Diogenes Laertius (III, 61) reports that in Thrasyllus’ canon of Platonic works thirteen letters are included. They are ordered within the 9th tetralogy along with Minos, Laws, and Epinomis. He reports further that prior to Thrasyllus, Aristophanes of Byzantium (ca 257-180 B.C.E.) had collected the works of Plato into trilogies and placed the epistles along with Crito and Phaedo. Diogenes knew that some of the dialogues in Aristophanes’ trilogies were spurious. He also knew that Thrasyllus had included a number of works in his collection that were placed outside of the nine tetralogies because they were spurious. By implication, Diogenes apparently thought that Thrasyllus accepted the authenticity of the epistles (with the exception of the twelfth, which Thrasyllus himself seems to have noted is spurious), as had Aristophanes some 150 to 200 years earlier. And yet this still leaves us with a gap of perhaps 150 years between the death of Plato and the first noted appearance of his letters. All of this would be less suspicious if we were not well aware of the fact that in the Hellenistic period the forging of letters of the famous was a commonplace (cf. R. Hercher, Epistolographi Graeci, Paris, 1873). In addition, the first letter is almost certainly spurious, at least if the third and seventh letters are thought to be genuine, since it contradicts these in historical detail. Serious doubts have also been raised about the second and thirteenth letters. The apparent fact that some of the letters are very probably spurious of course casts suspicion on them all.
The most famous of the letters, the seventh, is also the longest by far; it is longer than all the other letters put together. Its fame derives from the fact that amidst its personal matter—essentially political advice to the party of Dion of Syracuse—is a so-called philosophical excursus (341A7-344D2). This passage includes first a surprising warning that no person should be believed who claims to represent accurately Plato’s thoughts on the matters with which he is presently seriously concerned since none of these have been written down by him. It also contains a number of interesting remarks on the nature of epistêmê and the Forms—interesting, that is, if they are really Plato’s. That the warning is potentially a bombshell is clear. Does it not directly bring into question the dialogues themselves as a source for Platonic doctrine? As for the discussion of knowledge and Forms, since the letter, if genuine, was probably written about 354 or 353, this passage certainly puts paid to the notion that Plato abandoned or even modified the theory of Forms late in life. Perhaps only Laws postdates this letter, a work, Diogenes tells us, that was still in “draft” form when Plato died in 347. It is clear then that it would be extremely useful for Plato scholars to be able to establish that this letter is genuine. It would also be good to know if it is not, since then at least one complication standing in the way of interpreting the dialogues would be removed.
The present work is an effort to take a comprehensive and critical look at the 7th letter via the traditional method of text, translation, and commentary. These are preceded by an introductory chapter wherein the issue of authenticity is summarily examined. In this introduction, Knab attempts to address the various objections that have been raised against authenticity. According to the author, all of these are either circular or question-begging. In trying to show that the letter could not be written by Plato, they either appeal to external evidence for historical events that would be less reliable than Plato’s own account of his participation in these events if the letter is genuine or they point to contradictions between the letter and the dialogue which only arise if the dialogues are assumed to contradict the letters. As for the objection that the philosophical section of the letter fits ill with the contents of the rest of the letter, one could presumably say as much about the interpretation of Simonides’ poem in Protagoras and the philosophical interlude in Theaetetus. In neither of these dialogues have scholars concluded that the works must for this reason be spurious. In any case, it is hardly beyond comprehension that Plato should have taken the occasion of this letter to make a philosophical “statement” to a group of men who knew that Plato had been to Syracuse precisely because of his fame as a philosopher. It is probably an overstatement on the author’s part that the letter’s authenticity is the communis opinio, though this is more likely to be the case in Europe than in North America, where the objections to authenticity raised, for example, by Harold Cherniss still have currency. In any case, this book adds nothing new to the debate beyond the conclusions in favor of authenticity by Edelstein (1966) and Solmsen (1969), as the author himself admits (p.6).
The text of the letter supplied is that of Burnet with about 25 minor alterations. The translation strikes me as accurate. It is largely in the 200 or so pages of commentary that the real value of this book is to be sought. Does the detailed analysis of the language and argument allow us to make any progress on the question of authenticity?
