Seventh Letter, Plato
Seventh Letter
Plato
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The Seventh Letter of Plato is an epistle that tradition has ascribed to Plato. It is by far the longest of the epistles of Plato and gives an autobiographical account of his activities in Sicily as part of the intrigues between Dion and Dionysius of Syracuse for the tyranny of Syracuse. It also contains an extended philosophical interlude concerning the possibility of writing true philosophical works and the theory of forms. Assuming that the letter is authentic, it was written after Dion was assassinated by Calippus in 353 BC and before the latter was in turn overthrown a year later.

Seventh Letter

Epistles

by
Plato

Translated by George Burges


Plato to the Kindred and Friends of Dion.
Prosperity

Ye have written to me, that I ought to think your sentiments are the same as those which Dion held; and, moreover, you exhort me to make a common cause, as far as I can, in word and deed. If ye have the same opinion and desires with him I agree to unite with you; but if not, to take frequent counsel with myself. Now what his sentiments and desires were, I can tell pretty nearly, not by conjecture, but by having known them clearly.

For when I came originally to Syracuse, being then nearly forty years old, Dion was of the age that Hipparinus is now; and the opinion he then held, he has still continued to hold, namely, that the Syracusans ought to be free and live according to the best laws. So that it is by no means wonderful, if some god has caused the latter to agree in the same opinion with the former on the subject of a polity. But what was the method of producing this, is a thing not unworthy for the young and not young to hear; and I will endeavour to relate it to you from the beginning; for the present events offer the opportunity.

When I was a young man, I was affected as the many are. I thought, if I became quickly my own master, to betake myself immediately to the public affairs of the state. Now some such circumstances as these fell out relating to state affairs. Of the polity existing at that time, when it was abused by many, a change took place; and over the change one and fifty men presided as governors, eleven in the city, and ten in the Piraus; and each of these had a jurisdiction about the Agora, and whatever else it was necessary to regulate in the cities, while thirty of them were invested with supreme authority. Some of these happened to be my relatives and acquaintances; and they forthwith invited me (to attend) to state-affairs, as being a suitable pursuit. And how I was affected is, on account of my youth, not at all wonderful. For I thought that they would, by leading the city from an unjust mode of living to a just one, administer it in the way it was meet; so that I diligently gave my mind to what they did. But when I saw these men proving in a short time that the previous form of government had been (as it were) gold, and that they committed other acts (unjustly), and sent my friend Socrates, advanced in years, whom I am not ashamed to say was nearly the most righteous man of those then living, together with certain others, against one of the citizens, and to bring him by force, in order that he might be executed, so that he (Socrates) might have a share in their deeds, whether he wished it or not, and that he did not comply, but ran the risk of suffering every thing, rather than take any part in their impious acts — all this when I saw, and other similar acts of no trifling kind, I felt indignant, and withdrew myself from the evil men of that period.

Not long after this, the power of the thirty fell by a revolution, together with the whole of the then existing form of government. Again, therefore, but somewhat more slowly, did a desire still drag me on to engage in public and political affairs. Now in these, as being in a troubled state, many things took place, at which any one might be indignant; nor was it wonderful, that in revolutions the punishment of hostile factions should have been rather severe in the case of some; although they who returned acted with considerable clemency. But by some chance some of those in power brought before a court of justice our friend Socrates, laying upon him an accusation the most unholy, and belonging the least of all to Socrates. For some brought him to trial, and others gave their vote against him, and destroyed the man, who had been unwilling to share in the unholy act of a removal relating to one of his then exiled friends, when the exiles themselves were unfortunate. On reflecting then upon these matters, and on the persons who managed political affairs, and on the laws and customs, the more I considered them, and I advanced in years, by so much the more difficult did it appear to me to administer correctly state affairs. For it is not possible to do so without friends and faithful associates; whom, existing at that time, it was not easy to find — for our city was then no longer administered according to the manners and institutions of our fathers and it was impossible to acquire new with any facility; while the written laws and customs were corrupted, and (unholiness) was increasing to a degree how wonderful!

So that I, who had been at first full of ardour towards engaging in affairs of state, did, upon looking at these things and seeing them carried along in every way and on every side, become giddy; but not so as to withdraw from considering how at any time something better might take place respecting these very matters, and likewise the whole form of government, but to be wisely waiting continually for opportunities of acting. At last I perceived that all states existing at present were badly governed. For what relates to their laws is nearly in an incurable state, without some wonderful arrangement in conjunction with fortune. I was therefore compelled to say, in praise of true philosophy, that through it we are enabled to perceive all that is just as regards the state and individuals; and hence that the human race will never cease from ills, until the race of those, who philosophize correctly and truthfully, shall come to political power, or persons of power in states shall, by a certain divine allotment, philosophize really.

