Plato’s letters and their reception

This is the first post in our new Classics & Ancient History research blog: the idea is to spread the word about the research being carried out in the Dept by academic staff and PhD students. Please do get in touch with us (via www.manchester.ac.uk/classics) if something grabs your attention – we’d be delighted to hear from you.

One of the things we’re hoping the blog will allow us to do is highlight the papers given weekly at our research seminar, so here goes …

‘Plato, Plato’s Epistles and Greek fictional letters’ (Andrew Morrison, Manchester, 7 Nov. 2013)

There are thirteen letters (or ‘epistles’) attributed to Plato which have been preserved along with the dialogues (e.g. the Republic, Protagoras, Gorgias, etc.). All are written in the voice of Plato (unlike the dialogues): there has been a long debate about whether any of the letters are really by Plato or an imitator (or imitators), which has obscured study of the letters themselves, even though these are very interesting in their own right. Recently this has started to change – there’s a lot of work going on at the moment on the letters, and there was recently an excellent conference at UCL on them.

Some are more famous than others – the most famous of all is the Seventh Letter, in which Plato recounts his entanglement with the tyrants of Syracuse on Sicily and explains why his attempts to educate Dionysius II as a philosopher failed so miserably. But the collection as a whole is also interesting: there’s a strong self-justifying, defensive tone running through much of it (which perhaps hints at the origin of some of the letters and/or their collection together as a group), and many of the letters are very epistolary in character – they make great play of their ‘letteriness’ and even raise questions about their own authenticity and how they came to survive. They also show Plato building up a network of epistolary friendships (esp. with the philosopher Archytas of Tarentum) which help him escape from the clutches of Dionysius II and return to Athens.

There’s a growing recognition that the letters of Plato play an important role in the history of ancient letters, especially for those letters purporting to be by famous philosophers and statesmen of antiquity, such as Themistocles, Solon, Anacharsis, Democritus, Diogenes, Crates, et al., usually labelled as ‘Greek fictional letters’. I think this is right, but tracing the presence of Plato’s letters in these collections (of which there are many) is a large task. I’ve begun by looking in particular at some collections where we might expect Plato to be particularly relevant, that is the letters purporting to be by Chion of Heraclea, who was a pupil of Plato, and the collection of letters attributed to Socrates and various Socratics. This latter collection also includes letters by Plato (these are different from the thirteen Platonic letters transmitted with the dialogues) and Xenophon. There are also some other letters found elsewhere attributed to Plato and Xenophon. I think it’s possible to see that these letters do regularly engage with the thirteen Platonic letters, but in strikingly different ways: the letters of Chion are reminiscent of the Platonic letters in their defence of Plato (who in that collection educates a tyrant-killer, rather than a tyrant), while the letters of Socrates, for example, suggest a philosopher far less willing to entangle himself with dangerous tyrants than the Plato of the Seventh Letter.

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One thought on “Plato’s letters and their reception

  1. Pingback: A Critical Analysis of the Letter of L. Cornelius Scipio and His Brother to Heraclea under Mount Latmus. | The Leather Library

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