Excerpt from Plato’s Seventh Letter
On my arrival, to cut a long story short, I found the court of Dionysios full of intrigues and of attempts to create in the sovereign ill-feeling against Dion. I combated these as far as I could, but with very little success; and in the fourth month or thereabouts, charging Dion with conspiracy to seize the throne, Dionysios put him on board a small boat and expelled him from Syracuse with ignominy. All of us who were Dion’s friends were afraid that he might take vengeance on one or other of us as an accomplice in Dion’s conspiracy. With regard to me, there was even a rumour current in Syracuse that I had been put to death by Dionysios as the cause of all that had occurred. Perceiving that we were all in this state of mind and apprehending that our fears might lead to some serious consequence, he now tried to win all of us over by kindness: me in particular he encouraged, bidding me be of good cheer and entreating me on all grounds to remain. For my flight from him was not likely to redound to his credit, but my staying might do so. Therefore, he made a great pretence of entreating me. And we know that the entreaties of sovereigns are mixed with compulsion. So to secure his object he proceeded to render my departure impossible, bringing me into the acropolis, and establishing me in quarters from which not a single ship’s captain would have taken me away against the will of Dionysios, nor indeed without a special messenger sent by him to order my removal. Nor was there a single merchant, or a single official in charge of points of departure from the country, who would have allowed me to depart unaccompanied, and would not have promptly seized me and taken me back to Dionysios, especially since a statement had now been circulated contradicting the previous rumours and giving out that Dionysios was becoming extraordinarily attached to Plato. What were the facts about this attachment? I must tell the truth. As time went on, and as intercourse made him acquainted with my disposition and character, he did become more and more attached to me, and wished me to praise him more than I praised Dion, and to look upon him as more specially my friend than Dion, and he was extraordinarily eager about this sort of thing. But when confronted with the one way in which this might have been done, if it was to be done at all, he shrank from coming into close and intimate relations with me as a pupil and listener to my discourses on philosophy, fearing the danger suggested by mischief-makers, that he might be ensnared, and so Dion would prove to have accomplished all his object. I endured all this patiently, retaining the purpose with which I had come and the hope that he might come to desire the philosophic life. But his resistance prevailed against me.
The time of my first visit to Sicily and my stay there was taken up with all these incidents. On a later occasion I left home and again came on an urgent summons from Dionysios. But before giving the motives and particulars of my conduct then and showing how suitable and right it was, I must first, in order that I may not treat as the main point what is only a side issue, give you my advice as to what your acts should be in the present position of affairs; afterwards, to satisfy those who put the question why I came a second time, I will deal fully with the facts about my second visit; what I have now to say is this.
He who advises a sick man, whose manner of life is prejudicial to health, is clearly bound first of all to change his patient’s manner of life, and if the patient is willing to obey him, he may go on to give him other advice. But if he is not willing, I shall consider one who declines to advise such a patient to be a man and a physician, and one who gives in to him to be unmanly and unprofessional. In the same way with regard to a State, whether it be under a single ruler or more than one, if, while the government is being carried on methodically and in a right course, it asks advice about any details of policy, it is the part of a wise man to advise such people. But when men are travelling altogether outside the path of right government and flatly refuse to move in the right path, and start by giving notice to their adviser that he must leave the government alone and make no change in it under penalty of death-if such men should order their counsellors to pander to their wishes and desires and to advise them in what way their object may most readily and easily be once for all accomplished, I should consider as unmanly one who accepts the duty of giving such forms of advice, and one who refuses it to be a true man.
Holding these views, whenever anyone consults me about any of the weightiest matters affecting his own life, as, for instance, the acquisition of property or the proper treatment of body or mind, if it seems to me that his daily life rests on any system, or if he seems likely to listen to advice about the things on which he consults me, I advise him with readiness, and do not content myself with giving him a merely perfunctory answer. But if a man does not consult me at all, or evidently does not intend to follow my advice, I do not take the initiative in advising such a man, and will not use compulsion to him, even if he be my own son. I would advise a slave under such circumstances, and would use compulsion to him if he were unwilling. To a father or mother I do not think that piety allows one to offer compulsion, unless they are suffering from an attack of insanity; and if they are following any regular habits of life which please them but do not please me, I would not offend them by offering useless, advice, nor would I flatter them or truckle to them, providing them with the means of satisfying desires which I myself would sooner die than cherish. The wise man should go through life with the same attitude of mind towards his country. If she should appear to him to be following a policy which is not a good one, he should say so, provided that his words are not likely either to fall on deaf ears or to lead to the loss of his own life. But force against his native land he should not use in order to bring about a change of constitution, when it is not possible for the best constitution to be introduced without driving men into exile or putting them to death; he should keep quiet and offer up prayers for his own welfare and for that of his country.
