Plato’s Journey through the Conflict: Knowledge, Action and καιρός in the Syracusan Experience

In: Thinking, Knowing, Acting: Epistemology and Ethics in Plato and Ancient Platonism


The first aim of the paper is to discuss the relationship between knowing and acting in Plato’s Seventh Letter, showing that we can interpret it in two ways: first, in strictly theoretical terms (i.e. the relationship between knowing and acting in general); and second, from a more biographical and historical point of view (i.e. in connection with the life and action of Plato). Although the two ways are strictly linked, we do not have to think that Plato wanted to export his kallipolis to the Sicilian context. Therefore, it’s not by chance that the Seventh Letter shows the highest concentration of the kairos lexicon in the whole Corpus Platonicum. The second aim of the paper is to carry out an extensive investigation of pre-Platonic and Platonic use of the word kairos. In the last part of the paper I examine the so-called “philosophical excursus” of the Seventh Letter, showing that it is part of the text in a very strict way.

The aim of this paper is twofold. First, it discusses the relationship between knowing and acting in Plato’s Seventh Letter, and it tries to clarify why Plato wrote it. The secondary (but not independent) goal is to analyse the role of the notion of καιρός in the epistle. I write “Plato’s” because I am very confident that the letter is authentic. However, I will not discuss this issue here. I will also make few references to the dialogues, since I am not interested in proving the consistency of the letter with the Corpus.

We can interpret the relationship between knowing and acting in Plato in two ways. First of all, under the strictly theoretical aspect; secondly, from a more factual and biographical point of view. The first consists of wondering what is and what should be, according to Plato, the relationship between knowing and acting in general; the second of investigating such connections in Plato’s concrete political experience in Syracuse and in its unique testament, the Seventh Letter. Plato, indeed, as it is known, never intervened actively in the Athenian political scene.

The two approaches are related, but they are not the same, and one is not dependent on the other in the strict sense. Plato, in his writings, especially in the Republic, theorized a strong connection between knowing and acting. Philosophers have to govern precisely because they are philosophers (i.e. they govern because they know). However, we do not have to stress the connection between the two levels to explain Plato’s political experience in Syracuse. Similarly, we should not think that Plato wanted to export his kallipolis to the Sicilian polis. The political dialogues do not offer any practical proposals intended for application to a situation such as the Syracusan scenario in which Plato tried to act. Although Plato suggested combining power and knowledge in the same person in Syracuse too, there is no reason to think that the Sicilian city was for him a potential kallipolis. The political principles of the Republic did not stricto sensu dictate Plato’s political action in Syracuse. It was a specific case requiring equally specific solutions, but without deviating from some general principles.