The Seventh Letter
Forgotten Books, 2008, 38 pages
Scholars disagreed whether Plato wrote this short book, but the consensus today is that he or one of his close students did write this very revealing book.
Plato (428/427-348/347 BCE) was one of the world’s greatest philosophers. He was the student of Socrates, the teacher of Aristotle, who in turn was the teacher of Alexander the Great. Socrates roamed the streets of Athens Greece met with people and raised questions about subjects that his fellow Athenians were certain they understood, such as what is the truth, love, beauty, and is there life after death. Socrates showed his interlocutors that they didn’t understand the subjects at all. Generally this is all that Socrates did. He usually didn’t provide answers, just raised the thought-provoking questions.
Plato wrote 26 fascinating, really artistic books, most of which describe such conversations. Two of his books The Republic and Laws depict the kind of Government that Plato felt was ideal. This society was ruled by a philosopher king, a man who is not only brilliant but who knows Plato’s teachings and had the ability to apply them.
Whether one agrees with Plato’s world-vision or not, besides the enjoyment of reading his well-crafted frequently humorous writings and being prompted to think of the questions Plato raises and trying to find solutions, it is important to understand his approach to life because many ideas that are part of the worldview today are derived from Plato. In fact, when Christianity began, it drew many ideas from Plato, such as his insistence that humans have souls, that there is another world (a heaven), learning is actually remembering what the soul learned before the human was born, and his other-worldly approach to reality. Jews and Muslims derived these and other ideas from Christians. Many later Christians, Jews, and Muslims rejected the Platonic approach to life and preferred that of Aristotle, but Plato’s views are still held by many people.
Critics of Plato disparaged him for his failure to provide solutions to the queries he had Socrates raise. They argued that his ideal society was impractical. They also said his teaching that everything here on earth is a copy of an “idea” or “ideal” that exists elsewhere (exactly where, Plato never said) makes no sense. Many of these critics preferred the down to earth practical and scientific-oriented philosophy of Aristotle, which they considered rational compared to Plato’s mystical approach to reality.
The Seventh Letter is Plato’s description of his attempt to establish his ideal government in the island of Syracuse. He also describes his theory of “ideas.” What is significant is that he shows that his attempt to establish the ideal government failed and his description of his theory of “ideas” is as vague as ever.