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Epistles (Plato)

Epistles (Plato)

The Epistles of Plato are a series of thirteen letters traditionally included in the Platonic corpus. Their authenticity has been the subject of some dispute, and scholarly consensus has shifted back and forth over time. By the close of the Nineteenth Century, there was general agreement that none of the letters were actually written by Plato. Now, most of the letters have defenders of their authenticity. The exceptions are the First, Fifth, Ninth, and Twelfth, which are almost certainly forgeries.

Authenticity

The two letters with the greatest claim to actually having been written by Plato are the Seventh and the Eighth, on the supposition that these were open letters and therefore less likely to be the result of invention or forgery. This is not so much because of a presumption in favor of an open letter's authenticity as because of a presumption against that of a private letter: the preservation of the former is unsurprising, while the preservation, dissemination, and eventual publication of the latter requires some sort of explanation.

The other letters enjoy varying levels of acceptance among scholars. The Third, Fourth, and Thirteenth have the greatest support of the remaining letters, followed by the Sixth, Tenth, and Eleventh; only a few scholars consider the Second Letter to be genuine, while almost none dispute that the First, Fifth, Ninth, and Twelfth are spurious. R. G. Bury accepts only the Seventh and Eighth Letters as authentic, while L. A. Post excludes only the four universally disputed Letters from authenticity.

Structure of the Epistles

The numbering of each letter is due solely to their placement in traditional manuscripts, and does not appear to follow any discernible principle. L. A. Post, in his edition of the Thirteen Epistles of Plato, presented them in the order in which he thought they were written: Thirteenth, Second, Eleventh, Tenth, Fourth, Third, Seventh, Eighth, and Sixth (the four letters universally recognized as spurious are placed following these nine).

The addressees of the Epistles fall into three main categories. Four are addressed to Dionysius II of Syracuse (i, ii, iii, xiii), four to Dionysius' uncle Dion and his associates (iv, vii, viii, x), and five to various others (the Fifth to Perdiccas III of Macedon; the Sixth to Hermias of Atarneus, Erastus, and Coriscus; the Tenth to Aristodorus; the Eleventh to Laodamas; and the Ninth and Twelfth to Archytas).

First Letter

The First Letter is addressed to Dionysius II of Syracuse, and is almost certainly a forgery. In it, Plato supposedly complains of his rude dismissal by Dionysius and predicts an evil end for him. It is interesting mainly for the number of quotations from the tragic poets which it preserves.

Second Letter

The Second Letter is addressed to Dionysius II of Syracuse in response to a supposed complaint he lodged against Plato and his associates that they were slandering him. The letter disclaims any responsibility for these slanders and further denies that they are even occurring. It then counsels Dionysius that a concern for his reputation after his death should incline him to repair his relationship with Plato, since the interactions of political men with the wise is a topic of constant discussion. From this subject, the letter turns to a deliberately enigmatic discussion of "the First," in which Plato warns Dionysius to never write these doctrines down and to burn this letter upon committing its contents to memory. The Second Letter is the source of the oft-cited remark that "no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his are those of a Socrates become beautiful and new (καλός καί νέος).

R. G. Bury argues that the Second Letter is almost certainly inauthentic, based primarily upon conflicts between it and Plato's Seventh Letter and Bury's own conclusion that its tone and content are decidedly un-Platonic. He considers it to be by the same author as the Sixth Letter.

Third Letter

The Third Letter is addressed to Dionysius II of Syracuse, complaining of two slanders aimed at Plato, viz. that he had prevented Dionysius II from transforming his tyranny into a monarchy and that Plato was to blame for all the misadministration in Syracuse. The letter responds by recounting Plato's activities in Syracuse, and has the flavor of an open letter.

Bury suggests that the Third Letter, if authentic, was probably written after Plato's third visit to Syracuse in 360 BCE, and probably after Dion's seizure of power in 357 BCE. He finds the tone to be anachronistic, however, remarks that the parallels to both the Apology of Socrates and the Seventh Letter argue against its authenticity.

