Michael Amity notes that even one of our greatest thinkers blundered.
Plato is at the center of any discussion of great books. His works endure as attempts to understand the most fundamental questions. In Plato’s time, the Athenian democracy had ignored the lessons of Sophocles’s tragedies and chosen to involve itself in a preemptive war against Sparta. The war was expected to be quick, but it lasted for decades and ended with the complete destruction of Athens, the loss of its empire and its navy. Athens became a Spartan dependency. The Spartans placed 30 men in control of Athens, but when that government collapsed, democracy returned. Plato resolved to dedicate his life to teaching and the pursuit of wisdom. He sought to continue the mission of Socrates, but thought the best society would exist under a “Philosopher King.” Epistle 7 is Plato’s open-letter that recounts his near tragic attempt to achieve this noble aim, despite his teacher Socrates advising him to stay out of politics.
Called by King Dionysius to lecture in Sicily, Plato spent some months teaching there. He desired to bring justice to the world and to government by educating Dionysius. When Dionysius died, he was succeeded by his son, Dionysius II. Dion, the brother of Dionysius I, called Plato back to Sicily to act as tutor for the young ruler. Plato soon discovered that the court was a hotbed of intrigue and suspicion. The young Dionysius ruled like a tyrant, and after he exiled his uncle, Plato resolved to return to Athens.
In Athens, Plato continued to ponder the meaning of power and justice. He finished the Republic, using dialogues with Socrates to illustrate the nuances of government. He suggested that the foundation of a truly good government must be justice and that rulers and citizens must possess the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Plato was asked by Dionysius II to return to Sicily and was offered lavish gifts as incentives.
Dionysius at first attempted to convince Plato that he was a dedicated student and that he believed in the wisdom Plato had written. Plato became caught up in political scheming when Dionysius asked him to sign a letter to his uncle regarding the disbursement of money owed. When Plato eventually agreed to sign the document in exchange for permission to return to Athens, he found himself trapped by Dionysius and slandered because of the fraudulent nature of the document he had signed. Greek leaders exerted a great deal of pressure on Dionysius, and Plato was finally allowed to return to Athens. There, he reconsidered the definition of a commonwealth and came to the understanding that only the law can be the true ruler of a nation.
Plato failed to make a change in the way politics worked in Sicily. His idea that educating a nation’s rulers was the way to ensure justice and good government, was noble but naive. He sought to put this belief into practice by educating a young dictator, but he failed utterly.
Each of us probably has some aspect of our lives that we take far too seriously, causing us to make mistakes. It is comforting to know that Plato, one of the wisest people ever to have lived, also made mistakes and admitted to them.
—modified image public domain / Wikimedia Commons