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Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in the Alcibiades and Symposium, page 2


[1.3.14] Thus in the matter of carnal appetite, he held that those whose passions were not under complete control should limit themselves to such indulgence as the soul would reject unless the need of the body were pressing, and such as would do no harm when the need was there. As for his own conduct in this matter, it was evident that he had trained himself to avoid the fairest and most attractive more easily than others avoid the ugliest and most repulsive. ...

[1.2.29] When he found that Critias loved Euthydemus and wanted to lead him astray, he tried to restrain him by saying that it was mean and unbecoming in a gentleman to sue like a beggar to the object of his affection, whose good opinion he coveted, stooping to ask a favour that it was wrong to grant. [1.2.30] As Critias paid no heed whatever to this protest, Socrates, it is said, exclaimed in the presence of Euthydemus and many others, "Critias seems to have the feelings of a pig: he can no more keep away from Euthydemus than pigs can help rubbing themselves against stones."


-- Xenophon, Recollections of Socrates

If you're interested in further information about Alcibiades, check out the complete texts of Plutarch's Alcibiades, Thucydides' Histories, Xenophon's Memorabilia and Hellenica, the speeches Against Alcibiades by Andocides and Lysias, or the dialogue Alcibiades 2 (a sequel to Plato's Alcibiades attributed, probably falsely, to Plato) at the website of the Perseus Project.


Plato: Alcibiades

This dialogue describes Socrates’ first conversation with Alcibiades. We must remember that Plato’s dialogues are not verbatim transcripts of actual conversations; Plato was not present -- indeed, was not even born -- when Socrates first conversed with Alcibiades. Thucydides begins his History of the Peloponnesian War by warning his readers: "With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said." (1.22.1) A similar caveat applies here.

Two of Socrates’ principal goals in this dialogue appear to be: first, to convince Alcibiades (as always, by appelaing to beliefs that Alcibiades himself already holds) that his true self is his mind or soul rather than his body, so that Alcibiades’ ambition will turn toward spiritual rather than worldly goals; and second, to convince him that happiness is impossible without morality -- that one will never be satisifed so long as any major kind of value is lacking in one’s life, so that once one grants that morality is worth admiring, one is committed to thinking that it is worth having as well. Alcibiades seems to learn the lessons, but in the closing lines of the dialogue Socrates expresses skepticism, suggesting that Alcibiades may end up corrupted by the city. (Of course, when Plato wrote this dialogue he already knew how Alcibiades had turned out.)

Socrates begins the dialogue by saying that “a certain spiritual opposition” has prevented him from approaching Alcibiades before this moment. Socrates is referring to the divine sign or voice that, he claimed, often came to him to dissuade him from unwise courses of action. (We shall hear more about this divine sign in later dialogues.) Apparently, it did not interfere on this occasion.

Study Questions

1. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that success in his political career will require knowledge of what justice and injustice are? (106 b-109 d)

2. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that Alcibiades hasn’t found out for himself what justice and injustice are? (109 d-110 d)

3. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that Alcibiades hasn’t learned from anyone else what justice and injustice are? (110 d-112 d)

4. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that Alcibiades himself is the one who’s saying that Alcibiades doesn’t know what justice and injustice are? (112 d-113 c) And how does this illustrate the Socratic method?

5. In mid-conversation (113 d-114 e) Socrates and Alcibiades get into a dispute as to whether Socrates’ method of argument is legitimate. Who’s right?

6. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that there is no conflict between justice and advantage? (115 a-116 d)

7. What does Socrates think Alcibiades’ wavering shows? Why? (116 d-118 c)

8. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that he is wrong about who his principal rivals are? (119 b-124 b)

9. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that Alcibiades doesn’t know what the aim of political expertise is? (124 e-127 d)

10. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that his true self is neither a) his body nor b) his body and soul together, but only c) his soul? (127 e-130 d) Reconstruct the argument by filling in the blanks for steps 2, 3, and 5:

1. A person is either his soul, or his body, or the combination of body and soul together. (premise)
2. __________________________________________________ (premise)
3. __________________________________________________ (premise)
4. A person is not his body. (conclusion from 2 and 3)
5. __________________________________________________ (premise)
6. A person is not the combination of body and soul together. (conclusion from 3 and 5)
7. A person is neither his body nor the combination of body and soul together. (conclusion from 4 and 6)
8. A person is his soul. (conclusion from 1 and 8)


11. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that he is Alcibiades’ only true lover? (130 e-132 a)

12. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that self-knowledge is necessary for happiness? (132 b-134 d)

13. How does Socrates convince Alcibiades that neither freedom nor political power is valuable for someone who does not possess wisdom and virtue? (134 e-135 c)

14. Are Socrates’ arguments good ones? Are they valid? Are they sound?

Plato: Symposium

The term “symposium” originally meant a banquet or drinking-party (the Greek word sumposion literally means “drinking together”); it is because of this dialogue that the term came to acquire its current meaning of a meeting or conference devoted to intellectual discussion. I have not given you the entire dialogue, but only the parts that are relevant to Socrates’ relationship with Alcibiades. This time Plato offers us a picture of that relationship from Alcibiades’ point of view. Alcibiades compares Socrates to satyrs like Marsyas and Silenus; these were goat-hoofed beings from Greek mythology, wild, ugly, and comical creatures devoted to wine and sexual excess, yet also followers of the gods Pan and Dionysus, and semi-divine in their own right. In particular, Alcibiades mentions popular Silenus figurines that were ugly on the outside but, when broken open, contained golden treasure -- an ancient Greek equivalent of a piñata.

The dialogue ends with Socrates arguing that a good writer of tragedies should also be good at writing comedies. (223 d) This is an example of a principle Socrates often invokes, that true expertise has to have a unified subject-matter. (We saw this in the Laches, for example, where Socrates maintained that the ability to recognize the good or evil of future occurences must include the ability to recognize good and evil generally.) Perhaps this is Plato’s way of getting us to think about whether the Symposium itself is a tragedy, a comedy, or somehow both.

Study Questions

1. What is Apollodorus’ attitude toward Socrates? Toward Glaucon? Toward himself? Toward his unnamed “companion” to whom he narrates all this? (172 c-173 e) What is Apollodorus’ attitude likely to have been toward Alcibiades? What does Plato’s attitude seem to be toward Apollodorus? Compare Apollodorus with Alcibiades.

2. What, according to Alcibiades, is the effect that Socrates and no one else has on him? (215 c-216 c)

3. Why did Alcibiades attempt to sexually seduce Socrates? And why did he fail? (217 a-219 e) How does Alcibiades’ behaviour toward Socrates violate traditional Greek sexual stereotypes?

4. The Symposium tells us of a number of respects in which Socrates appears to have risen above ordinary bodily needs, desires, and weaknesses. What are they?

5. If Alcibiades’ character was so worldly and flawed, what do you think led Socrates to regard him as a promising candidate for conversion to the philosophical life? And why did Socrates’ conversion attempt fail? How does Plato’s portrait of Alcibiades compare with those of Plutarch and Xenophon? What do you think Plato wants us to conclude about Alcibiades -- or about philosophy generally?



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