These are the principles in accordance with which I should advise you, as also, jointly with Dion, I advised Dionysios, bidding him in the first place to live his daily life in a way that would make him as far as possible master of himself and able to gain faithful friends and supporters, in order that he might not have the same experience as his father. For his father, having taken under his rule many great cities of Sicily which had been utterly destroyed by the barbarians, was not able to found them afresh and to establish in them trustworthy governments carried on by his own supporters, either by men who had no ties of blood with him, or by his brothers whom he had brought up when they were younger, and had raised from humble station to high office and from poverty to immense wealth. Not one of these was he able to work upon by persuasion, instruction, services and ties of kindred, so as to make him a partner in his rule; and he showed himself inferior to Darius with a sevenfold inferiority. For Darius did not put his trust in brothers or in men whom he had brought up, but only in his confederates in the overthrow of the Mede and Eunuch; and to these he assigned portions of his empire, seven in number, each of them greater than all Sicily; and they were faithful to him and did not attack either him or one another. Thus he showed a pattern of what the good lawgiver and king ought to be; for he drew up laws by which he has secured the Persian empire in safety down to the present time.
Again, to give another instance, the Athenians took under their rule very many cities not founded by themselves, which had been hard hit by the barbarians but were still in existence, and maintained their rule over these for seventy years, because they had in each them men whom they could trust. But Dionysios, who had gathered the whole of Sicily into a single city, and was so clever that he trusted no one, only secured his own safety with great difficulty. For he was badly off for trustworthy friends; and there is no surer criterion of virtue and vice than this, whether a man is or is not destitute of such friends.
This, then, was the advice which Dion and I gave to Dionysios, since, owing to bringing up which he had received from his father, he had had no advantages in the way of education or of suitable lessons, in the first place…; and, in the second place, that, after starting in this way, he should make friends of others among his connections who were of the same age and were in sympathy with his pursuit of virtue, but above all that he should be in harmony with himself; for this it was of which he was remarkably in need. This we did not say in plain words, for that would not have been safe; but in covert language we maintained that every man in this way would save both himself and those whom he was leading, and if he did not follow this path, he would do just the opposite of this. And after proceeding on the course which we described, and making himself a wise and temperate man, if he were then to found again the cities of Sicily which had been laid waste, and bind them together by laws and constitutions, so as to be loyal to him and to one another in their resistance to the attacks of the barbarians, he would, we told him, make his father’s empire not merely double what it was but many times greater. For, if these things were done, his way would be clear to a more complete subjugation of the Carthaginians than that which befell them in Gelon’s time, whereas in our own day his father had followed the opposite course of levying attribute for the barbarians. This was the language and these the exhortations given by us, the conspirators against Dionysios according to the charges circulated from various sources-charges which, prevailing as they did with Dionysios, caused the expulsion of Dion and reduced me to a state of apprehension. But when-to summarise great events which happened in no great time-Dion returned from the Peloponnese and Athens, his advice to Dionysios took the form of action.
To proceed-when Dion had twice over delivered the city and restored it to the citizens, the Syracusans went through the same changes of feeling towards him as Dionysios had gone through, when Dion attempted first to educate him and train him to be a sovereign worthy of supreme power and, when that was done, to be his coadjutor in all the details of his career. Dionysios listened to those who circulated slanders to the effect that Dion was aiming at the tyranny in all the steps which he took at that time his intention being that Dionysios, when his mind had fallen under the spell of culture, should neglect the government and leave it in his hands, and that he should then appropriate it for himself and treacherously depose Dionysios. These slanders were victorious on that occasion; they were so once more when circulated among the Syracusans, winning a victory which took an extraordinary course and proved disgraceful to its authors. The story of what then took place is one which deserves careful attention on the part of those who are inviting me to deal with the present situation.
