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Plato Avant la Lettre: Authenticity in Plato's Epistles

  • Victoria Wohl (a1)


Plato's Epistles are among the most disputed texts of antiquity. Were they written by Plato? Some of them? all? none? Answers have varied wildly: at times all thirteen have been declared forgeries, alien to the thought and character of the Plato we know from the dialogues; at other times, the whole set has been accepted as a genuine, if unexpected, revelation of the life and preoccupations of Plato as a man. Since this debate has so far proved intractable, I would like to take a different approach to the question. The Epistles themselves raise obsessively the question of authenticity. If, laying aside all issues of provenance for the time being, we read the thirteen letters as a corpus (whether by Plato or someone else), what emerges from this philosophical ‘text’ is the impossibility of an authentic written philosophy and of an authoritative self-present philosopher.



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1. For various opinions on the letters’ authenticity, see Morrow, G.R., Plato’s Epistles (Indianapolis 1962), 3–16; Souilhé, J. (ed.), Platon: Œuvres Complétes, Tome XIII (Paris 1949), v–xvi; Guthrie, W.K.C., A History of Greek Philosophy Vol. V (Cambridge 1978), 399–401; Friedländer, P., Platon. Vol. I (Berlin 1964), 249f.; Bluck, R.S. (ed.), Plato’s Seventh and Eighth Letters (Cambridge 1947), 181; Harward, J., The Platonic Epistles (New York 1976; orig. publ. 1932), 59–78. Epistles were included in the collections of Platonic texts collated by Aristophanes of Byzantium (in the third century BCE) and by Thrasyllus (in the first century CE); the latter consisted of thirteen letters which seem to have been the ones we know today (DL 3.61). Although considered authentic in antiquity (and up until about the fifth century CE), by the nineteenth century the Epistles were almost universally rejected. Today at least the Seventh and Eighth are usually accepted as genuine, and often the whole set (with the exception of One and Twelve): see Ritter, C., Neue Untersuchungen über Platon (Munich 1910), 327–424; Adam, R.Über die Platonischen Briefe’, AGPh 23 (1910), 29–52; Raeder, H., ‘Über die Echtheit der Platonischen Briefe’, RhM 61 (1906), 427–71, 511–42; von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U., Platon Vol. III (Berlin 1919), 278–305; Friedländer op. cit., 249–59; Pasquali, G., Le Lettere di Platone (Florence 1938); Maddalena, A., Platone Lettere (Bari 1948); Gulley, N., ‘The Authenticity of the Platonic Epistles’, in K. von Fritz (ed.), Pseudepigrapha I (Geneva 1972) 103–30; G.J.D. Aalders, ‘Political Thought and Political Programs in the Platonic Epistles’, in ibid., 145–75. The criteria for evaluation are still largely subjective, however, and even recent statistical analyses have failed to offer a definitive solution to the problem: see Ledger, G., Re-counting Plato: A Computer Analysis of Plato’s Style (Oxford 1989), 78f., 148–53; Keyser, P., ‘Stylometric Method and the Chronology of Plato’s Works’ (review of L. Brandwood, The Chronology of Plato’s Dialogues), BMCR 2 (1992), 58–74..

2. This approach involves hazards, as the letters were clearly not all written by the same hand or at the same period. What unites them, however, and justifies reading them (at least provisionally) together is their attribution to Plato: to their authors, these words seemed like the sort of thing Plato might have written.

3. For convenience’s sake, I will call both the author and the protagonist of these letters ‘Plato’, but that proper-name must always be left in suspension as it is precisely the possibility of such a biography that is in question here.

4. On the metaphysics of presence, see Derrida, J., Of Grammatology, tr. G. Spivak (Baltimore 1974), 6–93. He examines the link between speech, presence and subjectivity (and their inverse, writing, non-presence, death) as the foundation of Western philosophy. The question addressed here—presence and authenticity in Plato’s Epistles—is a project that Derrida planned but never wrote (The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, tr. A. Bass [Chicago 1987], 83)—or rather, wrote only in letters (see ‘Envois’, ibid. 3–256).

5. On the pharmakon as supplement in Plato’s Phaedrus, see Derrida, , ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, in Dissemination, tr. B. Johnson (Chicago 1981), 70, 95–117. The notion of the supplement is developed most fully in Derrida (n.4 above Grammatology), e.g. 144f.