Holding these sentiments I arrived in Italy and Sicily, when I first came there. But on my arrival, the life, which is there called happy, pleased me at no time or manner; (a life) full of the tables prepared by Italiotes and Syracusans; and where one is filled twice a day; and never lies alone by night, and (has) such other pursuits as follow a life of this kind. For from these habits, no man under heaven, having such pursuits from his youth, would ever become prudent, not even if he were mixed up with a wondrous nature by some god; but to become temperate it will never be his care. And the same thing may be said respecting the remaining portion of virtue. Nor will any state rest quietly according to any laws whatever, while men conceive that it is proper to waste every thing on excesses, and deem that they ought to be idle in every thing except good living and drinking, and the laboured exertions made for sexual intercourse. But it is necessary for such states never to cease changing their tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies, and for the powerful in them not to endure even the name of a polity just and with equal laws.

With these and the above-mentioned sentiments I passed over to Syracuse; perhaps through an accident of fortune; at least it seems that by the planning of some superior being a beginning was laid of the doings, that have lately taken place relating to Dion and of those too relating to Syracuse, and, there is a fear, to still more persons, if you do not yield to me, when giving advice a second time. How then do I assert that my journey to Sicily was the beginning of all the then doings? For while associating with Dion, then a young man, and pointing out to him by words that, what seemed good to me would be the best for mankind, and counselling him so to act, I was nearly ignorant that I was unconsciously planning in some manner the dissolution of a tyranny. For Dion being very docile, both with respect to other things, and the reasons urged by me, he heard so quickly and attentively, as not one ever did of the young men whom I had fallen in with; and he was desirous of passing the remainder of his life in a manner superior to the majority of the Italiotes and Siceliotes, by loving virtue rather than pleasure and the rest of luxuries; and hence he lived rather odious to those, who passed their lives according to tyrannical institutions, until the death of Dionysius occurred. Subsequently, however, he perceived that the sentiments, which he held under the influence of correct reasoning, did not exist in him alone, but in some others; not numerous indeed, but amongst some, one of whom he thought would be probably Dionysius (the younger), if the gods assisted; and should this take place, that both his own life, and that of the other Syracusans, would turn out to be beyond all measure happy. He thought, moreover, that I ought by all means to come as quickly as possible to Syracuse, to take part in these doings; for he remembered how our mutual intercourse had easily worked him up to the desire of a life the most beautiful and best; which if he could but accomplish, as he was attempting to do, in the case of Dionysius, he had great hopes that he could, without slaughter and death, and the evils which have now taken place, make, in the whole of the country, life to be happy and rational.

With these correct sentiments Dion persuaded Dionysius to send for me; and he himself requested me by all means to come as quickly as possible, before certain other persons, associating with Dionysius, should turn him aside to a life different from the best. But it is necessary to relate what he requested, although it is a rather long story. What opportunity, said he, shall we wait for, greater than that through a certain divine fortune? and giving a statement of their command over Italy and Sicily, and of his own power in it, and of the youth of Dionysius, and of the desire he felt so vehemently for philosophy and instruction, and saying how his cousins and kindred were to be easily exhorted to the reasoning and mode of life ever laid down by myself, and that they were most competent to exhort Dionysius, so that now, if ever, all the hope would be fulfilled of the same persons becoming philosophers and rulers of mighty states. Such then and many others of a like kind were his exhortations. But a fear still possessed my mind, as to how, perchance, the conduct of the young men would turn out; for the passions of such persons are hasty, and are often borne along in a direction contrary to themselves. I knew, however, that Dion was naturally of a steady disposition and of a moderate age. Hence, while I was considering and doubting whether I ought to go, or how, the balance inclined that I ought (to go). For if perchance any one should attempt to give effect to my ideas upon laws and a form of government, I ought to attempt it now. For by persuading only one person, I should work out every good. With these ideas and confidence, and not from what some imagined, I set sail from home; feeling for myself the greatest shame, lest I should seem to myself to be altogether mere talk, and never willing to lay hold of any thing to be done; and run the risk of betraying first the hospitality and friendship of Dion, exposed in reality to no small dangers; and should he suffer aught, or, being driven out by Dionysius and his other enemies, fly to us, and, making an inquiry, say — “I am come to you, Plato, an exile; but I am neither in want of cavalry nor of heavy-armed soldiers to ward off my enemies, but of words and persuasion; by which I know you are especially able to turn young persons to what is good and just, and to place them on each occasion on terms of friendship and fellowship with each other; through the want of which on your part I have now left Syracuse, and am present here. What relates to myself indeed will bring upon you less disgrace; but the philosophy, which you are always praising, and which you say is held in dishonour by the rest of mankind, how is it not now betrayed by you together with myself, as far as depends upon you? If, indeed, we had been inhabitants of Megara, you would surely have come to me as an assistant for what I had called you, or I should have considered you the meanest of men. But now, excusing yourself by the length of the journey, and the danger of the voyage, and the greatness of the trouble, think you that you shall avoid perchance the charge of cowardice? It will be far from this.”