I, an Athenian and friend of Dion, came as his ally to the court of Dionysios, in order that I might create good will in place of a state war; in my conflict with the authors of these slanders I was worsted. When Dionysios tried to persuade me by offers of honours and wealth to attach myself to him, and with a view to giving a decent colour to Dion’s expulsion a witness and friend on his side, he failed completely in his attempt. Later on, when Dion returned from exile, he took with him from Athens two brothers, who had been his friends, not from community in philosophic study, but with the ordinary companionship common among most friends, which they form as the result of relations of hospitality and the intercourse which occurs when one man initiates the other in the mysteries. It was from this kind of intercourse and from services connected with his return that these two helpers in his restoration became his companions. Having come to Sicily, when they perceived that Dion had been misrepresented to the Sicilian Greeks, whom he had liberated, as one that plotted to become monarch, they not only betrayed their companion and friend, but shared personally in the guilt of his murder, standing by his murderers as supporters with weapons in their hands. The guilt and impiety of their conduct I neither excuse nor do I dwell upon it. For many others make it their business to harp upon it, and will make it their business in the future. But I do take exception to the statement that, because they were Athenians, they have brought shame upon this city. For I say that he too is an Athenian who refused to betray this same Dion, when he had the offer of riches and many other honours. For his was no common or vulgar friendship, but rested on community in liberal education, and this is the one thing in which a wise man will put his trust, far more than in ties of personal and bodily kinship. So the two murderers of Dion were not of sufficient importance to be causes of disgrace to this city, as though they had been men of any note.
All this has been said with a view to counselling the friends and family of Dion. And in addition to this I give for the third time to you the same advice and counsel which I have given twice before to others-not to enslave Sicily or any other State to despots-this my counsel but-to put it under the rule of laws-for the other course is better neither for the enslavers nor for the enslaved, for themselves, their children’s children and descendants; the attempt is in every way fraught with disaster. It is only small and mean natures that are bent upon seizing such gains for themselves, natures that know nothing of goodness and justice, divine as well as human, in this life and in the next.
These are the lessons which I tried to teach, first to Dion, secondly to Dionysios, and now for the third time to you. Do you obey me thinking of Zeus the Preserver, the patron of third ventures, and looking at the lot of Dionysios and Dion, of whom the one who disobeyed me is living in dishonour, while he who obeyed me has died honourably. For the one thing which is wholly right and noble is to strive for that which is most honourable for a man’s self and for his country, and to face the consequences whatever they may be. For none of us can escape death, nor, if a man could do so, would it, as the vulgar suppose, make him happy. For nothing evil or good, which is worth mentioning at all, belongs to things soulless; but good or evil will be the portion of every soul, either while attached to the body or when separated from it.
And we should in very truth always believe those ancient and sacred teachings, which declare that the soul is immortal, that it has judges, and suffers the greatest penalties when it has been separated from the body. Therefore also we should consider it a lesser evil to suffer great wrongs and outrages than to do them. The covetous man, impoverished as he is in the soul, turns a deaf ear to this teaching; or if he hears it, he laughs it to scorn with fancied superiority, and shamelessly snatches for himself from every source whatever his bestial fancy supposes will provide for him the means of eating or drinking or glutting himself with that slavish and gross pleasure which is falsely called after the goddess of love. He is blind and cannot see in those acts of plunder which are accompanied by impiety what heinous guilt is attached to each wrongful deed, and that the offender must drag with him the burden of this impiety while he moves about on earth, and when he has travelled beneath the earth on a journey which has every circumstance of shame and misery.
It was by urging these and other like truths that I convinced Dion, and it is I who have the best right to be angered with his murderers in much the same way as I have with Dionysios. For both they and he have done the greatest injury to me, and I might almost say to all mankind, they by slaying the man that was willing to act righteously, and he by refusing to act righteously during the whole of his rule, when he held supreme power, in which rule if philosophy and power had really met together, it would have sent forth a light to all men, Greeks and barbarians, establishing fully for all the true belief that there can be no happiness either for the community or for the individual man, unless he passes his life under the rule of righteousness with the guidance of wisdom, either possessing these virtues in himself, or living under the rule of godly men and having received a right training and education in morals. These were the aims which Dionysios injured, and for me everything else is a trifling injury compared with this.
