First Letter (Plato)
The First Letter of Plato, also called Epistle I or Letter I, is an epistle that tradition has ascribed to Plato, though it is almost universally considered a forgery. In the Stephanus pagination, it spans III. 309a–310b.
The letter purports to have been written to Dionysius the Younger, the tyrant of Syracuse who was introduced to Plato by his uncle Dion in the hopes of turning him to philosophy. It complains of Dionysius' ingratitude for having rudely dismissed Plato after having received such great service from him in the administration of his government and returns the sum which he had provided for travelling expenses as insultingly insufficient. The letter concludes with a number of quotations from tragic poets suggesting that Dionysius will die alone and friendless.
Of the thirteen Epistles tradition ascribes to Plato, the First Letter is the only one whose authenticity has not had a significant defender in modern times. R. G. Bury notes that, contrary to the letter's suggestion, Plato never kept watch over Syracuse as a dictator (αυτοκράτωρ), and the account given in this letter of Plato's abrupt dismissal contradicts that given in the Seventh Letter, which has a far greater claim to authenticity. It is consequently valued mostly for preserving the tragic quotations which are hurled at Dionysius.
PLATO TO DIONYSIUS, WELFARE.
During all the time that I was with you administering your empire and enjoying your confidence above all others, you got the benefits and I the slanders. But I endured them, grievous as they were, because I knew that men would not think me a willing accomplice in any of your more barbarous acts. For all who are associated with you in your government are my witnesses, many of whom I myself have defended and saved from no little injury. And although I have held the highest authority and have protected your city on numerous occasions, you have deported me with less consideration than you ought to show in sending away a beggar who had been with you for the same length of time. I shall therefore in the future consult my own interests with less trust in mankind, and you, tyrant that you are, will live without friends.
The bearer of this letter, Bacchius, is bringing you the pretty gold that you gave for my departure. It was not enough for my traveling expenses, nor could I use it for any other need. The offer of it did you great dishonor, and its acceptance would do me almost as much, therefore I refuse it. No doubt it makes little difference to you whether you get or give such a trifle as this, so take it back and use it to serve some other friend as you have served me; I have had enough of your attentions.
A line of Euripides comes appropriately to my mind: "Thou'lt pray for such a helper at thy side." Let me remind you also that most of the other tragic poets, when they bring in a tyrant who is being assassinated, make him cry out: "O wretched me! for lack of friends I die." But no one has ever portrayed him as dying for lack of money. And these other lines, too, make sense to sensible men:
It is not gold, though a shining rarity in mortals' hopeless life,
Nor gems, nor silver couches, that brighten the eyes of men,
Nor broad and self-sufficient fields laden with the harvest,
But the approving thought of upright men.
Farewell. May you realize how much you have lost in me and so conduct yourself better toward others.— First Letter, traditionally attributed to Plato
- Bury, R. G., ed. (1942) Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Hamilton, Edith and Cairns, Huntington, ed. (1961 ) The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton: Princeton University Press.