On Essays and Letters

Probably the most famous letter writer of the ancient world was Cicero. In 59 B.C., Cicero wrote to Gaius Scribonius: “There are many sorts of letters. But there is one unmistakable sort, which actually caused letter-writing to be invented in the first place, namely the sort intended to give people in other places any information which for our or their sake they ought to know.” Though the letter seems to have largely been replaced by instantaneous electronic forms of communication, still we need and want to know what we “ought” to know.

Of Plato’s letters, we seem to have some thirteen with various degrees of certainty about his authorship. Of these letters, the most famous is the seventh. It is a profoundly philosophic letter full of things we ought to know, things that, in many ways, remain as fresh as the day in which they were written.

Near the end of this seventh letter, Plato reflects on the reasons for Dion’s failure to reform Sicily and his being killed in the process. Plato was fond of Dion but, as with too many young men, he was impatient to change the world quickly, to set up a fine regime in Sicily no matter the raw material there with which he had to work. To help in this project is why Dion sent for Plato in the first place. Dion cajoled Plato three times into coming over from Athens to Sicily to work on Dionysius, the ruler, who, so Dion thought, had some philosophic potential. Here was Plato’s chance to practice what he always preached about the best regime.

But it was not to be. Some things in human affairs can only be achieved “gradually,” as Aquinas cautioned. “There is nothing surprising in what he [Dion] experienced. For although a good man who is also prudent and sagacious cannot be altogether deceived about the character of wicked men,” Plato wrote,

it would not be surprising, if he should suffer the misfortune of a skillful captain, who, though not unaware of the approach of a storm, may not see its extraordinary and unexpected violence, and be swamped by its force. This is the mistake Dion made. Those who caused him to fall were men whom he well knew to be villains, but he did not suspect the depth of their ignorance and villainy and greed. By this error, he is fallen, and all Sicily is overwhelmed with grief” (351d).

Good men are usually not totally deceived about the “character of wicked men.” This skillful politician knew of the depths of “human villainy” but still was not expecting it when disaster happened to him.

Plato wanted to maintain that the origin of evil is largely in ignorance. If we only knew, we would be virtuous. Yet as everyone knows, the intelligent can be wicked. Indeed, both the Greeks’ literature and Scripture teach us that the wickedestare the most intelligent gone wrong. Socrates himself often said that we could not expect too much damage from the less gifted. It is the intelligent man gone wrong from whom we must diligently protect ourselves.

We are loathe to admit this paradox, even though we know that an element of good is found in every evil. No one can do something wrong without also doing something right. But the “what is right” is usually misplaced, deliberately so, to make what is wrong seem to be what is right. If, in addition, we evaporate any meaning out of things so that they have no objective standing, then right and wrong become merely “subjective.”

From the side of poetry or even philosophy, it has long been assumed to be much easier to explain evil than good. When it comes to ease of explanation, however, the mystery of iniquity is no match for the mystery of the good. Lucifer indeed always makes a better stage appearance than the good angels. It is easier to explain why we steal than to explain why we do not steal. Thus, it is clear that we often do what we would not, as St. Paul expressed it. We do it to establish ourselves as the origin of what is good. And yet, we quickly discover that our own self-defined “good” clashes with what is good.

In Plato’s Sophist, we read: “We need to use every argument we can to fight against anyone who does away with knowledge, understanding, and intelligence, but at the same time asserts anything at all about anything” (249c). Perhaps no passage in all of philosophy is more illuminating, more aware of the ironies of our existence. How amusing! We find that someone who subtly explains that no truth or knowledge of things is possible or desirable subsequently turns around to give us reasons why there is no reason. The man who denies the power or reason gives arguments for why he denies it.

The “villainy of evil,” at bottom, is the use of reason to deny reason, to deny that there is an order to which we are open. Yet, before order, we can close our eyes and not see. It is not really that we do not see, but that we do not want to see. When we make this choice not to see or know, we cannot but give reasons for it. We contradict ourselves and invite our arguments to be tested by those who hear us give reasons.

We are often led to believe that if we lead good lives, if we seek the truth, all will be well with us. Ultimately, this is true. Yet as Plato taught us, especially in the second book of the Republic, even the best and wisest of men will probably be exposed to the “villainy of evil” precisely because they are good. Brought to this realization, we are left with a choice to accept or reject the basic Socratic dictum that “it is never right to do wrong,” especially in the face of such villainy that we too often encounter in this world.

Ultimately, this confrontation is why it is more difficult to explain what is good than to explain what is evil. The explanation of evil always involves putting ourselves first over against what is good. In the end, the explanation of the good includes the overcoming of evil by what is not evil, not by what is evil. This is why Socrates uses the prophetic word “suffer.”

The “villainy of evil” always ends in attacking what is good because it is good. Even wise and prudent men sometimes, perhaps often, forget this ongoing struggle that, more than anything else, defines the real affairs of men in this world. All of this, as Cicero implied in his letter to Gaius, tells us about things we ought to know, things that the letters of Plato spell out with more clarity and detail than we are used to seeing even today, especially today.  

James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.