The murderer of Dion has, without knowing it, done the same as Dionysios. For as regards Dion, I know right well, so far as it is possible for a man to say anything positively about other men, that, if he had got the supreme power, he would never have turned his mind to any other form of rule, but that, dealing first with Syracuse, his own native land, when he had made an end of her slavery, clothed her in bright apparel, and given her the garb of freedom, he would then by every means in his power have ordered aright the lives of his fellow-citizens by suitable and excellent laws; and the thing next in order, which he would have set his heart to accomplish, was to found again all the States of Sicily and make them free from the barbarians, driving out some and subduing others, an easier task for him than it was for Hiero. If these things had been accomplished by a man who was just and brave and temperate and a philosopher, the same belief with regard to virtue would have been established among the majority which, if Dionysios had been won over, would have been established, I might almost say, among all mankind and would have given them salvation. But now some higher power or avenging fiend has fallen upon them, inspiring them with lawlessness, godlessness and acts of recklessness issuing from ignorance, the seed from which all evils for all mankind take root and grow and will in future bear the bitterest harvest for those who brought them into being. This ignorance it was which in that second venture wrecked and ruined everything.
And now, for good luck’s sake, let us on this third venture abstain from words of ill omen. But, nevertheless, I advise you, his friends, to imitate in Dion his love for his country and his temperate habits of daily life, and to try with better auspices to carry out his wishes-what these were, you have heard from me in plain words. And whoever among you cannot live the simple Dorian life according to the customs of your forefathers, but follows the manner of life of Dion’s murderers and of the Sicilians, do not invite this man to join you, or expect him to do any loyal or salutary act; but invite all others to the work of resettling all the States of Sicily and establishing equality under the laws, summoning them from Sicily itself and from the whole Peloponnese-and have no fear even of Athens; for there, also, are men who excel all mankind in their devotion to virtue and in hatred of the reckless acts of those who shed the blood of friends.
But if, after all, this is work for a future time, whereas immediate action is called for by the disorders of all sorts and kinds which arise every day from your state of civil strife, every man to whom Providence has given even a moderate share of right intelligence ought to know that in times of civil strife there is no respite from trouble till the victors make an end of feeding their grudge by combats and banishments and executions, and of wreaking their vengeance on their enemies. They should master themselves and, enacting impartial laws, framed not to gratify themselves more than the conquered party, should compel men to obey these by two restraining forces, respect and fear; fear, because they are the masters and can display superior force; respect, because they rise superior to pleasures and are willing and able to be servants to the laws. There is no other way save this for terminating the troubles of a city that is in a state of civil strife; but a constant continuance of internal disorders, struggles, hatred and mutual distrust is the common lot of cities which are in that plight.
Therefore, those who have for the time being gained the upper hand, when they desire to secure their position, must by their own act and choice select from all Hellas men whom they have ascertained to be the best for the purpose. These must in the first place be men of mature years, who have children and wives at home, and, as far as possible, a long line of ancestors of good repute, and all must be possessed of sufficient property. For a city of ten thousand householders their numbers should be fifty; that is enough. These they must induce to come from their own homes by entreaties and the promise of the highest honours; and having induced them to come they must entreat and command them to draw up laws after binding themselves by oath to show no partiality either to conquerors or to conquered, but to give equal and common rights to the whole State.
When laws have been enacted, what everything then hinges on is this. If the conquerors show more obedience to the laws than the conquered, the whole State will be full of security and happiness, and there will be an escape from all your troubles. But if they do not, then do not summon me or any other helper to aid you against those who do not obey the counsel I now give you. For this course is akin to that which Dion and I attempted to carry out with our hearts set on the welfare of Syracuse. It is indeed a second best course. The first and best was that scheme of welfare to all mankind which we attempted to carry out with the co-operation of Dionysios; but some chance, mightier than men, brought it to nothing. Do you now, with good fortune attending you and with Heaven’s help, try to bring your efforts to a happier issue.
Let this be the end of my advice and injunction and of the narrative of my first visit to Dionysios. Whoever wishes may next hear of my second journey and voyage, and learn that it was a reasonable and suitable proceeding. My first period of residence in Sicily was occupied in the way which I related before giving my advice to the relatives and friends of Dion. After those events I persuaded Dionysios by such arguments as I could to let me go; and we made an agreement as to what should be done when peace was made; for at that time there was a state of war in Sicily. Dionysios said that, when he had put the affairs of his empire in a position of greater safety for himself, he would send for Dion and me again; and he desired that Dion should regard what had befallen him not as an exile, but as a change of residence. I agreed to come again on these conditions.
