Tuesday, March 28, 2017

1 Plato’s Symposium in the light of its dating, with reference to his Second Letter

Plato in the Second Letter asked Dionysius ‘obey me, and now, to begin with, after you’ve read this letter repeatedly, burn it (peithou, kai tên epistolên tautên nun prôton pollakis anagnous katakauson, 3145-6)’. Dionysius didn’t burn the letter, for had he done so, it wouldn’t have been preserved. Why did he disobay? In the last paragraph Plato writes: ‘You were surprised at my sending Polyxenus to you (peri de Poluxenou ethaumasas hoti pempsaimi soi); but now as of old I repeat the same statement about Lycophron also and the others you have with you (egô de kai peri Lukophronos kai tôn allôn tôn para soi ontôn legô kai palai kai nun ton auton logon), that, as respects dialectic (hoti pros to dialechthênai), you are far superior to them all both in natural intelligence and in argumentative ability (kai phusei kai tê̢ methodô̢ tôn logôn pampolu diaphereis autôn, 314c7-d4, tr. Bury).’ Polyxenus and Lycophron were well known sophists. Could Dionysius resist the temptation to circulate the letter among his courtiers and admirers?

Plato had good reasons for wishing that Dionysius memorised the letter and then burnt it. Having spoken in riddles (di’ ainigmôn) about ‘the First’, he warned him that ‘there are hardly any doctrines which sound more absurd than these to the vulgar (schedon gar ouk estin toutôn pros tous pollous katagelastotera akousmata), 314a2-4, tr. Bury). Bury’s ‘more absurd’ stands for Plato’s katagelastotera, which means ‘more laughable’. Did the people around Dionysius have a good laugh at the expense of Plato and his letter? Was this the reason why Dionysius did not summon Plato to his court during that sailing season?

Reduced to another year of waiting, Plato could not stay idly. In the Letter he exhorted Dionysius to compare his teachings with that of the sophists, confident that if he does so and examines his doctrines side by side with theirs, ‘these doctrines will implant themselves now in your mind (nun soi tauta te prosphusetai), and you also will be devoted both to them and to us (kai oikeios toutois te kai hêmin esê̢, 313d1-3)’. He had in mind doctrines presented to Dionysius by him in person, communicated by spoken word. Left in Athens, he had to take recourse to writing. But hadn’t he improvidently hampered himself in doing so when he wrote in the Letter ‘I myself have never yet written anything on these subjects (ouden pôpot’ egô peri toutôn gegrapha), and no treatise of Plato exists or will exist (oud’ estin sungramma Platônos ouden oud’ estai), but those which now bear his name (ta de nun legomena) belong to a Socrates become beautiful and young (Sôkratous estin kalou kai neou gegonotos, 314c2-4)’?

In the Symposium Plato found a way of turning this to humour. In the dialogue, after the preamble Aristodemus ‘said (ephê) that he met Socrates (hoi Sôkratê entuchein) fresh from the bath (leloumenon te) and with sandals on (kai tas blautas hupodedemenon), which he rarely did (ha ekeinos oligakis epoiei), and so he asked him (kai eresthai auton) where did he go (hopoi ioi) having become so beautiful (houtô kalos gegenêmenos, 174a3-5).’ Socrates replied that he went to Agathon ‘for dinner’ (epi deipnon, 174b1): ‘I have made myself beautiful in this way (tauta dê ekallôpisamên), so that beautiful I go to a beautiful man (hina kalos para kalon iô, 174a9). The dialogue is not Socrates’ (Sôkratous); Socrates is only one of the speakers; encomia on Eros are given by Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon, then Socrates tells the truth about Eros, and Alcibiades presents his picture of Socrates. Socrates in his speech presents us with a picture of young Socrates who went to the wise Diotima to learn about Eros; the exposition on Love by the priestess, presented through the mouth of Socrates, is Plato’s (Platônos).

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