Socrates, Alcibiades, and Ambition

Transcript from a lecture series by Professor Robert C. Bartlett, Emory University

To begin to understand Socrates, it is best to consider how Plato presents Socrates as a teacher. The most obvious place to begin is with Socrates’ attempts to teach Alcibiades, a historical figure who went on to have an astounding—and highly controversial—political career in the Peloponnesian War.

Understanding Socrates

The Alcibiades I introduces the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades that Plato evidently thought was very important. Why? Because Plato presents Socrates and Alcibiades together in a total of four dialogues. Those dialogues chronicle the beginning, the middle, and the end of their time together. No other person, apart from Socrates himself, of course, appears as frequently in the dialogues.

Alcibiades – An Extravagant Figure

Alcibiades, the athenian general
Alcibiades, the Athenian general.

Who was this Alcibiades fellow? He was, quite simply, one of the most astonishing figures in all antiquity. He lived from about 450 to 404 B.C.; he was an Athenian born and raised. His father was Cleinias, and he was killed in battle when Alcibiades was quite young. Alcibiades went to live with his uncle, who happened to be none other than the greatest democratic statesman in Athens, Pericles.

Alcibiades was remarkably handsome. He was rich. His family was one of the most distinguished in Greece. In short, Alcibiades seemed to have the world by the tail.

Alcibiades was remarkably handsome. He was rich. His family was one of the most distinguished in Greece. In short, Alcibiades seemed to have the world by the tail. He also had a staggeringly quick rise to power in Athens. In the course of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and her allies, and while he was still quite young, Alcibiades managed to get himself elected as one of Athens’ generals. Not only that, he managed to persuade the Athenian democracy to undertake a mind-bogglingly ambitious plan to conquer the very distant island of Sicily.

As the historian Thucydides tells us, Alcibiades lived his private life in a very extravagant way. For example, he single-handedly entered seven horses in the Olympic chariot races, placing first, second, and fourth; this was a very splashy thing to do. It would be like owning two or three of the teams vying for the Super Bowl.

This extravagance on Alcibiades’ part led the people, the masses in general, most of whom were poor, to be deeply suspicious of him. What exactly is this guy going to do? What exactly is he aiming at?

It so happened that on the eve of Athens’ setting sail with a vast armada to conquer Sicily, which was again Alcibiades’ plan, some young men happened to mutilate certain religious statues, which was taken to be a very bad omen by the masses. Alcibiades’ political enemies—he had, of course, political enemies—managed to link his name with these religious desecrations. Not long after Alcibiades set sail for Sicily, the people of Athens recalled him to stand trial for religious desecration. He decided not to return to Athens.

Alcibiades in Exile

Alcibiades managed to fight on three different sides in the same war…

So began his rather astonishing political ride. Alcibiades went first to Sparta, Athens’ greatest enemy. He aided Sparta in ways that did real damage to Athens. When he wore out his welcome in Sparta, Alcibiades went to the third great power in the area, namely, Persia, which was the traditional enemy of all Greeks alike. There he sought to wield as much influence as he could. In short, Alcibiades managed to fight on three different sides in the same war; even more amazing than that, he eventually succeeded in having himself recalled to Athens, after all that he had done against his city.

The assassination of Alcibiades by the Spartans in 404 B.C.
The assassination of Alcibiades by the Persians in 404 B.C.

Although he did manage to lead the Athenian war effort for a time after his recall and to lead it well, he eventually fell afoul again of Athens and sought refuge in a place called Phrygia. There, some Persian agents, probably acting on a Spartan directive, assassinated Alcibiades in 404 B.C.

Still, Thucydides’ portrait of Alcibiades is, on the whole, favorable or sympathetic. At any rate, Thucydides says that Alcibiades’ conduct of the war was second to none and that he could be blamed only for the conduct of his private life, which provoked the envy or the resentment of the people who were obviously the bedrock of the democracy. Whatever we might think of Alcibiades—colorful, talented, treacherous, and complicated, surely—it is an odd thing for Plato to choose to shine a spotlight on him as a student of Socrates. In fact, their association in Alcibiades’ youth got Socrates into some hot water.

In Xenophon’s chapter of the Memorabilia meant to clear Socrates of the charge of corrupting the young, Xenophon is forced to explain, or explain away, their connection. Xenophon there argues, by the way, that Alcibiades was moderate or self-controlled for as long as he was with Socrates and that he became so extravagant only when he broke with Socrates.

Socrates’ Pursuit

Socrates

With this much as a kind of preface, let’s turn now to look at Plato’s presentation of the beginning of the association between Alcibiades and Socrates. The dialogue takes place on the eve of Alcibiades’ planned entrance into Athenian democratic politics. Young as he is, he thinks he is ready to lead the city. We learn immediately that Socrates has been watching Alcibiades for quite a long time, but he has chosen this moment to speak to him for the first time.

Alcibiades supposes, and Socrates at first gives him reason to suppose, that Socrates is just another fellow courting the handsome young man in the ancient Greek manner. Socrates presents himself as a would-be lover of Alcibiades, one who has, for some reason, never approached him before and who persists in his interest in Alcibiades even after the other suitors have turned their attention elsewhere.

Maybe I should say, just for the record, that Socrates’ interests in Alcibiades do prove to be entirely of the soul rather than of the body. The action or drama of the Alcibiades I includes an amazing transformation, because at the beginning of the dialogue the poor and rather obscure Socrates presents himself as a lover courting the handsome and sought-after Alcibiades who is, let’s say, at best indifferent to Socrates at the beginning. By the end of the dialogue, though, this is what Alcibiades says:

I want to say the following; that we will probably be changing roles, Socrates, I taking yours and you mine, for from this day nothing can keep me from attending on you, and you from being attended on by me.

We have to ask, how does this obscure fellow Socrates succeed in making of Alcibiades not the pursued but the pursuer, eager to spend time with Socrates above all others? It is, as I say, an amazing transformation.

Alcibiades’ Greatest Desire

Alcibiades, Socrates guesses, wants to rule the world, and Alcibiades, in effect, confirms this statement because he doesn’t deny it. 

Socrates begins wooing Alcibiades, if that’s the right expression, in a time-honored way: He flatters him. He lists all of Alcibiades’ very many advantages in life, both natural and conventional. Socrates adds, “If I thought you were satisfied with these, I would never have approached you.” For Alcibiades, it turns out, wants something more out of life, even more than what he has.

Socrates goes so far as to say that if Alcibiades had to choose between remaining content with what he is and what he has or dying, Alcibiades would choose to die. So what, then, does Alcibiades long for? Socrates takes a guess. It’s this: to hold sway not only in Athens, but in all Greece; and not only in Greece, but in all Europe; and not only there, but in Asia, too. Alcibiades, Socrates guesses, wants to rule the world, and Alcibiades, in effect, confirms this statement because he doesn’t deny it.

The very statement of this staggering ambition, a young kid who literally wants to rule the world, would seem to put Socrates and Alcibiades farther apart. Yet Socrates here states a whopper. He says, “It is not possible for all these things you have in mind to be brought to completion without me.” In effect, Socrates says, if you want to rule the world, come see me first.

What follows is a classic example of Socratic dialectic or conversational scrutiny. Socrates seeks to discover what it is that Alcibiades thinks he knows, such that he can now skillfully guide Athenian public affairs.

From the lecture series Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle
Taught by Professor Robert C. Bartlett, Emory University

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