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1. Introduction: Plato’s Philosophy of Friendship

The archetype of friendship is an underlying element of much of the Platonic corpus. In this essay, we see how a source other than the dialogues can be informative about Plato’s philosophy of friendship–the epistles. Despite many of the letters’ philosophical content, much of the modern discussion about Plato’s thirteen surviving epistles remains centered on their dubious authenticity. Generally, the only ones which are widely suspected to be real are the sixth and seventh. Based on the letters, the aims of this essay are the following: firstly, to analyse references to friendship in them; secondly, to argue about the connection of wisdom and friendship in Plato’s philosophy of friendship; and thirdly, to articulate the requirements and non-essentials of amity according to Plato’s perspective.

While Plato formulates his views on friendship (or philia: φιλία) more explicitly in his dialogues like The Symposium and Lysis through the character of Socrates, Plato’s letters–again, assuming temporarily that they are real–prove in some aspects more helpful for our understanding of his views on friendship than his dialogues. This is largely because they provide us with actual examples of his friendships; in other words, how Plato dealt with friends in praxis rather than in a stylised dialogue. Therefore, to view the letters from an unbiased lens, this paper will largely be ignoring the dialogues in favour of the argument the letters provide. This paper will contend that Platonic friendship constitutes a spiritual bond and co-striving for virtue and wisdom.

2. Plato’s Seventh Letter

The seventh letter of Plato is certainly rather tangential. For our purposes, the main point of the epistle–which appears to be an open letter–is to advise Dion’s relatives and friends about politics and friendship. However, one could argue that this is just the explicit purpose of the letter, with the implicit goal being Plato’s desire to represent and justify his philosophical beliefs. For example, there are long parts of the letter about Plato’s metaphysics and the origin of his interest in philosophy, which do not completely tie into the theme of friendship in the letter. The epistle, then, is not really an ad hoc letter in terms that we may consider a letter to be in modern discourse–presuming most letters don’t contain semi-autobiographies and long explanations of metaphysical theories.

That said, the seventh letter at its core concerns the friendship between Plato and two Syracusan notables, respectively called Dion and King Dionysius. One aspect of the letter is a repudiation of King Dionysius’ attempt to befriend Plato, and another is Plato’s exhortation of how to aspire to the perfect friendship with Dion. Dion and King Dionysius have similar names yet they are in general represented as antithetical figures. The former is portrayed as a rebel against the Syracusan government, and the latter is shown to be the autocratic monarch of Syracuse. One could also argue that the letter is largely an epistle of advice to avoid their various mistakes. Addressed to the “relatives and friends of Dion”, Plato opens the epistle by informing them of his intent in writing it.

3. Plato’s Friendship with Dion

Plato’s relationship with Dion seems mainly to have begun due to the latter’s fondness for Plato’s philosophy. One could argue that the only reason Plato liked him was due to Dion’s maturity and seriousness, with Plato praising that he “set his affection on virtue in preference to pleasure and self-indulgence.” However, upon Plato’s departure from Syracuse, the letter then details the fact that Plato was uncertain whether to reciprocate the young man’s affection and Dion’s offer to visit, due to Plato’s awareness of the young man’s lack of experience. In the end, Plato did return to Syracuse, assessing that Dion’s mind “had also the advantage of somewhat advanced years.”

According to Eric Voegelin, “From the Letters we can conclude that the bond which united Plato with Dion was a most intimate union of heart and mind.” Moreover, Voegelin touches on the sacred aspects of friendship in Platonic thought, suggesting that for Plato friendship was sort of existential community and bond between men that raised them towards the world of forms, and how “it is the bond as well as between Heaven, Earth, man and God.” In short, the common term of friendship in our language had significantly deeper connotations in the letter, for Plato constituting a philosophical communion–a shared existential state transcending the body that one can share temporarily with another friend.