Fourth Letter

The Fourth Letter is addressed to Dion, the uncle and (by this time) ouster of Dionysius II of Syracuse. It encourages Dion in his political efforts, but admonishes him not to forget about the importance of virtue. Bury finds the mixture of flattery and reproof in the letter to be at odds with Plato's friendlier relationship with Dion, even granting that it may be an open letter, and notes conflicts with the Seventh Letter that militate against its authenticity.

Fifth Letter

The Fifth Letter is addressed to Perdiccas III of Macedon, and councels him to listen to the advice of one Euphraeus. It then proceeds to defend Plato's abstinence from politics. Most scholars doubt its authenticity.

Sixth Letter

The Sixth Letter is addressed to Hermias, tyrant of Atarneus, and to Erastus and Coriscus, two pupils of Plato residing in Scepsis (a town near Atarneus), advising them to become friends. The letter claims that Plato never met Hermias, contrary to the account given of the latter's life by Strabo; contains a number of parallels to the Second Letter concerning the value of combining wisdom with power, the utility of referring disputes to its author, and the importance of reading and re-reading it; and concludes that all three addresses should publicly swear an oath to strange deities, and to do so half-jestingly. For these reasons, Bury concludes that Sixth Letter is inauthentic and shares its author with the Second Letter.

Seventh Letter

The Seventh Letter is addressed to the associates and companions of Dion, most likely after his assassination in 353 BCE. It is the longest of the Epistles and considered to be the most important. It is most likely an open letter, and contains a defense of Plato's political activities in Syracuse as well as a long digression concerning the nature of philosophy, the theory of the forms, and the problems inherent to teaching.

Eighth Letter

The Eighth Letter is addressed to the associates and companions of Dion, and was probably written some months after the Seventh Letter but before Dion's assassin, Callippus, had been driven out by Hipparinus. It councels compromise between the parties of Dion and Dionysius the Younger, the former favoring democracy, the latter, tyranny. The compromise would be a monarchy limited by laws.

Ninth Letter

The Ninth Letter is addressed to Archytas. Bury describes it as "a colourless and commonplace effusion which we would not willingly ascribe to Plato, and which no correspondent of his would be likely to preserve. Despite the fact that Cicero attests to its having been written by Plato, most scholars consider it a literary forgery.

Tenth Letter

The Tenth Letter is addressed to an otherwise unknown Aristodorus, who is praised for having remained loyal to Dion, presumably during the latter's exile. The treatment of philosophy in simply moral terms, without any reference to intellectual qualities, is foreign enough to Plato's treatment for Bury to declare the letter a forgery. In any event, it consists of a bare three sentences, covering nine lines in the Stephanus pagination.

Eleventh Letter

The Eleventh Letter is addressed to one Laodamas, who apparently requested assistance in drawing up laws for a new colony. It refers to someone named Socrates, though the reference in the letter to the advanced age of Plato means that it cannot be the Socrates who is famous from the dialogues. Bury would allow the authenticity of the letter, were it not for the fact that it claims that this Socrates cannot travel on account of having been enervated by a case of strangury.

Twelfth Letter

The Twelfth Letter is addressed to Archytas. It is only slightly longer than the Tenth Letter (four sentences, covering 12 lines in the Stephanus pagination), and considered to be spurious. It thanks Archytas for sending Plato some treatises, which it then goes on to praise effusively. Diogenes Laertius preserves this letter in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, as well as the letter from Archytas which presumably occasioned the Twelfth Letter; this letter points to the treatises having been those of Ocellos of Lucania, a Pythagorean. Because the writings which are attributed to Ocellos are forgeries from the First Century BCE, the Twelfth Letter is probably also a forgery, and by the same forger, intended to stamp the treatises with Plato's authority.

Thirteenth Letter

The Thirteenth Letter is addressed to Dionysius II of Syracuse, and appears to be private in character. The portrait of Plato offered here is in sharp contrast to that the disinterested and somewhat aloof philosopher of the Seventh Letter, leading Bury to doubt its authenticity.

Footnotes

References

  • Bury, R. G. (1942) Editor and Translator of Plato's Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles, Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Post, L. A. (1925) Thirteen Epistles of Plato. Oxford.

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