To language like this, what would have been a becoming answer? There is none. But I came with reason and justice, as much as it is possible for a man, having left my own pursuits, which were not unbecoming, under a tyranny, which was neither suited to my discourses nor myself. But by my coming I liberated myself (from any charge), and exhibited myself to be unreproved by Zeus, who presides over hospitality and the allotment of philosophy, which would have been exposed to reproach, had I acted an effeminate part, and through cowardice shared in disgrace and shame. On my arrival then — for there is no need to be prolix — I found all the affairs of Dionysius full of sedition and calumnies on the part of a tyranny respecting Dion. I defended Dion, therefore, to the utmost of my power; but I was able to do but little. But nearly in the fourth month after my arrrival, Dionysius accused Dion of plotting against his power, and putting him on board a small vessel, sent him out with dishonour. Whereupon all of us, who were the friends of Dion, were fearful lest he should accuse and punish some one of us as an accomplice in the plot of Dion. And a report went abroad at Syracuse, that I had been put to death by Dionysius, as being forsooth the cause of all that happened at that time. But on perceiving that we were all thus disposed, and dreading lest something of greater consequence should arise from our fear, he received all of us most kindly into his favour, consoled me, and exhorted me to be of good cheer, and requested me by all means to stay; for there would be an advantage to him from my not flying away, but from my remaining; and on this account he pretended to make an urgent request. We know however that the requests of tyrants are mingled with necessity. By a contrivance, therefore, he prevented my sailing-away. For taking me to the Acropolis, he made me reside there; from whence no ship-master could carry me off, not through Dionysius forbidding it merely, but unless Dionysius himself sent a person with an order, commanding him to lead me out. Nor was there any foreign trader, nor even one of those having jurisdiction over the departures from the country, who would have overlooked my going away alone; but he would immediately have laid hold of me and brought me back again to Dionysius; especially since it had been already bruited abroad contrary to what had been done before, that Dionysius was again holding Plato to his arms in a wonderful manner. And indeed this was the case, for it is necessary to speak the truth. He did indeed hold me to his arms, ever as time went on, more (and more) in respect to the intercourse of my manner and habits. But he wished me to praise him more than Dion, and to hold him as a friend in a far greater degree than the other; and for such an end he made wonderful efforts. But the way by which this might have taken place in the best manner, if it took place at all, he omitted; for he shrunk to become familiar and to associate with me, by hearing and learning discourses on philosophy, through the fear lest, (according) to the language of calumniators, he should be shackled, and Dion administer all affairs. However I endured every thing, keeping to the original sentiments, with which I arrived, if by any means he should come to the desire of a philosophic life. But he, by his pulling in a contrary direction, obtained the victory. In this way then happened to turn out the first period of my sojourning and pursuits in Sicily. After this I went away and came back again, through Dionysius having sent for me with all earnestness. But on what account (I came), and what I did, as being reasonable and just, I will, having first advised you what you ought to do, after what has just now taken place, subsequently relate in detail, for the sake of those who are inquiring with what view I came a second time to Sicily; and that deeds of no moment may not happen to be mentioned as deeds of moment.

I say then something what I ought to say. For the party, who gives advice to a sick man and to one who uses a diet improper for good health, it is especially necessary in the first place to change the mode of living, and to recommend to the patient willing to comply, the other things that are proper; but if he is unwilling, I consider that he, who retires from advising such a person, acts like a man and a physician; but that he, who stays, like a person unmanly and devoid of art. The same is the case of a state, whether its master be one or many. If, while the government is proceeding in a right road according to the constitution, it takes counsel about what is conducive to its interest, it is the part of a man with mind to give to such parties advice; but in the case of those, who are proceeding entirely out of a straightforward polity, and not at all willing to walk in its steps, and who proclaim to the adviser to leave alone the form of government, and not to disturb it since, if he does disturb it, he shall suffer death and at the same time exhort him to minister to their wishes and passions, and to advise in what way these may for all time to come be gratified, I should consider the person, who endures to give such advice, unmanly; but him, who does not endure, a man.

