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Socrates 3.3 – Alcibiades I

So Alcibiades didn’t learn what’s just; but couldn’t he know by other means?

Alcibiades But what if I cannot? Do you think I could not know about what is just and unjust in any other way?

Socrates appeals again to his important premiss about sources of knowledge, introduced at 106d.

Socrates Yes, you might, supposing you discovered it.

Alcibiades But do you not think I might discover it?

Socrates Yes, quite so, if you inquired.

Alcibiades And do you not think I might inquire?

Socrates I do, if you thought you did not know.

Alcibiades And was there not a time when I held that view?

Do you agree that discovery requires that one recognize a lack of knowledge? In asking Alcibiades when he was ignorant, is he asking too much?

Socrates Well spoken. Then can you tell me at what time it was 110a that you thought you did not know what is just and unjust? Pray, was it a year ago that you were inquiring, and thought you did not know? Or did you think you knew? Please answer truly, that our debates may not be futile.

Alcibiades Well, I thought I knew.

Socrates And two years, and three years, and four years back, were you not of the same mind?

Alcibiades I was.

Socrates But, you see, before that time you were a child, were you not?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates So I know well enough that then you thought you knew.

Alcibiades How do you know it so well? 110b

“He always had them.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Many a time I heard you, when as a child you were dicing or playing some other game at your teacher’s or elsewhere, instead of showing hesitation about what was just and unjust, speak in very loud and confident tones about one or other of your playmates, saying he was a rascal and a cheat who played unfairly. Is not this a true account?

Alcibiades But what was I to do, Socrates, when somebody cheated me?

Socrates Yet if you were ignorant then whether you were being unfairly treated or not, how can you ask — “What are you to do?” 110c

Alcibiades Well, but on my word, I was not ignorant: no, I clearly understood that I was being wronged.

Socrates So you thought you knew, even as a child, it seems, what was just and unjust.

Alcibiades I did; and I knew too.

Socrates At what sort of time did you discover it? For surely it was not while you thought you knew.

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Socrates Then when did you think you were ignorant? Consider; I believe you will fail to find such a time.

Alcibiades Upon my word, Socrates, I really cannot say. 110d

Socrates So you do not know it by discovery.

Alcibiades Not at all, apparently.

Socrates But you said just now that you did not know it by learning either; and if you neither discovered nor learnt it, how do you come to know it, and whence?

Socrates’ reasoning shows that starting from the assumption that Alcibiades has knowledge, we are led to the contradiction that he also doesn’t have knowledge — which absurdity implies that the original assumption was incorrect. It looks very much like what logicians call the reductio ad absurdum form of argument (which derives from the Latin for “reduction to absurdity”).

Alcibiades doesn’t like the conclusion (line 7), and so — before the dialogue progresses — he returns to re-massage lines 3 and 4.

  1. Alcibiades has knowledge (supposed “for reductio“).
  2. If Alcibiades has knowledge, then he either discovered it himself or learned it from another.
  3. He didn’t learn it from another.
  4. He didn’t discover it himself.
  5. So he doesn’t have knowledge (a la lines 2, 3, & 4).
  6. He has and doesn’t have knowledge (combining lines 1 & 5).
  7. Thus he doesn’t have knowledge (this one is based on lines 1 through 6).


Alcibiades Well, perhaps that answer I gave you was not correct, that I knew it by my own discovery.

Socrates Then how was it done?

Alcibiades I learnt it, I suppose, in the same way as everyone else.

Socrates Back we come to the same argument. From whom? Please tell me. 110e

“He learned them of the many.” (Jowett’s note)

Alcibiades From the many.

Socrates They are no very serious teachers with whom you take refuge, if you ascribe it to the many!

Alcibiades Why, are they not competent to teach?

Socrates Not how to play, or not to play, draughts; and yet that, I imagine, is a slight matter compared with justice. What? Do you not think so?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Then if they are unable to teach the slighter, can they teach the more serious matter?

Alcibiades I think so: at any rate, there are many other things that they are able to teach, more serious than draughts.

Socrates What sort of things? 111a

“as he learned Greek; — of those who knew it.” (Jowett’s note)

Alcibiades For instance, it was from them that I learnt to speak Greek, and I could not say who was my teacher, but can only ascribe it to the same people who, you say, are not serious teachers.

Socrates Ah, gallant sir, the many may be good teachers of that, and they can justly be praised for their teaching of such subjects.

Alcibiades And why?

Socrates Because in those subjects they have the equipment proper to good teachers.

Alcibiades What do you mean by that?

Socrates You know that those who are going to teach anything should first know it themselves, do you not? 111b

Alcibiades Of course.

Socrates And that those who know should agree with each other and not differ?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates But if they differ upon anything, will you say that they know it?

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Socrates Then how can they be teachers of it?

Alcibiades By no means.

“Yes: the many can teach things about which they are agreed.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Well now, do you find that the many differ about the nature of stone or wood? If you ask one of them, 111c do they not agree on the same answer, and make for the same things when they want to get a piece of stone or wood? It is just the same, too, with everything of the sort: for I am pretty nearly right in understanding you to mean just this by knowing how to speak Greek, am I not?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And on these matters, as we stated, they not only agree with each other and with themselves in private, but states also use in public the same terms about them to each other, without any dispute?

