Plato says in the Seventh Letter that when he was young he desired to enter politics as soon as he would come of age (324b8-c1), but that the more he advanced in years and the more he considered the men who were engaged in politics, the more difficult it appeared to him to enter the political life in any meaningful way (325c-e): ‘Finally (teleutȏnta de) it became clear to me that all existing communities are misgoverned (noȇsai peri pantȏn tȏn poleȏn hoti kakȏs sumpasai politeuontai) … and I was compelled to say (legein te ȇnankasthȇn), in my praise of the right philosophy (epainȏn tȇn orthȇn philosophian), that by it (hȏs ek tautȇs) one is enabled to discern all forms of justice both political and individual (estin ta te politika dikaia kai ta tȏn idiȏtȏn panta katidein); there will therefore be no cessation of evils for mankind (kakȏn oun ou lȇxein ta anthrȏpina genȇ) until either the class of those who are right and true philosophers attains political supremacy (prin an ȇ to tȏn philosophountȏn orthȏs ge kai alȇthȏs genos eis archas elthȇi tas politikas), or else the class of those who hold power in the States (ȇ to tȏn dunasteuontȏn en tais polesin) by some divine dispensation (ek tinos moiras theias) become true philosophers (ontȏs philosophȇsȇi).’ (326a2-b4)
Plato reached this realisation in the fifth book of the Republic, where he argues that only the true philosophers can see the truth (horan, 476b10, kathoran 476d1), that is the Forms, so that only they can govern the States well (475e-480a).
The refusal to see the Phaedo as an account of Socrates’ last day, as it is presented by Plato, leads to serious misrepresentation of Plato. Bertrand Russell writes: ‘I do not think we really possess the idea of absolute equality that Plato supposes us to possess. But even if we do, it is clear that no child possesses it until it reaches a certain age, and that the idea is elicited by experience, although not directly derived from experience. Moreover, unless our existence before birth was not one of sense perception, it would have been as incapable of generating the idea as this life is; and if our previous existence is supposed to have been partly super-sensible, why not make the same supposition concerning our present existence?’ (Russell, History of Western thought, Routledge Classics 2004, pp.138-139)
Pace Russell, Plato does not suppose us to possess the idea of absolute equality. Socrates does not possess it and does not think we possess it; he thinks we possess only its memory, which is indeed elicited by experience and can be deepened and made more vivid by philosophic discussion. Plato does not ‘possess’ it, he is deeply convinced he can see it, just as he is convinced he can see other Forms, such as absolute beauty, justice, courage, good, and wisdom. The Seventh Letter testifies to the depth of his conviction.
On his first journey Plato met Dion in Syracuse, a young aristocrat whom he inflamed with his idea of State governed by philosophers: ‘For Dion in truth (Diȏn men gar dȇ) … hearkened to me with a keenness and ardour (houtȏs oxeȏs hupȇkousen kai sphodra) that I have never yet found in any of the youth whom I have met (hȏs oudeis pȏpote hȏn egȏ prosetuchon neȏn).’ (327a5-b1, tr. R. G. Bury)
Some twenty years later, when the tyrant Dionysius died, Dion did his best to enthuse Dionysius the younger with Plato’s idea of the State governed by philosophers: ‘Dion persuaded Dionysius to summon me (Diȏn epeise metapempesthai Dionusion eme); and he himself sent a request (kai autos edeito pempȏn) that I should by all means come with all speed (hȇkein hoti tachista ek pantos tropou), before that any others (prin tinas allous) should encounter Dionysius (entuchontas Dionusiȏi) and turn him aside to some way of life other than the best (ep allon bion auton tou beltistou paratrepsai) … so that now, if ever (hȏste eiper pote kai nun), all our hopes will be fulfilled (elpis pasa apotelesthȇsetai) of seeing the same persons at once philosophers and rulers of mighty States (tou tous autous philosophous te kai poleȏn archontas megalȏn sumbȇnai genomenous).’ (327d7-328b1, tr. Bury)
Plato was full of apprehension (tȇn d’ emȇn doxan … eichen phobos, 328b2-3): ‘Therefore, I pondered the matter and was in two minds (hothen moi skopoumenȏi kai distazonti) as to whether I ought to listen to entreaties and go (poteron eiȇ poreuteon kai hupakousteon), or how I ought to act (ȇ pȏs); and finally the scale turned in favour of the view that (homȏs errepse dein), if ever anyone was to try to carry out in practice my ideas about laws and constitutions (ei pote tis ta dianoȇthenta peri nomȏn te kai politeias apotelein encheirȇsoi), now was the time for making the attempt (kai nun peirateon einai); for if only I could fully convince one man (peisas gar hena monon hikanȏs), I should have secured thereby the accomplishment of all good things (panta exeirgasmenos esoimȇn agatha). With these views and thus nerved to the task (tautȇi men dȇ tȇi dianoiai te kai tolmȇi), I sailed from home (apȇra oikothen).’ (328b6-c4, tr. J. Harward)
