Socrates 3.2 – Alcibiades I

"Socrates," by Mitch Francis

Socrates Now then: you intend, as I say, to come forward as adviser to the Athenians in no great space of time; well, suppose I were to take hold of you as you were about to ascend the platform, and were to ask you: “Alcibiades, on what subject do the Athenians propose to take advice, that you should stand up to advise them? Is it something about which you have better knowledge than they?” What would be your reply? 106d

“He is going to advise the Athenians about matters which he knows better than they.” (Jowett’s note)

Alcibiades I should say, I suppose, it was something about which I knew better than they.

Socrates Then you are a good adviser on things about which you actually know.

Alcibiades To be sure.

An important premiss:
If one knows something, then one either learned it from another or discovered it oneself. Note how Socrates uses Alcibiades’ agreement repeatedly.

Socrates And you know only the things you have learnt from others or discovered yourself?

Alcibiades What could I know besides?

Socrates And can it be that you would ever have learnt or discovered anything without being willing either to learn it or to inquire into it yourself?

Alcibiades No.

Would you have been willing to inquire into or learn what you thought you knew?

Another important premiss:
Unrecognized ignorance blocks knowledge.

Socrates Well then, would you have been willing to inquire into or learn what you thought you knew?

Alcibiades No, indeed. 106e

Socrates So there was a time when you did not think that you knew what you now actually know.

Alcibiades There must have been.

What is Socrates doing here? Is he actually looking for what Alcibiades might have learned that he means to share?

  • He’s learned music and wrestling; but those aren’t relevant to leading a city.
  • Building and health are; but he hasn’t learned those — builders and physicians know those better…

“But when did he ever learn about these matters?” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Well, but I know pretty nearly the things that you have learnt: tell me if anything has escaped me. You learnt, if I recollect, writing and harping and wrestling; as for fluting, you refused to learn it. These are the things that you know, unless perhaps there is something you have been learning unobserved by me; and this you were not, I believe, if you so much as stepped out of doors either by night or by day.

Alcibiades No, I have taken no other lessons than those. 107a

Socrates Then tell me, will it be when the Athenians are taking advice how they are to do their writing correctly that you are to stand up and advise them?

Alcibiades Upon my word, not I.

Socrates Well, about strokes on the lyre?

Alcibiades Not at all.

Socrates Nor in fact are they accustomed to deliberate on throws in wrestling either at the Assembly.

Alcibiades No, to be sure.

Socrates Then what will be the subject of the advice? For I presume it will not be about building.

Alcibiades No, indeed. 107b

Socrates For a builder will give better advice than you in that matter.

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Nor yet will it be about divination?

Alcibiades No.

Socrates For there again a diviner will serve better than you.

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Whether he be short or tall, handsome or ugly, nay, noble or ignoble.

Alcibiades Of course.

Socrates For on each subject the advice comes from one who knows, not one who has riches.

Alcibiades Of course.

Socrates And whether their mentor be poor or rich will make no difference to the Athenians when they deliberate 107c for the health of the citizens; all that they require of their counsellor is that he be a physician.

Alcibiades Naturally.

Socrates Then what will they have under consideration if you are to be right in standing up, when you do so, as their counsellor?

Alcibiades Their own affairs, Socrates.

Socrates Do you mean with regard to shipbuilding, and the question as to what sort of ships they ought to get built?

Alcibiades No, I do not, Socrates.

Socrates Because, I imagine, you do not understand shipbuilding. Is that, and that alone, the reason?

Alcibiades That is just the reason. 107d

Socrates Well, on what sort of affairs of their own do you mean that they will be deliberating?

Progress: Alcibiades will advise Athens on when and how to make war. How well is he prepared to do that?

“He will advise them about war and peace, and with whom they had better go to war, and when and how long.” (Jowett’s note)

Alcibiades On war, Socrates, or on peace, or on any other of the state’s affairs.

Socrates Do you mean that they will be deliberating with whom they ought to make peace, and on whom they ought to make war, and in what manner?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And on whom it is better to do so, ought they not?

Alcibiades Yes. 107e

Socrates And at such time as it is better?

Alcibiades Certainly.

Socrates And for so long as they had better?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Now if the Athenians should deliberate with whom they should wrestle close, and with whom only at arm’s length, and in what manner, would you or the wrestling-master be the better adviser?

Alcibiades The wrestling-master, I presume.

Socrates And can you tell me what the wrestling-master would have in view when he advised as to the persons with whom they ought or ought not to wrestle close, and when and in what manner? What I mean is something like this: ought they not to wrestle close with those with whom it is better to do so?

Alcibiades Yes. 108a


And so far as is better, too?

Alcibiades So far.


And at such time also as is better?

Alcibiades Certainly.

Socrates But again, when one sings, one has sometimes to accompany the song with harping and stepping?

Alcibiades Yes, one has.


And at such time as is better?

Alcibiades Yes.