6. In Letter 7, Plato accedes to Dionysius’ enthusiastic summons because he is ‘ashamed of himself lest he should seem to be only a man of words and one who never willingly engages in any action’ (328c; cf. Plutarch, Life of Dion 11.3). The tyrant supplements the philosopher’s inactivity and simultaneously emphasises his humiliation.

7. On strangury, see Aëtius Med. 11.19.3 (, ‘it is called strangury when urine is passed briefly and in drips, and it constantly brings irritation to urination’); Alex. Probl. 3.22.6; Ar. Vesp. 810, Thesm. 616; PI. Leg. 916a5; Galen In Hipp. 17a, p.137, 495f. (Kuehn); Aëtius Med. 5.137.48, 6.13.98, 11.19 passim.

8. The commentators make this point with suspicious vehemence: see Souilhé (n.1 above, xcvi, ‘sans doute’), Novotny, F., Platonis Epistulae Commentariis lllustratae (Brno 1930), ad loc. (‘sine dubio’) and Morrow (n.1 above ad loc, ‘of course’).

9. Strangury is technically a problem of the penis in its excretory and not its reproductive capacity. We might tie this disease to the problems of literary dissemination in the letters—the spreading abroad of things that should be kept secret, the blockage of philosophical communication imposed by the epistolary form, etc. We need not read the medical diagnosis so literally, however, to see that it compromises the phallus as a symbolic organ, and thus functions as a metaphorical castration. Compare Lacan’s argument that it is precisely castration that transforms the (anatomical) penis into the (symbolic) phallus and the father into the Name of the Father (Lacan, J., Écrits, tr. A. Sheridan [New York 1977], 67, 199, 217–19).

10. There is nothing in extant Hesiod that corresponds to this passage: a derivation from a lost—or even non-existent—original.

11. Cf. the charge in Letter 3 that Plato’s advice had prevented Dionysius from transforming his tyranny into a kingship; Plato there seems to be implicated in the preservation of tyranny. If the tyrant is at base a fiction necessitated by the failures of a philosophical writing, then there is no need to agonise, as some have, over the real identity of the addressees of these letters and whether (assuming that they were genuine) they were actually intended for real historical figures or as open philosophical letters.

12. I am not concerned here with Plato’s views on monarchy nor with Plato’s actual relations with the various tyrants he addresses or discusses in the letters. Instead, I am interested in the tyrant as a literary character, a fantasy generated by the philosophical epistles. From this perspective, the distinction between the ‘good’ tyrant Dion and the ‘bad’ tyrant Dionysius—important though it was in historical terms—becomes much less marked than it may seem on the surface. As we shall see, both rulers evoke (though in different degrees and with different valences) the same dynamics in relation to the philosopher.

13. Benoist, J.-M., Tyrannie du Logos (Paris 1975), explores this alterity in his interesting study of the Gorgias. See also Farenga, V., ‘The Paradigmatic Tyrant: Greek Tyranny and the Ideology of the Proper’, Helios 8.1 (1981), 1–31; Bushnell, R., Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance (Ithaca 1990), 9–17.

14. Benoist (n.13 above, 24f.) calls this equation ‘ligne de faîte du propre’: , and .

15. This dichotomy is difficult to maintain, however. Consider in Letter 7 the difficulty Plato has in discussing Dion’s behaviour in the civil war and in acquitting him of a guilt that would make him indistinguishable from Dionysius (351a2–e2). Souilhi (n.1 above, 64 n.1) characterises the passage as ‘nerveuse, très condensée et même un peu chaotique’ and indeed, it does have the air of special pleading. Cf. Plutarch’s Life of Dion, which is as much a life of Dionysius, as if the two—good tyrant and bad—could not be thought of separately.

16. Compare 321cl–2: . Cf. Plato Rep. 578e.

17. Virtually all the instances of the word listed in LSJ are pejorative. On the melancholia of philosophy see Diogenes Laertius 3.28, 3.40; Arist. Probl. 953a27; Pl. Phaedo 89d, e.

18. S is also the barred signified, divided from the signifier and inaccessible through language. The overlap between signifier-barred and subject-barred will become important when we look at Plato’s Seventh Letter.