And so Plato left Athens and his Academy: ‘Well then, I came for good and just reasons so far as it is possible for men to do so (all’ ȇlthon men kata logon en dikȇi te hȏs hoion te malista); and it was because of such motives (dia te ta toiauta) that I left my own occupations (katalipȏn tas emautou diatribas), which were anything but ignoble (ousas ouk aschȇmonas), to go under a tyranny (hupo turannida) which ill became, as it seemed, both my teaching and myself (dokousan ou prepein tois emois logois oude emoi).’ (329a7-b3, tr. Bury)
When Plato arrived in Syracuse, all was wrong: ‘On my arrival (Elthȏn de) I found Dionysius’ kingdom all full of civil strife (heuron staseȏs ta peri Dionusion mesta xumpanta) and of slanderous stories brought to the court concerning Dion (kai diabolȏn pros tȇn turannida Diȏnos peri) … three months later (mȇni de schedon isȏs tetartȏi), charging Dion with plotting against tyranny (Diȏna Dionusios aitiȏmenos epibouleuein tȇi turannidi), Dionysius set him aboard a small vessel (smikron eis ploion embibasas) and drove him out with ignominy (exebalen atimȏs). After that all of us who were Dion’s friends were in alarm (hoi dȇ Diȏnos to meta touto pantes philoi ephoboumetha) lest he should punish any of us on a charge of being accomplices of Dion’s plot (mȇ tina epaitiȏmenos timȏroito hȏs sunaition tȇs Diȏnos epiboulȇs); and regarding me (peri d’ emou) a report actually went abroad in Syracuse (kai diȇlthe logos tis en Surakousais) that I had been put to death (hȏs tethneȏs eiȇn) by Dionysius (hupo Dionusiou) as being responsible for all the events of that time (hȏs toutȏn hapantȏn tȏn tote gegonotȏn aitios).’ (329b7-d1, tr. Bury)
But Dionysius changed tack, asked Plato to stay and by housing him in the Acropolis in fact prevented him from leaving. And so the rumour spread that ‘Dionysius is wonderfully devoted to Plato’ (hȏs Platȏna Dionusios thaumastȏs hȏs aspazetai). ‘But what were the facts,’ (to d’ eichen de pȏs) Plato asks: ‘For the truth must be told (To gar alȇthes dei phrazein). He became indeed more and more devoted as time advanced (ȇspazeto men aei proiontos tou chronou mallon), according as he grew familiar with my disposition and character (kata tȇn tou tropu te kai ȇthous sunousian), but he was desirous that I should praise him more than Dion (heauton de epainein mallon ȇ Diȏna ebouleto me) and regard him rather than Dion as my special friend (kai philon hȇgeisthai diapherontȏs mallon ȇ ‘keinon), and this triumph he was marvellously anxious to achieve (kai thaumastȏs ephilonikei pros to toiouton). But the best way to achieve this, if it was to be achieved (hȇi d’ an houtȏs egeneto, eiper egigneto, kallista) – namely, by occupying himself in learning and in listening to discourses on philosophy and by associating with me – this he always shirked (ȏknei, hȏs dȇ manthanȏn kai akouȏn tȏn peri philosophian logȏn oikeiousthai kai emoi sungignesthai) owing to his dread of the talk of slanderers (phoboumenos tous tȏn diaballontȏn logous), lest he might be hampered in some measure (mȇ pȇi parapodistheiȇ) and Dion might accomplish all his designs (kai Diȏn dȇ panta eiȇ diapepragmenos). I, however, put up with all this (egȏ de panta hupemenon), holding fast the original purpose (tȇn prȏtȇn dianoian phulattȏn) with which I had come (hȇiper aphikomȇn), in the hope that he might possibly gain a desire for the philosophic life (ei pȏs eis epithumian elthoi tȇs philosophou zȏȇs); but he, with his resistance, won the day (ho d’ enikȇsen antiteinȏn).’ (330a1-b7, tr. Bury)
Plato closes this opening section of the letter with the words: ‘These, then, were the causes which brought about my visit to Sicily and my sojourn there, on the first occasion [367-6 B.C.] (Kai ho prȏtos dȇ chronos tȇs eis Sikelian emȇs epidȇmias te kai diatribȇs dia panta tauta sunebȇ genomenos). After this I went away (meta de touto apedȇmȇsa te), and I returned again [in 361 B.C., that is after five years in Athens] (kai palin aphikomȇn) on receiving a most urgent summons from Dionysius (pasȇi spoudȇi metapempomenou Dionusiou).’ (330b8-c3, tr. Bury)
Plato’s 361-360 B.C. visit was a complete disaster. But through all this, Plato’s conviction that he belonged to ‘the small class’ (genos brachu ti, Timaeus 51e6) of those, who saw the Forms and were therefore entitled to govern, remained unshaken.
