The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Wrestler and international political troubleshooter
the strange and disputed story that he was enslaved while at sea, then ransomed, Waterfield offers various intriguing hypotheses about if, or in what way, it’s true.
His account of Plato’s later years is more circumstantial. Relying on the authenticity of Letter 7, he gives a detailed account of Plato’s time at the court of the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius II. His reluctant visits to Syracuse were, declares Waterfield, in aid of fulfilling his philosophical duty. The Academy was “a kind of consultancy” that dispatched “international political trouble-shooters” to neighbouring states. Waterfield supports this original idea by citing peripatetic Academicians who did, perhaps, promote better government abroad.
He invokes, too, allegory of “the human condition”: imprisonment among flickering shadows and distorted sounds in an underground cave, from which one prisoner breaks free, staggering up into the light. “Socrates” urges that this freed philosopher should not linger to philosophise on “fixed and immutable realities”, but return to the illusory social world for at least five years. Philosophers must “participate in the hard work of politics”; “our job as lawgivers” is to teach the prisoners of illusion how they too can reach “knowledge of the good”.
According to Waterfield, Plato wrote the dialogues to stimulate debate. Rather than promoting an orthodoxy, he was encouraging his students to disagree with him. “An idea, a thesis, a piece of doctrine,”
Waterfield writes, “is not owned by readers of a dialogue – it remains an idea of Plato’s alone – until they have argued it through for themselves.” Yet for him to assert that “there was no ‘party line’” hardly tallies with the incessant deference to “Socrates”. If, as he says, the dialogues provide few clues to Plato’s character, then surely he misses several: they’re pervaded by authoritarian elitism, and reason is exalted at the cost of depreciating the physical. Plato of Athens is erudite and fascinating, and realises its aim of showing that his works were magnificent, that “Plato invented philosophy” not as a body of doctrine but an open-ended and insatiable quest. But Plato the man eludes it – perhaps inevitably.