When peace had been made, he began sending for me; he requested that Dion should wait for another year, but begged that I should by all means come. Dion now kept urging and entreating me to go. For persistent rumours came from Sicily that Dionysios was now once more possessed by an extraordinary desire for philosophy. For this reason Dion pressed me urgently not to decline his invitation. But though I was well aware that as regards philosophy such symptoms were not uncommon in young men, still it seemed to me safer at that time to part company altogether with Dion and Dionysios; and I offended both of them by replying that I was an old man, and that the steps now being taken were quite at variance with the previous agreement.
After this, it seems, Archytes came to the court of Dionysios. Before my departure I had brought him and his Tarentine circle into friendly relations with Dionysios. There were some others in Syracuse who had received some instruction from Dion, and others had learnt from these, getting their heads full of erroneous teaching on philosophical questions. These, it seems, were attempting to hold discussions with Dionysios on questions connected with such subjects, in the idea that he had been fully instructed in my views. Now is not at all devoid of natural gifts for learning, and he has a great craving for honour and glory. What was said probably pleased him, and he felt some shame when it became clear that he had not taken advantage of my teaching during my visit. For these reasons he conceived a desire for more definite instruction, and his love of glory was an additional incentive to him. The real reasons why he had learnt nothing during my previous visit have just been set forth in the preceding narrative. Accordingly, now that I was safe at home and had refused his second invitation, as I just now related, Dionysios seems to have felt all manner of anxiety lest certain people should suppose that I was unwilling to visit him again because I had formed a poor opinion of his natural gifts and character, and because, knowing as I did his manner of life, I disapproved of it.
It is right for me to speak the truth, and make no complaint if anyone, after hearing the facts, forms a poor opinion of my philosophy, and thinks that the tyrant was in the right. Dionysios now invited me for the third time, sending a trireme to ensure me comfort on the voyage; he sent also Archedemos-one of those who had spent some time with Archytes, and of whom he supposed that I had a higher opinion than of any of the Sicilian Greeks-and, with him, other men of repute in Sicily. These all brought the same report, that Dionysios had made progress in philosophy. He also sent a very long letter, knowing as he did my relations with Dion and Dion’s eagerness also that I should take ship and go to Syracuse. The letter was framed in its opening sentences to meet all these conditions, and the tenor of it was as follows: “Dionysios to Plato,” here followed the customary greeting and immediately after it he said, “If in compliance with our request you come now, in the first place, Dion’s affairs will be dealt with in whatever way you yourself desire; I know that you will desire what is reasonable, and I shall consent to it. But if not, none of Dion’s affairs will have results in accordance with your wishes, with regard either to Dion himself or to other matters.” This he said in these words; the rest it would be tedious and inopportune to quote. Other letters arrived from Archytes and the Tarentines, praising the philosophical studies of Dionysios and saying that, if I did not now come, I should cause a complete rupture in their friendship with Dionysios, which had been brought about by me and was of no small importance to their political interests.
When this invitation came to me at that time in such terms, and those who had come from Sicily and Italy were trying to drag me thither, while my friends at Athens were literally pushing me out with their urgent entreaties, it was the same old tale-that I must not betray Dion and my Tarentine friends and supporters. Also I myself had a lurking feeling that there was nothing surprising in the fact that a young man, quick to learn, hearing talk of the great truths of philosophy, should feel a craving for the higher life. I thought therefore that I must put the matter definitely to the test to see whether his desire was genuine or the reverse, and on no account leave such an impulse unaided nor make myself responsible for such a deep and real disgrace, if the reports brought by anyone were really true. So blindfolding myself with this reflection, I set out, with many fears and with no very favourable anticipations, as was natural enough. However, I went, and my action on this occasion at any rate was really a case of “the third to the Preserver,” for I had the good fortune to return safely; and for this I must, next to the God, thank Dionysios, because, though many wished to make an end of me, he prevented them and paid some proper respect to my situation.
