Plato, part 4

platosacademySite of Plato’s Academy in the present day.

(Conclusion. Continued from part 3.)

In Book IV of the “Laws,” Plato’s Athenian asks, “Tell us, lawgiver…what kind of state, and in what condition, should we give to you, so that, having received it, you might organize it yourself in all respects?” He then answers his own question: “Give me a state with a tyrannical ruler. Let the tyrant be young, of sound memory, capable of learning, courageous and generous by nature; in addition, let the soul of this tyrant have those qualities that…accompany each part of virtue.” This odd aside is actually autobiographical, and Plato did his best to put it into practice.

The city of Syracuse was ruled by the tyrant Dionysius the Elder. His life was typical of those who were in those days called tyrants. Being of common birth, but fortunate in military strategy, he seized power in Syracuse through force of arms, relying on a loyal army, which he showered with money… Wars against Carthage alternated with palace intrigue and political struggle; Dionysius executed many prominent citizens, confiscated their property and showed untold cruelty. [He] was the first of those who were called ‘tyrants’ pejoratively, in contrast with the tyrants of the 7th-6th centuries BC, who had upheld democratic principles as a counterweight to the old aristocracy in Greek cities, and some of whom, like Pittacus or Periander, were even counted among the legendary seven wise men.
Among Dionysius’ most prominent courtiers was Dion, son of Hipparinus, brother of Dionysius’ wife Aristomache, himself married to Dionysius’ daughter. Dion was intelligent, educated and young, hoping to see political reforms in the aristocratic spirit. He had a passion for philosophy, which did not conflict with his political experience. Dion was forced to endure the cruelty of Dionysius the Elder, followed by the madness of [the latter’s son] Dionysius the Younger, whose rule he wished to turn into an enlightened tyranny. Upon Dion’s invitation…Plato, who had then been traveling across Italy, arrived in Sicily.

(Losev, 60-62)

The meeting did not go well. Plutarch, in his “Life of Dion,” describes it thus: “At first, the conversation dealt with moral questions in general, primarily with courage, and Plato argued that tyrants were more lacking in this quality than any other men, and subsequently turned to the question of justice and expressed the view that only the just man leads a happy life, while the unjust man is wretched. The tyrant was displeased, believing these words to be directed at himself… Finally, his patience ran out, and he curtly asked Plato why he had come to Sicily. ‘I seek the perfect man,’ the philosopher answered. ‘But, by the gods, you have not found him yet, that is clear,’ Dionysius said sarcastically. Dion feared that the tyrant’s anger would not stop there, and helped Plato, who was eager to leave Syracuse, to board a trireme that was headed for Greece under the command of Pollis of Sparta. But Dionysius secretly asked Pollis to kill Plato along the way, or at least to sell him into slavery, because (so he said) a true philosopher will come to no harm from this — being a just man, he will remain just as happy as before, even having become a slave!” Indeed, Pollis sold Plato into slavery on the island of Aegina, but a chance visitor named Anniceris paid the philosopher’s ransom and helped him to return to Athens. (Plato himself never mentions this incident anywhere, but Plutarch’s writing generally offers a faithful reflection of the sources that were available to him — evidently, by his time this was the widely accepted version of events.)

syracusecoinNo contemporary images of Dionysius or Dion seem to have survived.
This is said to be a Syracusan coin from the time of Dionysius.

Despite this unpleasantness, Plato would return to Syracuse. Dion, having failed to make a moral man out of Dionysius the Elder, attempted to influence his son, also named Dionysius (“the Younger”). Plutarch writes, “Dion urged the young man to turn towards the sciences and to plead with [Plato] to come to Sicily again, and then to entrust himself to his tutelage, in order to shape his character in accordance with [Plato’s] teaching of moral perfection…and thus to grant the greatest happiness not only to himself, but also to his compatriots: the orders which they now carry out unwillingly and only out of necessity, could be transformed by him into reasonable, just and benevolent fatherly instructions, and he himself could be transformed from a tyrant into a true king.” By then, Dionysius the Elder had died, and his son succeeded him as tyrant. According to most sources, Dionysius the Younger was not altogether without talents and might have become a good leader with proper education; at least, that was the argument that Dion used to convince Plato to come to Sicily again and serve as mentor to the young ruler.