19. Lacan distinguishes between autre (the imaginary imago, the ego, object petit a) and Autre (the Other, a site of certitude associated with the Phallus, the Signified, and God). See J. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II, tr. S. Tomaselli, ed. Miller, J.-A. (New York 1978), 235–47, 320–26.

20. Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A.V. Miller (Oxford 1977), 111: self-consciousness must supersede the other, but ‘in so doing it proceeds to supersede its own self, for this other is itself’.

21. Cf. Hdt. 1.96 and the excessive denial of desire at Archil. 19W. Plato draws on this theme when, in Letter 8, he describes the lust that drives people to seek rule (354c3–d5). On Eros as a tyrant, see Archil. 23.19–21W; Eur fr. 136N, Hipp. 538–44; PI. Rep. 573b6–7 with an aitiology at 572e4–73b4, 573d4, 574d–75a.

22. Both Nepos and Plutarch seem to draw upon the Epistles in their biographies of Dion. See Morrow (n.1 above), 18–21, 26–32.

23. Compare the epitaph on Dion attributed to Plato (DL 3.30), which ends with the apostrophe: (‘O Dion, who drove my heart mad with love’).

24. .

25. Plutarch seems to have this passage in mind at 16.2: he follows the sense of the passage quite closely, only changing ἀσπάζεται to ἠράσθη throughout.

26. Gunderson, E., ‘Catullus, Pliny, and Love-Letters’, TAPA 127 (1997), 201–31, analyses the dynamics of homoerotics in Catullus 50 and the letters of Pliny: he argues that desire is the basic mode, not only of the letter, but of literary production and consumption in general. In the interplay of self and other they enact, he argues, all letters are love-letters. Cf. Svenbro, J., Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece (Ithaca 1993), 187–216, who suggests an analogy between ἐραστής and ἐρώμεvoς (‘lover’ and ‘beloved’) and writer and reader. On the mediation of male homosocial desire, see Sedgwick, E., Between Men (New York 1985).

27. See, e.g., 359c, where Plato is ‘wonderfully pleased’ () and ‘rejoices’ () to receive Archytas’ letter. Compare Plato’s advice at 321b7, that Dion win his way by gratifying others ().

28. Both figs and myrtle berries are slang expressions for female genitalia. Figs: Hipponax 124; Ar. Ach. 802ff; Henderson, J., The Maculate Muse (Oxford 1991; orig. publ. 1975), 22, 118, 134. Myrtle berries: Hipponax 174; Ar. Lys.1004; PI. Com. 174.14; Henderson op. cit. 20,134f.

29. Only Novotny (n.8 above, ad 310d6) remarks upon the sexual connotations of this phrase: ‘proprie de amantis cupiditate…’.

30. PI. Symp. 191c2–6. Cf., e.g., Soranus 1.31, 1.36, 2.44. It is also used of wrestling, another erotic metaphor, and of philosophical dialectic: see the extended weaving analogy at Plato Politicus 279c7ff.

31. For ancient criticism of Plato on these grounds, see Morrow (n.1 above), 47. There is a story that Dionysius, angered by something Plato said, had the philosopher put on sale in the slave markets. His friends apparently joined together and bought him. See Diodorus 15.7; cf. Plut. Dion 4.5; DL 3.20.

32. See, e.g., Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book I, tr. J. Forrester, ed. J.-A. Miller (New York 1975), 146–48, 170–72, 176–79.

33. Thus he conflates Freud’s four types of narcissistic love: (a) what he himself is; (b) what he once was; (c) what he would like to be; (d) someone who was once part of himself. See Freud, S., ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’, in General Psychological Theory, tr. J. Strachey (New York 1963; orig. publ. 1914), 56–82, at 71.

34. Narcissism is the love for the other within the self; conversely, love for the other is always narcissistic. See Freud (n.33 above), 74–76; Lacan (n.32 above), 107–42; Lacan (n.19 above), 94–97,166.

