The Wikipedia entry on Plato’s 2nd Letter says: ‘R. G. Bury argues of the Second Letter that it is “fairly certain” that it is inauthentic, based primarily upon conflicts he sees between “the general tone” and Plato’s Seventh Letter.’
In his Prefatory Note to the Second Letter Bury says: ‘As regards the authenticity of this letter, it may be taken as fairly certain that it is not by Plato. The following considerations, amongst others, tell strongly against it. The Olympic Games mentioned in the opening paragraph cannot well be those of 360 B.C. (as some have supposed), since the general tone of the letter shows that it must be earlier than Plato’s return from his third visit to Syracuse in that year. The reference, then, must be to the games of 364 B.C.; and if so, the Syracusan visit alluded to in 312 A can only be the second visit of 367-366 B.C. But the account there given of the failure of that visit owing to the suspicious attitude of Dionysius plainly contradicts what we are told of Dionysius’ hospitable treatment of Plato in Ep. vii. (329 D ff.). Moreover, there is no other evidence that Plato visited Olympia in 364 B.C.; although we are told (Ep. vii. 350 B) that he did so in 360 B.C.’ (Plato IX, LCL 234, p. 399).
Plato speaks of his visit to Olympia (in 364 B. C.) in the opening paragraph of his Second Letter to Dionysius: ‘I hear from Archedemus (Bury notes: ‘A disciple of Archytas of Tarentum, the Pythagorean scientist’) that you think that not only I myself should keep quiet but my friends also from doing or saying anything bad about you; and that “you except Dion only.” Now your saying this, that Dion is excepted, implies that I have no control over my friends; for had I had this control over you and Dion, as well as the rest, more blessings would have come to us all and to the rest of the Greeks also, as I affirm. But as it is, my greatness consists in making myself follow my own instructions. However, I do not say this as though what Cratistolus and Polyxenus (Bury notes: ‘Polyxenus was a Sophist and a disciple of Bryson of Megara. Of Cratistolus nothing further is known.’) have told you is to be trusted; for it is said that one of these men declares that at Olympia he heard quite a number of my companions maligning you. No doubt his hearing is more acute than mine; for I certainly heard no such thing. For the future, whenever anyone makes such a statement about any of us, what you ought, I think, to do is to send me a letter of inquiry; for I shall tell the truth without scruple or shame.’ (Plato, Second Letter 310 B-D, tr. Bury)
In the Seventh Letter, addressed ‘to Dion’s associates and friends’ after Dion’s death, Plato writes concerning his visit to Olympia after his return from Sicily: ‘On arriving at Olympia (Bury notes: ‘i.e. for the festival of 360 B.C.’), in the Peloponnese, I came upon Dion, who was attending the Games; and I reported what had taken place. And he, calling Zeus to witness, was invoking me and my relatives and friends to prepare at once to take vengeance on Dionysius – we on account of his treachery to guests (for that was what Dion said and meant), and he himself on account of his wrongful expulsion and banishment. And I, when I heard this, bade him summon my friends to his aid, should they be willing – “But as for me,” I said, “it was you yourself, with the others, who by main force, so to say (biai tina tropon), made me an associate of Dionysius at table and at hearth and a partaker of his holy rites; and he, though he probably believed that I, as many slanderers asserted, was conspiring with you against himself and his throne, yet refrained from killing me, and showed compunction. Thus, not only am I no longer, as I may say, of an age to assist anyone in war, but I also have ties in common with you both, in case you should ever come to crave at all for mutual friendship and wish to do one another good; but so long as you desire to do evil, summon others.” This I said because I loathed my Sicilian wandering and its ill-success.’ (Seventh Letter 350 B 6-D 5, tr. Bury)
In the Seventh Letter Plato had a very good reason to speak of his visit to Olympia after returning from his 3rd visit to Sicily, but no reason whatsoever to speak of his previous visit to Olympia. In the Second Letter Plato mentions his visit to Olympia only because of Dionysius’ complaint concerning it. To consider Plato’s silence in the Seventh Letter about his visit to Olympia in 364, to which he refers is the Second Letter, as an argument against the authenticity of the Second Letter is preposterous.
Bury argues that the account of the failure of Plato’s second visit to Sicily of 367-366 B.C. owing to the suspicious attitude of Dionysius, given in the Second Letter, ‘plainly contradicts what we are told of Dionysius’ hospitable treatment of Plato in Ep. vii. (329 D ff.)’.
