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Plato in Sicily: Philosophy in Practice

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Nick Romeo, a journalist and author who teaches philosophy for Erasmus Academy, and Ian Tewksbury, a Classics graduate student at Stanford University, write in Aeon:

In 388 BCE, Plato was nearly forty. He had lived through an oligarchic coup, a democratic restoration, and the execution of his beloved teacher Socrates by a jury of his fellow Athenians. In his youth, Plato seriously contemplated an entry into Athens’ turbulent politics, but he determined that his envisioned reforms of the city’s constitution and educational practices were vanishingly unlikely to be realised. He devoted himself instead to the pursuit of philosophy, but he retained a fundamental concern with politics, ultimately developing perhaps the most famous of all his formulations: that political justice and human happiness require kings to become philosophers or philosophers to become kings. As Plato approached the age of forty, he visited Megara, Egypt, Cyrene, southern Italy, and, most consequentially of all, the Greek-speaking city-state of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily.

In Syracuse, Plato met a powerful and philosophically-minded young man named Dion, the brother-in-law of Syracuse’s decadent and paranoid tyrant, Dionysius I. Dion would become a lifelong friend and correspondent. This connection brought Plato to the inner court of Syracuse’s politics, and it was here that he decided to test his theory that if kings could be made into philosophers – or philosophers into kings – then justice and happiness could flourish at last.

Syracuse had a reputation for venality and debauchery, and Plato’s conviction soon collided with the realities of political life in Sicily. The court at Syracuse was rife with suspicion, violence and hedonism. Obsessed with the idea of his own assassination, Dionysius I refused to allow his hair to be cut with a knife, instead having it singed with coal. He forced visitors – even his son Dionysius II and his brother Leptines – to prove that they were unarmed by having them stripped naked, inspected and made to change clothes. He slew a captain who’d had a dream of killing him, and he put to death a soldier who handed Leptines a javelin to sketch a map in the dust. This was an inauspicious candidate for the title of philosopher-king.

Plato’s efforts did not fare well. He angered Dionysius I with his philosophical critique of the lavish hedonism of Syracusan court life, arguing that, instead of orgies and wine, one needed justice and moderation to produce true happiness. However sumptuous the life of a tyrant might be, if it was dominated by insatiable grasping after sensual pleasures, he remained a slave to his passions. Plato further taught the tyrant the converse: a man enslaved to another could preserve happiness if he possessed a just and well-ordered soul. Plato’s first visit to Sicily ended in dark irony: Dionysius I sold the philosopher into slavery. He figured that if Plato’s belief were true, then his enslavement would be a matter of indifference since, in the words of the Greek biographer Plutarch, ‘he would, of course, take no harm of it, being the same just man as before; he would enjoy that happiness, though he lost his liberty.’

Fortunately, Plato was soon ransomed by friends. He returned to Athens to found the Academy, where he likely produced many of his greatest works, including The Republic and The Symposium. But his involvement in Sicilian politics continued. He returned to Syracuse twice, attempting on both later trips to influence the mind and character of Dionysius II at the urging of Dion.

These three episodes are generally omitted from our understanding of Plato’s philosophy or dismissed as the picaresque inventions of late biographers. However, this is a mistake that overlooks the philosophical importance of Plato’s Italian voyages. In fact, his three trips to Sicily reveal that true philosophical knowledge entails action; they show the immense power of friendship in Plato’s life and philosophy; and they suggest that Plato’s philosopher-king thesis is not false so much as incomplete.

These key events are cogently expressed in Plato’s often-overlooked Seventh Letter. The Seventh Letter has proved an enigma for scholars since at least the great German philologists of the 19th century. While the majority of scholars have accepted its authenticity, few have given its theory of political action a prominent place in the exegesis of Plato. In the past three decades, some scholars have even moved to write it out of the Platonic canon, with the most recent Oxford commentary terming it The PseudoPlatonic Seventh Letter (2015). Each age has its own Plato, and perhaps given the apolitical quietism of many academics, it makes sense that contemporary academics often neglect Plato’s discussion of political action. Nonetheless, most scholars – even those who wished it to be a forgery – have found the letter authentic, based on historical and stylistic evidence. If we return to the story of Plato’s Italian journeys, which Plato himself tells in The Seventh Letter, we’re able to resurrect the historical Plato who risked his life in order to unite philosophy and power.