35. Phaedrus 274c–78b is the locus classicui. Ferrari, G.R.F., Listening to the Cicadas: A Study of Plato’s Phaedrus (Cambridge 1987), 204–22, discusses the Phaedrus’ devaluation of writing, and concludes that ‘none of this implies that philosophy should not be written; only that it should not be written (nor read) without awareness of the dangers of writing, together with the sense that what ultimately matters is neither writing nor speaking, but the way of life in which they can find a worthy place.’ As in Epistle 2, the problems associated with writing are resolved by an appeal to the living presence of the philosophical subject. On Plato and writing, see further Hershbell, J.P., ‘Reflections on the Orality and Literacy of Plato’s Dialogues’, in F.J. Gonzalez (ed.), The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies (London 1995), 25–40; E.J.M. West, ‘Plato’s Audiences, or How Plato Replies to the Fifth-Century Intellectual Mistrust of Letters’, ibid., 41–60; J. Waugh, ‘Neither Published Nor Perished: The Dialogues as Speech, Not Text’, ibid., 61–80; Edelstein, L., ‘Platonic Anonymity’, AJP 83 (1962), 1–22, and Plato’s Seventh Letter (Leiden 1966), 76–85; Havelock, E.A., ‘The Orality of Socrates and the Literacy of Plato: With Some Reflections on the Historical Origins of Moral Philosophy in Europe’, in E. Kelly (ed.), New Essays on Socrates (New York 1984), 67–93; Halperin, D., ‘Plato and the Erotics of Narrativity’, in J.C. Klagge and N.D. Smith (eds.), Methods of Interpreting Plato and his Dialogues Oxford 1992), 93–129; and the bibliography in Gonzalez op. cit.. On writing and the ‘death’ of speech and presence, see Derrida (n.4 above Grammatology), 25: ‘What writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life.’

36. Hdt. 100.1; Steiner, D., The Tyrant’s Writ: Myths and Images of Writing in Ancient Greece (Princeton 1994), 130–32; Foucault, M., Discipline and Punish, tr. Sheridan, A. (New York 1979), 189.

37. See 344d6–8: Dionysius has written about the secret doctrine, but doesn’t understand it; Plato understands it, but does not write about it. I will return to this problem below.

38. The letters’ rejection of writing is often taken as the starting point for a theory of an esoteric or unwritten Platonic philosophy: see the discussion by von Fritz, K., ‘The Philosophical Passage in the Seventh Platonic Letter and the Problem of Plato’s “Esoteric” Philosophy’, in J.P. Anton and G.L. Kustas (eds.), Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy (Albany 1971), 408–47. Others take these passages as a reflection on the dialogue form: Merlan, P., ‘Form and Content in Plato’s Philosophy’, JHI 8 (1947), 406–30; Brumbaugh, R.S., ‘Digression and Dialogue: The Seventh Letter and Plato’s Literary Form’, in C. Griswold (ed.), Platonic Writings, Platonic Readings (New York 1988), 84–92; K.M. Sayre, ‘Plato’s Dialogues in Light of the Seventh Letter’, ibid., 93–109; Waugh (n.35 above).

39. The movement of money symbolises relations between philosopher and tyrant also at the end of Letter 1 (309c, 310a) and throughout 13 (361b–362e).

40. (‘indeed I must address you in riddles, so that if the tablet should come to grief in the folds of sea or earth, he who reads it will not understand it’, 312d7–9). The αἰvίγματα (‘riddles’) that are here necessitated by the insecurity of the letter-form are in Letter 7 required by the dangers of writing for a tyrant: (‘speaking not openly as I am now—for that would not have been safe— but cryptically’, 332d6–7). Both tyrant and epistle impose dangerous limitations on philosophy.

41. Compare Letter 13, which requires σύμβoλα to ensure the truth of its authorship and seriousness (360al–2, 363bl–6). That letter, too, is accompanied. Plato sends Dionysius some Pythagorean writings and a man, Helicon. The letter asserts and reasserts its own authenticity, but as for the man, Plato urges Dionysius to investigate his character as carefully as he himself has done (360b7–c2). In this case, the man is less trustworthy than the letter. Derrida calls such figures ‘facteurs de la vérité’ (postman/factor of the truth), where it is the deliverability of the truth that is in doubt (n.4 above Post Card, 95).

