In my post of March 8 entitled ‘Plato’s Statesman, the date of its composition with references to his Parmenides, Phaedo, Symposium, Second and Seventh Letter, and to Plutarch’s Dion’ I wrote:
‘I believe that Plato wrote one more dialogue in 366/365, the Phaedo. Diogenes Laertius says that ‘according to Favorinus, when Plato read the dialogue On the Soul, 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, III, 37, tr. R. D. Hicks). This story suggests that on that occasion Plato read the Phaedo for the first time; the audience had to leave, or else they all would have ended howling: Socrates’ leaving his disciples for good was heart-rendering; add to it Plato’s having composed the Phaedo as his farewell.’
When I wrote these words, I was inclined to think that Plato wrote the Phaedo after the Parmenides. But as soon as I posted it, I began to feel uneasy, for I suddenly remembered that in one of his letters to Dionysius Plato mentions the Phaedo as a dialogue well known to him: doesn’t the letter compel me to change the relative dating of these two dialogues, the Phaedo before the Parmenides? Couldn’t the letter be considered as written at the beginning of the sailing season of 365, while Plato still thought of returning to Syracuse during that season? I was preoccupied with the Symposium, and subconsciously I was perhaps reluctant to part with my original thought that Plato composed the Phaedo as his farewell to the Members of the Academy. And so I procrastinated, thinking about it almost every day, deferring my reading the letter for almost a month. This morning I ascertained that it was the Letter XIII, read it, and realised that the letter is best dated shortly after Plato’s return from Sicily, in 366.
Plato in the letter tells Dionysius what presents he would like them to make: ‘let us present (dôrêsômetha) … to the daughters of Cebes (tais Kebêtos thugatrasi) three tunics of seven cubits (chitônia tria heptapêchê), not made of the costly Amorgos stuff (mê tôn polutelôn Amorginôn) but of the Sicilian linen (alla tôn Sikelikôn tôn linôn). The name of Cebes you probably know (epieikôs de gignôskeis t’ounoma Kebêtos); for he is mentioned in writing in the Socratic discourses as conversing with Socrates, in company with Simmias (gegrammenos gar estin en tois Sôkrateiois logois meta Simmiou Sôkratei dialegomenos), in the discourse concerning the Soul (en tô̢ peri psuchês logô̢), he being an intimate and kindly friend of us all (anêr pasin hêmin oikeios te kai eunous).’ (363a2-8, tr. Bury)
Bury takes Plato’s epieikôs meaning ‘probably’; I prefer ‘well’ or ‘pretty well’; Plato's 'the name of Cebes you know well’ is justified by ‘for he is mentioned in writing in the Socratic discourses as conversing with Socrates, in company with Simmias’, which suggests that Dionysius was familiar with the Phaedo. When I realised this, two things sprang into my mind, Plutarch’s Dion and what we know about Phaedo. Concerning the latter, I wrote in Ch 1 of the Lost Plato (available on my website):
“The Emperor Julian says in one of his letters (Epist. 59 [Hertlein], i.e. Epist. 50 [Wright]) that Phaedo of Elis ‘thought that there is nothing that cannot be cured by philosophy (enomizen ouden aniaton einai tê̢ philosophia̢), and that by it all men can be purified from all their modes of life, their habits, desires, and simply from everything of the sort. If philosophy were of assistance only to those who are of good natural disposition (tois eu pephukosi) and well brought up (kai kalôs tethrammenois) there would be nothing marvellous about her, but if she can lead up to the light (anagei pros to phôs) people who are in such a state (kai tous houtô diakeimenous), she seems to me to be exceptionally wonderful.’ (445A) The words ‘people who are in such a state’ clearly refer to the historical Phaedo who as a young man was enslaved and was driven by his master to prostitution. Julian alludes to this when he introduces his reference to Phaedo: ‘You have heard of the Phaedo of Elis and you know the story concerning him’. According to Diogenes Laertius Phaedo wrote two undoubtedly genuine dialogues, Zopyrus and Simon; of these two dialogues K. v. Fritz attributes to the former Phaedo’s words quoted by Julian. (Cf. K. v. Fritz’ entry on Phaidon in Pauly-Wissowa, RE, vol. 38, 1938, 1540-1541.)”