On account of that visit Plato says in the Second Letter: ‘I came to Sicily with the reputation of being by far the most eminent of those engaged in philosophy; and I desired, on my arrival in Syracuse, to gain your testimony as well, in order that I might get philosophy held in honour even by the multitude. In this, however, I was disappointed. But the reason I give for this is not that which is commonly given; rather it was because you showed that you did not fully trust me but wished rather to get rid of me somehow and invite others in my place; and owing, as I believe, to your distrust of me, you showed yourself inquisitive as to what my business was. Thereupon it was proclaimed aloud by many that you utterly despised me and were devoted to other affairs. This certainly was the story noised abroad.’ (311 C 5-312 B 2, tr. Bury)
Concerning the ‘contradictory’ account in the Seventh Letter Bury refers to 329 D ff. To properly compare the two accounts, I shall quote Plato’s account of the visit that begins at 329 B 7 in its entirety: ‘On my arrival – I must not be tedious – I found Dionysius’ kingdom all full of civil strife and of slanderous stories brought to the court concerning Dion. So I defended him, so far as I was able, though it was little I could do; but about three months later, charging Dion with plotting against tyranny, Dionysius sent him aboard a small vessel and drove him out with ignominy. After that all of us who were Dion’s friends were in alarm lest he should punish any of us on a charge of being accomplices in Dion’s plot; and regarding me a report actually went abroad in Syracuse that I had been put to death by Dionysius as being responsible for all the events of that time. But when Dionysius perceived us all in this state of mind, he was alarmed lest our fears should bring about some worse result; so he was for receiving us all back in a friendly manner; and, moreover, he kept consoling me and bidding me be of good courage and begging me by all means to remain. For my fleeing away from him would have brought him no credit, but rather my remaining; and that was why he pretended to beg it of me so urgently. But the requests of tyrants are coupled, as we know, with compulsory powers. So in order to further his plan he kept hindering my departure; for he brought me into the Acropolis (Bury notes: ‘The citadel of Syracuse, where Plato was housed during both his visits, the tyrant thus having him under his eye.’) and housed me in a place from which no skipper would have brought me off, and that not merely if prevented by Dionysius but also if he failed to send them a messenger charging them to take me off. Nor would any trader nor any single one of the officers at the ports of the country have let me pass out by myself, without arresting me on the spot and bringing me back again to Dionysius, especially as it had already been proclaimed abroad, contrary to the former report, that “Dionysius is wonderfully devoted to Plato”. But what were the facts? For the truth must be told. He became indeed more and more devoted as time advanced, according as he grew familiar with my disposition and character, but he was desirous that I should praise him more than Dion as my special friend, and this triumph he was marvellously anxious to achieve. But the best way to achieve this, if it was to be achieved – namely, by occupying himself in learning and in listening to discourses on philosophy and by associating with me – this he always shirked owing to his dread of the talk of slanderers, lest he might be hampered in some measure and Dion might accomplish all his designs (Bury notes: ‘Philistus and the anti-reform party alleged that Dion was plotting against the tyrant, aided and abetted by Plato.’). I, however, put up with all this, holding fast the original purpose with which I had come, in the hope that he might possibly gain a desire for the philosophic life; but he, with his resistance, won the day.’ (Seventh Letter 329 B 7-330 B 7, tr. Bury)
As can be seen, Bury’s claim that Plato’s account of the failure of his second visit to Sicily of 367-366 B.C. given in the Second Letter ‘plainly contradicts what we are told of Dionysius’ hospitable treatment of Plato in Ep. vii. (329 D ff.)’ does not bear scrutiny.
Following the passage ‘as regards the authenticity’ of the Second Letter, quoted in full at the beginning, Bury says: ‘In addition to these historical inconsistencies there is much to arouse suspicion in the tone and matter of the letter. Can we imagine the real Plato saying that his object in visiting Syracuse was “to make philosophy honoured by the multitude”?’ (Bury, p. 399) In the note on the quoted words Bury says in his translation of the letter: ‘A most un-Platonic sentiment: contrast Republic 493 E ff.’ (Bury, p. 408)
In the Republic 493 E-494A Socrates asks Adeimantus (Plato’s brother): ‘You recognise the truth of what I have been saying (Tauta toinun panta ennoêsas)? Then let me ask you to consider further (ekeino anamnêsthêti) whether the world will ever be induced to believe in the existence (esth’ hopȏs plêthos anexetai ê hêgêsetai einai) of absolute beauty rather than of the many beautiful (auto to kalon alla mê ta polla kala), or of the absolute in each kind rather than of the many in each kind (ê auto ti hekaston kai mê ta polla hekasta)?’ – Adeimantus: ‘Certainly not.’ – Socrates: ‘Then the world cannot possibly be a philosopher? – Adeimantus: ‘Impossible’ – Socrates: And therefore philosophers must inevitably fall under the censure of the world?’ – Adeimantus: ‘They must’ – Socrates: ‘And of the individuals who consort with the mob and seek to please them?’ – Adeimantus: ‘That is evident.’ (Jowett’s translation. Jowett gets the gist of what Plato wants to say, but his translation is very loose. I have therefore given the Greek of Socrates’ introductory entry in full, yet changing the word sequence so as to follow, and thus to elucidate, Jowett’s English.)
