Earl Jackson, Jr.

Plato Writing about his writing

    Plato's dialogues are written portraits of someone who never writes, they are dialogues created by someone who never speaks. Plato never appears in any of his dialogues. His name appears only twice: once in the Apology among the names of those present, and once in the Phaedo, in which a person who had been in attendance on the day of Socrates's death mentions that Plato had not been there due to illness. Besides the dialogues, however, eight letters survive that have been attributed to Plato. Of these now only the Seventh Letter  is generally (but not unanimously) believed to be genuine.
    This letter is from Socrates to the friends of Dion, the nephew of the Tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse [in Sicily] who was responsible for Dion's murder. In the letter Plato tells the harrowing tale of his three visits to Syracuse as a guest and occasionally a prisoner of the erratic Tyrant. Plato had hoped to teach a ruler philosophy and through that prove that a philosophical education could produce virtue and even a virturous government. In Dionysius, the plan failed totally. On at least one occasion, Plato nearly escaped being killed by order of Dionysius, and thanks to a rescue at sea, he also was spared being sold into slavery.
    For all these reasons, the Seventh Letter makes exciting and startling reading. But I have selected a passage that I hope you will find even more startling than that. Remember that this document may be the only example we have of Plato writing in his own person, and speaking directly of his beliefs and agendas.
To set up the situation: This part of the letter comes at the end of a description of Dionysius's pretense at being enamored with philosophy, which is one of the excuses Dionysius summoned Plato back to Syracuse from Athens a third and final time. Plato went with trepidation and suspicion. His suspicions were soon comfirmed regarding Dionysius's insincerity and the ruler's superficial appreciation of philosophy.
    I'm not taking any chances here - I am including only a small portion of the letter and have highlighted the core of the surprise it contains. I will introduce other parts of this letter elsewhere in this kit, but I think the questions this passage raise are fundamental to a radical understanding and appreciation of the strategy of the dialogues in general, and of those strategies deployed in the Phaedrus in particular.
    I'd love it if you'd email me or call me, or at least write down your initial reactions and thoughts about this passage. I hope I'm not making it so colossal you won't want to read it. It's big news from the Fifth Century BCE! Ok without further ado.

Excerpt from The Seventh Letter of Plato

[ Letters 7.340b-7.341e]
And when[7.340b] I arrived [in Syracuse], I deemed that I ought first of all to gain proof of this point,--whether Dionysius was really inflamed by philosophy, as it were by fire, or all this persistent account which had come to Athens was empty rumor.

Now there is a method of testing such matters which is not ignoble but really suitable in the case of tyrants, and especially such as are crammed with borrowed doctrines; and this was certainly what had happened to Dionysius, as I perceived as soon as I arrived. To such persons one must point out what the subject is as a whole,[7.340c] and what its character, and how many preliminary subjects it entails and how much labor. 

For on hearing this, if the pupil be truly philosophic, in sympathy with the subject and worthy of it, because divinely gifted, he believes that he has been shown a marvellous pathway and that he must brace himself at once to follow it, and that life will not be worth living if he does otherwise. After this he braces both himself and him who is guiding him on the path, nor does he desist until either he has reached the goal of all his studies, or else has gained such power as to be capable of directing his own steps without the aid of the instructor.

It is thus,[ 7.340d] and in this mind, that such a student lives, occupied indeed in whatever occupations he may find himself, but always beyond all else cleaving fast to philosophy and to that mode of daily life which will best make him apt to learn and of retentive mind and able to reason within himself soberly; but the mode of life which is opposite to this he continually abhors. 

Those, on the other hand, who are in reality not philosophic, but superficially tinged by opinions,--like men whose bodies are sunburnt on the surface --when they see how many studies are required and how great labor, 7.340e] and how the orderly mode of daily life is that which befits the subject, they deem it difficult or impossible for themselves, and thus they become in fact incapable of pursuing it; [7.341a] while some of them persuade themselves that they have been sufficiently instructed in the whole subject and no longer require any further effort.