Plutarch says that the courtiers of Dionysius ‘from the very outset obtained converse and intimacy with the tyrant who was young and had been badly reared by means of pleasures and flatteries (hoi men gar, euthus ex archês neou turannou kai tethrammenou phaulôs homilian kai sunêtheian hêdonais kai kolakeiais katalambanontes), and were ever contriving for him sundry amours, idle amusements with wine and women (aei tinas erôtas kai diatribas emêchanônto rembôdeis peri potous kai gunaikas), and other unseemly pastimes (kai paidias heteras aschêmonas) … For it is said that the young king once kept up a drinking bout for ninety consecutive days from its beginning (hêmeras gar, hôs phasin, enenêkonta sunechôs epinen arxamenos), and that during this time his court gave no access or admission to men or matters of consequence (kai tên aulên en tô̢ chronô̢ toutô̢ spoudaiois andrasi kai logois abaton kai aneisodon ousan), but drunkenness and raillery and music and dancing and buffoonery held full sway (methai kai skômmata kai psalmoi kai orchêseis kai bômolochiai kateichon). (VII,4-7) … Considering, then, that a reason for this lay in the tyrant’s want of education (Atian de toutou tên apaideusian einai nomizôn), Dion sought to engage him in liberal studies (embalein auton eis diatribas eleutherious ephilotimeito), and to give him a taste of such literature and science as formed the character (kai geusai logôn kai mathêmatôn êthopoiôn), in order that he might cease to be afraid of virtue (hôs aretên pausaito dediôs), and become accustomed to take delight in what was high and noble (kai tois kalois chairein ethistheiê). For by nature (phusei gar) Dionysius did not belong to the worst class of tyrants (ou gegonei tôn phaulotatôn turannôn ho Dionusios), but his father (all’ ho patêr), fearing (dedoikôs) that if he should get wisdom (mê phronêmatos metalabôn) and associate with men of sense (kai sungenomenos noun echousin anthrôpois), he would plot against him (epibouleuseien autô̢) and rob him of his power (kai pareloito tên archên), used to keep him closely shut up at home (ephrourei katakleiston oikoi), where, through lack of association with others (di’ erêmias homilias heteras) and in ignorance of affairs (kai apeiria̢ pragmatôn), as we are told (hôs phasin), he made little wagons and lampstands and wooden chairs and tables (hamaxia kai luchnias kai diphrous xulinous kai trapezas tektainomenon).’ (IX, 1-2, tr. B. Perrin)
And so, reminded of Phaedo and what Socrates and philosophy did for him, Plato wrote the Phaedo for his own and for Dionysius’ encouragement during 367/6, that is during the year of his first stay with him.
Let me end this post by quoting a few lines from the Letter XIII: ‘Once when you were feasting the Locrian youths (tous Lokrous poth’ hestiôn neaniskous) and were seated at a distance from me (porrô katakeimenos ap’ emou), you got up and came over to me (anestês par’ eme) and in a friendly spirit (kai philophronoumenos) made some remark which I thought excellent (eipes eu ti rêma echon, hôs emoi te edokei), as also did my neighbour at the table (kai tô̢ parakeimenô̢), who was one of the beautiful youths (ên d’ houtos tôn kalôn tis). And he then said (hos tote eipen) – “No doubt, Dionysius, you find Plato of great benefit as regards philosophy (Ê pou polla, ô Dionusie, eis sophian ôphelei hupo Platônos)” And you replied (su d’ eipes) – “Yes, and in regard to much else (Kai eis alla polla); since from the very moment of my inviting him (epei kai ap’ autês tês metapempseôs, hoti metepempsamên auton) I derived at once benefit from the very fact that I had invited him (di’ auto touto euthus ôphelêthên).” This tone, then, should be carefully preserved (tout’ oun diasôsteon), in order that the mutual benefit we derive from one another may always go increasing (hopôs an auxanêtai aei hêmin hê ap’ allêlôn ôpheleia).’ (360a4-b6, tr. Bury)