Fifth Letter (Plato)

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The Fifth Letter of Plato, also called Epistle V or Letter V, is an epistle that tradition has ascribed to Plato. It falls among those Epistles of Plato that have nothing to do with Sicilian politics and the intrigues between Dion and his nephew, Dionysius the Younger, tyrant of Syracuse. In the Stephanus pagination it spans III. 321c–322c.


The Fifth Letter purports to be a private letter addressed to Perdiccas III, king of Macedon from 365 to 359 BCE. It announces that its author has complied with Perdiccas' request to counsel one Euphraeus to turn his attention to Perdiccas' interests and then proceeds to counsel Perdiccas himself on the advantages of listening to Euphraeus' counsels. Perdiccas is young, and few people are as fit to give advice concerning politics as they claim to be. Echoing the Republic,[1] the letter goes on to say that each form of government (πολιτεία) has its own language or voice (φωνή), and that it is necessary to speak to both gods and men in the voice appropriate to the regime if one is to flourish. Euphraeus will help Perdiccas to explore the speech or logic (λόγος) of monarchy.

The letter next raises a hypothetical objection: Plato himself did not speak to the Athenian democracy, even as the above argument suggests that he knows what would be advantageous to it. It counsels Perdiccas to respond to this objection by saying that Plato was born when his fatherland had already been corrupted beyond the ability of his counsel to benefit it, while the risks of engaging in its politics were great, and that he would probably leave off counseling Perdiccas himself if he thought him incurable.



I have advised Euphraeus, as you wrote me, to look studiously after your interests, and it is right that I should give you also the proverbial "holy counsel" of a friend on the various matters you mention, and particularly as to the use you should now make of Euphraeus. The man can be of service to you in many ways, but most of all in supplying what you now lack, for you are young and there are not many who can counsel young men about it. Constitutions, like species of animals, have each their own language—democracy one, oligarchy another, and monarchy still another. Many persons would say they know these languages, but for the most part, and with rare exceptions, they fall short of understanding them. The constitution that speaks its own language to gods and men, and suits its actions to its words, always prospers and survives; but it goes to ruin if it imitates another. Now in this Euphraeus can perhaps be of most use to you, though he will be a manly aid in other respects as well; I believe that he can search out the words appropriate to monarchy as well as any man in your service. Use him, then, for this, and you will not only profit yourself but confer upon him a very great benefit.

If anyone hears this and says, "Plato apparently claims to know what is good for a democracy, but though he is at liberty to speak in the assembly and give it his best advice, he has never yet stood up and said a word," you can answer by saying, "Plato was born late in the life of his native city, and he found the demos advanced in years and habituated by former advisers to many practices incompatible with the advice he would give. Nothing would be sweeter to him than to give advice to the demos as to a father, if he did not think he would be risking danger in vain and accomplish nothing. He would do the same about advising me, I know. If we seemed to him incurable, he would bid us a long farewell and refrain from advising about me or my affairs." Good luck!

— Fifth Letter, traditionally attributed to Plato[2]


The Fifth Letter is one of the four epistles that has very little support as to its authenticity. Both R. G. Bury[3] and L. A. Post[4] consider it to be spurious, though Hamilton and Cairns suggest that it does have at least some defenders, without defending it themselves.[5] The arguments against its authenticity rely mainly on the unsatisfactory character of its content. Bury notes that the discussion of the "voices" of various regimes is borrowed from the Republic[6] and that the explanation of when it is beneficial to give counsel seems borrowed from the Seventh Letter;[7] this suggests that the author had these works before his eyes and was conscientiously trying to sound like Plato when he was writing the Fifth Letter, which would more likely be the case if he were a forger than Plato attempting to be consistent with himself. He also notes that there is no need to defend Plato's abstention from politics given the ostensive purpose of the letter, which is to recommend Euphraeus' competence. Having concluded from this that Plato is not the author, Bury speculates that, "Unless the writer were himself a monarchist, the ascription of this letter to Plato may have been due (as has been suggested) to a malicious desire to paint Plato as a supporter of Macedon and its tyrants."[3]

There is some suggestion that Plato did have some relationship with Perdiccas, though it is difficult to determine the degree to which the Fifth Letter influenced this perception, and thus the relevance of this material in examining its authenticity. A fragment of Carystius' Historical Notes preserved by Athenaeus in Book XI of the Deipnosophistae reports that "Speusippus, learning that Philip was uttering slanders about Plato, wrote in a letter something of this sort: 'As if the whole world did not know that Philip acquired the beginning of his kingship through Plato’s agency. For Plato sent to Perdiccas Euphraeus of Oreus, who persuaded Perdiccas to portion off some territory to Philip. Here Philip kept a force, and when Perdiccas died, since he had this force in readiness, he at once plunged into the control of affairs.'"[8] Demosthenes notes in his Third Philippic that Euphraeus once resided in Athens, and portrays him as being active in politics, albeit in opposition to Philip.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Plato, Republic, 493a–c
  2. ^ Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D.S. (1997). Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett. p. 1644-1645. ISBN 9780872203495.
  3. ^ a b Bury, Epistle V, 449.
  4. ^ Post, Thirteen Epistles.
  5. ^ Hamilton and Cairns, Collected Dialogues, 1516. They do not provide the name of anyone who supports its authenticity, however.
  6. ^ Plato, Republic, 493a, b
  7. ^ Plato, Seventh Letter, 330c ff.
  8. ^ Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 506d–508c.
  9. ^ Demosthenes, Third Philippic, 59–62.


  • Bury, R. G., ed. (1942) Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hamilton, Edith and Cairns, Huntington, ed. (1961 [1989]) The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Post, L. A., ed. (1925) Thirteen Epistles of Plato. Oxford.