Alcibiades They do. 111d

Socrates Then naturally they will be good teachers of these matters.

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And if we should wish to provide anyone with knowledge of them, we should be right in sending him to be taught by “the many” that you speak of?

Alcibiades Certainly.

Do “the many” know that about which they disagree — such as which horses are fastest, which conditions cause disease in humans, and which policies are just?

Socrates But what if we wished to know not only what men were like or what horses were like, but which of them were good runners or not? Would the many still suffice to teach us this?

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Socrates And you have ample proof that they do not know this, 111e and are not proficient teachers of it, in their not agreeing about it at all with themselves?

Alcibiades I have.

“But could the many teach things about which they are disagreed?” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates And what if we wished to know not only what men were like, but what healthy or diseased men were like? Would the many suffice to teach us?

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Socrates And you would have proof of their being bad teachers of that, if you saw them differing about it?

Alcibiades I should.

“And one of these things is justice.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Well then, do you now find that the many agree with themselves or each other 112a about just and unjust men or things?

Alcibiades Far from it, on my word, Socrates.

Socrates In fact, they differ most especially on these points?

Alcibiades Very much so.

Socrates And I suppose you never yet saw or heard of people differing so sharply on questions of health or the opposite as to fight and kill one another in battle because of them.

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Note 6: i.e., at the recitations of rhapsodes; cf. the Ion of Plato.

“Did not a question of justice cause the war between the Trojans and Achaeans, and between the Athenians and Lacedaemonians?” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates But on questions of justice or injustice I am sure you have; 112b and if you have not seen them, at any rate you have heard of them from many people, especially Homer. For you have heard6 the Odyssey and the Iliad?

Alcibiades I certainly have, I suppose, Socrates.

Socrates And these poems are about a difference of just and unjust

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And from this difference arose the fights and deaths of the Achaeans, and of the Trojans as well, and of the suitors of Penelope in their strife with Odysseus. 112c

Alcibiades That is true.

Note 7: 457 B.C.
Note 8: 447 B.C.

Socrates And I imagine that when the Athenians and Spartans and Boeotians lost their men at Tanagra,7 and later at Coronea,8 among whom your own father perished, the difference that caused their deaths and fights was solely on a question of just and unjust, was it not?

Alcibiades That is true.

“And yet they did not know what they were fighting about?” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Then are we to say that these people understand those questions, on which 112d they differ so sharply that they are led by their mutual disputes to take these extreme measures against each other?

Alcibiades Apparently not.

Socrates And you refer me to teachers of that sort, whom you admit yourself to be without knowledge?

Alcibiades It seems I do.

Who’s “Doing the Talking”?


Socrates Then how is it likely that you should know what is just and unjust, when you are so bewildered about these matters and are shown to have neither learnt them from anyone nor discovered them for yourself?

Alcibiades By what you say, it is not likely. 112e

Socrates There again, Alcibiades, do you see how unfairly you speak?

Alcibiades In what?

Who is reaching these conclusions? Socrates or Alcibiades? What does Socrates think? What do you think?

Socrates In stating that I say so.

Alcibiades Why, do you not say that l do not know about the just and unjust?

Socrates Not at all.

Alcibiades Well, do I say it?

Socrates Yes.

Alcibiades How, pray?

Socrates I will show you, in the following way. If I ask you which is the greater number, one or two, you will answer “two”?

Alcibiades Yes, I shall.

Socrates How much greater?

Alcibiades By one.

Socrates Then which of us says that two are one more than one?

Alcibiades I.

Socrates And I was asking, and you were answering?

Alcibiades Yes. 113a

Socrates Then is it I, the questioner, or you the answerer, that are found to be speaking about these things?

Alcibiades I.

“The answerer, not the questioner, has been drawing these inferences.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates And what if I ask what are the letters in “Socrates,” and you tell me? Which will be the speaker?

Alcibiades I.

Socrates is, like his mother, a midwife of sorts – only he facilitates an intellectual or spiritual birth.

[W]hen we have question and answer… the answerer… is the speaker.

Socrates Come then, tell me, as a principle, when we have question and answer, which is the speaker — the questioner, or the answerer?

Alcibiades The answerer, I should say, Socrates. 113b

Socrates And throughout the argument so far, I was the questioner?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And you the answerer?

Alcibiades Quite so.

Socrates Well then, which of us has spoken what has been said?

Alcibiades Apparently, Socrates, from what we have admitted, it was I.

Socrates And it was said that Alcibiades, the fair son of Cleinias, did not know about just and unjust, but thought he did, and intended to go to the Assembly as adviser to the Athenians on what he knows nothing about; is not that so? 113c

Alcibiades Apparently.


“How can you teach what you do not know?” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Then, to quote Euripides,9 the result is, Alcibiades, that you may be said to have “heard it from yourself, not me,
” and it is not I who say it, but you, and you tax me with it in vain. And indeed what you say is quite true. For it is a mad scheme this, that you meditate, my excellent friend — of teaching things that you do not know, since you have taken no care to learn them. 113d
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