Having heard that Dionysius ‘has since written about what he heard from me’ (gegraphenai auton peri hȏn tote ȇkouen, 341b3-4), Plato says in the Seventh Letter: ‘There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject (oukoun emon ge peri autȏn esti sungramma oude mȇpote genȇtai). For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge (rȇton gar oudamȏs estin hȏs alla mathȇmata); but after much converse about the matter itself and life lived together (all’ ek pollȇs sunousias gignomenȇs peri to pragma auto kai tou suzȇn), suddenly (exaiphnȇs) a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself (hoion apo puros pȇdȇsantos exaphthen phȏs, en tȇi psuchȇi genomenon auto heauto ȇdȇ trephei).’ (341c4-d2, tr. Harward)
Plato substantiates this proclamation by the most concise and most important discussion on the Forms, which follows:
‘There is an argument (esti gar tis logos alȇthȇs) which holds good 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).
For everything that exists (estin tȏn ontȏn hekastȏi) there are three instruments by which the knowledge of it is necessarily imparted (di’ hȏn tȇn epistȇmȇn anankȇ paragignesthai, tria); fourth, there is the knowledge itself (tetarton d’ autȇ), and, as fifth (pempton d’), we must count the thing itself (auto tithenai dei) which is known (ho dȇ gnȏston te) and truly exists (kai alȇthȏs estin on). The first is the name (hen men onoma), the second the definition (deuteron de logos), the third the image (to de triton eidȏlon), and the fourth the knowledge (tetarton de epistȇmȇ). If you wish to learn what I mean, take these in the case of one instance (peri hen oun labe boulomenos mathein to nun legomenon), and so understand them in the case of all (kai pantȏn houtȏ peri noȇson). A circle is a thing spoken of (kuklos estin ti legomenon), and its name is that very word (hȏi tout’ auto estin onoma) which we have just uttered (ho nun ephthegmetha). The second thing belonging to it is its definition (logos d’ autou to deuteron), made up of names and verbal forms (ex onomatȏn kai rȇmatȏn sunkeimenos). For that which has the name “round”, “annular”, or “circle”, might be defined as that which has the distance from its circumference to its centre everywhere equal (to gar ek tȏn eschatȏn epi to meson ison apechon pantȇi, logos an eiȇ ekeinou hȏiper strongulon kai peripheries onoma kai kuklos). Third (triton), comes that which is drawn (de to zȏgraphoumenon te) and rubbed out again (kai exaleiphomenon), or turned on a lathe (kai torneuomenon), and broken up (kai apollumenon) – none of which things can happen to the circle itself – to which the other things mentioned have reference (hȏn autos ho kuklos, hon peri taut’ estin tauta, ouden paschei); for it is something of a different order from them (toutȏn hȏs heteron on). Fourth (tetarton de), comes knowledge (epistȇmȇ), intelligence (kai nous) and right opinion (alȇthȇs te doxa) about these things (peri taut’ estin). Under this one head we must group everything which has its existence (hȏs de hen touto au pan theteon), not in words or bodily shapes, but in soul (ouk en phȏnais oud’ en sȏmatȏn schȇmasi all’ en psuchais enon) – from which it is clear (hȏi dȇlon) that it is something different (heteron te on) from the nature of the circle itself (autou tou kuklou tȇs phuseȏs) and from the three things mentioned before (tȏn te emprosthen lechtentȏn triȏn). Of these things intelligence comes closest in kinship and likeness to the fifth (toutȏn de engutata men sungeneiai kai homoiotȇti tou pemptou nous peplȇsiaken), and the others are farther distant (t’alla de pleon apechei). The same applies to straight as well as (t’auton dȇ peri te eutheos hama kai) to circular form (peripherous schȇmatos), to colours (kai chroas), to the good (peri te agathou), the beautiful (kai kalou), the just (kai dikaiou), to all bodies whether manufactured (kai peri sȏmatos hapantos skeuastou te) or coming into being in the course of nature (kai kata phusin gegonotos), to fire (puros), water (hudatos te), and all such things (kai tȏn toioutȏn pantȏn), to every living being (kai zȏiou sumpantos peri), to character in souls (kai en psuchais ȇthous), and to all things done and suffered (kai peri poiȇmata kai pathȇmata sumpanta). For in the case of all these no one, if he has not some how or other got hold of the four things first mentioned (ou gar an toutȏn mȇ tis ta tettara labȇi hamȏs ge pȏs), can ever be completely a partaker of knowledge of the fifth (oupote teleȏs epistȇmȇs tou pemptou metochos estai). Further (pros gar toutois), on account of the weakness of language these attempt to show what each thing is like, not less than what each thing is (tauta ouch hȇtton epicheirei to poion ti peri hekastou dȇloun ȇ to on hekastou dia to tȏn logȏn asthenes). For this reason (hȏn heneka) no man of intelligence (noun echȏn oudeis) will venture to express his philosophical views in language (tolmȇsei pote eis auto tithenai ta nenoȇmena hup’ autou), especially not in language that is unchangeable (kai tauta eis ametakinȇton), which is true of that which is set down in written characters (ho dȇ paschei ta gegrammena tupois).
