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Topic #B22

Plato, Alcibiades


29 October 2001

Scribes: Kathryn Semogas and Ayca Hekimgil


These minutes were spoken on 31 October; for another version,

go to the unspoken minutes



In this dialogue Socrates is having a conversation with Alcibiades, son of a famous father, member of a wealthy and important family.  After his fathers’ death in battle, Pericles brought up Alcibiades.  As a young man Alcibiades had many advantages; he was charismatic, good looking and well connected, thereby drawing the admiration of many people who wanted to be associated with him.  Alcibiades didn’t take much notice of his many admirers, yet he did choose to talk with Socrates, undoubtedly one of his weirdest fans. 


In his later life Alcibiades became politically influential and persuaded the Athenian government to send an expedition to Sicily.  On the eve of this expedition, there were disturbances involving hostile acts of vandalism committed by a group of youths in which statues dedicated to Hermes were defaced.  These acts were taken by the community to be demonstrative of political and ideological blasphemy.  In addition to this, there were reports that this group of youths was also involved in parodies of the mysteries of initiation.  Therefore, those guilty of these acts were thought to be trying to destabilize the State by defying the Gods.  Alcibiades fell under suspicion partly because he was part of a rowdy, mischievous, boozing group of young aristocrats.  The expedition, led by Alcibiades and Nicias, had already departed, but a ship was dispatched with a warrant for the arrest of Alcibiades.  Instead of returning to Athens to face trial he defected to Sparta, where he lived until he was expelled by the king for being suspected of having had sexual relations with his queen. 


After this, he moved around and did freelance pirating and espionage in Persia.  Eventually he negotiated a return to Athens.  The conditions of his return involved restoring him to a position of command and the destruction of decree outlawing him from Athens.  He also demanded that the Athenian constitution be reformed in order to give aristocrats more power.  These terms were accepted because Athens was losing its battles abroad and in need of a good leader.  After he returned to Athens, Alcibiades began to neglect his duties, was tried for this offence, and ran away again to Persia where he was assassinated in 406 BC.  The story of his escapades indicates that Alcibiades was a man legendary for his lack of integrity. 


Although there is no scholarly consensus on the matter, it is Professor Hutchinson’s opinion that the Alcibiades dialogue was not written by Plato.  Professor Hutchinson believes Plato’s dialogue concerning Alcibiades is buried within The Symposium.  A section of The Symposium describes the basis of Socrates and Alcibiades’ relationship and ends with a drunken Alcibiades giving a speech in praise of Socrates.  In addition to this reason for not attributing the anonymous Alcibiades dialogue to Plato, Professor Hutchinson noted that it is written in a style which is easy to interpret, and lacks the subtlety and craftiness of Plato’s works. 


         This dialogue has two clear purposes.  First, it is an attempt to exonerate Socrates from charges leveled at him by the Athenian community.  Secondly, it is a sort of advertisement that urges people towards the study of philosophy, particularly people like Alcibiades who had talent and ambition but need the guidance of philosophy most of all.  The first thing that happens in this dialogue is that Socrates tells Alcibiades exactly what is on Alcibiades’ mind and immediately puts him on the defensive.  Socrates believes that Alcibiades is a person who wants power over the known world and there is no logical limit to his desire for power.  Professor Hutchinson noted that the desire for power and domination is logical if it is motivated by a need for self-preservation.  If this is not the case and a person is fixated on power for no logical reason, then having power is not useful.  In other words, one must have knowledge of what is worth struggling for.  Power is good when it is used for the correct purposes; otherwise, there is no point in having it.  For example, the desire for money is rational if the person who desires it has had some experience with poverty and thus knows what amount of money is necessary to survive.  On the other hand, a person who desires an unlimited amount of money and has no idea of what is simply necessary has a lunatic desire. 


         As the dialogue progresses, Alcibiades becomes increasingly confused and more susceptible to Socrates’ arguments.  The more Alcibiades examines himself, the closer he gets to giving in to Socrates.  The sequence of lines of argument presented by Socrates in this dialogue parallel those presented by Xenophon and Plato in their works.  This commonality indicates fixed doctrines and approaches used by Socrates.  For instance in the first third of Alcibiades, Socrates tries to show Alcibiades that he has no concept of morality.  Alcibiades maintains that he does.  Socrates asks him ‘who taught you this concept?’  Alcibiades replies that knowledge of morality is perhaps just like his knowledge of Greek in that no particular individual is the teacher of these subjects.  Rather, the collective community teaches them.  It is important to note that this idea is mentioned in Protagoras and not challenged by Socrates.  However, in Alcibiades Socrates’ argument is that we cannot expect excellent knowledge to come from the community; we can only expect the root of knowledge to come from it.  Therefore, those wishing to excel require the expertise that Socrates offers to teach. 


Next, the issue of whether rudimentary knowledge is sufficient for Alcibiades arises.  Or, is it worthwhile for him to cultivate more skills and expertise?  Alcibiades argues that he may not know what is morally right, but he knows what is advantageous and it is the leader’s role to know what is advantageous in the public arena.  Thus Alcibiades separates what is morally right and what is advantageous into two different categories.  In Plato’s Republic Socrates is faced with having to prove that this distinction does not exist.  In other words, morally good behavior is what is absolutely advantageous and in our best interests.  In Alcibiades, Socrates gets at this argument but makes a smaller claim and thus does not put forth the same thesis.  That is, once you acquire a sense of morality your self-interests are transformed.  If you take a value seriously you will attempt to follow it insofar as the concern is yours and it is in your interest to uphold it.  Therefore you cannot fully separate interest and moral concern.  For example, although losing an arm in battle would not seem to be in one’s best interest, you have actually done what is advantageous in your own lights, because you have remained loyal to your state and displayed your moral virtue. 


         One final point in the lecture had to do with self-analysis.  At 132b, the issue discussed is how one can come to truly know oneself.  We always cast our mind outwards and only see ourselves on the surface.  Socrates says that within the mind of a friend, you can see a small reflection of yourself and likewise sharing in philosophy gives us the best access to self-knowledge.  Socrates is obviously implying that through cultivating a relationship with him, Alcibiades will get closer to where he needs to be in order to achieve his goals.