Some authors affirm that the following also belongs to him: that Plato saw him washing lettuces, came up to him and quietly said to him, “Had you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t now be washing lettuces,” and that he with equal calmness made answer, “If you had washed lettuces, you wouldn’t have paid court to Dionysius.”
☛ Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, §58. Translated by R.D. Hicks, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972 (first published 1925). Available online at Perseus.
ὅτι Πλάτων θεασάμενος αὐτὸν λάχανα πλύνοντα, προσελθὼν ἡσυχῆ εἴποι αὐτῷ: “εἰ Διονύσιον ἐθεράπευες, οὐκ ἂν λάχανα ἔπλυνες:” τὸν δ᾽ ἀποκρίνασθαι ὁμοίως ἡσυχῆ, “καὶ σὺ εἰ λάχανα ἔπλυνες, οὐκ ἂν Διονύσιον ἐθεράπευες.”
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The anecdote recorded by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (written somewhere in third century AD, or later1) involves the famous Greek philosopher Plato, Diogenes the Cynic (not to be confused with the author of the record, Diogenes Laertius) and Dionysius, a Greek tyran from Sicily, also known as Dionysius II or Dyonisus the Younger.
In this version (there are others: see below), the anecdote is concerned with the intersection of philosophy and politics, and more specifically with the problematic association of intellectual figures with tyrans. In the 4th century BC, Dyonisus (c. 397 BCE – 343 BCE) ruled tyrannically over the city of Syracuse, in Sicily. During that time, Plato was invited to Syracuse to advise the young tyran, without much success. A simplified version of the story is often used to illustrate how ill-advised intellectuals can be when they decide to partake in politics. Over two millennia later, in 1988, Hans-Georg Gadamer proposed a modern sequel to story:
That Heidegger’s revolution in the universities failed, and that his involvement in the cultural politics of the Third Reich was a sad story we watched at a distance with anxiety, has led many to think about what Plato came up against in Syracuse. Indeed, after Heidegger resigned from the rectorate, one of his Freiburg friends, seeing him in the streetcar, greeted him: “Back from Syracuse?” (Gadamer, H.-G., & McCumber, J. “Back from Syracuse?” Critical Inquiry, 15.2, Winter 1989, p. 4292).
For a more nuanced account of the anecdote told by Diogenes Laertius, see Mark Lilla “The Lure of Syracuse” (The New York Review of Books, September 20, 2001; a subscription is required, but the essay is reproduced here). As Lilla argues, it is crucial to keep in mind that the analogy between Plato’s relationship with Dionysius II and Heidegger relationship with the Nazi Party is as popular as it is problematic (to say the least). Some commentators believe the analogy is mostly used to defend Heidegger3.
Below are three additional French translations:
On rapport encore de luy que Platon le voyant laver des herbes, il s’approcha de luy pour luy dire que s’il eut obey aux volontez de Denis il ne feroit pas reduit à cette extrémité, & que luy s’approchant aussi de son oreille, luy repartit, que s’il lavoit des herbes il n’auroit pas esté Esclave de ce Tyran. (translation by Gilles Boileau from 1668, Diogène Laërce, de la vie des philosophes. Traduction nouvelle, Paris, pp. 423-424)
Quelques uns lui attribuent aussi la répartie suivante à Platon. Celui-ci l’ayant vu éplucher des herbes, il s’approcha, et lui dit tout bas: Si tu avais fait ta cours à Denys, tu ne serais pas réduit à éplucher des herbes. Et toi, lui repartit Diogène, si tu avais épluché des herbes, tu n’aurais pas fait ta cour à Denys. (Diogène Laërce. La vie des plus illustres philosophes de l’antiquité, unknown translator, Paris: Lefèvre éditeur, 1840 p. 245)
Quelques auteurs lui attribuent aussi ce trait : Platon le voyant laver ses légumes s’approcha de lui et lui dit tout bas : « Si tu savais faire ta cour à Denys, tu ne laverais pas des légumes. — Et toi, reprit sur le même ton Diogène, si tu avais su laver des légumes, tu n’aurais pas fait la cour à Denys. » (Vies et doctrines des philosophes de l’antiquité, translation by M. Ch. Zevort, Paris: Charpentier, libraire-éditeur, 1847, Livre 6)
It is worth noting that Diogenes Laertius describes variations of the same anecdote on least on two additional occasions. In Book II, §68, Life of Aristippus, the anecdote involves Aristippus instead of Plato and the anecdote seems to tell a different lesson:
Diogenes, washing the dirt from his vegetables, saw him [Aristippus] passing and jeered at him in these terms, “If you had learnt to make these your diet, you would not have paid court to kings,” to which his rejoinder was, “And if you knew how to associate with men, you would not be washing vegetables.” (trans. Robert Drew Hicks, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1959, p. 197)
And again in Book II, §102, the anecdote involves Theodorus the Atheist (a disciple of Aristippus) and Metrocles the Cynic:
He [Theodorus] is said on one occasion in Corinth to have walked abroad with a numerous train of pupils, and Metrocles the Cynic, who was washing chervil, remarked, “You, sophist that you are, would not have wanted all these pupils if you had washed vegetables.” Thereupon Theodorus retorted, “And you, if you had known how to assosiate with men, would have had no use for these vegetables.” A similar anecdote is told of Diogenes and Aristippus, as mentioned above. (trans. Robert Drew Hicks, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1959, p. 231)
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1. To learn more about the story behind Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers and how it was copied and transmitted through the centuries, see previously here: “O friends, there are no friends”: on a quote attributed to Aristotle. ↩︎︎
2. Gadamer’s account was first published in German in 1988: “Zurück von Syrakus?” (in Die Heidegger-Kontroverse, J. Altwegg éd., Francfort, 1988, p. 176). It was republished in French in Le Nouvel Obs (January 22-28, 1988, p. 79: PDF). The identity of the “Freiburg friend” who shared the comment in the streetcar is provided by Heinrich Wiegand Petzet in his book Encounters and Dialogues with Martin Heidegger, 1929-1976: it would have been Heidegger’s colleague Wolfgang Schadewaldt (University of Chicago Press, 1993: p. 37). ↩︎︎
3.See for example the recent contribution “Did Heidegger go to Syracuse?” by Francisco J. Gonzalez (in Plato at Syracuse: Essays on Plato in Western Greece with a new translation of the Seventh Letter by Jonah Radding, Heather L. Reid and Mark Ralkowski eds., Parnassos Press – Fonte Aretusa, 2019, pp. 265-289; open access). Hannah Arendt also famously used Plato’s experience in Syracuse to compare it with Heidegger’s position in an essay written for his eightieth birthday: “Martin Heidegger at Eighty” (The New York Review of Books, Oct. 21, 1971; reproduced in in Michael Murray, ed., Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978). For another take on the problematic analogy, see Donatella Di Cesare’s Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks (trans. Murtha Baca, Polity Press, 2018, Part 1, §9). ↩︎︎