Plato was 40 years old (388 B.C.), as he tells us in his “Seventh Letter.” The Peloponnesian War had ended in 404. The Greek colony of Syracuse on Sicily was in the ascendancy. Along with Sparta, Syracuse was the victor in the infamous war launched by Athens, under the prodding on by the charming and rather unscrupulous Alcibiades.
Plato, meanwhile, had taken a trip to Syracuse at the invitation of Dionysius, the ruler or “tyrant” at the time. There he met a young man by the name of Dion, a relative of some sort of the tyrant. Dion was clearly a young man who wanted to improve the world, a view Plato remarked, he held even to his unfortunate end. Dion clearly admired Plato as the philosopher who could teach the tyrant a better way.
What was Dion’s problem? Like many a young man who comes to Washington, D.C., Dion thought that Syracuse “ought to be free and live under the best of laws.” This is why he was interested in studying with Plato. Plato understands clearly, however, how the dangerous enthusiasm of young men comes about. He had been through the same thing himself, as he tells us in a memorable series of dialogues. Plato sees here in this experience “instructions for young and old alike.” He admits that when he was a young man he “had the same ambition as many others.”
The account that Plato gives of the situation of his own formation is memorable. “I thought of entering public life as soon as I became of age.” He had many connections, relatives in high places who gave him preferred positions. At first, he had no scruple about working for them. “I thought they were going to lead the city out of the unjust life she had been living and establish her in the path of justice.” As we read these lines that are familiar to our souls about the supposed ease with which we can change the world, we catch an ominous sense of irony in Plato’s words.
Plato kept his eyes open. “As I watched them (the new politicians) they showed in a short time that the preceding constitution had been a precious thing.” The revolution, the election, produced something not better, but worse. Aristotle later warned about the same thing. It often happens. “Why?” we wonder.
Plato had an “old friend” by the name of Socrates, who was simply “the wisest and justest man of that time.” The government sought to implicate Socrates in its own crimes. They ordered Socrates, along with four other men, to go over to the island of Salamis and pick up a certain Leon. They were to bring him back for execution. Leon was an officer in the Peloponnesian War who was accused of failure to bury the bodies of sailors lost in battle at sea. Socrates thought it was unjust to try 10 admirals collectively since it was contrary to Athenian law not to try them individually. So he refused to go along. He would have been killed at that time had the government not fallen again.
Plato, at the time of Socrates’ encounter with the law, is in his 20s, not too much older than college students. Plato confesses that “when I saw all this and other like things . I was appalled and drew back from that reign of injustice.” Socrates’ example never left him even though he is still apparently tempted by the Sicilian invitation to try to found a good and perfect city, as was Dion, who probably got the idea from him.
When the next new government came into power, Plato, still young though more sober, again “felt the desire, though this time less strongly, to take part in public and political affairs.” Alas, many “deplorable things” occurred after the second revolution. Certain men again bring up the case of Socrates. They make a “most shameless accusation, and one which he, of all men, least deserved.” He was accused of “impiety.” The jury of citizens convicted him. They put him to death. They put to death a man who refused to take part in civil injustice as if to say that there is no final justice in any existing city, even Athens.
Plato now, at 40, looking back on these scenes, is poignant, perhaps prophetic about the nature of this world. “The more I reflected upon what was happening, upon what kinds of men were active in politics, and upon the state of our laws and customs, and the older I grew, the more I realized how difficult it is to manage a city’s affairs rightly.” Einstein, I believe, said it was far more difficult than anything in science.
In the end, Plato suspected that it would never be otherwise. If there were a just city, it could only be “in speech,” as he put it in the Republic. And if it is not consciously there, no one is safe in his own soul. This putting it there is what education is about. We do not like to hear these things, I suppose, but they are in our tradition.
Some philosophers even say that this very desire to have the perfect city is the cause of all political evils that do happen in the world. It says in Scripture that “we have here no lasting city.” Plato suspected this latter also, even though many want to accuse him of being the origin of all utopianism. “How difficult it is to manage a city’s affairs rightly.”