Plutarch in his Dion describes the early days of Plato’s arrival in Syracuse at the court of Dionysius II: ‘When Plato came to Sicily (Platôn eis Sikelian aphikomenos), in the first instances (peri men tas prôtas apantêseis) he met with astonishing friendliness and honour (thaumastês etunchane philophrosunês kai timês). For a royal chariot (kai gar harma tôn basislikôn), magnificently adorned, awaited him as he left his trireme (autô̢ parestê kekosmêmenon diaprepôs apobanti tês triêrous), and the tyrant offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving (kai thusian ethusen ho turannos) for the great blessing that had been bestowed upon his government (hôs eutuchêmatos megalou tê̢ archê̢ prosgegonotos). Moreover, the modesty that characterized his symposia (aidôs de sumposiôn), the decorum of the courtiers (kai schêmatismos aulês), and the mildness of the tyrant himself (kai pra̢otês autou tou turannou) in all his dealings with the public (peri hekasta tôn chrêmatizomenôn), inspired the citizens with marvellous hopes of his reformation (thaumastas enedôken elpidas metabolês tois politais). There was also something like a general rush for letters and philosophy (phora de tis ên epi logous kai philosophian hapantôn), and the palace was filled with dust, as they say, owing to the multitude of geometricians there (kai to tyranneion, hôs phasi, koniortos hupo plêthous tôn geômetrountôn kateichen).’ [Geometrical figures were traced in loose sand strewn upon the floor.] (Ch. XIII 1-4, the note and translation by B. Perrin.)
I am dating the Symposium in 364 B.C., that is the second year of Plato’s ‘temporary’ stay in Athens, the first year having been devoted to the Phaedo and the Parmenides, dialogues directed at his disciples in the Academy, which he intended to leave for good. But when the first year passed without his being summoned back, his eyes turned to Dionysius and the task of transforming him into a philosopher-king. Choosing the symposium as the framework for his dialogue, his thoughts went back to the early days of his intercourse with Dionysius, before it was sullied by Dionysius’ expulsion of Dion.
The theme discussed in Plato’s Symposium is Eros, the god of love; Plutarch’s description of Dionysius’ relationship to Plato after his expulsion of Dion sheds light on this choice of theme: ‘As for Plato, Dionysius at once removed him to the acropolis (Platôna de Dionusios euthus men eis tên akropolin mestestêsen), where he contrived to give him a guard of honour under pretence of hospitable kindness (entimon autô̢ schêmati xenias philanthrôpou phrouran mêchanêsamenos), in order that he might not accompany Dion (hôs mê sumpleoi Diôni) and bear witness to his wrongs (martus hôn êdikeito). But after time and intercourse (chronô̢ de kai sundiaitêsei) … he conceived a passion for him that was worthy of a tyrant (êrasthê turannikon erôta), demanding that he alone should have his love returned by Plato (monos axiôn hupo Platônos anterasthai) and be admired beyond all others (kai thaumazesthai malista pantôn), and he was ready (hetoimos ôn) to entrust Plato with the administration of the tyranny (epitrepein ta pragmata kai tên turannida) if only he would not set his friendship for Dion above that (mê protimônti tên pros Diôna philian) which he had for him (tês pros hauton).’ (Dion XVI, 1-2, tr. Perrin)
Plato gives substance to Plutarch’s account when he says in the Seventh Letter that in those days it had been proclaimed (diêngelmenon) ‘that Dionysius is wonderfully devoted to Plato’ (hôs Platôna Dionusios thaumastôs hôs aspazetai),’ and goes on to say: ‘But what were the facts (to d’ eichen dê pôs;)? For the truth (to gar alêthes) must be told (dei phrazein). He became indeed more and more devoted as time advanced (êspazeto men aei proïontos tou chronou mallon), according as he grew familiar with my disposition and character (kata tên tou tropou te kai êthous sunousian), but he was desirous that I should praise him more than Dion (heauton de epainein mallon ê Diôna ebouleto me) and regard him rather than Dion as my special friend (kai philon hêgeisthai diapherontôs mallon ê ‘keinon), and this triumph he was marvellously anxious to achieve (kai thaumastôs ephilonikei pros to toiouton). But the best way to achieve this, if that was to be achieved (hê̢ d’ an houtôs 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 (ôknei hôs dê manthanôn kai akouôn tôn peri philosophian logôn kai emoi sungignesthai) owing to his dread of the talk of slanderers (phoboumenos tous tôn diaballontôn logous), lest he might be hampered in some measure (mê pê̢ parapodistheiê) and Dion might accomplish all his designs (kai Diôn dê panta eiê diapepragmenos). I, however (egô de), put up with all this (panta hupemenon), holding fast the original purpose (tên prôtên dianoian phulattôn) with which I had come (hê̢per aphikomên), in the hope that he might possibly gain a desire (ei pôs eis epithumian elthoi) for the philosophic life (tês philosophou zôês); but he, with his resistance, won the day (ho d’ enikêse antiteinôn).’ (330a1-b7, tr. Bury)
As their mutual intercourse did not make progress in the direction in which Plato wanted it to go, he departed for Athens; his departure was to be temporary, until the next sailing season; Dionysius ‘promised him that in the summer he would summon Dion home’ (sunthemenos eis hôran etous metapempsasthai Diôna, Plut. Dion XVI.4).
