Review of ‘Plato: Letters to my Son’ (Dr Neel Burton)

Plato: Letters to my Son provides an approachable introduction to the life, works and context of Plato. However, its author, Dr Neel Burton, has not set out to achieve this alone. In fact, he categorised this book as “Fiction”, choosing to set it as a letter written in the voice of Plato to his son while on his deathbed. With the depiction of Plato himself sparse and unwieldy, I do not think that Dr Burton has succeeded in the implicit objective of writing a fictional work – of bringing the man himself to life.

Dr Burton’s research and background context are solid. A particularly crucial formative experience for Plato, for example, would have been the trial and execution of Socrates. The chapter of Dr Burton’s book dealing with this is based on Plato’s Apology, faithfully relaying Plato’s original account and embellishing it with descriptions of how the jurors could have reacted to some of Socrates’ claims. However, it is very difficult to bring Plato to life. After all, Plato “never spoke with his own voice” – this from the synopsis of another of Dr Burton’s books, Plato’s Shadow: A Primer on Plato. Ultimately, if the reader is not persuaded by Dr Burton’s attempt to replicate the voice of Plato, even well-researched explorations of Plato’s philosophy, character and cultural context (which this book undoubtedly contains) will appear didactic rather than gripping.

Of course, Dr Burton’s work is a novel, as well as an exploration of Plato’s philosophy and socio-historical context. Therefore, we might expect Plato to be introduced to the reader not purely as a source of philosophy, but with depth of character in himself. In fact, the book’s status as a novel depends on Plato being brought to life as a believable character. In my opinion, a gold standard has been established by the fictional works of Robert Harris, centring on the life of Cicero. Though based on the surviving actions, speeches and writings of Cicero, Harris’ works set this against a sensitive portrayal of Cicero’s characteristics and personal traits. Though Dr Burton has chosen a writing style well-suited to introducing gobbets of philosophy to the reader, it fails to make Plato’s character come to life enough to be gripping for the reader. An example:

“It is not until the cold bath that I began to reflect upon the slave boy’s impromptu lesson in geometry. On the face of it, it seems that all learning is impossible…”

In a novel, as opposed to a translation or summary of Plato’s works, I consider it more important to add depth to Plato’s character than to imitate his voice from surviving writings. Rather than a character, Dr Burton’s construct sometimes veers dangerously close to becoming a mouthpiece for what Plato believed. In the above example, a description of a daily routine merely serves as an excuse to introduce more philosophical musings. Later, he describes how his half-brother (with whom he apparently “developed a close bond”) drifted away from philosophy:

“Antiphon abandoned philosophy in favour of raising horses, thereby proving that he had never really understood the essential nature of our endeavour.”

But does this rather pompous pronouncement come from Plato the character, or Plato the mouthpiece for philosophy? This seems unexpected, and perhaps disappointing, in a character who pledged “not so much to counsel you as to furnish you with an account of my life and thought” at the very beginning of the first chapter.

Overall, for an approachable introduction to Plato’s writings, their context in Athens at the time, and the experiences which may have influenced his thoughts, this book would certainly be a good place to start for the unfamiliar reader. And, indeed, that may be what the majority of prospective readers are looking for in a novel about Plato. But does it bring the man to life? This is what one would expect of a novel – but, fundamentally, I don’t think it achieves this.