Socrates 3.7 – Alcibiades I

"Socrates," by Mitch Francis

It’s possible to be very busy on the work in our lives without being busy working on our lives.

Socrates Come then, what is “taking pains over oneself” — 128a for we may perchance be taking, unawares, no pains over ourselves, though we think we are — and when does a man actually do it? Does he take pains over himself at the same time as over his own things?

Alcibiades I at least believe so.

Socrates Well now,

when does a man take pains over his feet? Is it when he takes pains over what belongs to his feet?

Alcibiades I do not understand.

Socrates Is there anything you can name as belonging to the hand? For instance, does a ring belong to any other part of a man but the finger?

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Socrates And so the shoe also belongs to the foot, in the same way?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And likewise clothes and coverlets belong to the whole body? 128b

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Now when we take pains over our shoes, we take pains over our feet?

Alcibiades I do not quite understand, Socrates.

Socrates Well, but,

Alcibiades, you speak of taking proper pains over this or that matter, do you not?

Alcibiades I do.

Socrates And do you call it proper pains when someone makes a thing better?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Then what art makes shoes better?

Alcibiades Shoe-making.

Socrates So by shoe-making we take pains over our shoes? 128c

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And

over our foot too by shoe-making? Or by that art whereby we make feet better?

Alcibiades By that art.

Socrates And is it not the same one for making our feet as for making the whole body better?

Alcibiades I think so.

Socrates And is not that gymnastic?

Alcibiades Certainly.

Socrates So

by gymnastic we take pains over our foot, but by shoe-making over what belongs to our foot?

Alcibiades Quite so.

Socrates And by gymnastic over our hands, but by ring-engraving over what belongs to the hand?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And by gymnastic over the body, but by weaving 128d and the rest over what belongs to the body?

Alcibiades Absolutely so.

“It has been shown by examples that a man does not take care of himself, when he only takes care of what belongs to him.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Then for taking pains over a thing itself and over what belongs to it we use different arts.

Alcibiades Apparently.

Socrates So when you take pains over your belongings you are not taking pains over yourself.

Alcibiades Not at all.

Socrates For the arts, it seems, that one used for taking pains over oneself and over one’s belongings would not be the same.

Alcibiades Apparently not.

Socrates Come then, whatever kind of art can we use for taking pains over ourselves?

Alcibiades I cannot say. 128e

Socrates Well, so much at least has been admitted, that it is not one which would help us to make a single one of our possessions better, but one which would help to make ourselves so?

Alcibiades That is true.

Socrates Now, should we ever have known what art makes a shoe better, if we had not known a shoe?

Alcibiades Impossible.

Socrates Nor could we know what art makes rings better, if we had no cognizance of a ring.

Alcibiades True.

“A man must know himself before he can improve himself or know what belongs to him.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Well then, could we ever know what art makes the man himself better, if we were ignorant of what we are ourselves? 129a

Alcibiades Impossible.

Socrates Well, and is it an easy thing to know oneself, and was it a mere scamp who inscribed these words on the temple at Delphi; or is it a hard thing, and not a task for anybody?

Alcibiades I have often thought, Socrates, that it was for anybody; but often, too, that it was very hard.

Socrates But, Alcibiades, whether it is easy or not, here is the fact for us all the same: if we have that knowledge, we are likely to know what pains to take over ourselves; but if we have it not, we never can.

Alcibiades That is so. 129b

Note 30: This seems to be a sudden adumbration of the Platonic “idea” or form which remains constant, and so “the same,” behind the shifting objects of sense related to it through its influences or impress. Cf. below, Plat. Alc. 1.130d.

Socrates Come then, in what way can the same-in-itself30 be discovered? For thus we may discover what we are ourselves; whereas if we remain in ignorance of it we must surely fail.

Alcibiades Rightly spoken.

Socrates Steady, then, in Heaven’s name! To whom are you talking now? To me, are you not?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And I in turn to you ?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Then the talker is Socrates?

Alcibiades To be sure.

Socrates And the hearer, Alcibiades?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And Socrates uses speech in talking? 129c

Alcibiades Of course.

Socrates And you call talking and using speech the same thing, I suppose.

Alcibiades To be sure.

“He is distinct from what he uses; and therefore distinct from his own body.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates But the user and the thing he uses are different, are they not?

Alcibiades How do you mean?

Socrates For instance, I suppose a shoemaker uses a round tool, and a square one, and others, when he cuts.