It is noteworthy that Plato speaks of that first stay in Sicily as epidêmia (Letter VII, 330b8), ‘staying at home’, and for his departing for Athens he uses the verb apodêmeô (330c2), ‘to be away from home’. When Plato went to Syracuse at Dion’s bidding, summoned by Dionysius, he went there with the intention to make it his home for the end of his days.
During his ‘temporary’ stay in Athens Plato remained true to his hope that he might awaken in Dionysius a desire for philosophy, although the latter broke his promise to summon Dion ‘in the summer’ (eis hôran etous). If he was to have any chance of making his hope true, he had to do something extraordinary; because he could not use the power of his spoken word, he had to take recourse to writing. He had to rekindle Dionysius’ love for him and direct it towards philosophy. This is the road along which Plato in the Symposium, in the guise of ‘most wise Diotima’ (sophôtatê Diotima, 208b8), suggests a talented young man, erotically inclined, should be guided, beginning with love towards the beauty of one body, marching towards the boundless love of wisdom, and ending with the sight of the Beauty itself (210a-212a).
Plato opens his Second Letter, addressed to Dionysius, with the words: ‘I hear from Archedemus (Êkousa Archedêmou) that you think (hoti su hêgê̢) that not only I myself should keep quiet (chrênai peri sou mê monon eme hêsuchian agein) but my friends also (alla kai tous emous epitêdeious) from doing or saying anything bad about you (tou phlauron ti poein ê legein peri se); and that “you except Dion only” (Diôna de monon exaireton poiê̢, 310b4-c1; translations from the Letters are Bury’s).’
These words indicate that Dionysius believed he had reason to be indignant and injured and that he was in a position to tell to Plato how to behave concerning himself. Plato responds by deploring his lack of influence on Dion and Dionysius: ‘Now your saying this, that Dion is excepted, implies (houtos de ho logos sêmainei, to Diôna exaireton einai) that I have no control over my friends (hoti ouk archô egô tôn emôn epitêdeiôn); for had I had this control over you and Dion, as well as the rest (ei gar êrchon egô houtô tôn te allôn kai sou kai Diônos), more blessings would have come to us all (pleiô an ên hêmin te pasin agatha) and to the rest of the Greeks also (tois te allois Hellêsin), as I affirm (hôs egô phêmi, 310c1-5).’
What Plato says next allows us to date the Letter: ‘I do not say this as though what Cratistolus and Polyxenus have told you is to be trusted (kai tauta legô hôs ouch hugies ti Kratistolou kai Poluxenou pros se eirêkotôn); for it is said that one of these men declares (hôn phasi legein ton heteron) that at Olympia he had heard (hoiti akouoi Olumpiasi) quite a number of my companions maligning you (pollôn tinôn tôn met’ emou se kakêgorountôn). No doubt his hearing is more acute than mine (isôs gar oxuteron emou akouei); for I certainly heard no such thing (egô men gar ouk êkousa, 310c6-d3).’