On my arrival, I thought that first I must put to the test the question whether Dionysios had really been kindled with the fire of philosophy, or whether all the reports which had come to Athens were empty rumours. Now there is a way of putting such things to the test which is not to be despised and is well suited to monarchs, especially to those who have got their heads full of erroneous teaching, which immediately my arrival I found to be very much the case with Dionysios. One should show such men what philosophy is in all its extent; what their range of studies is by which it is approached, and how much labour it involves. For the man who has heard this, if he has the true philosophic spirit and that godlike temperament which makes him a kin to philosophy and worthy of it, thinks that he has been told of a marvellous road lying before him, that he must forthwith press on with all his strength, and that life is not worth living if he does anything else. After this he uses to the full his own powers and those of his guide in the path, and relaxes not his efforts, till he has either reached the end of the whole course of study or gained such power that he is not incapable of directing his steps without the aid of a guide. This is the spirit and these are the thoughts by which such a man guides his life, carrying out his work, whatever his occupation may be, but throughout it all ever cleaving to philosophy and to such rules of diet in his daily life as will give him inward sobriety and therewith quickness in learning, a good memory, and reasoning power; the kind of life which is opposed to this he consistently hates. Those who have not the true philosophic temper, but a mere surface colouring of opinions penetrating, like sunburn, only skin deep, when they see how great the range of studies is, how much labour is involved in it, and how necessary to the pursuit it is to have an orderly regulation of the daily life, come to the conclusion that the thing is difficult and impossible for them, and are actually incapable of carrying out the course of study; while some of them persuade themselves that they have sufficiently studied the whole matter and have no need of any further effort. This is the sure test and is the safest one to apply to those who live in luxury and are incapable of continuous effort; it ensures that such a man shall not throw the blame upon his teacher but on himself, because he cannot bring to the pursuit all the qualities necessary to it. Thus it came about that I said to Dionysios what I did say on that occasion.
I did not, however, give a complete exposition, nor did Dionysios ask for one. For he professed to know many, and those the most important, points, and to have a sufficient hold of them through instruction given by others. I hear also that he has since written about what he heard from me, composing what professes to be his own handbook, very different, so he says, from the doctrines which he heard from me; but of its contents I know nothing; I know indeed that others have written on the same subjects; but who they are, is more than they know themselves. Thus much at least, I can say about all writers, past or future, who say they know the things to which I devote myself, whether by hearing the teaching of me or of others, or by their own discoveries-that according to my view it is not possible for them to have any real skill in the matter. There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself. Yet this much I know-that if the things were written or put into words, it would be done best by me, and that, if they were written badly, I should be the person most pained. Again, if they had appeared to me to admit adequately of writing and exposition, what task in life could I have performed nobler than this, to write what is of great service to mankind and to bring the nature of things into the light for all to see? But I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic-except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves. As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty.
On this point I intend to speak a little more at length; for perhaps, when I have done so, things will be clearer with regard to my present subject. There is an argument which holds good against the man ventures to put anything whatever into writing on questions of this nature; it has often before been stated by me, and it seems suitable to the present occasion.
For everything that exists there are three instruments by which the knowledge of it is necessarily imparted; fourth, there is the knowledge itself, and, as fifth, we must count the thing itself which is known and truly exists. The first is the name, the, second the definition, the third. the image, and the fourth the knowledge. If you wish to learn what I mean, take these in the case of one instance, and so understand them in the case of all. A circle is a thing spoken of, and its name is that very word which we have just uttered. The second thing belonging to it is its definition, made up names and verbal forms. For that which has the name “round,” “annular,” or, “circle,” might be defined as that which has the distance from its circumference to its centre everywhere equal. Third, comes that which is drawn and rubbed out again, or turned on a lathe and broken up-none of which things can happen to the circle itself-to which the other things, mentioned have reference; for it is something of a different order from them. Fourth, comes knowledge, intelligence and right opinion about these things. Under this one head we must group everything which has its existence, not in words nor in bodily shapes, but in souls-from which it is dear that it is something different from the nature of the circle itself and from the three things mentioned before. Of these things intelligence comes closest in kinship and likeness to the fifth, and the others are farther distant.
The same applies to straight as well as to circular form, to colours, to the good, the, beautiful, the just, to all bodies whether manufactured or coming into being in the course of nature, to fire, water, and all such things, to every living being, to character in souls, and to all things done and suffered. For in the case of all these, no one, if he has not some how or other got hold of the four things first mentioned, can ever be completely a partaker of knowledge of the fifth. Further, on account of the weakness of language, these (i.e., the four) attempt to show what each thing is like, not less than what each thing is. For this reason no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language, especially not in language that is unchangeable, which is true of that which is set down in written characters.
