Saturday, April 22, 2017

Reflections on the dating of Plato’s Phaedo in connection with his Second Letter and with reference to Diogenes Laertius and Herodotus

Plato’s Second Letter declaration that ‘no treatise by Plato exists (oud’ estin sungramma Platônos ouden) or will exist (oud’ estai), but those which now bear his name (ta de nun legomena) belong to a Socrates (Sôkratous estin) become fair and young (kalou kai neou gegonotos, 314c2-4, tr. Bury)’, in Bury’s translation, refers to all Plato’s dialogues, for they all bear Plato’s name. But Plato’s ta de nun legomena is more limited; it means ‘those [writings] that are now spoken of [as Plato’s]’; it refers only to the dialogues that were in the public domain at the time (nun). The significance of this limitation becomes apparent when we consider Plato’s qualifying these dialogues as belonging ‘to a Socrates become fair and young’. For the Phaedo, presenting Socrates on his last day, could not belong ‘to a Socrates become young’.

We may therefore presume that when Plato wrote the Second Letter the Phaedo was not published, and consider reasons for its not being published, although it had been written some two years before Plato wrote the Second Letter. In ‘The dating of Plato’s Phaedo’ (posted on April 3) I argue that Plato wrote it during his first stay with Dionysius. For having learnt of Dionysius’ past – his heavy drinking, his erotic adventures and his lack of education – Plato chose Phaedo as the narrator of Socrates’ last day; the latter, as a young man, was enslaved and driven by his master to prostitution, and his transformation into a disciple of Socrates, in spite of his past, testified to it that by philosophy men could be purified from all their modes of life, their habits, desires, and simply from everything of the sort. Having written the Phaedo for his own and for Dionysius’ encouragement, Plato had good reasons for not allowing its publication while he still hoped to be summoned by Dionysius back to Syracuse.

There may have been yet another reason for Plato’s reluctance to publish the Phaedo. When he came to Athens after his stay with Dionysius, he read the dialogue to his disciples, and ‘Aristotle alone stayed to the end; the rest of the audience got up and went away’ (touton monon parameinai Platôni Phabôrinos pou phêsin anagignôskonti ton Peri psuchês, tous d’ allous anastênai pantas, Diog. Laert., III, 37). They left, or else they would have ended crying: Socrates’ leaving his disciples for good was heart-rendering, and the feeling of shame concerning the role the Athenian jury played in his death may still have been all too raw and painful. The story in Herodotus about the capture and enslavement of Miletus by the Persians is to the point: ‘when Phrynichus produced his play, The Capture of Miletus (poiêsanti Phrunichô̢ drama Milêtou halôsin kai didaxanti), the audience in the theatre burst into tears (es dakrua te epese to theêtron). The author was fined a thousand drachmae for reminding them of the disaster which touched them so closely (kai ezêmiôsan min hôs anamnêsanta oikêia kaka chiliê̢si drachmê̢si), and they forbade anybody ever to put the play on the stage again (kai epetaxan mêketi mêdena chrasthai toutô̢ tô̢ dramati, VI, 21, 2, tr. Aubrey de Sélincourt).’

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