Allow me a digression. Although in what immediately follows the quoted passage Plato had presumably in mind Socrates’ beloved Alcibiades, the lines sound uncannily prophetic in view of Plato’s subsequent experience with Dionysius.
Socrates: ‘Then, do you see any way in which the philosopher can be preserved in his calling to the end? And remember what we were saying of him, that he was to have quickness (eumatheia) and memory (mnêmê) and courage (andreia) and magnificence (megaloprepeia) – these were admitted by us to be the true philosopher’s gifts.’ – Adeimantus: ‘Yes.’ – Socrates: ‘Will not such an one from his early childhood be in all things first among all, especially if his bodily endowments are like his mental ones? – Adeimatus: ‘Certainly.’ – Socrates: And his friends and fellow-citizens will want to use him as he gets older for their own purpose?’ – Adeimantus: ‘No question.’ – Socrates: ‘Falling at his feet, they will make requests to him and do him honour and flatter him, because they want to get into their hands now, the power which he will one day possess.’ – Adeimantus: ‘That often happens.’ – Socrates: ‘And what will a man such as he is be likely to do under such circumstances, especially if he be a citizen of a great city, rich and noble, and a tall proper youth? Will he not be full of boundless aspirations, and fancy himself able to manage the affairs of Hellens and of barbarians, and having got such notions into his head will he not dilate and elevate himself in the fullness of vain pomp and senseless pride?’ Adeimantus: ‘To be sure he will.’ – Socrates: ‘Now, when he is in this state of mind, if someone gently comes to him and tells him that he is a fool and must get understanding, which can only be got by slaving for it, do you think that, under such adverse circumstances, he will be easily induced to listen?’ – Adeimantus: ‘Far otherwise.’ – Socrates: ‘And even if there be some one who through inherent goodness or natural reasonableness has had his eyes opened a little and is humbled and taken captive by philosophy, how will his friends behave when they think that they are likely to lose the advantage which they were hoping to reap from his companionship? Will they not do and say anything to prevent him from yielding to his better nature and to render his teacher powerless (kai peri ton peithonta, hopȏs an mê hoios t’ êi), using to this end private intrigues (idiai epibouleuontas) as well as public prosecutions (kai dêmosiai eis agȏnas kathistantas)?’ – Adeimantus: ‘There can be no doubt about it.’ – Socrates: ‘And how can one who is thus circumstanced ever become a philosopher?’ – Adeimantus: ‘Impossible.’ (494 A 11-495 A 3, tr. Jowett)
Let me bring in for comparison what Plutarch says in his Life of Dion concerning Dion, Plato, and Dionysius: ‘Dion had hopes, as it seems likely, that by means of the visit of Plato he could mitigate the arrogance and excessive severity of the tyranny, and convert Dionysius into a fit and lawful ruler; but if Dionysius should oppose his efforts and refuse to be softened, he had determined to depose him and restore the civil power to the Syracusan people; not that he approved of a democracy, but he thought it altogether better than a tyranny in lack of a sound and healthy aristocracy. Such was the condition of affairs when Plato came to Sicily, and in the first instances he met with astonishing friendliness and honour. For a royal chariot, magnificently adorned, awaited him as he left his trireme, and the tyrant offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the great blessing that had been bestowed upon his government. Moreover, the modesty that characterized his banquets, the decorum of the courtiers, and the mildness of the tyrant himself in all his dealings with the public, inspired the citizens with marvellous hopes of his reformation. There was also something like a general rush for letters and philosophy, and the palace was filled with dust, as they say, owing to the multitude of geometricians there (the translator Bernadotte Perrin notes: ‘Geometrical figures were traced in loose sand strewn upon the floor.’). After a few days had passed, there was one of the customary sacrifices of the country in the palace grounds; and when the herald, as was the custom, prayed that the tyranny might abide unshaken for many generations, it is said that Dionysius, who was standing near, cried: “Stop cursing us!” This quite vexed Philistius and his party, who thought that time and familiarity would render Plato’s influence almost