Plato: Alcibiades (part 2)

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SOCRATES: Then are we to say that these people understand those questions, on which [112d] they differ so sharply that they are led by their mutual disputes to take these extreme measures against each other?

ALCIBIADES: Apparently not.

SOCRATES: And you refer me to teachers of that sort, whom you admit yourself to be without knowledge?

ALCIBIADES: It seems I do.

SOCRATES: Then how is it likely that you should know what is just and unjust, when you are so bewildered about these matters and are shown to have neither learnt them from anyone nor discovered them for yourself?.

ALCIBIADES: By what you say, it is not likely.

[112e] SOCRATES: There again, Alcibiades, do you see how unfairly you speak?


SOCRATES: In stating that I say so.

ALCIBIADES: Why, do you not say that l do not know about the just and unjust?

SOCRATES: Not at all.

ALCIBIADES: Well, do I say it?


ALCIBIADES: How, pray ?

SOCRATES: I will show you, in the following way. If I ask you which is the greater number, one or two, you will answer "two"?

ALCIBIADES: Yes, I shall.

SOCRATES: How much greater?


SOCRATES: Then which of us says that two are one more than one?


SOCRATES: And I was asking, and you were answering?


[113a] SOCRATES: Then is it I, the questioner, or you the answerer, that are found to be speaking about these things?


SOCRATES: And what if I ask what are the letters in "Socrates," and you tell me? Which will be the speaker?


SOCRATES: Come then, tell me, as a principle, when we have question and answer, which is the speaker -- the questioner, or the answerer?

ALCIBIADES: The answerer, I should say, Socrates.

[113b] SOCRATES: And throughout the argument so far, I was the questioner?


SOCRATES: And you the answerer?


SOCRATES: Well then, which of us has spoken what has been said?

ALCIBIADES: Apparently, Socrates, from what we have admitted, it was I.

SOCRATES: And it was said that Alcibiades, the fair son of Cleinias, did not know about just and unjust, but thought he did, and intended to go to the Assembly as adviser to the Athenians on what he knows nothing about; is not that so?

[113c] ALCIBIADES: Apparently.

SOCRATES: Then, to quote Euripides, the result is, Alcibiades, that you may be said to have “heard it from yourself, not me,” and it is not I who say it, but you, and you tax me with it in vain. And indeed what you say is quite true. For it is a mad scheme this, that you meditate, my excellent friend -- of teaching things that you do not know, since you have taken no care to learn them.

[113d] ALCIBIADES: I think, Socrates, that the Athenians and the rest of the Greeks rarely deliberate as to which is the more just or unjust course: for they regard questions of this sort as obvious; and so they pass them over and consider which course will prove more expedient in the result. For the just and the expedient, I take it, are not the same, but many people have profited by great wrongs that they have committed, whilst others, I imagine, have had no advantage from doing what was right.

SOCRATES: What then? Granting that the just and the expedient [113e] are in fact as different as they can be, you surely do not still suppose you know what is expedient for mankind, and why it is so?

ALCIBIADES: Well, what is the obstacle, Socrates, -- unless you are going to ask me again from whom I learnt it, or how I discovered it for myself?

SOCRATES: What a way of going on! If your answer is incorrect, and a previous argument can be used to prove it so, you claim to be told something new, and a different line of proof, as though the previous one were like a poor worn-out coat which you refuse to wear any longer; you must be provided instead with something clean and unsoiled in the way of evidence. [114a] But I shall ignore your sallies in debate, and shall none the less ask you once more, where you learnt your knowledge of what is expedient, and who is your teacher, asking in one question all the things I asked before; and now you will clearly find yourself in the same plight, and will be unable to prove that you know the expedient either through discovery or through learning. But as you are dainty, and would dislike a repeated taste of the same argument, I pass over this question of whether you know or do not know[114b] what is expedient for the Athenians: but why have you not made it clear whether the just and the expedient are the same or different? If you like, question me as I did you, or if you prefer, argue out the matter in your own way.

ALCIBIADES: But I am not sure I should be able, Socrates, to set it forth to you.

SOCRATES: Well, my good sir, imagine I am the people in Assembly; even there, you know, you will have to persuade each man singly, will you not?


SOCRATES: And the same man may well persuade one person singly, [114c] and many together, about things that he knows, just as the schoolmaster, I suppose, persuades either one or many about letters?


SOCRATES: And again, will not the same man persuade either one or many about number?


SOCRATES: And this will be the man who knows -- the arithmetician?


SOCRATES: And you too can persuade a single man about things of which you can persuade many?

ALCIBIADES: Presumably.

