Hedonism at the court of kings. The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. From the Perez-Simon Collection/Wikipedia


Plato in Sicily

Plato travelled to the decadent strife-torn court of Syracuse three times, risking his life to create a philosopher-king

by Nick Romeo & Ian Tewksbury + BIO

Hedonism at the court of kings. The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. From the Perez-Simon Collection/Wikipedia

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 Pseudo-Platonic 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 the moment to act, ‘if ever all our hopes will be fulfilled of seeing the same persons at once philosophers and rulers of mighty states.’ Plato was less optimistic than Dion about the prospect of transforming Dionysius II into a philosophical ruler, citing the impetuosity of the young: ‘the desires of such as they change quickly and frequently in a contrary direction.’ This doubt is an index of the moral courage of his choice to undertake the endeavour. Despite Plato’s assessment that success was unlikely, he strove to make real in this world a deeply considered philosophical position. In The Seventh Letter, he explains: ‘I ultimately inclined to the view that if we were ever to attempt to realise our theories concerning laws and government, now is the time to undertake it.’

For Plato, power is a potential means to a higher good, not an end

He felt two additional motives: the moral bond of his friendship with Dion and the imperative not to disgrace philosophy. 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.

When Plato landed in Sicily for the second time, in 367 BCE, he was met on shore with a richly ornamented royal chariot. Dionysius II sacrificed to the gods in gratitude for his arrival. The citizens were also hopeful that a swift and wholesale reformation of the government would occur. Plutarch hints that Dionysius II did make some progress in philosophy:

Modesty … now ruled in the banquets … their tyrant himself behaving with gentleness and humanity in all matters of business that came before him. There was a general passion for reasoning and philosophy, insomuch that the very palace, it is reported, was filled with dust by the concourse of the students in mathematics who were working their problems there.

It’s hard to gauge how close Dionysius II came to a genuine and permanent change in character. Plutarch makes clear that courtiers and rivals were so alarmed by Plato’s influence that they began impugning his motives, suggesting that Dion was simply using the philosopher as a tool to persuade Dionysius II to relinquish power. Others in Syracuse complained that, while the Athenians had failed to conquer Sicily with an army during the Peloponnesian war, they had now succeeded in a stealth conquest by the sophistry of one man: Plato.

The critics of Plato and Dion could understand philosophy only in instrumental terms – as a means to the end of securing political influence. They presupposed that power is the highest good that humans can secure. In this they anticipated Thomas Hobbes’s claim in Leviathan (1651) that humans possess ‘a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death’. But for Plato, power is a potential means to a higher good, not an end. As the allegory of the cave makes clear in The Republic, philosophers are captivated by the beauty of the forms: they want to remain in the realm of permanence and pure being that they find in the world above. They must be made to return to the darkness and shadows of the cave not because it will maximise their own individual pleasure but because it promotes the city as a whole. The courtiers of Syracuse, however, won the day. Four months into Plato’s stay, Dionysius II had Dion charged with ‘plotting against the tyranny’ and exiled him. Dionysius II whittled away the days attempting to win the praise of Plato, but failed to cultivate a desire for philosophy. In Plato’s own words:

I put up with all of this, holding fast to the original purpose for which I had come, hoping that he might somehow come to desire the philosophic life; but I never overcame his resistance.

The philosopher had descended into the shadows, but the tyrant would not ascend to the light.

Plato made his final trip to Sicily when he was nearly 70 years old. Once again, his philosophy compelled him to act. He had the opportunity to aid Dion, who had been exiled by Dionysius II, and perhaps he still retained hope that the king’s desire for philosophy would awaken. This time the call also came from Archytas of Tarentum, a southern Italian philosopher. After a lifetime of troubles in Syracuse, it is a wonder that Plato set sail once again to Sicily, braving the sea and the pirates, and assumed his position in the court of Dionysius II. The king remained entranced by the aura of philosophy, and even wrote a work on Plato’s philosophical ideas (albeit full of misunderstandings and plagiarism).

