Plato appears to have felt a stranger in Athens; in the Laws, his last work, which is set in Crete, he presents himself as an Athenian Stranger.)
It could be argued that Plato must have written the Statesman after his last return from Sicily, that is after his attempt to turn Dionysius ended in complete failure, for he writes towards the end of it: ‘But then, as the State is not like a beehive (Nun de ge hopote ouk esti gignomenos, hȏs dȇ phamen, en tais polesi basileus hoios en smȇnesi emphuetai), and has no natural head who is at once recognized to be the superior both in body and in mind (to te sȏma euthus kai tȇn psuchȇn diapherȏn heis) mankind are obliged to meet and make laws (dei dȇ sunelthontas sungrammata graphein, hȏs eoiken), and to approach as nearly as they can to the true form of the government (metelthontas ta tȇs alȇthestatȇs politeias ichnȇ, 301d8-e4, tr. Jowett).’ Yet the Statesman is written so as to promote political knowledge: ‘We said that no great number of persons, whoever they may be (Hȏs ouk an pote plȇthos oud’ hȏntinoun), can attain political knowledge, or order a State wisely (tȇn toiautȇn labon epistȇmȇn hoion t’ an genoito meta nou dioikein polin), but that the true government is to be found in a small body, or in an individual’ (alla peri smikron ti kai oligon kai to hen esti zȇtȇteon tȇn mian ekeinȇn politeian tȇn orthȇn, 297b7-c2, tr. Jowett).
And so, I believe, Plato’s doubt that Dionysius could become a true statesman was addressed to Dionysius as a question: was Plato giving up on him? Plato says in the Seventh Letter: ‘Dionysius was greatly afraid, I believe, because of his love of glory (dokei moi Dionusios pantapasi philotimȇthȇnai), lest any should suppose that it was owing to my contempt of his nature (mȇ pote tisi doxaimi kataphronȏn autou tȇs phuseȏs) and disposition (te kai hexeȏs) together with my experience of his mode of life (hama kai tȇs diaitȇs empeiros gegonȏs), that I was ungracious and was no longer willing to come to his court’ (ouket’ ethelein duscherainȏn par’ auton aphikneisthai, 338e7-339a3, tr. Bury) And so ‘constant accounts were pouring in (kai gar dȇ logos echȏrei polus) from Sicily (ek Sikelias) how Dionysius was now once more marvellously enamoured of philosophy (hȏs Dionusios thaumastȏs philosophias en epithumiai palin eiȇ gegonȏs ta nun); and for this reason Dion (hothen ho Diȏn) was strenuously urging me (suntetamenȏs edeito hȇmȏn) not to disobey his summons’ (tȇi metapempsei mȇ apeithein, 338b5-8, tr. Bury) – Plato did not disobey, and went to Sicily for the third time. I cannot see how he could have written the Statesman after that experience.