Again you must learn the point which comes next. Every circle, of those which are by the act of man drawn or even turned on a lathe, is full of that which is opposite to the fifth thing. For everywhere it has contact with the straight. But the circle itself, we say, has nothing in either smaller or greater, of that which is its opposite. We say also that the name is not a thing of permanence for any of them, and that nothing prevents the things now called round from being called straight, and the straight things round; for those who make changes and call things by opposite names, nothing will be less permanent (than a name). Again with regard to the definition, if it is made up of names and verbal forms, the same remark holds that there is no sufficiently durable permanence in it. And there is no end to the instances of the ambiguity from which each of the four suffers; but the greatest of them is that which we mentioned a little earlier, that, whereas there are two things, that which has real being, and that which is only a quality, when the soul is seeking to know, not the quality, but the essence, each of the four, presenting to the soul by word and in act that which it is not seeking (i.e., the quality), a thing open to refutation by the senses, being merely the thing presented to the soul in each particular case whether by statement or the act of showing, fills, one may say, every man with puzzlement and perplexity.
Now in subjects in which, by reason of our defective education, we have not been accustomed even to search for the truth, but are satisfied with whatever images are presented to us, we are not held up to ridicule by one another, the questioned by questioners, who can pull to pieces and criticise the four things. But in subjects where we try to compel a man to give a clear answer about the fifth, any one of those who are capable of overthrowing an antagonist gets the better of us, and makes the man, who gives an exposition in speech or writing or in replies to questions, appear to most of his hearers to know nothing of the things on which he is attempting to write or speak; for they are sometimes not aware that it is not the mind of the writer or speaker which is proved to be at fault, but the defective nature of each of the four instruments. The process however of dealing with all of these, as the mind moves up and down to each in turn, does after much effort give birth in a well-constituted mind to knowledge of that which is well constituted. But if a man is ill-constituted by nature (as the state of the soul is naturally in the majority both in its capacity for learning and in what is called moral character)-or it may have become so by deterioration-not even Lynceus could endow such men with the power of sight.
In one word, the man who has no natural kinship with this matter cannot be made akin to it by quickness of learning or memory; for it cannot be engendered at all in natures which are foreign to it. Therefore, if men are not by nature kinship allied to justice and all other things that are honourable, though they may be good at learning and remembering other knowledge of various kinds-or if they have the kinship but are slow learners and have no memory-none of all these will ever learn to the full the truth about virtue and vice. For both must be learnt together; and together also must be learnt, by complete and long continued study, as I said at the beginning, the true and the false about all that has real being. After much effort, as names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense, are brought into contact and friction one with another, in the course of scrutiny and kindly testing by men who proceed by question and answer without ill will, with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem, and an intelligence whose efforts reach the furthest limits of human powers. Therefore every man of worth, when dealing with matters of worth, will be far from exposing them to ill feeling and misunderstanding among men by committing them to writing. In one word, then, it may be known from this that, if one sees written treatises composed by anyone, either the laws of a lawgiver, or in any other form whatever, these are not for that man the things of most worth, if he is a man of worth, but that his treasures are laid up in the fairest spot that he possesses. But if these things were worked at by him as things of real worth, and committed to writing, then surely, not gods, but men “have themselves bereft him of his wits.”
Anyone who has followed this discourse and digression will know well that, if Dionysios or anyone else, great or small, has written a treatise on the highest matters and the first principles of things, he has, so I say, neither heard nor learnt any sound teaching about the subject of his treatise; otherwise, he would have had the same reverence for it, which I have, and would have shrunk from putting it forth into a world of discord and uncomeliness. For he wrote it, not as an aid to memory-since there is no risk of forgetting it, if a man’s soul has once laid hold of it; for it is expressed in the shortest of statements-but if he wrote it at all, it was from a mean craving for honour, either putting it forth as his own invention, or to figure as a man possessed of culture, of which he was not worthy, if his heart was set on the credit of possessing it. If then Dionysios gained this culture from the one lesson which he had from me, we may perhaps grant him the possession of it, though how he acquired it-God wot, as the Theban says; for I gave him the teaching, which I have described, on that one occasion and never again.