Plato’s friendship with Dion suggests that Plato valued companions who were: firstly, appreciative of the wisdom of his philosophy; secondly, not much younger than him; and thirdly, of sufficient maturity. This is despite the fact Plato alludes to some regret on his part for influencing Dion in such a way that the young man would participate in the upcoming revolution of Syracuse, after which ultimately Dion would be exiled and murdered. It might be said that it is hardly noteworthy to suggest that Platonic friendship should be based on similar interests. But more than that, we suggest that Plato believed that friendships could not be considered proper for those not aspiring towards the same ideals of virtue that he nurtured–philosophical wisdom, moderation, living generously and more. At several points, Plato does express some reservations about his friendship with Dion. Following Plato’s departure from Syracuse, and after his acceptance of the invitation to return, Plato writes that he harboured some doubts about returning amid the insurrection that was occurring–in particular, that he had doubts about the integrity of his own loyalty to Dion. Plato admits that he was afraid he would be solely a mere “man of words” if he based his life solely on his friendship with Dion without considering implementing or sharing his teachings.

Subsequently, Plato suggests that when he was about to return to Syracuse, he would like to see whether Dion’s craving for the “higher life” was “genuine”, and furthermore, “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.” Plato articulates concern for Dion’s life, which he states was in considerable danger on account of Dionysius’ ill will towards Dion for his political dissidence. Evidently, Plato’s loyalty to Dion was such that he was willing to risk his life for him. Dionysius, however, was a difficult matter entirely.

At this point, Dion falls out of the seventh letter’s narrative due to the fact that Dionysius–whom we have mentioned Plato portrays in a negative light–forces Dion to board a boat and exiles him from Syracuse. It is also here that Plato begins to discuss his failed friendship with Dionysius, the King who tried to win Plato’s affections following Dion’s exile. Clearly, with all this interest in him, Plato was a desirable man to befriend in ancient Syracuse.

4. Plato’s Relationship with Dionysius

We would argue that the seventh letter largely uses the framing device of Plato’s visit to Syracuse to explain the Platonic philosophy of friendship. In the words of Nicholas Denyer, “The letter could be interpreted as something of an apologia, a sympathetic narrative of key events in Plato’s life, devised by some supporter or admirer with a view to giving those events as good a gloss as possible. In that case, the key events, presented here–Plato’s visit to Sicily, his failure to achieve anything worthwhile in the tangle that was Syracusan politics–must have been notorious among those for whom the apologia was meant.”

Unlike Plato’s friendship with Dion, his enmity with Dionysius resembles the opposite of true friendship, and in fact the relationship was forced to exist for Plato’s survival, his basic need not to be killed for offending the King. Following Dion’s exile, Plato describes his vitriol for Dionysius, for instance his disapproval when he blocked Plato from leaving Syracuse. The primary elements of Plato’s relationship with Dionysius that he recalls not appreciating were Dionysius’ inauthenticity, his manipulativeness, and his disrespect for the Platonic teachings. All of that which Plato enjoyed about his friendship with Dion thus finds its opposite in his relationship with Dionysius. In numerous ways, Plato expresses his distaste for Dionysius’ conniving and fawning character. He proceeds to give some advice to Dion’s relatives in the same way he reports having counselled Dionysius: that he should be in harmony with himself, and more pertinently, that he should “make friends of others among his connections who were of the same age and were in sympathy with his pursuit of virtue”. Both of these short extracts elucidate reasons why Plato’s friendship with Dionysius failed. Unlike his successful relationship with Dion, one gets the impression that Plato never was fond of Dionysius, and that he knew about his selfishness. Plato criticises Dionysius’ lack of philosophical interest, and he lambasts Dionysius’ desire to have Plato on his side without the requirements for proper fellowship.

According to Bolotin, “A philosopher, for example, might be a friend in some sense of wisdom, even though wisdom were a healthy condition or activity of the soul rather than a goddess who could love men in return.” This quotation emphasises how connected friendship and wisdom should be in Platonic friendship. A friendship suffused with the pursuit of philosophical striving was seen by Plato as salutary for the soul. Several sentences later, Bolotin adds: “One could even say that both the philosopher and wisdom are each other’s friends, though each one in a different sense of the word.” In other words, there exists a deep kinship between the love of wisdom and love of a friend–and as Dionysius desired only to use Plato for his own ends–he could never be Plato’s friend in the true sense of Platonic friendship.

