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Topic #B22

Plato, Alcibiades


29 October 2001

Scribes: Paula Viola and Jane Sigen


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



      In parallel with the conclusion of Friday’s lecture on the desire for recognition, in Alcibiades the desire for power is also a lunatic endeavour.

      Alcibiades was arguably the most notorious of Socrates’ students.  The son of a famous warrior who died fighting for Athens; Alcibiades was brought up by the eminent politician Pericles.  Considerably vain, he had wealth, good looks and prominent relations and people swarmed to him, for both political and sexual connections.  Alcibiades stayed aloof.  The last suitor is the weird, ugly Socrates and the dialogue is the intellectual seduction of Alcibiades by Socrates.

      Alcibiades played a significant role in the city. As chief commander of a very expensive expedition to capture Sicily, he was presented with an arrest warrant as soon as he reached the island.  He was suspected of involvement in most alarming disturbances.  On the eve of his departure, throughout Athens, statues of Hermes, the god to whom the entire city prayed for protection, had been systematically defaced.  There were also reports of a gross parody of certain initiation rites, the “Eleusinian Mysteries".  Great confusion resulted; some believed the acts were political or ideological warfare, while many believed it was an attempt to destabilize the state.  Suspicion fell on a clique of hard drinkers that included Alcibiades.  He defected to Sparta, and lived there until expelled by the king on suspicion of “exploiting his status as a guest” with the queen.  He became a free-lance pirate and a spy in Asia Minor but was summoned back to Athens, which needed his military skills.  He negotiated the following conditions for his return:  that he be given command of the army; that the decree of exile, carved in stone in the centre of the city, be uprooted and tossed into the sea; and that the constitution be changed to weaken the democratic nature of the Assembly giving the rich more influence.  This last condition led to an unstable government and eventual revolution.  The change was reversed and Alcibiades was out of favour again.  His skipped town and returned to piracy.  On an embassy to the King of Persia he was assassinated in 406.  (Athens lost the war in 404 BCE.)

      The above are not the actions of a person of integrity.  Alcibiades’ career is the biggest blot on Socrates’ reputation.  Most scholars who followed Socrates wrote dialogues about the relationship; clearly it had to be dealt with.  For example, Antisthenes and Xenophon both rebut the charges against Socrates.

      The dialogue titled Alcibiades in the Plato corpus clearly argues that Socrates is not at fault.  There is some debate among academics as to whether Plato actually wrote this dialogue, Prof. Hutchinson thinks not.  Plato wrote an unconventional Alcibiades in the Symposium in which a drunken Alcibiades bursts in and praises Socrates instead of the god of love.  Therefore, there is no reason for Plato to write a separate dialogue in defence of Socrates relationship with Alcibiades.  In addition, this dialogue is too clear for Plato who is usually much more crafty and subtle.  Nevertheless, the dialogue is valuable for two reasons.  Its first purpose, as with those of other philosophers, is to exonerate Socrates.  Secondly, it is a written advertisement for philosophy addressed to young people who are ambitious, confident and talented to invite them to study and receive the guidance which philosophy can provide.

      The dialogue:  After some initial erotic jockeying, Socrates rudely tells Alcibiades what Alcibiades is thinking.  Socrates’ guess is accurate; Alcibiades wants power to rule not just Athens but also Greece, the barbarians, the Persians, and the rest of the world.  There is no logical limit to his ambition.  In the Theages, Plato also discusses the desire for power, which he equates with the desire to dominate.  This desire has a valid function if its purpose is to bring about a good effect or self-preservation.  However, there must be knowledge of what is worthy, what is right, and how it is right.  Power is admirable if used for good purposes, but limitless power is pointless.  The desire for power is just as lunatic as the desire for recognition or money.  It is rational to want to prevent poverty, and provide for oneself in old age, however, the desire is lunatic if there are no limits on the amount of money accumulated. For Socrates, power and desire were useful only as a means to good but harmful if harnessed to bad objectives.

      Throughout the dialogue, Alcibiades is progressively humiliated and looses confidence.  The climax is a 2-page speech by Socrates after which Alcibiades is left feeling vulnerable and dim-witted.  Socrates then takes him further in the direction of self-examination.  At the end Alcibiades offers himself to Socrates for guidance and the seduction is successful.

      The approaches used by Socrates in addressing Alcibiades are also found in Xenophon and Plato, so we can trust that they are Socratic.  Socrates tries to get Alcibiades to see that he doesn’t have knowledge of any abstract concept: right / wrong, fair / unfair.  Alcibiades thinks he knows but cannot show how he learned or who was his teacher.  He suggests that he learned about justice in the same way he learned to speak Greek – from other people.  He argues that the community, not an individual, gives linguistic competence and that even advanced competence can be achieved without a teacher.  This idea leads us to examine whether virtue can be learned the same way.  Can we imbibe community standards and triangulate to a correct position by discussions in the community?  It seems a valid theory, also offered by Protagoras and not questioned by Socrates.  However, he claims it is absurd to expect that the competence we develop from the community will lead to excellence because outstanding ability cannot come from the ordinary community.  Therefore it is not relevant for Alcibiades to claim that he learns anything higher than language from the community; at most he gets the seeds, the starting points of knowledge.  Alcibiades needs higher skills because he is aiming high. Socrates offers a route to the outstanding expertise he needs.

      Next Prof. Hutchinson discussed the argument in 115 and following.  Socrates has Alcibiades investigate his knowledge of what is right and what is advantageous.  Alcibiades believes that a thing is either ‘right’ or ‘in our own best interests’; that they are two separate entities.  Therefore, if we can get away with it should we do the right thing in public and the advantageous in private?  In the Republic, Plato takes 10 books to argue that the moral good is in our best interest.  He shows that there is harm to us in doing wrong, even if it seems to be in our best interest.

      The argument in Alcibiades is simpler – whenever we act on moral motivation we pursue our interests.  If we have self-respect, then we care whether we act in a certain way.  If we take our moral ground seriously, if we value our virtue, we will act in light of it.  Therefore there is no separation between the advantageous and the right. (This is also a theme in the Gorgias.)  This is not to say that rushing into battle at risk of life and limb is a good thing butyou and others might see it as courageous and in keeping with your definition of virtue. 

      Professor Hutchinson briefly highlighted Section 132b and following as an introduction to self-knowledge.  How can we know ourselves beyond the superficial, obvious level?  We can only view outwards; and can only see ourselves in a mirror.  Socrates suggests that by looking into eyes of a friend we will see a miniature of our selves reflected in the pupil.  Similarly, the mind of the friend can show us a picture of our internal selves.  Therefore, we should enter a friendly relationship to do philosophy together.  By philosophical conversation on the topics of wisdom we can access real self-knowledge.  (This idea of a philosophical friendship is impressive and persuasive; it became a trope for later discussions on the nature of friendship.)  “Self-knowledge is best gained through a philosophical friendship in which we see ourselves, as if in a mirror.” (Page 558, Plato Complete Works)

      In the dialogue, Socrates has proved that for Alcibiades to learn he must develop a relationship with a loyal friend, a philosopher who will continue where the community left off.