Plato himself wrote about this later in life, in his seventh Epistle, which is widely believed to be authentic. He explains (or justifies?) his decision to accept Dion’s request as follows:

Above all, [Dion] thought that in these circumstances I should come to Syracuse as soon as possible, to take part and offer assistance in these matters, in memory of our mutual friendship. He recalled how easily he himself had felt a passionate aspiration toward a beautiful and perfect life. And now, if he could only inspire such feelings in Dionysius, as he tried to do, he would have great hopes to…organize a happy and just life throughout the land. Based on this sound way of thinking, Dion convinced Dionysius to send for me, and also asked me himself in letters to come as soon as possible, regardless of the circumstances, before others around Dionysius might have the chance to drag him into a different life, turning him away from virtue. He asked this in the following words (although it would take too long to convey all of this): ‘What more propitious time (so he wrote) could we ask for than the one that we now see before us, as if granted by some divine will?’ He further described…his own influence in this state, the youth of Dionysius, the latter’s aspirations toward philosophy and education. He spoke of how easy it would be to attract his nephews and family members to the teaching and life that I have always advocated, and of how they would then be able to bring Dionysius over to the same point of view… Such were his entreaties and other tantalizing proposals; because of their youth, I was apprehensive as to how it would all turn out: for young people are quick-tempered in their aspirations and easily abandon them to go in the opposite direction. Nonetheless I knew Dion’s character, his natural firmness and the moderation that he had acquired with age. While I thought this over and asked myself whether I should listen to Dion and go…I finally concluded that I should, if I truly wish to see my thoughts about laws and political organization made reality. That was precisely the time to make such an attempt; if I could only convince one man, I could achieve all of my good intentions.”

from Epistle VII

At first, Plato made a powerful impression on Dionysius, and the young tyrant was briefly taken up by enthusiasm for philosophy. According to Plutarch, “The moderation of the feasts, the modest decor of the court, the gentleness of Dionysius himself in any matter that he considered — all these things gave the people hope that things would change for the better. All were now full of passionate zeal for science and philosophy; the tyrant’s palace, so they said, was littered with dust due to the multitude of aspiring geometers.” But this did not last: very soon, Dion fell out of favour with Dionysius and was sent into exile, while Plato was placed under house arrest. Eventually Plato convinced the tyrant to let him return to Athens, where Dion became one of his students at the Academy. And yet, that was still not the end:

In order to mitigate the poor reputation that [Dionysius] had gained among philosophers over his treatment of Plato, he gathered around himself a multitude of people who were seen as scholars. In his efforts to surpass them in the art of debate, Dionysius was forced to remember what little he had picked up from Plato, but repeated his teacher’s words senselessly and out of place. He was again overcome by longing for Plato, and he reproached himself for not having made the most of Plato’s visit to Syracuse, and for frequently overlooking those conversations that had been so important and useful for himself. And since he was a tyrant, immoderate in all his wishes and blindly indulgent of his own slightest whims, he decided to bring Plato back by any means necessary…[he] expressly wrote to [Plato] that, if the latter refuses to come to Sicily again, no clemency will be shown to Dion, and if he agrees — then the exile will be restored in all his rights. Dion himself received letters from his sister and wife with urgent exhortations to convince Plato to acquiesce to Dionysius and avoid giving him new justifications for his cruelty.”

Plutarch, “Life of Dion”


Now in his sixties, Plato surely had no remaining illusions regarding Dionysius’ chances of becoming an enlightened philosopher-king, but, fearing that he might harm Dion by declining, he agreed to visit Dionysius again. And yet, even then, he still writes in Epistle VII, “And so, upon my arrival, I decided that first I must truly determine whether Dionysius had been overcome by thirst for philosophy, or whether all of these countless rumours spreading across Athens were in vain,” suggesting that he still thought it possible that Dionysius might listen! What ensued was a kind of intellectual cat-and-mouse game, where Plato tried to occupy the tyrant with philosophical conversation, while Dionysius repeatedly promised to pardon Dion, but kept putting it off until some unspecified time. Soon enough, the situation deteriorated into open hostility, and Plato found a chance to escape before Dionysius could find a pretext for killing him.

The story ended violently. Dion instigated an armed uprising against Dionysius and overthrew his rule, but was assassinated before he had a chance to institute his ideal of a just society (ironically, Dionysius outlived him). In his Parallel Lives, Plutarch matches Dion with Brutus, whom he saw as a kindred spirit, an educated, principled idealist who violently rebelled against tyranny but did not live to see the aftermath. Apparently, he had a similar love of philosophy; Plutarch writes, “Among the Greek philosophers there was not one that might have been unfamiliar or alien to Brutus; but he felt a particular kinship with the followers of Plato.” In Plutarch’s eyes, there was no higher praise; he offers the most apologetic treatment of Brutus to be found in any ancient source, making him into a deeply sympathetic figure. But neither Brutus nor Dion inspires much faith in the ability of Platonic philosophy to effect practical change in the world.

brutusEt tu?