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And the cutter and user is quite different from what he uses in cutting?

Alcibiades Of course.

Socrates And in the same way what the harper uses in harping will be different from the harper himself?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Well then, that is what I was asking just now — whether the user 129d and what he uses are always, in your opinion, two different things.

Alcibiades They are.

Socrates Then what are we to say of the shoemaker? Does he cut with his tools only, or with his hands as well?

Alcibiades With his hands as well.

Socrates So he uses these also?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Does he use his eyes, too, in his shoe-making?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And we admit that the user and what he uses are different things?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Then the shoemaker and the harper are different from 129e the hands and eyes that they use for their work?

Alcibiades Apparently.

Socrates And man uses his whole body too?

Alcibiades To be sure.

Socrates And we said that the user and what he uses are different?

Alcibiades Yes.


So man is different from his own body?

Alcibiades It seems so.

Socrates Then whatever is man?

Alcibiades I cannot say.

Socrates Oh, but you can — that he is the user of the body.

Alcibiades Yes. 130a

Socrates And the user of it must be the soul?

Alcibiades It must.

Socrates And ruler?

Alcibiades Yes.

An Argument For the Soul

Socrates Now, here is a remark from which no one, I think, can dissent.

Alcibiades What is it?

Socrates That man must be one of three things.

Alcibiades What things?

The simple logic of Socrates’ argument here:

  1. The human being is either soul, body, or a combination.
  2. It’s not the body.
  3. It’s not the combo.
  4. So it must be the soul.

Socrates Soul, body, or both together as one whole.

Alcibiades Very well.

“Soul, body, or the union of the two. What is the ruling principle in him? Clearly the soul.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates But yet we have admitted that what actually rules the body is man? 130b

Alcibiades We have.

Socrates And does the body rule itself?

Alcibiades By no means.

Socrates Because we have said that it is ruled.

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates Then that cannot be what we are seeking.

Alcibiades It seems not.

Socrates Well then, does the combination of the two rule the body, so that we are to regard this as man?

Alcibiades Perhaps it is.

How solid is this step?

Socrates The unlikeliest thing in the world: for if one of the two does not share in the rule, it is quite inconceivable that the combination of the two can be ruling.

Alcibiades You are right. 130c

Socrates But since neither the body nor the combination of the two is man, we are reduced, I suppose, to this: either man is nothing at all, or if something, he turns out to be nothing else than soul.

Alcibiades Precisely so.

Socrates Well, do you require some yet clearer proof that the soul is man?

Alcibiades No, I assure you: I think it is amply proved.

“There remains a question of absolute existence, which has not been considered by us, or rather is being considered by us when we speak of the soul.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates And if it is tolerably, though not exactly, we are content; exact knowledge will be ours later, 130d when we have discovered the thing that we passed over just now because it would involve much consideration.

Alcibiades What is that?

Socrates The point suggested in that remark a moment ago,31 that we should first consider the same-in-itself; but so far, instead of the same, we have been considering what each single thing is in itself. And perhaps we shall be satisfied with that: for surely we cannot say that anything has more absolute possession of ourselves than the soul.

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Communication is a Kind of Communion of Souls

“You and I are talking soul to soul.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates And it is proper to take the view that you and I are conversing with each other, while we make use of words, by intercourse of soul with soul?

Alcibiades Quite so. 130e

Socrates Well, that is just what we suggested a little while ago — that Socrates, in using words to talk with Alcibiades, is holding speech, not with your face, it would seem, but with Alcibiades — that is, with his soul.

Alcibiades I believe so.

Socrates Then he who enjoins a knowledge of oneself bids us become acquainted with the soul. 131a

Alcibiades So it seems.

Just as knowing what belongs to the body is not the same as knowing the body, neither is knowing what belongs to the person the same as knowing the person – even if that person is oneself!

Socrates And anyone who gets to know something belonging to the body knows the things that are his, but not himself.

Alcibiades That is so.

Socrates Then no physician, in so far as he is a physician, knows himself, nor does any trainer, in so far as he is a trainer.

Alcibiades It seems not.

Socrates And farmers, and craftsmen generally

, are far from knowing themselves. For these people, it would seem, do not even know their own things, but only things still more remote than their own things, in respect of the arts which they follow; since they know 131b but the things of the body, with which it is tended.

Alcibiades That is true.