Holding then such sentiments, whenever any one consults with myself about any thing of the greatest moment relating to his life, such as the acquisition of wealth, or the care of his body or soul, I readily advise with him, if he appears to me to live day by day in an orderly manner, or is willing to be persuaded by me when giving advice, nor do I desist, as if I have gone through merely a formal rite. But if either he does not consult me at all, or is evidently not about to follow my advice, I do not go self-called to such a person to counsel him, nor would I do so by compulsion, even if he were my son. But I would give advice to a slave, and force him, even unwilling, (to follow it.) I should however think it not holy to force my father or mother, unless they were, through disease, afflicted with silliness. But if persons are living an established mode of life, pleasing to themselves, but not to me, I should not, when admonishing them in vain, dislike them, nor yet by flattering, minister to them, and afford them the means of gratifying their desires, which if I were to embrace, I should not wish to live. With the same sentiments respecting a state a prudent man ought to live, and speak out, if it appears to him not to have a good form of government, (and) if he is about not to speak in vain, nor to lose his life by speaking; but never to apply violence to his country on account of a change in the form of government, unless it cannot become the best without the banishment and slaughter of persons; but leading a quiet life, to pray for the good both of himself and of the state.

In this very manner I would advise you (to act); and so did I together with Dion advise Dionysius to live day by day, so that in the first place he might be about to become the master of himself, and acquire faithful friends and associates, in order that he might not suffer what his father did; who, after he had got possession of many and great cities in Sicily, which had been laid waste by the Barbarians, was not able to establish and preserve in each of them forms of government, faithful under his associates, or strangers coming from any part whatever, or brothers, whom he himself had brought up as being younger, and had made them rulers, after being merely private persons, and remarkably rich, after being (very) poor. For among these he could not attach to himself a single one as the sharer of his dominion, although working upon them by persuasion, and teaching, and kindnesses, and alliances; and he was sevenfold worse off than Darius; who, placing a trust in persons not his brothers, nor brought up by him, but in those alone associated with himself in their mastery over the eunuch, divided amongst them seven parts of his dominions, each larger than the whole of Sicily, and made use of them as faithful associates, and attacking neither himself, nor each other; and gave likewise an example of what a lawgiver and a king ought to be. For he established laws, by which he has preserved even now the Persian power; and besides this the Athenians, although they had not colonized themselves many Grecian cities, which had been overturned by the Barbarians, but merely got hold of them, when already inhabited, preserved their empire over them for seventy years, through having persons friendly to them in each of the towns. But Dionysius having through his wisdom brought together the whole of Sicily into one state, yet, through confiding in no one was with difficulty saved. For he was poor in persons friendly and faithful; than which there is no greater sign as regards virtue and vice, than in being destitute or not of men of that kind. I therefore and Dion advised Dionysius, since what he had received from his father had come to him unacquainted with instruction, and unacquainted too with befitting associates, in the first place to proceed in that direction to procure for himself friends, different from his relations, but both his equals in age and in accordance with him respecting virtue. But we particularly advised him to be in accord with himself; for that he was wonderfully deficient in this we asserted, not indeed in such clear terms — for this was not safe — but in hints and contending in our discourses, that in this way every man will preserve both himself and those over whom he is the ruler; but that by not turning himself in this direction he will bring to pass every thing the very reverse. But if, after going on, as we said, and rendering himself prudent and temperate, he peopled the cities of Sicily, that had been made desolate, and bound them together with laws and forms of government, so as to be of one family with himself and an assistance to each other against the Barbarians he would not only double his ancestral dominion, but make it in reality much larger. For if this were done, it would be much more easy to enslave the Carthaginians, than was the slavery effected by them during the reign of Gelon; but not as now on the contrary, his father fixed the tribute he was to carry to the Barbarians.

This is what was said and the advice given to Dionysius by us who were plotting against him, as the reports were circulated on many sides. Such, that after prevailing with Dionysius, they caused him to drive out Dion, and threw myself into a state of terror. But, that I may bring to a close not a few events which occurred in a short time, Dion, departing from Peloponnesus and Athens, admonished Dionysius indeed. Since then (Dion) had liberated and twice restored the town to the citizens, the Syracusans were affected in the same manner towards him, as Dionysius had been, when he endeavoured by educating and bringing him up to make him thus a worthy partner of his power through the whole of life. But (he gave his ear) to those that were calumniating Dion, and saying that he was doing all that he did at that time, while plotting against the absolute power of Dionysius, in order that the one, being lulled in his mind by his attention to instruction, might neglect his kingdom, and commit it to Dion, and the other make it his own by fraud, and cast out Dionysius from his dominions.

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