For over two millennia, the writings of Plato had been at the very core of a Western education. Yet by the dawn of the 21st century, Plato appeared marginalized to the benign pedantry of Classics departments — engagement with his ideas having been spurned by many philosophers and educators over the preceding decades. To many his call to search for truth — and to live according to it — is no longer seen as applicable to our relativistic age. Neel Burton’s Plato: Letters to My Son attempts to rescue Plato from irrelevance and guide another generation of readers and leaders along the path of self-knowledge.
To understand the thrill of Burton’s timely intervention, it is essential to grasp why Plato has fallen out of fashion. After Karl Popper’s famous assault on ‘Plato’s totalitarianism’ in the middle of the 20th century, Plato was systematically critiqued in the context of the post-1968 culture wars movement and its spawn — multiculturalism — both of which took umbrage at the very notion of a canon of ‘dead white men’. As Plato epitomized the traditional canon and the process through which great books can motivate young men and women to defend Western cultural heritage, he became the object of particular scorn. These intellectuals asserted that Plato’s ideal of a hierarchical — and at the same time rigorously meritocratic, rational and just — society was merely a cover for racism, classism and misogyny. After all, despite his obvious brilliance, Plato was another white, slave-owning, male aristocrat.
Plato: Letters to my Son is inspired by an obscure and apocryphal fragment in Diogenes Laertius purporting to be Plato’s will, in which he bequeaths his possessions to his ‘son’ Adimantes. Burton runs with this idea, ‘channelling’ Plato dictating letters to this mysterious ‘son’ from his deathbed. Plato never married, and moreover was likely a homosexual who overtly eschewed family life. Therefore, this intriguing literary device leaves the reader guessing as to the boy’s true relationship to the much older man.
Despite being one of the most researched figures in human history, Plato’s life remains shrouded in mystery. Plato never spoke in his own voice in his dialogues and much secondary source material has vanished. Most of what we know about Plato’s life is from Diogenes Laertius, who wrote six centuries after Plato. The absence of any meaningful modern biographical or psychological approach to unlocking Plato’s mysteries has meant that some of the most intriguing aspects of his life and thought have received scant attention. Surprisingly few scholars have engaged with the implications of Plato’s mysticism or the way in which the ambivalence of ancient Greek sexuality and the homoeroticism of aristocratic Athenian culture is directly connected to Plato’s conception of the search for the good life.
Plato held that the patient pursuit of self-knowledge was the best way to live and that it required avoidance of the quest for wealth, fame or power. This message is hard to sell to the ‘me generation’. Nonetheless, 35-year-old Dr Neel Burton — a widely published psychiatrist, philosopher and amateur classicist — is uniquely positioned to introduce the father of philosophy to this new audience. Burton’s forté is summarising the key aspects of a discipline, while also tracing its development, progression and the concerns of its practitioners. In Plato’s Shadow (2011), Burton sketches pre-Socratic and Platonic philosophy while showing how Plato might have been reacting not only to the Sophists, but also against the relativistic implications of the Ionian philosopher Protagoras. Building on that earlier work, Plato: Letters to My Son examines other Platonic themes that have been largely masked by centuries of Christian exegesis, but which are intimately connected to Burton’s larger oeuvre, such as the importance of living in accordance with the dictates of both the subconscious and human nature. For Burton, Plato is a precursor to Freud — calling on the individual to understand his inner desires and make peace with them.
Plato: Letters to my Son is at its best when it brings to life the real-world rationales behind — and implications of — Plato’s grand ideas (such as the Theory of Forms). Burton culls all the ancient sources about Plato’s life and invents various details that harmonize with them — blending it all into a readable, flowing narrative. In this fashion, he recaps Plato’s primary insights into the human condition, filling in the blanks where the ancient texts are silent.
The union of genuine philosophical exposition with the format of an instructive letter recalls Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius. Burton excels at this ‘Stoic’ style: to the point, witty, easy to read, replete with aphorisms of ancient writers, and yet not overly dry. Burton achieves ‘believability’ by calling on his deep familiarity with the classical corpus and his playful imagination to ‘speak’ in the ancient philosopher’s voice.
This approach is not without risk. It is difficult for the reader who is not a classicist to separate the objective ‘scholarship’ from the historically plausible ‘fiction’, and the minimalist footnotes do not help. Similarly, the book lacks a clearly defined narrative arc and ends abruptly. The building of literary tension and its release through a climax and then dénouement could have given the book more of a cinematic appeal.
Paradoxically, these stylistic drawbacks are part of the way in which Burton challenges the reader. He forces you to take Plato seriously as if he was a contemporary, or better still, your famous older relative sending you his memoirs in the form of engaging and intimate letters. Burton dares you to see the relevance of millennia-old advice to your own personal struggles and to the bigger issues facing our world today. Real life lacks footnotes, and outside of the bedroom, complex problems rarely resolve themselves with a striking climax.
Plato: Letters to My Son, by Neel Burton is published by Acheron Press (£9.99)
Jason Pack is a Researcher of World History at Cambridge University and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave Macmillan). On 10th September he will be co-organizing a Panel Discussion in the House of Commons with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) entitled: The Struggle For The Post-Qadhafi Future: Islamists, Militias, and the Role of Britain in Today’s Libya.