Assuming the hypothesis of authenticity, the crucial text regarding Plato’s warning is 341B7-C5, where he says, “This much at least I can affirm in regard to those who have written or who will write on these matters [i.e., my philosophical views], those, that is, who say that they know about those things that I concern myself with ( spoudazô), whether they claim to have heard them from me or to have discovered them for themselves; it is in my opinion not possible that they can have understood anything at all about these matters. There is no writing ( suggramma) of mine about them nor will there ever be.”
The first problem is with the scope of the word ( spoudazô). The first person present could have an unlimited connotation suggesting a reference to those things about which Plato always was and will be working or it could have the connotation of a continuous present, as in “what I am working on now.” If the latter is meant, this would then not suggest that what Plato had written before 354 (that is, virtually all of the dialogues) did not contain his “serious thoughts.” If the former is meant, we would still need to know how to evaluate the things said in the dialogues, things about which Plato would say “I am playing” ( paizô) (cf. Phaedrus 276B1-277A5). The reason why the seriousness of Plato’s playfulness would still be an issue in this case is contained in the next line (341C5-6), where Plato goes on to identify the matter about which he is concerned and about which there exist no writings by him as a “science” ( mathêma) unlike other sciences. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this science is something very much like dialectic as discussed in Republic (cf. 505A2, 529B5, 534E4). This is there said to be the science of the Forms in relation to the Idea of the Good. There is indeed no serious, or at least extensive, discussion of this science in Republic or elsewhere. Nevertheless, this hardly casts into doubt the seriousness of Plato’s other ethical, psychological, epistemological, and indeed, metaphysical claims.
The second problem is with the scope of the word suggramma. Does this refer to technical writings or can it also include dialogues? If the former, it says nothing about the dialogues; if the latter, it still leaves wide open the possibility that the dialogues contain “serious” writing about matters other than dialectic construed in the above fashion.
Knab’s commentary on this material is unfortunately very skimpy. He does refer in a note to works by Thomas Szlezak and M. Isnardi Parente, who take opposing views on the scope of suggramma. But there is nothing else. Nor does he attempt to advance the discussion about the contrast between serious and playful writing in Plato.
As for the remainder of the passage, wherein Plato turns to some remarks about knowledge and Forms, Knab is only slightly more expansive. When Plato at 342A5 says that he is about to say something about that true doctrine “which he has many times spoken of in the past,” Knab takes this without argument to be a reference to Plato’s presumed lectures on the Good. This is possibly but by no means necessarily the case. Nevertheless, what Plato then goes on to talk about is (1) the differences between a name, an account, an image, knowledge, and the thing to which these are all related; (2) the broad range of Forms, apparently including the explanations for all genuine cases of sameness in the sensible world; (3) the use of a name, account, etc. for cognizing the properties of a Forms but their insufficiency for cognizing the Forms themselves. Are we to suppose that all these points were included in the lectures on the Good? Further, when Plato gives his very inclusive list of Forms, he seems to endorse Forms of artifacts. But Aristotle reports ( Metaphysics 1.9.991b6-7, 13.5.1080a4-6) that Forms of artifacts were not recognized in the Academy. It may well be that Aristotle has misreported Plato’s view (or Plato’s ultimate view), but if he is reporting the view correctly, this fact does perhaps cast some doubt on the letter’s authenticity. Indeed, Knab is very dependent on the accuracy of Aristotle’s testimony with regard to the unwritten teachings of Plato on the Good and its identity with the One. For this testimony is supposed to indicate the content of the lectures on the Good. Knab merely notes the discrepancy between Aristotle’s testimony and the contents of the letter.
The rest of the philosophical passage throws up other puzzles about which Knab is not particularly helpful. There is some helpful information on the historical context of the letter. For those who know the 7th letter and the problems it presents for the overall interpretation of Plato’s philosophy, this book will provide mostly disappointment. For those coming to Plato’s letters for the first time, especially for those seeking out a work in English, the monograph by Ludwig Edelstein (1966) or the translations of and commentaries on all the letters by Glenn Morrow (1962) would be a more useful place to start.