Ultimately, Plato concludes his story about his visit to Syracuse with his rejection of Dionysius’ friendship, and with complaints about the assassination of Dion’s murder that occurred on account of his political subversion. Not only does Plato reject Dionysius’ friendship, but friends in general “not made from community in philosophic study”, which says a lot about the importance of philosophy in Platonic friendship. Through the analysis of Plato’s relationship with Dion and Dionysius, we have gotten a deep look at one of Plato’s friendships and his enmities; this has shown us the qualities that Platonic friendship values in others. In what follows, we further discuss Plato’s opinion that real, Platonic friendship can only be considered the joint pursuit of virtue and philosophical wisdom.

5. Platonic Friendship as Wisdom and Virtue-Based Co-Striving

Ultimately, there are two types of friendship depicted in the seventh letter–the authentic and the inauthentic kind. The authentic kind constitutes Plato’s friendship with Dion, and the inauthentic Dionysius. While the former friendship flourished naturally and honestly, the latter largely never worked because, in short, it was incited by the intent to deceive. That said, further questions remain about whether Platonic friendships could be formed in cases without philosophic study, and if Plato intended to say that friendship could only ever be genuine if it was in the context of wisdom. Ludwig Edelstein, in his analysis of the seventh letter, argues that it was not really wisdom that made Dion (and not Dionysius) such a good friend to Plato. He claims, rather, that what bound them together was “their faithfulness to one another.” Moreover, despite what has been said, Edelstein claims that there is reason to believe that Plato held fondness for Dionysius too, and felt some guilt about rejecting Dionysius based on his higher ideals of friendship. Therefore, perhaps it would be simplistic to assert that Plato had a single idea of authentic Platonic friendship, even if many elements of the seventh letter lead us to believe that.

In the words of Misch in A History of Autobiography in Antiquity, “The praise of the true friendship that has its sole source in intellectual life, is one of the great Platonic themes of the epistle” … “thus he removes the veil from his friendship with Dion–in the same breath in which he summons the poets to sing the praises of the fallen hero.” As Misch articulates, and this essay has proposed as well, the Platonic model of friendship is associated with and must ultimately be based on philosophical learning. This is rather different to the modern conception of friendship, which is often stereotyped simplistically as working best with people with similar interests and hobbies. In contrast to this, according to Plato, friendship should be based on mutual becoming. In juxtaposing the friendship of Plato and Dion with his and Dionysius, Minsch exclaims, “What a contrast to his own friendship with Dion!” … “We saw how he sharply distinguished his friendship with Dion and his friendship with Dionysius.”

To Plato, it was a personal, practical, and a spiritual necessity to form such friendships. But would it be possible for us to boil down into a few points what Plato thought was necessary for such a friendship? In fact, Plato essentially gives a list in the fourth letter of qualities most valuable in friends. The fourth letter of Plato is addressed to Dion himself, and the contents largely concern the meaning of virtue:

To excel in courage, speed and strength, is a matter within the power of other men; but when it comes to truthfulness, justice, greatness of character and the grace of bearing which is appropriate to these qualities, anyone will agree that those who claim to make these things their ideals must be expected to rise above the level of other men in them …. I think my good will towards your enterprise has been evident from the beginning, as well as my earnest desire to see it brought to completion, for no other reason than admiration for noble deeds. For I deem it right that the men who really possess virtue and exemplify it in their conduct should receive the glory that is due them.

Truthfulness, justice, greatness of character and grace of bearing are, then, the four essential qualities that Platonic friendships require. And as we saw in letter seven, without these character traits, we find friendship is liable to decline into the forcedness and manipulativeness of Plato’s dysfunctional relationship with Dionysius. In addition to these elements, there is also the aspect of emotional attachment in Platonic friendship which we have not yet touched on. Lamenting Dion’s death, please consider Plato’s evident sorrow in his assessment of his life, “He died nobly; for whatever suffering a man undergoes when striving after that which is noblest both for himself and for his State, is always right and noble.”

