Category: Persons

Plato’s journeys to Sicily. Dion and Dionysius.

Plato visited Sicily three times upon the calls from the tyrants of Syracuse. His purpose was to obtain his political vision: to integrate politics and philosophy. The upshot was always devastating.

First journey

In 388 B.C., when Plato was 40 years old, he was invited to the court of Dionysius I. Plato soon befriended Dion, the tyrant's brother-in-law, who accepted his ideas with enthusiasm, and became his devoted student. The intimacy between the two men was important for Plato; he had found a valuable partner in promulgating his political theory. Contrarily, Plato's contact with Dionysius proved fruitless, for the tyrant construed his exhortation to philosophy and virtue as offensive. In hot blood, Dionysius thought, at first, to put Plato to death. Only after Dion's intervention was the philosopher’s life spared, and he was alternatively, sold as a slave. It is said that in Aegina, Plato’s life was once more at stake, for a local law ordered the death of the first Athenian to set foot on the island. Again, his life was speared when it became known that he was a philosopher. According to a different version, when Plato was being sold as a slave, he was recognized by a friend of his, who bought him, and eventually set him free.

Second journey

Dionysius I died in 367 B.C., and was succeeded by his son Dionysus II, who was at first under the supervision of Dion. The latter believed that if Dionysius received the appropriate education, he could develop into a philosopher-king in conformity with Plato's model. On Dion’s advice, Dionysius invited Plato to Syracuse. After his initial hesitation, Plato thought the occasion opportune for putting his political vision in practice, and thus accepted Dionysius' invitation to visit Sicily for a second time.

“What tipped the scales eventually was the thought that if anyone ever was to attempt to realize these principles of law and government, now was the time to try […]. This, then, was the “bold” purpose I had in setting forth from home, and not what some persons ascribed to me. Above all I was ashamed lest I appear to myself as a pure theorist, unwilling to touch any practical task” Letter VII 328bc

However, Dion's political enemies suspected that Plato’s political programme would undermine their position, and thereupon created the conditions for the rupture in the relations between Dionysius and the two men. In effect, they calumniated Dion and Plato by spreading out that they were conspiring for the tyrant’s dethronement. The tyrant condemned Dion for conspiracy, and ousted him from Sicily, while he detained Plato in the acropolis of Syracuse. The philosopher was deeply disappointed by the undermining he suffered in Dionysius’ court, which resulted in the tyrant’s misgiving. Eventually, Plato decided to interrupt his involvement in politics, and abandon Sicily. Only through the mediation of the Pythagorean Archytas of Tarentum was Dionysius convinced to set Plato free.

Third journey

Dionysius invited Plato (but not Dion) again in Syracuse. He insisted on meeting once more with the philosopher on the ground that he had now come to terms with philosophy, and needed his guidance. He also informed Plato that he would settle the financial differences he had with Dion. Dion motivated the philosopher to respond to Dionysius’ invitation; Plato, however, hesitated on the reason that travelling was dangerous in his advanced age. Finally, for the sake of Dion, and in the hope that Dionysius would keep his word, Plato set out for his third expedition in Syracuse in 360 B.C.

This new endeavor ended in the same disappointment as the previous two. Dionysius did not give Dion his assets, and Plato decided to leave Syracuse in protest. Dionysius tried to change his mind by proposing a compromise: he sold Dion’s property, but sent to him only half of the money he received. Plato was still annoyed and intent on departing, but this attitude was construed by Dionysius as an attempt to undermine his political career. Therefore, Plato was ousted from the tyrant’s court, and put into captivity once again. With the assistance of Archytas and other friends from Tarantum, Plato found a ship and escaped Sicily. In Olympia he met with Dion, who was ready to invade Syracuse. Plato denied to participate in the expedition. Eventually, the invasion happened, but Dion was murdered. Plato believed that if philosophy could couple with power in an individual, the simple truth that happiness comes with wisdom and justice would shine. For all that, Plato's hopes were dashed to the effect of distancing himself from active politics. During the last years of his life, the philosopher gave himself to the composition of his dialogues, and teaching.

Author: Deny Konstantinidi
  • Thesleff, H. "Plato’s Life." Press, G. ed. The Continuum Companion to Plato. Λονδίνο, Νεά Υόρκη: London, 2012.
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Brisson, L, Platon, Lettres. Παρίσι, 1987.
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