The Olympic Festival referred to must be that of 364 B.C. This means that Plato’s disappointment with Dionysius’ breaking his promise of summoning Dion back home ‘next summer’ was acutely felt by him, and that Dion must have been seething with resentment. This explains Dionysius’ ‘excepting Dion’ from saying or doing anything against him. But Dionysius presumably continued sending to Dion the revenues of his vast property, and he still kept open the prospect of summoning both Plato and Dion back to Sicily. Plato, on his part, is clearly interested in their maintaining friendly relations, untainted by detractors and calumniators: ‘For the future, whenever anyone makes such a statement about any of us, what you ought, I think, to do is (chrê de, hôs emoi dokei, houtôsi se poiein tou loipou, hotan ti toiouto legê̢ tis peri hêmôn tinos) to send me a letter of inquiry (grammata pempsanta eme eresthai); for I shall tell the truth (egô gar t’alêthê legein) without scruple or shame (oute oknêsô oute aischunoumai, 310d3-6).’
After dismissing Dionysius’ complaint as based on fabrications, Plato invites him to view their relationship as it is stands, as it is seen by people: ‘Now as for you and me (emoi de dê kai soi), the relation in which we stand towards each other (ta pros allêlous) is really this (houtôsi tunchanei onta). There is not a single Greek, one may say, to whom we are unknown (oute autoi agnôtes esmen oudeni Hellênôn hôs epos eipein), and our intercourse is a matter of common talk (oute hê sunousia hêmôn sigatai); and you may be sure of this (mê lanthanetô de se), that it will be common talk also in days to come (hoti oud’ eis ton epeita chronon sigêthêsetai), because so many have heard tell of it (tosoutoi hoi paradedegmenoi eisin autên) owing to its duration and its publicity (hate ouk oligên gegenêmenên oud’ êrema, 310d6-e4; following Novotný and Bury, I accept H. Richards emendation of tosoutoi, ‘so many’, for toioutoi, ‘such’, ‘of such quality’, of the manuscripts, retained by Burnet).’
Plato’s sudden concern for the opinion of common people, for what people may think and say about him and Dionysius, sounds strange when Socrates in his dialogues is concerned only with what is right, not with what people think to be right. Plato asks: ‘What now is the point of this remark (ti oun dê legô nuni;)?’ He answers: ‘I will go back to the beginning and tell you (erô anôthen arxamenos). It is natural for wisdom and great power to come together (pephuke sunienai eis t’auton phronêsis te kai dunamis megalê), and they are for ever pursuing and seeking each other (kai taut’ allêla aei diôkei kai zêtei) and consorting together (kai sungignetai). Moreover (epeita), these are qualities which people delight in discussing themselves in private conversation (kai hoi anthrôpoi chairousin peri toutôn autoi te dialegomenoi) and hearing others discuss in their poems (kai allôn akouontes en te idiais sunousiais kai en tais poiêsesi). For example (hoion kai), when men talk about Hiero (peri Hierônos hotan dialegôntai anthrôpoi) or about Pausanias (kai Pausaniou) the Lacedaemonian (tou Lakedaimoniou) they delight (chairousi) to bring in their meeting with Simonides (tên Simônidou sunousian parapherontes) and what he did (ha te epraxen) and said to them (kai eipen pros autous). [Bury remarks: ‘Hiero, the elder, was tyrant of Gela and Syracuse 485-467 B.C. Pausanias defeated the Persians at Plataea 479 B.C. Simonides of Ceos was a famous lyric poet.] … The poets, too, follow their example (kai dê tauta mimoumenoi hoi poiêtai), and bring together Creon and Tiresias (Kreonta men kai Teiresian sunagousin), Polyeidus and Minos (Polueidon de kai Minô), Agamemnon and Nestor (Agamemnona de kai Nestora), Odysseus and Palamedes (kai Odussea kai Palamêdê); and so it was, I suppose (hôs d’ emoi dokei), that the earliest men also brought together Prometheus and Zeus (kai Promêthea Dii tautê̢ pê̢ sunêgon hoi prôtoi anthrôpoi). [Bury remarks: ‘Creon and Tiresias are characters in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and; Polyeidus and Minos in Euripides’ Polyeidus; the rest in Homer; Aeschylus in Prometheus Vinctus tells us about Zeus and Prometheus.] And of these some were – as the poets tell – at feud with each other, and others were friends; while others again were now friends and now foes, and partly in agreement and partly in disagreement (toutôn de tous men eis diaphoran, tous d’ eis philian allêlois iontas, tous de tote men eis philian tote d’ eis diaphoran, kai ta men homonoountas, ta de diapheromenous a̢dousi, 310e4-311b7).’