At numerous other points in the seventh letter, Plato expresses sadness about the death of Dion, showing that for him friendship was not some cold and dry philosophical exercise. Therefore, though Platonic friendship was non-romantic and about the pursuit of mutual improvement, there was an element of emotional connection to it which elevated it above regular acquaintanceship. In the last section of the essay, we discuss the very short sixth letter of Plato, and how it provides additional evidence for our conclusions on Plato’s philosophy of friendship.

6. Friendship in the Sixth Letter

Plato’s sixth letter is addressed to three people: Erastus and Corsicus and Hermias, three young Platonic thinkers. Much shorter at only three paragraphs, this epistle is another letter of advice, albeit one written with the rather different purpose of encouraging the three men to become friends. According to the letter, individually the men left the Platonic Academy to move to Atreus. Even if the letter is very brief, and Plato does not display any personal attachment, or indeed much knowledge of all of the three men that he addresses, the letter encapsulates Plato’s general philosophy of friendship. For the sixth letter is in large part a paean to the importance of friendship, a counsel to these three men to form a covenant of comradeship based on wisdom and virtue.

Indeed, Plato’s goal in writing the letter seems on the surface to be truly selfless–to help the three young men become friends. In it, Plato emphasises the importance of friendship by comparing the high value of steadfast allies to the unimportance of gold and weapons, the point being that the ideal of Platonic friendship supersedes these things. Subsequently, Plato explains further his views on Platonic friendship:

I believe that—unless the disruption should happen to be serious—the arguments sent you from here by us, based on justice and reverence, will serve better than any incantation to weld you and bind you together once again into your former state of friendship and fellowship. If, then, all of us—both we and you—practice this philosophy, as each is able, to the utmost of our power, the prophecy I have now made will come true; but if we fail to do this, I keep silence as to the consequence; for the prophecy I am making is one of good omen, and I declare that we shall, God willing, do all these things well.

The prophecy that Plato refers to at the end of this quotation seems to be that that they will “grow together again into friendship and fellowship as before”, which connects to Plato’s view that friendship was not static, but rather, a sort of conjoining of souls in mutual aspiration to grow more wise together. Thus, through the sixth letter, even if it is a very short epistle, the reader gets a thorough and intimate account of Plato’s belief of the importance of friendship for the purpose of refining each other. Please see another quotation from the sixth letter that confirms this:

What is the point of these remarks? To you, Hermias, since I have known Erastus and Coriscus longer than you have, I solemnly declare and bear witness that you will not easily find more trustworthy characters than these neighbors of yours, and I therefore advise you to make it a matter of central importance to attach yourself to them by every honorable means. Coriscus and Erastus in their turn I advise to hold fast to Hermias and to try to develop this mutual alliance into a bond of friendship.

In this extract, we can see further evidence of Plato’s contention of the importance of others’ character in Platonic friendship. Namely, that Plato believed that if the three young men worked together in a Platonic friendship, they would receive many positive returns. Recall the case of Dion and Dionysius, and how the main reason why Plato preferred the former’s company was Dion’s desire to improve himself and the world around him in Syracusan politics. In contrast, Dionysius had no desire to become a wiser person. The same point applies in a similar manner in the sixth letter–instead of continuing their philosophy studies alone, Plato points out “that they need to supplement their knowledge of the ideas”. Plato advises that the friendship could help the three of them develop as philosophers. Therefore, in Plato’s view, the Platonic friendship should be such that it is a process of mutual self-development, that should always be underwritten with the aim to ameliorate oneself and each other. In reference to the letters and Plato’s general philosophy of friendship, Voegelin comments:

The philosophers and the king have, indeed, entered into the existential communion of philia. Their bond is the faith that was kindled by Plato. In the name they should cling to each other; and to his healing power they should refer any strains on their bond.

