Socrates 3.1 – Alcibiades I

"Socrates," by Mitch Francis
"Socrates," by Mitch Francis
“Socrates,” by Mitch Francis

First Alcibiades,” or just “Alcibiades,” as our text is alternatively called, presents a dialogue between Socrates and the young and beautiful Alcibiades, who hasn’t thought too carefully about his ambitious plans for life. The dialogue

  • showcases Socrates’ method (the elenchus) as a tool for bringing clarity, and the role of perplexity (aporia) in intellectual growth;
  • evaluates and differentiates sources of knowledge, such as what we learn from relevant experts, or from the public (here called “the many”);
  • exposes important differences between acknowledged and unrecognized ignorance;
  • on that basis, offers a critique of politics as usual; and
  • defends a connection between what is useful on the one hand, and what is good and just, on the other.

But the center-piece is Socrates’ claim that care of the soul requires self-knowledge — which is no surprise to the readers of The Apology!

The ancients designated First Alcibiades as “essential reading” for new students of Socratic and Platonic thought. Contemporary scholars, however, classify it with the “Dubia” (which is Latin for ‘doubtful’): it is no longer agreed by all to have come from Plato himself. Even so, it is firmly established as representative Socratic thought such that even at a time when charges of disputed authenticity were in vogue, Jowett wrote that “of all the disputed dialogues of Plato, [Alcibiades] has the greatest merit” (see the introduction to his translation). More recently, Cooper says of some of the Dubia in his Introduction to Plato: Complete Works:*

* – More recently still, Nicholas Denyer has defended authenticity in his contribution to the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series (Plato: Alcibiades. Cambridge University Press, 2001).

…Even if these dialogues are not by Plato himself (and at least… Alcibiades could very well be), they are… valuable works, casting interesting light on Socrates and the Socratic legacy. They also deserve attention as important documents in the history of Platonism: it is worthy of note that teachers of Platonist philosophy in later antiquity standardly organized their instruction through lectures on ten ‘major’ dialogues, beginning with Alcibiades. (p. ix. Hackett Publishing. 1997.)

Note that the dialogue takes for granted a cultural background against which the sexual tension between these two males was within the norm, as opposed to sensational. (It’s also worth nothing that in The Symposium, Plato depicts the relationship between these two quite differently.)

Alcibiades 1

Alcibiades: Ambitious and …

Note 1: Socrates refers to the “spiritual sign” which occasionally warned him against an intended action: cf. Plat. Apol. 31c-d, Plat. Apol. 40a-b.

“The pride of Alcibiades has been too much for his lovers.” (Jowett’s note)

Alcibiades is not just stunningly good-looking; he was raised in the house of Pericles (c. 495-429 BCE), the great Athenian leader under whom the arts and democracy flourished. In short, he is something of a celebrity. Known historically as a general, a politician, and an orator, Alicibiades could “talk the talk.”

103a Socrates Son of Cleinias,
I think it must surprise you that I, the first of all your lovers, am the only one of them who has not given up his suit and thrown you over, and whereas they have all pestered you with their conversation
I have not spoken one word to you for so many years. The cause of this has been nothing human, but a certain spiritual opposition, 1 of whose power you shall be informed at some later time. However, it now opposes me no longer, 103b so I have accordingly come to you; and I am in good hopes that it will not oppose me again in the future. Now I have been observing you all this time
, and have formed a pretty good notion of your behavior to your lovers: for although they were many and high-spirited, everyone of them has found your spirit too strong for him and has run away. 104a Let me explain the reason of your spirit being too much for them. You say you have no need of any man in any matter; for your resources are so great, beginning with the body and ending with the soul, that you lack nothing.
You think, in the first place, that you are foremost in beauty and stature—and you are not mistaken in this, as is plain for all to see—and in the second place, that you are of the most gallant family in your city, the greatest city in Greece, and 104b that there you have, through your father, very many of the best people as your friends and kinsmen, who would assist you in case of need, and other connections also, through your mother, who are not a whit inferior to these, nor fewer. And you reckon upon a stronger power than all those that I have mentioned, in Pericles, son of Xanthippus, whom your father left as guardian of you and your brother when he died, and who is able to do whatever he likes not only in this city but all over Greece
and among many great nations of the barbarians. 104c And I will add besides the wealth of your house: but on this, I observe, you presume least of all. Well, you puff yourself up on all these advantages, and have overcome your lovers, while they in their inferiority have yielded to your might, and all this has not escaped you; so I am very sure that you wonder what on earth I mean by not getting rid of my passion, and what can be my hope in remaining when the rest have fled.