Again you must learn the point which comes next (touto de palin au to nun legomenon dei mathein). Every circle (kuklos hekastos), of those which are by the act of man (tȏn en tais praxesi) drawn (graphomenȏn) or (ȇ) even turned on a lathe (kai torneuthentȏn), is full of that which is opposite (mestos tou enantiou estin) to the fifth thing (tȏi pemptȏi). For everywhere it has contact with the straight (tou gar eutheos ephaptetai pantȇi). But the circle itself, we say (autos de, phamen, ho kuklos), has nothing in it, either smaller or greater, of that which is its opposite (oute ti smikroteron oute meizon tȇs enantias echei en hautȏi phuseȏs). We say also that the name is not a thing of permanence for any of them (onoma te autȏn phamen ouden oudeni bebaion einai), and that nothing prevents (kȏluein d’ ouden) the thing now called round (ta nun strongula kaloumena) from being called straight (euthea keklȇsthai), and the straight things (ta te euthea dȇ) round (strongula); so for those who make changes and call things by opposite names, nothing will be less permanent (kai ouden hȇtton bebaiȏs hexein tois metathemenois kai enantiȏs kalousin). Again with regard to the definition (kai mȇn peri logou ge), if it is made up of names and verbal forms, the same remark holds that there is no sufficiently durable permanence in it (ho autos logos, eiper ex onomatȏn kai rȇmatȏn sunkeitai, mȇden hikanȏs bebaiȏs einai bebaion). And there is no end to the instances of the ambiguity from which each of the four suffers (murios de logos au peri hekastou tȏn tettarȏn hȏs asaphes); but the greatest of them is (to de megiston) that which we mentioned a little earlier (hoper eipomen oligon emprosthen), that, whereas there are two things (hoti duoin ontoin), that which has real being (tou te ontos), and that which is only a quality (kai tou poiou tinos), when the soul is seeking to know, not the quality, but the essence (ou to poion ti, to de ti, zȇtousȇs eidenai tȇs psuchȇs), each of the four, presenting to the soul by word and in act that which it is not seeking (to mȇ zȇtoumenon hekaston tȏn tettarȏn proteinon tȇi psuchȇi logȏi te kai kat’ erga), a thing open to refutation by the senses (aisthȇsesin euelenkton), being merely the thing presented to the senses in each particular case whether by statement or the act of showing (to te legomenon kai deiknumenon aei parechomenon hekaston), fills, one may say, every man with puzzlement and perplexity (aporias te kai asapheias empimlȇsi pasȇs hȏs epos eipein pant’ andra).