The rest of the, again, very short sixth letter contains continued encouragement to the three men to bond in this covenant of friendship. As we near the close of the essay, some last questions might be raised about the difference between love and friendship to Plato; it does, after all, seem like the intensity of Plato’s philia often borders on what has been called homosocial love in modern parlance. To clarify, in Plato’s view, the difference between philia and eros was this: whereas eros (love) designates a relationship that is involuntary, philia lacks this purposive nature and is necessarily voluntary. Needless to say, in this paper we have completely focused on philia. The nature of this philia in Plato’s true friendship is such that could only exist with homonoia––the conjoining of mind and spirit–another important term that Plato often uses to refer to the joining together of mind, and clearly he did encourage this form of bonding to the three men. Therefore, unlike eros–which could be compared to falling in love–philia as friendship is a personal choice. However, there is likely to be some overlap in the letters when Plato expresses his emotional attachment to Dion.

As Voegelin refers to it, for Plato, friendship is an existential condition as much as a social one. Spiritually connected with his idea of the world of forms, as well as his theory of the soul (in terms of friendship being a harmony of two souls)–for Plato, friendship could not be easily captured in words. In the words of Hutter, Platonic friendship is “a state of soul, a certain harmony in the relationship of the self to itself and between self and other.” In this form of philia, one’s friend becomes an alter ego. One’s love towards oneself should be the same as the amount shown towards the friend, and analogously, the two of the friendship become one.

7. Conclusion: Platonic Friendship as Existential State

To conclude, Platonic friendship constitutes a spiritual and philosophy-based union between individuals that is based on the co-pursuit and striving towards the improvement of all friends’ philosophical wisdom and virtue. Such Platonic friendship should always be authentically and naturally formed and developed. Again, according to Hutter: “Plato sees friendship tied to values, but instead of seeing a link between friendship and the value of justice, he sees a link between friendship and the value of justice. The important point, however, is the recognition that friendship is a social bond that is value-creating and value-sustaining.” In other words, a true friendship provides not only a way for two individuals to unite, but also a path to positive self-development.

In this essay, we have argued for the philosophical Platonic view of friendship using largely the sources of the seventh and the sixth letters. In the seventh letter, we saw that the tyrant of Dionysius was contrasted to the wise philosophile Dion, the former being portrayed as foolish, manipulative, and driven solely by his passion for power. In contrast, Dion’s earnest desire to improve himself and others through philosophy made him a much better representative of a true friend. Perhaps one could simply say Dionysius was not capable of real friendship without first being open to change himself. By trying to control the desires of Plato–cutting him off from Dion and not letting both move freely–Dionysius denigrated the meaning of friendship, and in turn, incited Plato (or the forger) to write the seventh letter. Further, in the sixth letter, we saw Plato exhorting the three young men as regards the importance of friendship in terms of self-improvement and self-education. Plato articulated a rather profound philosophy of friendship in his epistles. The Platonic idea of amity is thus simultaneously existential and idealistic, holding that true friendship should rest on a bedrock of philosophical and ethical growth.


Written by Adam Hutchinson, an Irish 22-year-old MA student of classics and philosophy. In his spare time, besides playing the synth, he writes philosophy essays and experimental fiction. He also edits and beta reads, and intends to start an editing business in the coming years. Find him on Instagram, @enstasy999.


References

Bolotin, David. Plato’s Dialogue on Friendship: An Interpretation of the Lysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989

Burnyeat, Myles and Frede, Michael. The Pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015

Corrigan, Kevin. Love, Friendship, Beauty, and the Good: Plato, Aristotle, and the Later Tradition. Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2018

Denyer, Nichola. ‘A Discussion of Myles Burnyeat and Michael Frede, The Pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter’’, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy Volume 51 (edited by Victor Caston). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014

Edelstein, Ludwig. Plato’s Seventh Letter. Leiden: Brill Archive, 1966

Harward, J. (translator). Platonic Epistles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014

Hutter, Horst. Politics As Friendship: The Origins of Classical Notions of Politics in the Theory and Practice of Friendship. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1978

Misch, Georg. A History of Autobiography in Antiquity. London: Routledge, 2019

Plato (translated by Glenn Raymond Morrow). The Platonic Epistles. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1962

Price, A.W. Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989

Stern-Gillet, S. Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship. New York: SUNY Press, 1996

Voegelin, Eric. Plato. Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2000

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