Socrates So if knowing oneself is temperance, none of these people is temperate in respect of his art.

Alcibiades None, I agree.

Socrates And that is why these arts are held to be sordid, and no acquirements for a good man.

Alcibiades Quite so.

Socrates Then once again, whoever tends his body tends his own things, but not himself?

Alcibiades It looks rather like it.


But whoever tends his money tends neither himself nor 131c his own things, but only things yet more remote than his own things?

Alcibiades I agree.

Socrates So that the money-maker has ceased to do his own business.

Alcibiades Correct.

“The lover of the soul is the true lover.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates And if anyone is found to be a lover of Alcibiades’ body, he has fallen in love, not with Alcibiades, but with something belonging to Alcibiades?

Alcibiades That is true.

Socrates Your lover is rather he who loves your soul?

Alcibiades He must be, apparently, by our argument.

Socrates And he who loves your body quits you, and is gone, as soon as its bloom is over?

Alcibiades Apparently. 131d

“He only remains and goes not away, so long as the soul of his beloved follows after virtue.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Whereas he who loves your soul will not quit you so long as it makes for what is better?

Alcibiades So it seems.

Socrates And I am he who does not quit you, but remains with you when your body’s prime is over, and the rest have departed.

Alcibiades Yes, and I am glad of it, Socrates, and hope you will not go.

Socrates Then you must endeavor to be as handsome as you can.

Alcibiades Well, I shall endeavor.

Socrates You see how you stand: Alcibiades, 131e the son of Cleinias, it seems, neither had nor has any lover except one only, and that a cherished one, Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete.

Alcibiades True.

Socrates And you said that I only just anticipated you in coming to you, for otherwise you would have come to me first for the purpose of inquiring why I am the only one who does not leave you?

Alcibiades Yes, that was so.

“And Socrates will never desert Alcibiades so long as he is not spoiled by the Athenian people.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Then the reason was that I was the only lover of you, whereas the rest were lovers of what is yours; and that is losing its charm, 132a while you are beginning to bloom. So now, if you are not blighted and deformed by the Athenian people, I shall never forsake you. For my chiefest fear is of your being blighted by becoming a lover of the people, since many a good Athenian has come to that ere now. For fair of face is “the people of great-hearted Erechtheus”; Hom. Il. 2.547 but you should get a view of it stripped: so take the precaution that I recommend.

Alcibiades What is it? 132b

Socrates Exercise yourself first, my wonderful friend, in learning what you ought to know before entering on politics; you must wait till you have learnt, in order that you may be armed with an antidote and so come to no harm.

Alcibiades Your advice seems to me good, Socrates; but try to explain in what way we can take pains over ourselves.

Socrates Well, we have made one step in advance; for there is a pretty fair agreement now as to what we are, whereas we were afraid we might fail of this and take pains, without knowing it, over something other than ourselves.

Alcibiades That is so.


Care of the Soul & Encounter with the Other

In the Welcome, there’s a boiled-down statement of this argument.

Socrates And the next step, we see, is to take care of the soul, and look to that.

Alcibiades Clearly.

Socrates While handing over to others the care of our bodies and our coffers.

Alcibiades Quite so.

“He who would take care of himself must first of all know himself.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Then how shall we obtain the most certain knowledge of it? For if we know that, it seems we shall know ourselves also. In Heaven’s name, do we fail to comprehend the wise words of the Delphic inscription, which we mentioned just now?

Alcibiades With what intent do you say that, Socrates? 132d

Socrates I will tell you what I suspect to be the real advice which the inscription gives us. I rather think there are not many illustrations of it to be found, but only in the case of sight.

Alcibiades What do you mean by that?

“The eye which would see itself must look into the pupil of another, which is the divinest part of the eye, and will then behold itself.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Consider in your turn: suppose that, instead of speaking to a man, it said to the eye of one of us, as a piece of advice “See thyself,” how should we apprehend the meaning of the admonition? Would it not be, that the eye should look at that by looking at which it would see itself?

Alcibiades Clearly.

Socrates Then let us think what object there is anywhere, by looking at which 132e we can see both it and ourselves.

Alcibiades Why, clearly, Socrates, mirrors and things of that sort.

Socrates Quite right. And there is also something of that sort in the eye that we see with?

Alcibiades To be sure.

Note 32: The Greek κόρη and the Latin “pupilla” both mean “little girl” or “doll,” and were used to indicate the dark center of the eye in which a tiny image can be seen reflected.

