Category: Works of Plato

The Seventh Letter

The only letter of Plato’s that is regarded as genuine by most scholars. It gives an account of Plato’s Sicilian adventure, but also includes an important philosophical digression.

The letter’s content

The Seventh Letter is addressed to “Dion’s followers and friends”, who asked Plato for his advice regarding the proper kind of political government, after Dion had died in 354 BCE, during his successful attempt to overthrow Dionysius II in Syracuse. His supporters came to power and, thus, addressed Plato to ask for his guidance. If the Seventh Letter is genuine, it must have been written around 353 BCE.

Plato’s response takes the form of a defence of his Sicilian travels and his motives for them, rather than a clear programme of political organisation. Essentially Plato reiterates the teaching of the Republic, i.e. that a city can only hope to be governed properly when power and philosophical knowledge are possessed by the same person. The Letter does not offer much with regard to Plato’s political philosophy, but is valuable for his biography. It is the source of all information we possess on the young Plato’s attitude toward the Thirty Tyrants, and also on his firm decision not to restrain himself to pure theory, but to attempt a connection of theory and praxis as well. It is this decision that brought him to Sicily three times (the third time at a mature age, in 361 BCE) and possibly led him to found the Academy.

“As I pondered the matter, I ultimately inclined to the view that if we were ever to attempt to realize our theories concerning laws and government, now was the time to undertake it [...] I set out from home dreading self-reproach most of all, lest haply I should seem to myself to be utterly and absolutely nothing more than a mere voice and never to undertake willingly any action”.     Seventh Letter, 328b-c
“Unless either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence, [...] there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either. Nor, until this happens, will this constitution which we have been expounding in theory ever be put into practice within the limits of possibility and see the light of the sun”. Republic 473cd

The philosophical digression

The Seventh Letter would simply provide additional information to what Plato has to say in the rest of his letters, if it were not for its long and important philosophical digression. What triggers the digression is Dionysius’s claim that he knew at first hand the essence of Plato’s philosophical teachings.

Thus, Plato returns to the line of argument of the Phaedrus regarding the superior status of orality in philosophical teaching as opposed to writing, but he also takes a step further. Having stated that he has never written, nor will he ever write, anything regarding the essence of beings, he claims that such a thing “does not at all admit of verbal expression”, that it is impossible for one to adequately express it not only in written form, but in any verbal form (341c). As the true path to philosophy he outlines a way of living that is constant, toilsome and lasts many years; it is a journey with a knowledgeable guide; a joint search that may eventually lead to the sudden (εξαίφνης) illumination of man’s soul (341d). This journey is a continuous cognitive investigation and refutation, an ascent and descent, of linguistic forms, representations and concepts (names, definitions, images, verbally expressed knowledge) that are by definition condemned to suffer the weakness of linguistic expression and its inherent lack of certainty; they are, therefore, doomed to express how beings are qualified and not what they essentially are (343a). This imprisonment within linguistic forms, which are by nature defective, may be overcome only if certain presuppositions are met. The learning soul must have a natural affinity with the lofty subjects of its study, it must have the appropriate intellectual abilities and must be devoted to its goal (344a-b). If such criteria are fulfilled, then it needs to exhaust the potential of the dialectical method, which is based on questions and answers, wherein one goes through all imperfect cognitive forms by submitting their truth to “refutations” that are “well-meaning” and “lack envy” (343e-344b). Only then can true knowledge of beings arise in the learning soul and remain alive in it from that moment onwards.

Consequently, the path to true knowledge is a hard one and such knowledge is betrayed as soon as one attempts to give verbal expression to it, because of the weakness of language, of logoi. Such an explicit exposition, aiming at revealing the essence of beings, would be by definition refutable – especially vulnerable to refutation that is ill-willed or eristic.

Underscoring the ineffable nature of true knowledge may lead to a mystical reading of the Seventh Letter’s philosophical digression. One could stress some expressions found in the text that lend themselves to connotations of revelation and, thus, suggest that Plato implies that true knowledge is direct, intuitive, free from the mediation of “logoi”. Such a reading, however, disregards the text’s emphasis on the hard, everyday intellectual efforts and the functionality of proper refutation and of correct dialectical mechanisms. There can be no human knowledge beyond the “logoi” – this is the meaning of Platonism that is clearly stated in the Phaedo (99d). Logoi, language and argument, despite their inherent pathology, are an essential part of being human. The crucial philosophical mistake, according to Plato, is to think that true knowledge can be entrenched in a stable system, in a final doctrine – whose form is necessarily verbal.

The Seventh Letter’s authenticity

There is no scholarly consensus regarding the authenticity of the Seventh Letter – even if most scholars consider it genuine. The language it is written in bears strong similarities to the one of the Laws and the philosophical views found in the digression are clearly a continuation of the relevant claims in the Phaedrus. What makes one wonder is that such an important philosophical parenthesis seems out of place in a context that is non-philosophic (were Dion’s followers able to understand what Plato meant?) and, moreover, Plato’s justification in the Letter for “abstaining” from writing is more explicit and emphatic than one would expect. However, even if one remains sceptical about its authenticity, one ought to concede that the Seventh Letter is a text near the heart of Platonic philosophy.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Ledger, G.R. Re-counting Plato: A Computer Analysis of Plato's Style. Οξφόρδη, 1989.
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