How did Plato himself see it? At the end of Epistle VII, which is addressed to Dion’s friends and relatives, he ruefully writes, “There is nothing surprising in what happened to [Dion]. Any honest, sensible and thoughtful man cannot make an error regarding the moral qualities of dishonorable people… His eyes clearly saw that the men who brought about his ruin were foul, but he did not see the true magnitude of their wildness, vileness and greed. Struck down by this, he lies dead, and all of Sicily is cast into immeasurable sorrow.” Spoken like a true philosopher — this summary is undoubtedly correct, but also completely useless, coming long after the fact, when nothing more can be done. Plato’s cold words also avoid any admission of responsibility for what occurred. In fact, some of his statements read like attempts at self-exoneration: in reference to his third and final voyage to Syracuse, he writes, “After this I departed for Athens and returned to Sicily only upon Dionysius’ very persistent summons. Why I did this, and why my actions were correct and appropriate for my way of thinking, I will explain later, because many have asked me why I went [to Sicily] again.” In his next breath, he also writes Epistle VIII to the same addressees, in which he gives them advice on how to set a proper political order for Syracuse in the aftermath of the civil strife. Losev tries to claim that “Plato learned much from the bitter experience of this relationship with a tyrant” (94), but, in the end, it seems that no part of what happened had much impact on him at all.

Aside from the socio-political tragedy (which was, at the same time, personal for Plato) of the dying [ancient Greek] polis, he also underwent a different tragedy, of which he was most likely not conscious, but which also caused him feelings of despair and utter powerlessness at the end of his restless path in life. This was the tragedy of idealism in general, which is unable to understand the impossibility of transforming life by ideas alone. In his practical activities, this prevented him from turning ideas into a material force, and reduced his participation in politics to speeches, admonitions, exhortations, eloquent pleas for [his] ideals. From this one understands the painful necessity that causes an idealist to become an utopian, a dreamer, a powerless if very talented renovator of the old ways. For Plato, this tragedy was greater than all of his Sicilian failures; a tragedy like this is a typical phenomenon, and here Plato is only one of the most notable examples.”

(Losev, 236-237)

Losev offers a fairly straightforward interpretation of Plato’s personal failures as being caused by the “idealistic” content of his philosophy. He states, “Plato is one of the most difficult and painfully contradictory problems in the history of philosophy,” (246) but from his own explanation it is not clear where the difficulty is coming from. He paints a portrait of a “dreamer” who insisted on placing his lovingly crafted intellectual constructions above reality, and for this reason was ill-suited for any kind of practical activity. (Presumably, the “problem” would have been solved if only Plato had chosen to pay more attention to the world around him, and adopted a philosophy more like Aristotle’s — except that Aristotle’s own efforts to educate a young ruler had, shall we say, unintended consequences…)

platoriberaPainting of Plato, attributed to Jusepe de Ribera (Italy, 17th century).
The spine of the manuscript reads, “Book of ideas.”

It seems to me, however, that the “contradictory” nature of these constructions actually shows that Plato never cared very much about them. Platonism is not a belief system that one chooses to adopt or “agree with.” It is more of a state of being. Plato’s life expresses Platonism just as much as his writing, and within his writing, the literary or dramatic aspects embody Platonism even more than the intellectual ones.

They say that genius is misunderstood. I’m not sure — people usually know when they’ve met someone who greatly outclasses them in some way, even if they don’t fully understand how. Plato was very widely respected throughout Greece. Even Dionysius must have known on some level that Plato was mentally and morally superior to himself, otherwise he wouldn’t have invited him back. Rather, it is genius that has problems with understanding. The depth of human individuality might be measured in terms of its ability to create its own world. The deeper the mind, the more elaborate and original its world becomes, but, as it comes to life in its full vividness and power, it shuts out the worlds of others, which always seem imperfect, even ridiculous, from the outside. The deepest, most complex individual loses the capacity for empathy: right at the moment when you are imagining, in rich detail, what someone else is thinking or feeling, with the most sincere and profound compassion, that same person may be there next to you, suffering from your indifference. Compared to the hyper-real world of the mind, full of endless, self-perpetuating gradations and nuances, reality seems far more crude, less satisfying…but this very perception is a sign of a certain disharmony in the mind, and brings no happiness, only painful solitude. Human individuality attains its highest expression only to reveal its own tragic inadequacy.

Plato’s choice of words also constantly keeps us in tension. Just when he is about to say something decisive and final — he never says it. Yet, at other times, he pulls us out of the realm of doubts and vague speculations with a single phrase. To describe Plato’s philosophy as a system is true anguish, for Plato’s philosophical system has to be reconstructed from his distinct, scattered and often contradictory opinions. To add to that, Plato’s terminology usually has multiple meanings, and even the famous term ‘idea’ means several distinct things.”

(Losev, 253-254)

platogiordanoPlato. Luca Giordano, Italy, 1660.