Now in subjects in which (en hoisi men oun), by reason of our defective education, we have not been accustomed even to search for the truth (mȇd’ eithismenoi to alȇthes zȇtein esmen hupo ponȇras trophȇs), but are satisfied (exarkei de) with whatever images are presented to us (to protathen tȏn eidȏlȏn), we are not held up to ridicule by one another (ou katagelastoi gignometha hup’ allȇlȏn), the questioned (hoi erȏtȏmenoi) by questioners (hupo tȏn erȏtȏntȏn), who can pull to pieces and criticize the four things (dunamenȏn de ta tettara diarriptein te kai elenchein). But in subjects where we try to compel a man to give a clear answer about the fifth (en hois d’ an to pempton apokrinasthai kai dȇloun anankazȏmen), any one of those who are capable of overthrowing an antagonist gets the better of us (ho boulomenos tȏn dunamenȏn anatrepein kratei), and makes the man, who gives an exposition in speech or writing or in replies to questions (kai poiei ton exȇgoumenon en logois ȇ grammasin ȇ apokriseesin), appear to most of his hearers to know nothing of the things on which he is attempting to write or speak (tois pollois tȏn akouontȏn dokein mȇden gignȏskein hȏn an epicheirȇi graphein ȇ legein); for they are sometimes not aware (agnoountȏn eniote) that it is not the mind (hȏs ouch hȇ psuchȇ) of the writer (tou grapsantos) nor speaker (ȇ lexantos) which is proved to be in fault (elenchetai), but the defective nature of each of the four instruments (all’ hȇ tȏn tettarȏn phusis hekastou, pephukuia phaulȏs). The process however of dealing with all of these (hȇ de dia pantȏn autȏn diagȏgȇ), as the mind moves up and down to each in turn (anȏ kai katȏ metabainousa eph’ hekaston), does after much effort give birth in a well-constituted mind to knowledge of that which is well constituted (mogis epistȇmȇn eneteken eu pephukotos eu pephukoti). But if a man is ill-constituted by nature (kakȏs de an phuȇi), as the state of the soul is naturally in the majority (hȏs hȇ tȏn pollȏn hexis tȇs psuchȇs) both in its capacity for learning (eis te to mathein) and in what is called moral character (eis te ta legomena ȇthȇ pephuken), or it may have become so by deterioration (ta de diephthartai), not even Lunceus (oud’ an ho Lunkeus) could endow such men with the power of sight (idein poiȇseien tous toioutous).
In one word (heni de logȏi), the man who has no natural kinship with this matter (ton mȇ sungenȇ tou pragmatos) cannot be made akin to it by quickness of learning (out’ an eumatheia poiȇseien pote) or memory (oute mnȇmȇ); for it cannot be engendered at all in natures which are foreign to it (tȇn archȇn gar en allotriais hexesin ouk engignetai). Therefore (hȏste), if men are not by nature and kinship allied to justice and all other things that are honourable (hoposoi tȏn dikaiȏn te kai tȏn allȏn hosa kala mȇ prosphueis eisin kai sungeneis), though they may be good at learning and remembering other knowledge of various kinds (alloi de allȏn eumatheis hama kai mnȇmones) – or if they have the kinship (oud’ hosoi sungeneis) but are slow learners (dusmatheis de) and have no memory (kai amnȇmones) – none of all these (oudenes toutȏn) will ever learn to the full the truth about virtue (mȇpote mathȏsin alȇtheian aretȇs eis to dunaton) and vice (oude kakias). For both must be learnt together (hama gar auta anankȇ manthanein); and together also must be learnt, by complete and long continued study, as I said at the beginning, the true and the false about all that has true being (kai to pseudos hama kai alȇthes tȇs holȇs ousias, meta tribȇs pasȇs kai chronou pollou, hoper en archais eipon). After much effort (mogis de), as names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense, are brought into contact and friction one with another (tribomena pros allȇla autȏn hekasta, onomata kai logoi opseis te kai aisthȇseis), in the course of scrutiny and kindly testing (en eumenesin elenchois elenchomena) by men who proceed by question and answer without ill will (kai aneu phthonȏn erȏtȇsesin kai apokrisesin chrȏmenȏn), with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem (exelampse phronȇsis peri hekaston, 344b7), and an intelligence whose efforts reach the furthest efforts of human powers (kai nous sunteinȏn hoti malist’ eis dunamin anthrȏpinȇn). (342a3-344c1, tr. Harward)
Bury translates 344b7 more to the point: ‘there bursts out the light of intelligence and reason regarding each object (exelampse phronȇsis peri hekaston), for Plato speaks about perceiving the Forms by the human intelligence, not about ‘understanding about every problem’. Cf. the statement with which Plato started this whole discussion: ‘For everything that exists (estin tȏn ontȏn hekastȏi) there are three instruments by which the knowledge of it is necessarily imparted (di’ hȏn tȇn epistȇmȇn anankȇ paragignesthai, tria); fourth, there is the knowledge itself (tetarton d’ autȇ), and, as fifth (pempton d’), we must count the thing itself (auto tithenai dei) which is known (ho dȇ gnȏston te) and truly exists (kai alȇthȏs estin on, 342a7-b1).