R. G. Bury refers to this passage as an argument against the authenticity of the Second Letter: ‘Can we imagine the real Plato … trotting out a list of sages and potentates to suggest his own magnanimity and the magnificence of Dionysius? (Prefatory Note to ‘Epistle II’, vol. IX of the LCL edition of Plato, pp. 399-400). In fact, this passage provides a telling testimony to its authenticity, for it is hard to imagine how anybody could forge this letter in view of Dionysius’ final years, and if anyone did, how such a forgery could be accepted by the Academy as genuine. Plutarch says that ‘after he had been conveyed to the camp of Timoleon (komistheis eis to tou Timoleontos stratopedon), where for the first time he was seen as a private person and in humble garb (tote prôton idiôtês kai tapeinos ophtheis), he was sent off to Corinth with a single ship and a small treasure (epi mias neôs kai chrêmatôn oligôn eis Korinthon apestalê), having been born (gennêtheis men) and reared (kai trapheis) in a tyranny (en turannidi) which was the greatest and most illustrious of all tyrannies (tê̢ pasôn epiphanestatê̢ kai megistê̢, Timoleon XIII, 8-9) … after his arrival at Corinth (Tou de Dionusiou katapleusantos eis Korinthon) there was no Greek (oudeis ên Hellênôn) who did not long to behold and speak to him (hos ouchi theasasthai kai proseipein epothêsen auton) … For that age showed no work either of nature or of art (ouden gar oute phuseôs ho tote kairos oute technês) that was comparable to this work of Fortune (hoson ekeino tuchês ergon epedeixato), namely, the recent tyrant of Sicily (ton Sikelias oligon emprosthen turannon) in Corinth (en Korinthô̢), whiling his time away at a fishmonger’s (diatribonta peri tên opsopôlin) or sitting in a perfumer’s shop (ê kathêmenon en muropôliô̢), drinking diluted wine (pinonta kekramenon) from the taverns (apo tôn kapêleiôn) and skirmishing (kai diaplêktizomenon) in public (en mesô̢) with common prostitutes (tois aph’ hôras ergazomenois gunaiois), or trying to teach music-girls in their singing (tas de mousourgous en tais ô̢dais didaskonta), and earnestly contending with them about songs for the stage (kai peri theatrikôn a̢smatôn erizein spoudazonta pros ekeinas) and melody in hymns (kai peri melous harmonias). Some thought that Dionysius did these things as an aimless loiterer, and because he was naturally easy-going and fond of license (tauta d’hoi men allôs aluonta kai phusei ra̢thumon onta kai philakolaston ô̢onto poiein ton Dionusion); but others thought that it was in order to be held in contempt (hoi d’ huper tou kataphroneisthai) and not in fear by the Corinthians (kai mê phoberon onta tois Korinthiois), nor under suspicion (mêd’ hupopton) of being oppressed (hôs barunomenon) by the change in his life (tên metabolên tou biou) and of striving after power (kai pragmatôn ephiemenon), that he engaged in these practices and played an unnatural part (epitêdeuein kai hupokrinesthai para phusin), making a display of great silliness in the way he amused himself (pollên abelterian epideiknumenon en tô̢ scholazein). (Timoleon XIV, 1-4, tr. Bernadotte Perrin.)
In view of all this, the Second Letter could be included among Plato’s Letters only if its authenticity was undisputed.
But let me return to the Second Letter with a remark on Plato’s kai dê tauta mimoumenoi hoi poiêtai (311a7), which means ‘and the poets, imitating these examples’. Bury’s translation ‘the poets, too, follow their example’ obscures the fact that Plato keeps thinking of the poetry of Homer and the tragedians as ‘imitation’ (mimêsis), but unlike Socrates in the Republic, he views it now in positive terms. He goes on to say: ‘Now my object in saying this is to make it clear (panta de tauta legô tode boulomenos endeixasthai), that when we ourselves die men’s talk about us will not likewise be silenced (hoti ouk, epeidan hêmeis teleutêsômen, kai hoi logoi hoi peri hêmôn autôn sesigêsontai); so that we must be careful about it (hôst’ epimelêteon autôn estin). We must necessarily (anankê gar), it seems (hôs eoike), have a care also for the future (melein hêmin kai tou epeita chronou), seeing that (epeidê), by some law of nature (kai tunchanousin kata tina phusin), the most slavish men (hoi men andrapodôdestatoi) pay no regard to it (ouden phrontizontes autou), whereas the most upright (hoi d’ epieikestatoi) do all they can (pan poiountes) to ensure that they shall be well spoken of in the future (hopôs an eis ton epeita chronon eu akousôsin, 311b7-c7).’
