Friday, October 21, 2016

Plato’s Seventh Letter, Phaedrus, and Laws

Plato says in the Seventh Letter that Dionysius had supposedly ‘written about what he heard from me’ (gegraphenai auton peri hȏn tote ȇkouen, 341b3-4). He therefore set out to prove that what he told Dionysius cannot be expressed in writing. He concluded his exposition as follows: ‘And this is the reason why (dio dȇ) every serious man (pas anȇr spoudaios) in dealing with really serious subjects (tȏn ontȏn spoudaiȏn peri) carefully avoids writing (pollou dei mȇ grapsas pote), lest thereby he may possibly cast them as a prey to the envy and stupidity of the public (en anthrȏpois eis phthonon kai aporian katabalei). In one word, then, our conclusion must be (heni dȇ ek toutȏn dei gignȏskein logȏi) that whenever one sees a man’s written compositions (hotan idȇi tis tou sungrammata gegrammena) – whether they be the laws of a legislator (eite en nomois nomothetou) or anything else in any other form (eite en allois tisin att’ oun), – these are not his most serious works (hȏs ouk ȇn toutȏi tauta spoudaiotata), if so be that the writer himself is serious (eiper est’ autos spoudaios): rather those works abide in the fairest region he possesses (keitai de pou en chȏrai tȇi kallistȇi tȏn toutou). [Bury remarks: ‘i.e. in his head, the abode of unexpressed thoughts; cf. Tim.44d.’] If, however, these really are his serious efforts (ei de ontȏs autȏi taut’ espoudasmena), and put into writing (en grammasin etethȇ), it is not “the gods” but mortal men who “Then of a truth themselves have utterly ruined his senses (“ex ara dȇ toi epeita” theoi men ou, brotoi de “phrenas ȏlesan autoi” [Bury refers to Homer, Il. vii. 360, xii. 234).’ (344c1-d2, tr. Bury)

This passage evokes the Phaedrus: ‘Any work, in the past or in the future, whether by Lysias or anyone else (Hȏs eite Lusias ȇ tis allos pȏpote egrapsen ȇ grapsei), whether composed in a private capacity or in the role of a public man who by proposing a law becomes the author of a political composition, is a matter of reproach to its author, whether or no the reproach is actually voiced, if he regards it as containing important truth of permanent validity (idiai ȇ dȇmosiai nomous titheis, sungramma politikon graphȏn kai megalȇn tina en autȏi bebaiotȇta hȇgoumenos kai saphȇneian, houtȏ men oneidos tȏi graphonti, eite tis phȇsin eite mȇ). For ignorance (to gar agnoein) of what is a waking vision (hupar te) and what is a mere dream-image (kai onar) of justice and injustice (dikaiȏn kai adikȏn peri), good and evil (kai kakȏn kai agathȏn), cannot truly be acquitted (ouk ekpheugei tȇi alȇtheiai) of involving reproach (mȇ ouk eponeidiston einai), even if the mass of men extol it (oude an ho pas ochlos auto epainesȇi).’ (277d6-e3, tr. R. Hackforth)

Note the correspondence between the Seventh Letter and the Phaedrus: Those, who think they presented or can present in their writings the truth and not a mere dream-image of the truth, by this very fact prove that they know nothing of justice and injustice (dikaiȏn kai adikȏn peri), good and evil (kai kakȏn kai agathȏn), i.e. they know nothing of the Forms. W. G. Tennemann referred to it in support of his late dating of the Phaedrus in his System der platonischen Philosophie, published in 1792 (vol. I, pp. iii-iv; 117-137; 203-207). But there is a fundamental discrepancy between the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter. For in the Phaedrus Socrates contrasts the written word, ‘which doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong’ (ouk epistatai legein hois dei ge kai mȇ, 275e3), with the spoken word ‘which, together with knowledge (hos met’ epistȇmȇs), is written in the soul of the learner (graphetai en tȇi tou manthanontos psuchȇi): that can defend itself (dunatos men amunai heautȏi), and knows to whom it should speak and to whom it should say nothing (epistȇmȏn de legein te kai sigan pros hous dei).’- Phaedrus: ‘You mean the living speech of the man who knows (Ton tou eidotos logon legeis zȏnta), the speech that has soul (kai empsuchon), of which the written discourse may fairly be called a kind of phantom (hou ho gegrammenos eidȏlon an ti legoito dikaiȏs).’ – Socrates: ‘Precisely (Pantapasi men oun)’. (276a5-b1)