42. Terms of speaking and listening abound in the opening paragraph of the letter: ἤκoυσα (‘I heard’, 310b4); (‘keep quiet’, 310b5); λέγειv (‘speak’, 310b6); λóγoς (‘discourse’, 310cl); φημί (‘I say’, 310c5); λóγῳ (‘discourse’, 310c6); λέγω (‘I speak’, 310c6); εἰρηκóτωv (‘having said’, 310c7); φησἰ (‘they say’, 310c7); λέγειv (‘speak’, 310dl); ἄκoυoι (‘he heard’, 310dl); ἀκoύει (‘he hears’, 310d3); ἤκoυσα (‘I heard’, 310d3); λέγη (‘one says’, 310d4); ἐρέσθαι (‘ask’, 310d5); λέγειv (‘speak’, 310d6).

43. Farness, J., Missing Socrates: Problems of Plato’s Writing (University Park PA 1991), who also reads the problem of Platonic writing and Socratic presence through Derrida, raises the possibility ‘that Plato’s literary project is open to these consequences, that this project can accept or handle such fortuitous effects. Perhaps the second epistle is a kind of joke of Plato, not a joke on Plato. In this view, as has not been at all widely urged, Plato’s subtle letters can be thought to frame or outflank Derrida’s critique with a Platonic textuality, a Platonic problematic of writing faced with Socrates’ (16). The letters seem to me to support Farness’s conclusions about the ‘Derrideanism of Plato’ (171–96). Halperin (n.35 above) views Plato similarly as ‘a kind of deconstructiońist avant la lettre, a cunning writer fully alive to the doubleness of his rhetoric who embraces différance and who actively courts in his writing an effect of undecidability’ (118).

44. For various interpretation of this vexed passage, see Guthrie (n.1 above), 402–17; Bröcker, W., ‘Der philosophische Exkurs in Platons siebentem Brief’, Hermes 91 (1963), 416–25; von Fritz (n.38 above); Sayre (n.38 above); Edelstein (n.35 above Seventh), 76–85; Taylor, A.E., ‘The Analysis of EΠIΣTHMH in Plato’s Seventh Epistle’, Mind 21 (1912), 353–70.

45. This is how I take this enigmatic and compressed phrase. Morrow (n.1 above ad loc.), Bluck (n.1 above ad loc.), and Post, L.A., Thirteen Epistles of Plato (Oxford 1925), 152 n.43, understand it in the way I do, while Souilheé translates ‘ils ne pourraient dire eux-mêmes’, and discusses some other, more elaborate interpretations (n.1 above, 50f. n.1). See also Wilamowitz (n.1 above), 292 and n.2; Novotny (n.8 above), ad loc.

46. Lacan (n.19 above), 244, 248, 254–57, 323–26.

47. Indeed, the letter is often accepted as authentic on the basis of its biographical verisimilitude. Morrow (n.1 above, 57), for example, speaks of the ‘unity of feeling that pervades the whole composition….Such a unity of feeling and of situation, sustained for so extended a composition, is more convincing evidence that it comes from Plato than would be the more superficial unity that any student of rhetoric could have produced.’ Compare Guthrie (n.1 above), 403 (‘nothing less than a short apologia for his whole life and thought’); Harward (n.1 above), 72 (‘one of the most remarkable pieces of self-revelation to be found in ancient literature: as a psychological study it stands almost alone’). But see also Edelstein (n.35 above ‘Anonymity’) on Plato’s preference for anonymity (cf. id. [n.35 above Seventh]: he rejects the authenticity of Letter 7).

48. On the mutual implication of Plato’s autobiography and the authenticity of the Letters, see, e.g., Friedländer (n.1 above), 251–54; Ritter (n.1 above), 328: ‘Wird auch die Beurteilung des persönlichen Charakters Platons sehr stark betroffen durch die Entscheidung für odor wider die Echtheit der ihm zugeschriebenen Briefe.’ Compare the assumptions behind two of Morrow’s (n.1 above, 15f.) criteria for authenticity: ‘Are the feelings the letter expresses those that the supposed writer would naturally feel under the circumstances? Are they expressed with sincerity?…Lastly, are the traits of character expressed in the letter consistent with what we otherwise know of the character of the author?’