Plato strongly emphasizes this point as intimately linked to his care for philosophy: ‘In our case, then – if God so grant – it still remains possible (touto oun hêmin eti, sun theô̢ eipein, exestin) to put right whatever has been amiss in word or deed during our intercourse in the past (ei ti ara mê kalôs pepraktai kata tên emprosthen sunousian, epanorthousthai kai ergô̢ kai logô̢). For I maintain that, as regards the true philosophy (peri gar philosophian phêmi egô tên alêthinên), men will think and speak well of it if we ourselves are upright (doxan esesthai kai logon hêmôn men ontôn epieikôn beltiô), and ill if we are base (phaulôn de, t’ounantion). And in truth we could do nothing more pious than to give attention to this matter (kaitoi peri toutou hêmeis epimeloumenoi ouden an eusebesteron prattoimen), nothing more impious than to disregard it (oud’ amelountes asebesteron).’ (311d6-e2)
Plato’s Socrates was interested in afterlife but not in after-fame. The interest in after-fame Plato appears to have for the first time expressed – in his writings – in the Seventh Letter. It was an important thought; for Plato, it was closely linked to his engagement in philosophy, and it deserved to be properly anchored in it. This task he undertook in the Symposium, in the guise of Diotima.
When Socrates’ turn came to give an encomium on Eros in the Symposium, he chose instead to tell ‘the tale about Eros (ton logon ton peri tou Erôtos) I once heard (hon pot’ êkousa) from a woman (gunaikos), Diotima of Mantinea (Mantinikês Diotimas), who was wise in this (hê tauta te sophê ên) and many other kinds of knowledge (kai alla polla, 201d2-3)’. Diotima tells the young Socrates that ‘universal love and interest is for the sake of immortality (athanasias gar charin panti hautê hê spoudê kai ho erôs hepetai, 208b5-6) … Of that, Socrates, you may be assured (Eu isthi, ô Sôkrates); – think only of the ambition of men (epei ge kai tôn anthrôpôn ei etheleis eis tên philotimian blepsai), and you will wonder at the senselessness of their ways (thaumazois an tês alogias peri ha egô eirêka), unless you consider (ei mê ennoeis enthumêtheis) how they are stirred by the passionate love of fame (hôs deinôs diakeintai erôti tou onomastoi genesthai kai kleos es ton aei chronon athanaton katathesthai). They are ready to run all risks (kai huper toutou kindunous te kinduneuein hetoimoi eisi pantas), even greater than they would have run for their children (eti mallon ê huper tôn paidôn), and to pour out money (kai chrêmata analiskein) and undergo any sort of toil (kai ponous ponein houstinsaoun), and even die (kai huperapothnê̢skein), if so they leave an everlasting name (kai kleos es ton aei chronon athanaton katathesthai, taken from above, where it remained untranslated). Do you imagine (epei oiei su) that Alcestis would have died to save Admetus (Alkêstin huper Admêtou apothanein an), or Achilles to avenge Patroclus (ê Achillea Patroklô̢ epapothanein), or your own Codrus in order to preserve the kingdom for his sons (ê proapothanein ton humeteron Kodron huper tês basileias tôn paidôn), if they had not imagined (mê oiomenous) that the memory of their virtues, which still survives among us, would be immortal (athanaton mnêmên aretês peri heautôn esesthai, hên nun hêmeis echomen;)? Nay (pollou ge dei), she said (ephê), I am persuaded that all men do all things, and the better they are the more they do them, in the hope of the glorious fame of immortal virtue (all’ oimai huper aretês athanatou kai toiautês doxês eukleous pantes panta poiousin, hosô̢ an ameinous ôsi, tosoutô̢ mallon); for they desire the immortal (tou gar athanatou erôsin).’ (208c1-e1, tr. B. Jowett)