Now this test proves the clearest and most infallible in dealing with those who are luxurious and incapable of enduring labor, since it prevents any of them from ever casting the blame on his instructor instead of on himself and his own inability to pursue all the studies which are accessory to his subject.This, then, was the purport of what I said to Dionysius on that occasion. I did not, however, expound the matter fully, nor did Dionysius ask me to do so; [7.341b] for he claimed that he himself knew many of the most important doctrines and was sufficiently informed owing to the versions he had heard from his other teachers.

And I am even told that later on he himself wrote a treatise on the subjects in which I then instructed him, composing it as though it were something of his own invention and quite different from what he had heard; but of all this I know nothing. I know indeed that certain others have written about these same subjects; but what manner of men they are not even themselves know. But thus much I can certainly declare [7.341c] concerning all these writers, or prospective writers, who claim to know the subjects which I seriously study, whether as hearers of mine or of other teachers, or from their own discoveries; it is impossible, in my judgement at least, that these men should understand anything about this subject. 

There does not exist, nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing therewith. For it [i. e., philosophy] does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled [7.341d] by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself.

Notwithstanding, of thus much I am certain, that the best statement of these doctrines in writing or in speech would be my own statement; and further, that if they should be badly stated in writing, it is I who would be the person most deeply pained. And if I had thought that these subjects ought to be fully stated in writing or in speech to the public what nobler action could I have performed in my life than that of writing what is of great benefit to mankind and [7.341e] bringing forth to the light for all men the nature of reality? But were I to undertake this task it would not, as I think, prove a good thing for men, save for some few who are able to discover the truth themselves with but little instruction; for as to the rest, some it would most unseasonably fill with a mistaken contempt, and others with an overweening and empty aspiration, as though they had learnt some sublime mysteries.

I can't wait to hear your reaction to the above portion of this letter.;-). Notice also the odd symmetry  between the "Who is Socrates?" page and this one. In the former page set into dialogue the expected "professional biography" of Socrates with the depiction of him in Aristophane's comedy  The Clouds. Here I set the "professional biography" of  Plato into dialogue with his major autobiographical statement about his attitude towards the act of writing philosophy.  Each of these dialogic introductions of the life a certain Greek philosopher seems to undermine the traditional presumptions and agendas of this kind of biographical sketch in the first place. But take note of what is destabilized in each of these two dialogic portraits, and how that destabilization is effected. This is a question just to jump start your thinking caps.

Below I give you a handy hyperlinked list of all the Platonic dialogues, the texts (in your choice of Greek or English) archived for free browsing and download at The Perseus Project. I have also prepared a page in which I go into more detail about the dialogues themselves: their number, their names, the conventions of classification, and the open questions surrounding the traditional "chronological" ordering of the dialogues. On this larger page is a fuller list of archives for the Platonic corpus, how to use each of the archives, and why.
Below I list the the titles of the dialogues (linked to the complete texts of the originals archived on the Perseus Project site), which are not the treatises the Plato wasn't writing at the time he either did or not write the Seventh Letter.
[Warning: This WILL be on the test that I will never give.]

Not The Treatises that Plato Did Not Write

The Dialogues of Plato: A Map
Introduction to this Kit
The Phaedrus Kit FAQs

The Phaedrus - Table of Contents
All of Plato's Dialogues and Letters on Line
Who Was Socrates?
Who Was Plato?
Who Was Phaedrus?
Who Was Lysias?
Who were the sophists?
What were the Eleusinian Mysteries?
Electronic Plato Archives A map of all the Platonic Dialogues and hyperlinks to the entire texts -both Greek and English - available free on Line!
A Greek Lexicon. Especially constructed for and integrated into this site.
Con-texts of the Phaedrus Kit
Online Resources - Helps you to ask the age-old question, how can I look for something which I do not know the nature of? Five extra points for the title of the non-treatise that Plato didn't write about that question.
The Lexica of Desire in the Phaedrus by Earl Jackson, Jr.
On Diairesis and Sungogê by Earl Jackson, Jr.
Safe Greek Fun: A Demonstration using the Seventh Letter. No Greek required.
Phaedrus's speech on love in the Symposium
Socrates's speech on love in the Symposium
The Phaedrus Kit
Earl Jackson, Jr.