Socrates And have you observed that the face of the person who looks into another’s eye is shown in the optic confronting him, 133a as in a mirror, and we call this the pupil,32 for in a sort it is an image of the person looking? 133b

Alcibiades That is true.

Socrates Then an eye viewing another eye, and looking at the most perfect part of it, the thing wherewith it sees, will thus see itself.

Alcibiades Apparently.

Note 33: i.e. it must look at the pupil of a man’s eye, or at what is comparable to that “perfect part” in other things.

Socrates But if it looks at any other thing in man or at anything in nature but what resembles this,33 it will not see itself.

Alcibiades That is true.

Socrates Then if an eye is to see itself, it must look at an eye, and at that region of the eye in which the virtue of an eye is found to occur; and this, I presume, is sight.

Alcibiades That is so.

“And the soul which would know herself must look especially at that part of herself in which she resembles the divine.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates And if the soul too, my dear Alcibiades, is to know herself, she must surely look at a soul, and especially at that region of it in which occurs the virtue of a soul — wisdom, and at any other part of a soul which resembles this?

Alcibiades I agree, Socrates. 133c

Socrates And can we find any part of the soul that we can call more divine than this, which is the seat of knowledge and thought?

Alcibiades We cannot.

Socrates Then this part of her resembles God, and whoever looks at this, and comes to know all that is divine, will gain thereby the best knowledge of himself.

Alcibiades Apparently.

Socrates concludes, reasoning that one who doesn’t know himself well doesn’t truly understand what pertains or “belongs” to him, and will correspondingly lack insight into the affairs of others.

Note 34: Above, Plat. Alc. 1.131b.

Socrates And self-knowledge we admitted to be temperance.34

Alcibiades To be sure.

Socrates So if we have no knowledge of ourselves and no temperance, shall we be able to know our own belongings, good or evil?

Alcibiades How can that be, Socrates? 133d

Socrates For I expect it seems impossible to you that without knowing Alcibiades you should know that the belongings of Alcibiades are in fact his.

Alcibiades Impossible indeed, upon my word.

“He who knows not himself and his belongings, will not know others and their belongings, and therefore he will not know the affairs of states.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Nor could we know that our belongings are ours if we did not even know ourselves?

Alcibiades How could we?

Socrates And so, if we did not so much as know our belongings, we could not know the belongings of our belongings either?

Alcibiades Apparently not.

Socrates Then we were not quite correct in admitting just now that there are people who, without knowing themselves, know their belongings, while others know their belongings’ belongings. For it seems to be the function of one man and one art to discern all three — 133e himself, his belongings, and the belongings of his belongings.

An adequate grasp of reality implies understanding not isolated facts only, but their interrelations; not dependence only, but the dependence of what is less significant on what is more significant; not the neutrality of randomness only, but value, too: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

A record player might be a “belonging,” and its needle would be among “belonging’s belongings.” Examples abound: An iphone is a belonging, and its screen guard belongs to it in turn. More abstractly, a work project is mine to tend, but completing it implies subprojects in their own right. And so on. You may vary the example to suit. It’s not hard to see how one might lose sight of the proper needs of the self when its projects are so involving, even though their significance is derivative.

On Fitness for Politics

Alcibiades It looks like it.

Socrates And anyone who is ignorant of his belongings will be similarly ignorant, I suppose, of the belongings of others.

Alcibiades Quite so.

Socrates And if ignorant of others’ affairs, he will be ignorant also of the affairs of states.

Alcibiades He must be.

Socrates Then such a man can never be a statesman.

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Socrates No, nor an economist either. 134a

Alcibiades No, indeed.


Nor will he know what he is doing.

Alcibiades No, I agree.

Socrates And will not he who does not know make mistakes?

Alcibiades To be sure.

“And, if he knows not what he is doing, he will be miserable and will make others miserable.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates And when he makes mistakes, will he not do ill both in private and in public?

Alcibiades Of course.

Socrates And doing ill he will be wretched?

Alcibiades Yes, very.

Socrates And what of those for whom he is doing so?

Alcibiades They will be wretched also.

Socrates Then it is impossible to be happy if one is not temperate and good.

Alcibiades Impossible. 134b

Socrates So it is the bad men who are wretched.

Alcibiades Yes, very.

Socrates And hence it is not he who has made himself rich that is relieved of wretchedness, but he who has made himself temperate.