49. Derrida (n.4 above Post Card), 320–37. See also his ‘Envois’ (ibid. 3–256), where the letters are pseudo-autobiographical, autobiography in an always encrypted, lacunate and potentially spurious form. As Derrida’s own game of fort-da, the ‘Envois’ entangle his own life (whether real or literary fiction—he never lets on) with his thinking on Socrates and Plato. ‘I could recount all this to you,’ he says to his interlocutor-lover of his research on Plato’s Epistles, ‘but it is difficult in a letter. It would be as long as the seventh, the longest and most famous one’ (83).

50. Thus the epistle exacerbates the paradox of autobiography, that the subject of the narrative is also its object. Gunderson (n.26 above), building from a reading of fort-da (especially in its Lacanian and Derridian incarnations), explores the intersection of self-production, writing and desire in Latin epistolography.

51. Derrida (n.4 above Post Card), 354f..

52. Cf. 314cl–2: (‘for it is impossible for what is written down not to get out’). ἐκπεσεîv can also mean to digress, deteriorate. In Letter 4 (320d), all men except the tyrant—including Plato—must wander in order to become known. Compare to the wandering of Plato the fixity of Socrates, who never left Athens (Crito 52b). Writing itself is said to wander at Phaedrus 275e. Brumbaugh (n.38 above) points to the importance of digression in the Platonic method.

53. See, e.g., Lacan, , The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, tr. A. Sheridan (New York 1973), 139f.; Lacan (n.32 above), 194f., 228, 263.

54. On the displacement of origin in Plato, see Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, tr. G. Gill (Ithaca 1974), 243–364; Benoist (n.13 above), 30–37. Novotny (n.8 above, ad 314c2) displaces the origin even further in his reading of this passage: he prefers to take this as a reference to another Socrates (not the famous Socrates) rather than to accept either a Socrates who writes or a Plato who lies (or a spurious letter).

55. Ep. 2 is one of the most disputed. The problem is that it contains both passages that scholars would like to dismiss (the statement that Plato has never written) and passages that they would like to accept (the presence of Socrates behind the Platonic text). On the former, see Post (n.45 above), who reasons that the letter must be authentic so that we may dismiss its critical passage as merely ‘the emphasis and exaggeration in such a human document as this letter’ (143). On the latter, Navia, L., The Socratic Presence (New York 1993), 133, lays out the stakes: ‘If the authenticity of the second letter could be taken for granted, and if we could entirely trust Plato’s integrity…we would be compelled to say that the Socrates who speaks in the dialogues is, after all, the image of the historical Socrates.’ See further Morrow (n.1 above), 109–18; Souilhé (n.1 above), lxxix–lxxxii; R.S. Bluck, ‘The Second Platonic Epistle’, Phronesis 5 (1960), 140–51; Raeder (n.1 above), 537; Edelstein (n.35 above ‘Anonymity’), 5 and n.15; Harward (n.1 above), 164–66; Friedländer (n.1 above), 254–56; and Wilamowitz’s (n.1 above) condemnation (the Socrates passage is ‘Tollheit’, madness, and ‘Ganz kindisch ist…die Unechtheit dieser Stück bedarf keines Beweises mehr’, 280).

56. Derrida (n.4 above Post Card), 413–96. For attempts to distinguish Platonic philosophy from Socratic, see, e.g., Kahn, C., ‘Did Plato write Socratic Dialogues?’, CQ 31 (1981), 305–20; Vlastos, G., ‘Introduction: The Paradox of Socrates’, in The Philosophy of Socrates (Notre Dame 1971), 1–21.

57. The construction is peculiar, probably refers to the texts of Plato— ‘those now said (to be written by Plato)’—predicated by the genitive of possession or origin, Σωκράτoυς: this is how Souilhé (n.1 above, 11) takes it (‘ce qu’à présent I’on désigne sous ce nom est de Socrate’). But as one reads (and this is a text to be read, after all), the λεβóμεvα of Socrates logically seem parallel to the σύγγραμμα of Plato. The fact that the construction does not grammatically support such a dichotomy begs the question of Socrates’ actual relation to the written/spoken () words of Plato. The genitive (Σωκράτoυς) shows derivation but fails to specify its nature. Farness (n.43 above, 47f.) points out the paradoxical ‘writerly’ quality of Socrates’ speech. He associates ‘the missing Socrates’ with différance and the problematic of writing (e.g., 48–53).