Socrates concedes that a philosopher can take recourse to writing ‘for amusement’ (paidias charin, 276d2): ‘And when other men resort to other pastimes (hotan de alloi paidiais allais chrȏntai), regaling themselves with drinking (sumposiois te ardontes hautous) and such like (heterois te hosa toutȏn adelpha), he will doubtless prefer to indulge in the amusement I refer to (tot’ ekeinos, hȏs eoiken, anti toutȏn hois legȏ paizȏn diaxei).’ – Phaedrus: ‘And what an excellent amusement you’re talking of, Socrates, in contrast with a mean one (Pankalȇn legeis para phaulȇn paidian, ȏ Sȏkrates) – that of a man who is able to amuse himself with words (tou en logois dunamenou paizein), when he discourses about justice and the other topics you speak of (dikaiosunȇs kai allȏn hȏn legeis muthologounta). – Socrates: ‘Yes indeed, dear Phaedrus (Esti gar, ȏ phile Phaidre, houtȏ). But far more excellent, I think, is the serious treatment of them (polu d’ oimai kalliȏn spoudȇ peri auta gignetai), which employs the art of dialectic (hotan tis tȇi dialektikȇi technȇi chrȏmenos). The dialectician selects a soul of the right type (labȏn psuchȇn prosȇkousan), and in it he plants and sows his words founded on knowledge (phuteuȇi te kai speirȇi met’ epistȇmȇs logous), words which can defend both themselves and him who planted them (hoi heautois tȏi te phuteusanti boȇthein hikanoi), words which instead of remaining barren contain a seed (kai ouchi akarpoi alla echontes sperma) whence new words grow up in new characters (hothen alloi en allois ȇthesi phuomenoi); whereby the seed is vouchsafed immortality (tout’ aei athanaton parechein hikanoi), and its possessor the fullest measure of blessedness (kai ton echonta eudaimonein poiountes) that man can attain unto (eis hoson anthrȏpȏi dunaton malista).’ – Phaedrus: ‘Yes, that is a far more excellent way (Polu gar tout’ eti kallion legeis).’ (276d5-277a5; Socrates’ and Phaedrus’ last entry is translated by Hackforth).

After the debacle with Dionysius Plato in the Seventh Letter was compelled to view the spoken word just as incapable of conveying the truth about truth itself, as the written word. And he could not present himself as a man ‘selecting a soul of the right type’ and in it sowing the seeds of truth, a man ‘who knows to whom he should speak and to whom he should say nothing’.

In the Seventh Letter Plato opened his comprehensive refutation of Dionysius’ supposed claim with the words: ‘There is an argument (esti gar tis logos) which holds good (alȇthȇs) against the man who ventures to put anything whatever into writing on questions of this nature (enantios tȏi tolmȇsanti graphein tȏn toioutȏn kai hotioun); it has often been stated by me (pollakis men hup’ emou kai prosthen rȇtheis), and it seems suitable to the present occasion (eoiken d’oun einai kai nun lekteos, 342a3-6, tr. Harward).’ As the SL 344c1-d2 passage shows, first and foremost in Plato’s mind was his disparagement of the written word in the Phaedrus. Pointedly so, for Phaedrus was his first dialogue, and the fact that he held the same view about the written word throughout his long and distinguished career as a writer gave his refutation of Dionysius’ claim the desired weight.

Let me end this post by noting a potent correspondence between the Phaedrus and the Laws. In the Phaedrus Socrates maintains that the philosopher and his beloved disciple, devoted to philosophy, are blessed with happiness (makarion bion diagousin, 256a8-b1); the living words sowed in the soul with knowledge of truth give ‘their possessor the fullest measure of blessedness (ton echonta eudaimonein poiountes) that man can attain unto (eis hoson anthrȏpȏi dunaton malista)’ (277a3-4).

In the Laws, the work of Plato’s ripe old age, the Athenian Stranger – Plato felt like an Eleatic Stranger in Athens (in the Sophist and the Statesman) and an Athenian Stranger when imagining himself in Crete (in the Laws) – asks what character one must have if one is to live the best and most noble life (poios tis ȏn autos an kallista diagagoi ton bion, 730b3-4). To this question he gives the following answer: ‘Truth (alȇtheia dȇ) heads the list of all things good, for gods and men alike (pantȏn men agathȏn theois hȇgeitai, pantȏn de anthrȏpois). Let anyone who intends to be happy and blessed be its partner from the start (hȇs ho genȇsesthai mellȏn makarios te kai eudaimȏn ex archȇs metochos eiȇ), so that he may live as much of his life as possible a man of truth (hina hȏs pleiston chronon alȇthȇs ȏn diabioi). You can trust a man like that (pistos gar).’ (730c1-4, tr. T. J. Saunders)

Plato identified the Forms with truth ever since he introduced them in the Phaedrus: ‘for assuredly we must be bold to speak what is true (tolmȇteon gar oun to ge alȇthes eipein), above all when our discourse is upon truth (allȏs te kai peri alȇtheias legonta, 247b4-6, tr. Hackforth).’

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