When Plato set sail for Syracuse in 368 BC or so, he was, by his own report, of very mixed mind. He had visited that city once before when it was still ruled by the fearsome tyrant Dionysius the Elder, and the voluptuousness of Sicilian life did not appeal to him. How, he wondered, could young men learn to be moderate and just in a place where “happiness was held to consist in filling oneself full twice a day and never sleeping alone at night”? Such a city could never hope to escape the endless cycle of despotism and revolution.
So why return? As it happened, Plato did have a disciple in Sicily, whose soil was not as unforgiving as he had expected. A nobleman named Dion, who as a young man became devoted to Plato and the cause of philosophy, had just written him a letter reporting that Dionysius the Elder was dead and that his son, Dionysius the Younger, had taken command. Dion was both friend and brother-in-law to the younger Dionysius, and was convinced that the new ruler was open to philosophy and wished to be just. All he needed, in Dion’s view, was to receive good instruction, which must come from Plato’s own lips. He pleaded with his old teacher to visit, and Plato, overcoming serious misgivings, eventually set sail.
It is an old myth about Plato that he was the proponent of a mad scheme to institute the rule of “philosopher-kings” in Greek cities, and that his “Sicilian adventure” was a first step toward realizing his ambition. When Martin Heidegger returned to teaching in 1934 after his shameful tenure as Nazi rector of Freiburg University, a now forgotten colleague, meaning to heap more shame on his head, quipped, “Back from Syracuse?” As a bon mot this can hardly be bettered. But Plato’s aims could not have been more different from Heidegger’s. As Plato recounts in his Seventh Letter, he once dreamed of entering political life but was disheartened by the tyrannical rule of the Thirty in Athens (404–403 BC). He then renounced politics altogether when the democratic regime that succeeded the Thirty put to death his friend and teacher Socrates. He concluded, much as the character Socrates concludes in Plato’s Republic, that once a political regime is corrupt there is little one can do to restore it to health “without friends and associates”—that is, without those who are both philosophical friends of justice and loyal friends of the city. Short of a miracle, in which philosophers would become kings or kings would turn to philosophy, the most that can be hoped for in politics is the establishment of a moderate government under the stable rule of law.
Dion, however, was a spirited man on the lookout for miracles. He convinced himself, and then tried to convince Plato, that Dionysius could be that rare thing, a philosophical ruler. Plato had his doubts; though he trusted Dion’s character he …