In Plato’s Kallipolis, power is held by an elite class of guardians who are a perfect synthesis of both the roles of the philosopher and the statesman; someone who is able to understand the Form of the Good that underlay reality and guide his people toward that ultimate destination. This ideal of ruler-ship has been influential one and several attempts to realize this particular component of Plato’s vision has been made through out history, to varying degrees of success. In this blog post, I will offer an overview of an attempt made during Plato’s own lifetime to transform a tyrannically governed city into one centred on justice and the contemplation of the good and its subsequent outcomes.
During Plato’s latter years, he made an effort to help shape the tyrants of Syracuse (in what is now Sicily in Italy) into philosopher kings which ended in utter failure. During his visit to there, he became the mentor of Dion of Syracuse, the brother and close adviser to the tyrant of the city, Dionysius the Elder. Dion was a keen philosopher and wanted to reform the tyrannical system of Syracuse to something more closely resembling the Kallipolis as described in Plato’s republic, with an aristocrat guardian and king watching over the commoners.
When Dionysius passed away, he was succeeded by his son Dionysius the Younger, who was said to lead an overly lavish and decadent lifestyle. Dion, in the hopes of reforming his mislead nephew into becoming a philosopher king, called upon Plato to become Dionysius II’s tutor. Though at first the young king seemed to accept Plato’s teachings, he was eventually persuaded by opponents of the new reforms to banish Dion from Syracuse and establishing himself as the absolute ruler of the city. Without Dion’s guidance, he became increasingly tyrannical and lost the support of both the army and the citizenry.
When Plato pleaded for Dion’s return, Dionysius confiscated his uncle properties and gave his wife away to another man. Dion, who until then had been living prosperously in Athens off the sizable income from his Syracuse properties, decided to take action by assembling a small army of mercenaries to conquer Syracuse. With the popular support of the people, Dion quickly took over the city and established himself as the new ruler. However, Dion’s popularity did not last as he soon alienated his new subjects with his autocratic attitude and financial demands, including his refusal to implement democracy and to equally redistribute the land (policies which Dion’s chief rival Heraclides supported).
In the end, the exiled Dionysius II bribed a close friend of Dion, Calippus, to assassinate his uncle. Calippus was a native Athenian who had attended Plato’s Academy and accompanied Dion in his takeover of Syracuse. Using Dionysius’ money to buy over Dion’s own mercenaries, Calippus stabbed Dion moments after taking an oath of loyalty and established himself as the new tyrant of the city. In an even further turn of irony, Calippus himself was assassinated thirteen months later by two of the mercenaries that he bribed earlier using the same sword that he used to kill Dion.
Dion’s efforts to establish the ideal city only sent his beloved Syracuse into an extended cycle of social and political chaos as one despot succeeded another in a seemingly endless series of assassinations and coups that lasted for nearly two decades. During that time, Syracuse’s reputation in the region rapidly plummeted and its economy fell into further ruin as the city fragmented to form smaller cities with their own local tyrants vying for power. Dionysius even managed to come back power towards the very end, only to be deposed yet again by the invading Timoleon of Corinth who finally managed to restore some sense of peace and order to a thoroughly exhausted Syracuse.