The Philosopher King        

A painful departure from Syracuse:

Plato descending the water-stair;

Dionysius II attending him there,

With six hundred spearmen standing guard.


Gone now the inconsequent days

When the marble floors of the palace were strewn with sand

And the Master traced with his wand

The square on the hypotenuse,

While his puzzled tyrannic pupil glared

At anyone who dared

To look as if this were a subject to amuse.

Then the entourage of adventurers talked

Of nothing but triangles and of their utter relief

In the desirability of a perfect life.


All might have continued,

Even though the tyrant sulked

At moments, drew back from the vista

Of virtue mathematically displayed on the sanded floor -

All might have continued

Had not the genius guest

One day demonstrated the outline of disaster.

Gazing with distaste

At the spearmen in their gilded metal,

He had spoken with the fatal

Clarity of an incomparable teacher:

‘A philosopher-king would trust

His safety to the love of his people.’


The doriphoroi did not care

For what they had heard.

‘It's him or us,’ they said.

‘If he stays,’ they said, ‘we go.’

Dionysius answered: ‘This is absurd.

You could learn much from every word

Which so famous a philosopher says.’

‘Perhaps,’ they said. ‘It’s for you to choose.’

Dionysius measured his safety with them

Against the strength of his people’s love.

And he chose.


Now the spears flashed in the Sicilian sunlight.

Now the gold embossed panoplies of the doriphoroi

Glittered into the eyes of the wise

Man who passed between them as through fire.


At the landing-stage beside the Athenian ship

Which in a moment would bear the Master away,

Dionysius bade farewell.

‘I hope,’ he said in a hesitant voice,

‘That when you are once more in Greece

You and your friends

Will not speak too unkindly about me.’


Plato, because he was truly great

And not one to wait

Until he was beyond the reach

Of the tyrant’s spearmen, said:

‘I trust

That we shall never be so much

In want of a subject for conversation

As to speak of you at all.’


It is to Dionysius’s credit

That he let him go.