Alcibiades Apparently.

Socrates So it is not walls or warships or arsenals that cities need, Alcibiades, if they are to be happy, nor numbers, nor size, without virtue.

Alcibiades No, indeed.

Socrates And if you are to manage the city’s affairs properly and honorably, you must impart virtue to the citizens.

Alcibiades Of course. 134c

“He must give the citizens wisdom and justice, and he cannot give what he has not got.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates But could one possibly impart a thing that one had not?

Alcibiades How, indeed?

Socrates Then you or anyone else who is to be governor and curator, not merely of himself and his belongings in private, but of the state and its affairs, must first acquire virtue himself.

Alcibiades That is true.

Socrates Hence it is not licence or authority for doing what one pleases that you have to secure to yourself or the state, but justice and temperance.

Alcibiades Apparently. 134d

“If he acts wisely and justly he will act according to the will of God.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates For you and the state, if you act justly and temperately, will act so as to please God.

Alcibiades Naturally.


And, as we were saying in what went before, you will act with your eyes turned on what is divine and bright.

Alcibiades Apparently.

“In the mirror of the divine he will see his own good and will act rightly and be happy.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Well, and looking thereon you will behold and know both yourselves and your good.

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And so you will act aright and well?

Alcibiades Yes. 134e


Well now, if you act in this way, I am ready to warrant that you must be happy.

Alcibiades And I can rely on your warranty.

Socrates But if you act unjustly, with your eyes on the godless and dark, the probability is that your acts will resemble these through your ignorance of yourselves.

Alcibiades That is probable.

Socrates For if a man, my dear Alcibiades, is at liberty to do what he pleases, but is lacking in mind, what is the probable result to him personally, or to the state as well? For instance, if he is sick and at liberty to do what he pleases — without a medical mind, 135a but with a despot’s power which prevents anyone from even reproving him — what will be the result? Will not his health, in all likelihood, be shattered?

Alcibiades That is true.

Socrates Again, in a ship, if a man were at liberty to do what he chose, but were devoid of mind and excellence in navigation, do you perceive what must happen to him and his fellow-sailors?

Alcibiades I do: they must all perish.

Socrates And

in just the same way,
if a state, or any office or authority, is lacking in excellence or virtue, 135b it will be overtaken by failure?

Alcibiades It must.

“Not power, but virtue, should be the aim both of individuals and of states: and he only is a freeman who has virtue.” (Jowett’s note)

Socrates Then it is not despotic power, my admirable Alcibiades, that you ought to secure either to yourself or to the state, if you would be happy, but virtue.

Alcibiades That is true.

Socrates And before getting virtue, to be governed by a superior is better than to govern, for a man as well as a child.

Alcibiades Apparently.

Socrates And the better is also nobler?

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And the nobler more becoming?

Alcibiades Of course. 135c

Socrates Then it becomes a bad man to be a slave, since it is better.

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates So vice is a thing that becomes a slave.

Alcibiades Apparently.

Socrates And virtue becomes a free man.

Alcibiades Yes.

Socrates And we should shun, my good friend, all slavishness?

Alcibiades Most certainly, Socrates.

Socrates And do you now perceive how you stand? Are you on the side of the free, or not?

Alcibiades I think I perceive only too clearly.

Socrates Then do you know how you may escape from the condition in which you now find yourself? Let us not give it a name, where a handsome person is concerned! 135d

Alcibiades I do.

Socrates How?

Alcibiades If it be your wish, Socrates.

Socrates That is not well said, Alcibiades.

Alcibiades Well, what should I say?

Socrates If it be God’s will.

Note 35: παιδαγωγεῖν is used here simply in the sense of “following about as personal attendant.”

Alcibiades Then I say it. And yet I say this besides, that we are likely to make a change in our parts, Socrates, so that I shall have yours and you mine. For from this day onward it must be the case that I am your attendant, and you have me always in attendance on you.35 135e

Note 36: It was commonly believed that aged storks were fed by younger storks which they had previously hatched and reared.

Socrates Ah, generous friend! So my love will be just like a stork; for after hatching a winged love in you it is to be cherished in return by its nestling.36

Alcibiades Well, that is the position, and I shall begin here and now to take pains over justice.

Socrates I should like to think you will continue to do so; yet I am apprehensive, not from any distrust of your nature, but in view of the might of the state, lest it overcome both me and you.