58. Cf. 313a5, where the question about the nature of the principles gives rise to birth pains (ὠδίς) in the soul.

59. Derrida (n. 5 above), 77: ‘The origin of logos is its father. One could say anachronously that the “speaking subject” is the father of his speech…. Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without the present attendance of his father…. Without his father, he would be nothing but, in fact, writing…. The specificity of writing would thus be intimately bound to the absence of the father.’ That is precisely the dynamic we saw in Letter 11, where the father’s debility called forth the letter.

60. Cf. Derrida (n.5 above), 77, 146–55, 164, on writing as parricide; contra, Svenbro (n.26 above), 212–16.

61. It is this entangled relation between Plato and Socrates that Derrida is exploring in his musings throughout ‘Envois’ on the postcard image of the medieval illustration Prognostica Socratis Basilei (reproduced in Derrida [n.4 above Post Card], 251). The drawing shows Plato (identified as ‘plato’) standing behind Socrates as he sits, quill in hand, at a writing board. Leaning over his shoulder, plato seems to be directing Socrates, speaking the words that he writes. This image reverses the fantasy of Letter 7: the Prognostica implies that behind the Socratic word lies the Platonic letter, while the Seventh Epistle fondly dreams that behind the Platonic letter lies the Socratic word. Derrida’s interest in the image is the inseparability of these two different genealogies, so that Plato becomes the father of his father, and the letter-writer before the letter. (He also reads an erotics, an agonism and an economics in the scene). This reverse genealogy, or origin en abîme, Derrida argues, radically disrupts the Western philosophical tradition, which traces its lineage back to this original paternity, Socrates-Plato (ibid. 20,28, 52).

62. The salutation, , is problematic in and of itself. The phrase means ‘prosper’, ‘fare well’, a generic greeting, but also bears the more specific meaning of ‘do the right thing’, ‘be just’. If you are a philosopher and a student of Plato, these meanings should converge: to act well is to act justly and to prosper. But Dionysius has shown himself to be a less than dedicated student, and thus the salutation, when addressed to him, cannot unite the two senses. Dionysius might ‘fare well’, but he often fails to ‘act well’. Plato himself raises this problem in the address to Letter 3: ‘Plato to Dionysius: joyful greeting [χαίρειv]. Writing this, have I hit upon the best address? Or is it better to stick to my custom and write “fare well” [], as I usually address my friends in letters?’ (315a6–b3).

63. See Morrow’s revealing protest (n.1 above, 269 n.24): ‘The admonition to preserve this letter, or an abstract of it, is no reason for suspecting its genuineness.’ Guthrie’s informal poll (n.1 above, 401) shows opinion almost equally divided on this letter, fourteen scholars supporting it, and fifteen rejecting it.

64. seems to be the reading of A and O; a later hand on O probably removed the ὁ, followed by Z and V.

65. See, for example, von Fritz (n.38 above, 409): ‘The most urgent task is obviously to “come to the help” of the “logos” of the Seventh Letter.’ Thus he puts himself in the position of fatherspeech rescuing the orphaned son-writing (as in the Phaedrus). Cf. Harward (n.1 above), 77f.

66. Souilhd (n.1 above), lxxiii. Cf. Ledger (n.1 above), 78: ‘The personal revelations of the thirteenth…are difficult to reconcile with [scholars’] concept of a character adapted only to the rarefied atmosphere of philosophical debate’; Morrow (n.1 above), 100–09 (‘Those who find this picture unworthy of Plato do so…because they maintain that it represents Plato as a beggar and a sycophant…’, 103). Harward (n.1 above, 232) quotes some other expressions of condemnation.

67. For the arguments for and against the acceptance of this letter (and especially its epistemological digression) on philosophical grounds, see Ledger (n.1 above), 75–77; Guthrie (n.1 above), 412 n.1; Taylor (n.44 above); Wilamowitz (n.1 above), 293–98; Morrow (n.1 above), 60–81; Ritter (n.1 above), 404, 423; Bröcker (n.44 above); von Fritz (n.38 above); Sayre (n.38 above); Edelstein (n.35 above Seventh), 70–121.

68. I would like to thank Erik Gunderson, Allan Silverman, Sarah Johnston and Thomas Johansen for their helpful comments on this paper.


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