And so far as is better?

Alcibiades I agree.

Gymnastics makes for better wrestling…

Socrates Well now, since you applied the term “better” to the two cases 108b of harping for accompaniment of a song and close wrestling, what do you call the “better” in the case of harping, to correspond with what in the case of wrestling I call gymnastic? What do you call the other?

Alcibiades I do not understand.

Socrates Well, try to copy me: for my answer gave you, I think, what is correct in every instance; and that is correct, I presume, which proceeds by rule of the art, is it not?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And was not the art here gymnastic?

Alcibiades To be sure. 108c

Note 2: Socrates means by “better” or “the better way” the general method of attaining excellence in any art.

Socrates And I said that the better2 in the case of wrestling was gymnastic.

Alcibiades You did.

Socrates And I was quite fair?

Alcibiades I think so.

Note 3: Socrates here repeats καλῶς (which means “handsomely” as well as “correctly”) in allusion to Alcibiades’ good looks. Cf. Plat. Alc. 1 113b
“Alcibiades should learn to argue nicely.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Come then, in your turn — for it would befit you also, I fancy, to argue fairly3 — tell me, first, what is the art which includes harping and singing and treading the measure correctly? What is it called as a whole? You cannot yet tell me?

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Socrates Well, try another way: who are the goddesses that foster the art?

Alcibiades The Muses, you mean, Socrates? 108d

Socrates I do. Now, just think, and say by what name the art is called after them.

Music makes for better harping…

Note 4: “Music” for the Greeks included poetry and dancing as well as our “music.”

Alcibiades Music,4 I suppose you mean.

“What is the meaning of ‘the better,’ ‘the more excellent’?” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Yes, I do. And what is that which proceeds correctly by its rule? As in the other case I was correct in mentioning to you gymnastic as that which goes by the art, so I ask you, accordingly, what you say in this case. What manner of proceeding is required?

Alcibiades A musical one, I suppose.

Socrates You are right. Come then, what is it that you term “better,” in respect of what is better in waging war and being at peace? 108e Just as in our other instances you said that the “better” implied the more musical and again, in the parallel case, the more gymnastical, try now if you can tell me what is the “better” in this case.

Alcibiades is unable to explain what makes for better in international relations.

Can Alcibiades explain what makes for better in war?

Alcibiades But I am quite unable.

Alcibiades chided

“The term better, when applied to food, means more wholesome.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates But surely that is disgraceful; for if you should speak to somebody as his adviser on food, and say that one sort was better than another, at this time and in this quantity, and he then asked you — What do you mean by the “better,” Alcibiades? — in a matter like that you could tell him you meant the more wholesome, although you do not set up to be a physician; yet in a case where you set up 109a to have knowledge and are ready to stand up and advise as though you knew, are you not ashamed to be unable, as appears, to answer a question upon it? Does it not seem disgraceful?

Alcibiades Very.

“[B]etter” in being at peace or at war…

Socrates Then consider and do your best to tell me the connection of “better” in being at peace or at war with those to whom we ought to be so disposed.

Alcibiades Well, I am considering, but I fail to perceive it.

Socrates But you must know what treatment it is that we allege against each other when we enter upon a war, 109b and what name we give it when we do so?

Alcibiades I do: we say we are victims of deceit or violence or spoliation.

Socrates Enough: how do we suffer each of these things?

Try and tell me what difference there is between
one way and another.

Alcibiades Do you mean by that, Socrates, whether it is in

a just way or an unjust way

Socrates Precisely.

Alcibiades Why, there you have all the difference in the world.

Socrates Well then, on which sort are you going to advise the Athenians to make war — those who are acting unjustly, or those who are doing what is just? 109c

Alcibiades That is a hard question: for even if someone decides that he must go to war with those who are doing what is just, he would not admit that they were doing so.

Socrates For that would not be lawful, I suppose?

Alcibiades No, indeed; nor is it considered honorable either.

Socrates So you too will appeal to these things in making your speeches?

Alcibiades Necessarily.

…[is] simply and solely the juster.

“In going to war or not going to war, the better is the more just.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Then must not that “better” about which I was asking in reference to making or not making war, on those on whom we ought to or not, and when we ought to or not, be simply and solely the juster?

Alcibiades Apparently it is. 109d

Alcibiades’ Justice: Socrates’ “Source Argument”

Note 5: Cf. above, Plat. Alc. 1 106e.

Socrates How now, friend Alcibiades? Have you overlooked your own ignorance of this matter, or have I overlooked5 your learning it and taking lessons of a master who taught you to distinguish the more just and the more unjust? And who is he? Inform me in my turn, in order that you may introduce me to him as another pupil.

Alcibiades You are joking, Socrates.

“But where did Alcibiades acquire this notion of just and unjust?” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates No, I swear by our common God of Friendship, whose name 109e I would by no means take in vain. Come, if you can, tell me who the man is.