The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt

By Amélie Oksenberg Rorty | Go to book overview

1
A Philosopher Educates a Tyrant

PLATO

Plato (427–347/348 B.C.) came from an aristocratic and largely antidemocratic
Athenian family. Had he not come under the influence of Socrates, he might
well have been active in Athenian political life. After the condemnation and
execution of Socrates in 399, Plato retreated to Megara, and then traveled to
Egypt and Sicily. During this period, he became acquainted with the major phil-
osophical schools of the time: Heracleiteans, Pythagoreans, Protagorean relativ-
ists, and Democritean atomists. He returned to Athens in 387–386 to found the
Academy as a center of philosophic study, where—with the exception of several
disastrous visits to Syracuse—he taught and wrote until his death. At the request
of Dion of Syracuse, he went to Syracuse in 367–366 and again in 361–360 in
hopes of educating and influencing the younger Dionysius. Finding Dion exiled
and Dionysius a vicious despot, he returned to the Academy and to philosophy.
His dialogues—some twenty in number—ranged from representations of So-
cratic discussions on logical and moral issues, to the vast construction of The
Republic
, a work that systematically connects political and ethical questions
with the central problems of metaphysics, epistemology, rhetoric, the philoso-
phy of education and the arts. The intricate and presumptively "later" dialogues
formulated and pursued problems in cosmology, the philosophy of logic and
language.

While there is no proof of the authenticity of the thirteen Epistles often
attributed to him, the Seventh Letter—which is excerpted here—chronicles re-
flections on his Syracusan experiment in political education.


Letter VII

When I was a young man I had the same ambition as many others: I thought of entering public life as soon as I came of age. And certain happenings in public affairs favored me, as follows. The constitution we then had, being anathema to many, was overthrown; and a new government was set up consisting of fifty-one men, two groups—one of eleven and another of ten—to police the market place and perform other necessary duties in the city and the Piraeus respectively, and above them thirty other officers with absolute powers. Some of these men happened to be relatives and acquaintances of mine, and they invited me to join them at once in what seemed to be a proper undertaking. My attitude toward them is not surprising, because I was young. I thought that they were going to lead the city out of the unjust life she had been living and establish her in the path of justice, so that I watched them eagerly to see what they would do. But as I watched them they showed in a short time that the preceding constitution had been a precious thing. Among their other deeds they named Socrates, an older friend of mine whom I should not hesitate to call the wisest and justest man of that time, as one of a group sent to arrest a certain citizen who was to

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