While The Seventh Letter focuses on the story of Plato’s three voyages to Syracuse, it begins with a brief synopsis of his early life. Like most members of the Athenian elite, his first ambition was to enter politics and public life. In Plato’s 20s, however, Athens underwent a series of violent revolutions, culminating in the restoration of the democracy and the execution of his teacher Socrates in 399 BCE. ‘Whereas at first I had been full of zeal for public life,’ Plato wrote, ‘when I noted these changes and saw how unstable everything was, I became in the end quite dizzy.’ He decided that the time was too chaotic for meaningful action, but he didn’t abandon the desire to engage in political life. Instead, in his own words, he was ‘waiting for the right time’. He was also waiting for the right friends.

When Plato first arrived in Sicily, a trip that likely took more than a week by boat on the rough and dangerous Mediterranean, he immediately noticed the islanders’ extravagant way of life. He was struck by their ‘blissful life’, one ‘replete … with Italian feasts’, where ‘existence is spent in gorging food twice a day and never sleeping alone at night.’ No one can become wise, Plato believed, if he lives a life primarily focused on sensual pleasure. Status-oriented hedonism creates a society devoid of community, one in which the stability of temperance is sacrificed to the flux of competitive excess. Plato writes:

Nor could any State enjoy tranquility, no matter how good its laws when its men think they must spend their all on excesses, and be easygoing about everything except the drinking bouts and the pleasures of love that they pursue with professional zeal. These States are always changing into tyrannies, or oligarchies, or democracies, while the rulers in them will not even hear mention of a just and equitable constitution.

Though the Syracusan state was in disarray, Plato’s friend Dion offered him a unique opportunity to influence the Sicilian kings. Dion didn’t partake in the ‘blissful life’ of the court. Instead, according to Plato, he lived ‘his life in a different manner’, because he chose ‘virtue worthy of more devotion than pleasure and all other kinds of luxury’. While today we might not associate friendship with political philosophy, many ancient thinkers understood the intimate connection between the two. Plutarch, a subtle reader of Plato, expresses this link nicely:

[L]ove, zeal, and affection … which, though they seem more pliant than the stiff and hard bonds of severity, are nevertheless the strongest and most durable ties to sustain a lasting government.

Plato saw in Dion ‘a zeal and attentiveness I had never encountered in any young man’. The opportunity to extend these bonds to the summit of political power would present itself 20 years later, after Plato escaped slavery and Dionysius I had died.

Dionysius II, the elder tyrant’s son, also didn’t appear likely to become a philosopher king. Although Dion wanted his brother-in-law Dionysius I to give Dionysius II a liberal education, the older king’s fear of being deposed made him reluctant to comply. He worried that if his son received a sound moral education, conversing regularly with wise and reasonable teachers, he might overthrow him. So Dionysius I kept Dionysius II confined and uneducated. As he grew older, courtiers plied him with wine and women. Dionysius II once held a 90-day long drunken debauch, refusing to conduct any official business: ‘drinking, singing, dancing, and buffoonery reigned there without control,’ Plutarch wrote.

Nonetheless, Dion used all his influence to persuade the young king to invite Plato to Sicily and place himself under the guidance of the Athenian philosopher. Dionysius II began sending Plato letters urging him to visit, and Dion as well as various Pythagorean philosophers from southern Italy added their own pleas. But Plato was nearly 60 years old, and his last experience in Syracusan politics must have left him reluctant to test fate again. Not heeding these entreaties would have been an easy and understandable choice.

Dion wrote to Plato that this was  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Later in the article:

He writes in The Seventh Letter:

I set out from home … dreading self-reproach most of all; lest I appear to myself only theory and no deed willingly undertaken … I cleared myself from reproach on the part of Philosophy, seeing that she would have been disgraced if I, through poorness of spirit and timidity, had incurred the shame of cowardice …

This reveals a conception of philosophy in which ‘theory’ is damaged by a lack of corresponding ‘deed’. The legitimacy of philosophy requires the conjunction of knowledge and action.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 December 2020 at 1:15 pm

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