Ultimately, Plato’s world of ideas is just “Plato’s world,” period — that’s why it is fundamentally impossible to systematize it or to give precise definitions to its constituent parts. It becomes anything that Plato wants it to be, following every minute change that occurs, second by second, in his vision of the world. In that sense it has much more aesthetic than philosophical character. His readers engage with it, not by dissecting and analyzing it (you can try, but you won’t get far), but by making themselves emotionally receptive to it, by allowing themselves to be moved by the creative force of Plato’s mind, which is quite undiminished by the passage of time.

In Plato, however, individual consciousness has become aware of its own failure. As both an inspiration and rebuke to the world (and, really, to himself), he offers the image of Socrates — a singular, one-of-a-kind individual who nonetheless never lost his place in the world around him. Perhaps that is how we should interpret Socrates’ choice in “Crito.” Even though it cost him his life, he preferred to remain a part of Athens, rather than to separate his individuality from the world he lived in. By choosing to drink hemlock, he preserved the harmony of his life with the real world. He remained free from the tyranny of the mob, but he was never fully alone; even his final moments passed in the company of his close friends, who treasured the memory throughout their own lives. And it all seemed to come so easily to him.

And Crito answered: ‘But the sun is still over the mountains, Socrates, it has not yet set. And I know that others took poison far later than they were ordered; they dined, drank freely, and some even took pleasure in love, with whomever they wanted. So do not hurry, there is still time.’
And Socrates answered: ‘Of course, Crito, it is natural that they do this — those of whom you speak. They believe that they gain something in this way. And it is just as natural that I do not do so. I have nothing to gain by drinking poison later: I would only become laughable to myself by clinging to life and trembling over its final scraps. No, do not argue with me, but do as I say.’

from “Phaedo”

In comparison, there was not much harmony in Plato’s character. He criticized pure aesthetics, and famously banned poetry from his ideal city, and yet the best and most powerful aspects of his work are purely aesthetic. He distrusted the written word, to the point where he openly said that he would never write down anything that he truly believed, and yet he was still compelled to keep writing (and that is the only medium through which he had any lasting significance). He claimed (in Epistle VII) essentially that his ideals were too good for this vicious world, and yet continued (in Epistle VIII) to dispense written advice on how to organize society. By returning to Sicily, he proved his readiness to risk his life for his ideals, and yet, there turned out to be no need for him to make this sacrifice (instead it was made by Dion, and also for nothing). It seems to me that this only made him feel more alone.

platoveroneseAnother Plato. Paolo Veronese, Venice, 1560.

I wonder how people feel once they finish reading Plato. I have a hard time imagining that anyone would walk away feeling more enlightened or knowledgeable, as if one had found insight into some difficult problem. A much more natural reaction, in my opinion, is the feeling of lost time and unrealized promise, which all but invites readers to apply it to their own lives. In the end, “Phaedo,” the “Symposium,” “Parmenides” and so on, all seem to be reminding me that, whatever promise my life may have held, ultimately it amounted to little; that I had examples of better people than me, but couldn’t live up to them; that I said I wanted meaningful contact with others, but didn’t make the effort. I’m not sure whether this misses the point, or gets it.

Paradoxically, this leads Plato to become more compassionate. His heartless “Laws” are actually gentler than the “Republic” — in his mind, the elderly philosophers of the Nocturnal Council are shouldering the burdens of statecraft only to allow as many other people as possible to live in peace. Losev observes:

It is well known that Plato builds his ideal state ascetically and places numerous limitations on artistic creativity. Yet, one point that has largely escaped attention is that, according to Plato, every child and adult, free man and slave, man and woman — in short, the entire state — must continuously sing enchanting songs to themselves. Games, song, dance, aesthetic pleasure — this, in Plato’s view, is the true embodiment of divine law, so that the entire state, with all of its peacetime customs and all of its wars, becomes an endless artistic self-affirmation: ‘Life should be lived as play,’ so Plato says.

(Losev, 238-239)

Following up this reference in the “Laws” leads to an unexpectedly soulful passage that stands out in these dry surroundings. It emerges out of Plato’s pessimism — earlier, he concludes (through the Athenian) that human beings are “for the most part puppets” created by the gods, “and come in contact with the truth only to a small degree.” This is not too far from his statements in “The Republic” that most of humanity is made of inferior “iron and copper,” unlike the superior philosopher caste which is made of gold. But now, in a sudden poetic inversion, he sees a profound beauty and harmony in this state, which somehow elevates and brings great meaning to it. Then, let us also close with this image:

I assert that one should be serious in serious matters, and not in others. Divinity, by its nature, is worthy of the most blessed care; but man, as we have said before, is a kind of invented plaything of the gods, and this has essentially become his best possible purpose. This is what we should follow: let every man and every woman spend their life playing the most beautiful games, even though this may contradict all of our existing customs… Everyone should live as long and as well as possible in this world. So, at long last, what is proper? Life should be lived as play.

from the “Laws,” book VII


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