irresistible, if now, after a brief intimacy, he had so altered and transformed the sentiments of the youthful prince. They therefore no longer abused Dion one by one and secretly, but all together and openly, saying that he was manifestly enchanting and bewitching Dionysius with Plato’s doctrines, in order that the tyrant might of his own accord relinquish and give up the power, which Dion would then assume … And some pretended to be indignant that the Athenians, who in former times had sailed to Sicily with large land and sea forces, but had perished utterly without taking Syracuse, should now, by means of one sophist, overthrow the tyranny of Dionysius, by persuading him to dismiss his ten thousand body-guards, and abandon his four hundred triremes and his ten thousand horsemen and his many times that number of men-at-arms, in order to seek in Academic philosophy for a mysterious good (en Akadêmeiai to siȏpȏmenon agathon zêtein), and make geometry his guide to happiness, surrendering the happiness that was based on dominion and wealth and luxury to Dion … As a consequence of all this, Dionysius became at first suspicious, and afterwards more openly angry and hostile …’ (Plutarch, Dion xii. 2 - xiv. 4, tr. Bernadotte Perrin)
As we can learn from Plutarch’s Life of Dion xxxvi, he drew on the best available historical sources: Ephorus of Cume (c. 405-330 B.C.) and Timaeus of Tauromenium (c.356-260 B.C.). Of the former The Oxford Classical Dictionary says that he was a pupil of Isocrates and, ‘except for Xenophon, the most important historian of the fourth century.’ Of the latter it says that his ‘History in thirty eight books was primarily concerned with Sicily, and its importance was great in standardizing previous accounts of Sicilian history.’
Let me now return to Plato’s Republic, so that we may properly assess the validity and force of Bury’s argument against the authenticity of the Second Letter presented as a rhetorical question ‘Can we imagine the real Plato saying that his object in visiting Syracuse was “to make philosophy honoured by the multitude”?’ accompanied by his remark ‘A most un-Platonic sentiment: contrast Republic 493 E ff.’
Socrates argues that philosophy is thus left desolate of men endowed by nature conducive to it, and that characters unworthy of it ‘take a leap out of their trades into philosophy … For, although philosophy be in this evil case, still there remains a dignity about her which is not to be found in arts. And many are thus attracted by her whose natures are imperfect and whose souls are maimed and disfigured by their meannesses.’ (495 D-E) He says that all this explains ‘why philosophy is in such an evil name … But if philosophy ever finds in the State that perfection (ei de lêpsetai tên aristên politeian) which she herself is, then will be seen that she is in truth divine’ (497 A 6 – C 2, tr. Jowett).
What is the State in which true philosophy can flourish? Socrates explains: ‘Neither cities nor States nor individuals will ever attain perfection until the small class of philosophers are providentially compelled to take care of the State; or until kings, or if not kings, the sons of kings or princes, are divinely inspired with a true love of true philosophy.’ (499 B 2 – C 2) – Adeimantus: ‘My opinion agrees with yours.’ – Socrates: ‘But do you mean to say (ereis) that this is not the opinion (hoti ouk au dokei) of the multitude (tois de pollois)?’ – Adeimantus: ‘I should imagine not.’ – Socrates: ‘O my friend, do not attack the multitude (mê panu houtȏ tȏn pollȏn katêgorei): they will change their minds, if, not in an aggressive spirit, but gently and with the view of soothing them and removing their dislike of overeducation (apoluomenos tên tês polumathias diabolên), you show them your philosophers as they really are and describe as you were just now doing (kai diorizêi hȏsper arti) their character and profession, and then mankind will see that he of whom you are speaking is not such as they supposed – if they view him in this new light, they will surely change their notion of him, and answer in another train.’ (490 D 7 – 500 A 4, tr. Jowett)
Pace Bury, when Plato says in his Second Letter ‘I came to Sicily with the reputation of being by far the most eminent of those engaged in philosophy; and I desired, on my arrival in Syracuse, to gain your testimony as well, in order that I might get philosophy held in honour even by the multitude’, his words are in perfect harmony with what he says about the true philosophy and the true philosopher in the Republic.