Alcibiades Perhaps also, Socrates, you are not aware that 104d you have only just anticipated me. For I, in fact, had the intention of coming and asking you first that very same question—what is your aim and expectation in bothering me by making a particular point of always turning up wherever I may be. For I really do wonder what can be your object, and should be very glad if you would tell me.

Socrates Then you will listen to me, presumably, with keen attention if, as you say, you long to know what I mean, and I have in you a listener who will stay to hear me out.

Alcibiades Why, to be sure: only speak. 104e

Socrates Look to it, then; for it would be no wonder if I should make as much difficulty about stopping as I have made about starting.

Alcibiades My good sir, speak; for I will listen.

“Alcibiades a lover, not of pleasure, but of ambition; and he requires the help of Socrates for the accomplishment of his designs.” (Jowett’s note)

“And this is the reason why Socrates has clung to him; he is hoping when Alcibiades has become the ruler of Athens to rule over him.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Speak I must, I suppose. Now, although it is hard for a lover to parley with a man who does not yield to lovers, I must make bold nevertheless to put my meaning into words. For if I saw you, Alcibiades, content with the things I set forth just now, and minded to pass your life in enjoying them, I should long ago have put away my love, 105a so at least I persuade myself: but as it is, I shall propound to your face quite another set of your thoughts, whereby you will understand that I have had you continually before my mind. For
I believe, if some god should ask you: “Alcibiades, do you prefer to live with your present possessions, or to die immediately if you are not to have the chance of acquiring greater things?” I believe you would choose to die. But let me tell you what I imagine must be the present hope of your life. You think that if you come shortly before the Athenian Assembly — which 105b you expect to occur in a very few days — you will stand forth and prove to the people that you are more worthy of honor than either Pericles or anyone else who has ever existed, and that having proved this you will have the greatest power in the state; and that if you are the greatest here, you will be the same among all the other Greeks, and not only Greeks, but all the barbarians who inhabit the same continent with us.
And if that same god should say to you again, that you are to hold sway here in Europe, 105c but are not to be allowed to cross over into Asia and to interfere with the affairs of that region, I believe you would be equally loth to live on those sole conditions either — if you are not to fill, one may say, the whole world with your name and your power; and I fancy that, except Cyrus and Xerxes, you think there has never existed a single man who was of any account. So then that this is your hope, I know well enough; I am not merely guessing. And I daresay you will reply, since you know that what I say is true: “Well, 105d Socrates, and what has that to do with your point?” I am going to tell you, dear son of Cleinias and Deinomache. Without me it is impossible for all those designs of yours to be crowned with achievement; so great is the power I conceive myself to have over your affairs and over you, and it is for this very reason, I believe, that the god has so long prevented me from talking with you, and I was waiting to see when he would allow me. For as 105e you have hopes of proving yourself in public to be invaluable to the state and, having proved it, of winning forthwith unlimited power, so do I hope to win supreme power over you by proving that I am invaluable to you, and that neither guardian nor kinsman nor anyone else is competent to transmit to you the power that you long for except me, with the god’s help, however.
In your younger days, to be sure, before you had built such high hopes, the god, as I believe, prevented me from talking with you, in order that I might not waste my words: but now he has set me on; 106a for now you will listen to me.

“Alcibiades does not deny the impeachment.” (Jowett’s note)

You seem to me far more extraordinary, Socrates, now that you have begun to speak, than before, when you followed me about in silence; though even then you looked strange enough.
Well, as to my intending all this or not, you have apparently made your decision, and any denial of mine will not avail me to persuade you. Very good: but supposing I have intended ever so much what you say, how are you the sole means through which I can hope to attain it? Can you tell me? 106b

Socrates Are you asking whether I can make a long speech, such as you are used to hearing? No, my gift is not of that sort. But I fancy I could prove to you that the case is so, if you will consent to do me just one little service.

Alcibiades Why, if you mean a service that is not troublesome, I consent.

Socrates Do you consider it troublesome to answer questions put to you?

Alcibiades No, I do not.

Socrates Then answer.

“Alcibiades is willing to answer questions.” (Jowett’s note)

Alcibiades Ask.

Socrates Well, you have the intentions 106c which I say you have, I suppose?

Alcibiades Be it so, if you like, in order that I may know what you will say next.