Plato and Dion.
Thu, 18 Nov 2004
Plutarch’s Lives, 1200 pages long, has been sitting on my bedside table for two or three years now, and I’ve been flipping back and forth in it, reading and re-reading and creeping painstakingly forward, and I’m now just a hundred or so pages from the end. Last night I came across the story of Dion, the student of Plato’s Academy who overthrew the tyrannical government of Syracuse and attempted to govern according to Plato’s theories. It’s a pretty ripping story, and once again I thought, maybe I can use this for a rock opera or a play or something.
I once considered writing a play based on Plutarch’s life of Cato the Younger, but abandoned the idea cos I don’t know enough about the Stoics. The problem with writing about Dion is that I don’t know enough about Plato. I read The Republic a while back, and I fancy that I understood a fair bit of it. But still. If you’re gonna write a play about a genius, you’d better be pretty smart yourself, otherwise you’ll only draw attention to your own deficiencies. Remember that movie a few years back where Walter Matthau played Albert Einstein as a kind of loveable old Jewish busybody, meddling in Meg Ryan’s love life? All the science-talkin’ took place conveniently offstage. Einstein was reduced to a funny haircut. If you can’t illustrate the central fact that makes the character interesting, what’s the point? Why are you writing this movie, and not Revenge of the Nerds IV?
One would hate to reduce Plato to a thoughtful fellow in sandals and a dress. Then again…
SCENE: PLATO is walking at the Piraeus, lost in thought. Enter DION.
DION: Plato, old man!
PLATO: Dion! How’s it going, youngster?
DION: I ain’t so young anymore, old buddy. Gettin’ stiffer in the ol’ biffer, you know what I’m sayin’. How’s the philosophy treatin’ ya?
PLATO (with a deep sigh): Eh. Some days you got it, some days you don’t.
DION: Not so good, huh?
PLATO: Ah, don’t even get me started. So…what’ve you been up to? Speusippus tells me you’re going to overthrow the tyrant Dionysius.
DION: Well, you know. I figured I’d get together all the exiles, have a bit of a bull session, kinda run the idea past them. And if they’re into it…who knows? Maybe we’ll hire up some mercenaries…sail to Syracuse…kinda take it from there.
PLATO: Worth a try, right?
DION: Shit, why not? I’m tired of sittin’ on my duff while that sonofabitch wrecks the country. Not to mention marrying my wife off to one of his cronies. Hey…speaking of which…I mean, I know you’ve got a bit of a gripe with Dionysius…what with his dad selling you into slavery and all…
PLATO: Yeah, that kind of cheesed me off.
DION: Want to join the expedition? We could use a smart guy like you. And if things go well, you could be…I dunno, Secretary of Education, or something.
PLATO: Education? Give me a break. Secretary of State…maybe…
DION: Be realistic, old-timer. I don’t think the people of Syracuse are gonna take too kindly to an Athenian Secretary of State.
PLATO: You mean they’re still not over that whole business with the Athenian conquering army? Come on, that’s ancient history. It’s the 350s now.
DION: I’m just sayin’…
PLATO: Alright, alright. Anyhow, I’m an old man. I’ll leave the killing and the swordplay for the stiff peckers like you.
DION: Well, don’t say I never ask you to do nothin’.
PLATO: Yeah, yeah. So, what kind of government are you planning to set up?
DION: Glad you asked. In the short term, I’m thinking, a democracy.
DION: I know…
PLATO: Weren’t you paying attention back at the Academy? Democracy is for suckers, Dion! Suckers!
DION: Hear me out. It’s just a short-term thing. Get the people behind me, you know. Then I’m gonna bring in some advisers from Corinth – all on the hush-hush, you understand – and we’re gonna work out an oligarchical-aristocratical constitution.
PLATO: Alright…I guess that’s a little better…
DION: Keep that up for a generation or so, meanwhile molding a selected class of youngsters, with careful training in music, gymnastics, soldiery, and rhetoric, into an elite cadre of philosopher-guardians.
DION: And then turn ’em loose and – whammo! The Perfect State!
PLATO: Huh. I’m impressed. Looks like you’ve thought it all out.
DION: Well, I’m still working on the details.
PLATO: Keep at it. I think you’re going to make a good ruler. So let me ask you, Dion, what are your plans for Dionysius once you’ve got him in custody?
DION: That sonofabitch. Let me tell ya, I got a special treat worked out for him.
DION: Hee hee, you’ll like this, it’s nasty. See, I stick ‘im in this underground cavern, right…
DION: And he’s chained up so he can’t move his head…hee hee…and he’s looking at this blank wall…
DION: And there’s a big fire burning behind him…and there’s people standing behind him, between him and the fire…like, movin’ around and stuff…castin’ shadows on the wall…
DION: And he can’t move his head, right? So he just has to sit there, watchin’ these goddamn shadows on the blank wall! For the rest of his goddamn life! Ha!
DION: Well? Whaddaya think? Nasty, hey?
PLATO: It’s interesting.
DION: Interesting? Is that all you have to say?
PLATO: It’s giving me some interesting ideas…
PLATO: Yeah…why don’t we wander off over here and discuss it?
They start walking.
PLATO: You see, I’ve been working on this concept of forms…
They wander offstage. THE END.