To see if Dionysius II was finally prepared to undertake the practice of philosophy, Plato tested the king by stressing the radical difficulty and lifestyle transformation that true philosophy involves:

Those who are not really philosophers but have only a coating of opinions, like men whose bodies are tanned by the sun, when they see how much learning is required, and how great the labour, and how orderly their daily lives must be to suit the subject they are pursuing, conclude that the task is too difficult; and rightly so, for they are not equipped for this pursuit.

Dionysius II ultimately failed the test because he desired to instrumentalise philosophy as yet another means to power. Plato’s test is grounded in his abiding faith in the practice – not the use – of philosophy, a pursuit that necessitates the abandonment of bodily pleasure and power for its own sake. Plato describes this pursuit in detail:

Only when … names, definitions and visual and other perceptions have been rubbed against one another and tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy, only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can they illuminate the nature of any object.

Once again, the contrast between Plato and Hobbes is instructive. Whereas Hobbes takes ill-will and ‘envy’ as ineradicable features of human nature, Plato sees their elimination as a precondition for the practice of philosophy and thus for human flourishing.

For Plato, philosophers should be kings so that they can influence the nature of education

So Dionysius II never became a philosopher-king, and Dion ultimately perished in the bloody civil strife that eventually consumed Syracuse. Dionysius’ desire to instrumentalise philosophy made him seek knowledge as an object of ceremonial display and a tool of hegemony. But when the philosopher instead demanded a wholesale reformation of his life and character, he balked.

In the end, the encounters of philosopher and king in Sicily map perfectly onto the allegorical landscape of the cave in The Republic: Dionysius II seeks to ascend from the shade of politics into philosophical light while Plato traverses the opposite route, dropping from the clarity of philosophy into the shadows of politics. To simply say that Plato ‘fails’ to convert Dionysius II into a philosopher is misleading. It might be more reasonable to observe that the king himself failed, but even this imposes an overly individualistic conception of character formation onto antiquity. The character of Dionysius II was not self-created; he was shaped by his poor education, opulent lifestyle and the mercenary natures of those surrounding him. To blame Plato for not miraculously undoing all of these influences is like faulting an umbrella for not functioning as a parachute. What was essential for Plato was not that he achieved his political goal, but that he practised true philosophy.

The Seventh Letter still serves to remind us that philosophy is a practice, not an instrument. As Plato wrote, philosophy ‘is not something that can be put into words like other sciences’. Instead, ‘after long-continued exchange between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straight away nourishes itself.’ Rather than the competitive striving and isolation that define so much contemporary academic life, genuine philosophical practice requires friendships and collaboration devoted to advancing the flourishing of an entire community.

For Plato, perhaps the strongest reason why philosophers should be kings is so that they can influence the nature of education. Some of Plato’s proposals for how they should do this in The Republic are not persuasive (for instance, the idea of depriving children of the knowledge of who their parents are so that the young people are more pliable). But education as the cultivation of the soul and the practice of philosophy, which entails the capacity to subordinate Hobbes’s individualistic ‘desire of power’ to the communal pursuit of justice, remains urgently necessary.

In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche declared: ‘Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion.’ We still live under the dismal shadow of this belief. Our age of radical individualism and specialisation sanctions the split of knowledge and power, with academics pursuing one as politicians exercise the other. Plato’s Seventh Letter provides a different vision by recalling the intimate and necessary connection between philosophy and politics, community and justice, friendship and knowledge. Above all, it teaches us that action requires knowledge, and knowledge requires action. Knowledge is neither ‘illusion’, nor merely an instrument for the pursuit of power. It is a collective practice best cultivated in communities of philosophical friendship. An age of democracy doesn’t automatically need to abandon Plato’s ideal of the philosopher-king; we need only to expand it until friendship and education bind together as many people as possible into philosopher-citizens, ruling together in ‘good will’ and ‘without envy’.