SOCRATES: And these are clearly things that you know.


SOCRATES: And the only difference between the orator [114d] speaking before the people and one who speaks in a conversation like ours is that the former persuades men in a number together of the same things, and the latter persuades them one at a time?

ALCIBIADES: It looks like it.

SOCRATES: Come now, since we see that the same man may persuade either many or one, try your unpracticed hand on me, and endeavor to show that the just is sometimes not expedient.

ALCIBIADES: You are insolent, Socrates!

SOCRATES: This time, at any rate, I am going to have the insolence to persuade you of the opposite of that which you decline to prove to me.

ALCIBIADES: Speak, then.

SOCRATES: Just answer my questions.

[114e] ALCIBIADES: No, you yourself must be the speaker.

SOCRATES: What? Do you not wish above all things to be persuaded?

ALCIBIADES: By all means, to be sure.

SOCRATES: And you would best be persuaded if you should say "the case is so"?


SOCRATES: Then answer; and if you do not hear your own self say that the just is expedient, put no trust in the words of anyone again.

ALCIBIADES: I will not: but I may as well answer; for I do not think I shall come to any harm.

[115a] SOCRATES: You are quite a prophet! Now tell me, do you consider some just things to be expedient, and others not?


SOCRATES: And again, some noble, and some not?

ALCIBIADES: What do you mean by that question?

SOCRATES: I would ask whether anyone ever seemed to you to be doing what was base and yet just.


SOCRATES: Well, are all just things noble?


SOCRATES: And what of noble things, in their turn? Are they all good, or some only, while others are not?

ALCIBIADES: In my opinion, Socrates, some noble things are evil.

SOCRATES: And some base things are good?


[115b] SOCRATES: Do you mean as in one of the many cases where men have gone to rescue a comrade or kinsman in battle, and have been either wounded or killed, while those who did not go to the rescue, as duty bade, have got off safe and sound?

ALCIBIADES: Precisely.

SOCRATES: And such a rescue you call noble, in respect of the endeavor to save those whom it was one's duty to save; and this is courage, is it not?


SOCRATES: But you call it evil, in respect of the deaths and wounds?


[115c] SOCRATES: And is not the courage one thing, and the death another?

ALCIBIADES: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then it is not in the same respect that rescuing one's friends is noble and evil?

ALCIBIADES: Apparently not.

SOCRATES: Then see if, inasmuch as it is noble, it is also good; for in the present case you were admitting that the rescue was noble in respect of its courage: now consider this very thing, courage, and say whether it is good or bad. Consider it in this way: which would you choose to have, good things or evil?


[115d] SOCRATES: And most of all, the greatest goods, and of such things you would least allow yourself to be deprived?

ALCIBIADES: To be sure.

SOCRATES: Then what do you say of courage? At what price would you allow yourself to be deprived of it?

ALCIBIADES: I would give up life itself if I had to be a coward.

SOCRATES: Then you regard cowardice as the uttermost evil.


SOCRATES: On a par with death, it seems.


SOCRATES: And life and courage are the extreme opposites of death and cowardice?


[115e] SOCRATES: And you would most desire to have the former, and least the latter?


SOCRATES: Is that because you think the former best, and the latter worst?

ALCIBIADES: To be sure.

SOCRATES: So you reckon courage among the best things, and death among the worst.


SOCRATES: Then the rescue of one's friends in battle, inasmuch as it is noble in respect of the working of good by courage, you have termed noble?

ALCIBIADES: Apparently.

SOCRATES: But evil, in respect of the working of evil by death?


SOCRATES: So we may fairly describe each of these workings as follows: as you call either of them evil because of the evil it produces, [116a] so you must call it good because of the good it produces.

ALCIBIADES: I believe that is so.

SOCRATES: And again, are they noble inasmuch as they are good, and base inasmuch as they are evil?


SOCRATES: Then in saying that the rescue of one's friends in battle is noble and yet evil, you mean just the same as if you called the rescue good, but evil.

ALCIBIADES: I believe what you say is true, Socrates.

SOCRATES: So nothing noble, in so far as it is noble, is evil, and nothing base, in so far as it is base, is good.

[116b] ALCIBIADES: Apparently.

SOCRATES: Now then, consider it again in this way: whoever does nobly, does well too, does he not?


SOCRATES: And are not those who do well happy?

ALCIBIADES: Of course.

SOCRATES: And they are happy because of the acquisition of good things?

ALCIBIADES: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And they acquire these by doing well and nobly?


SOCRATES: So doing well is good?

ALCIBIADES: Of course.

SOCRATES: And welfare is noble?


[116c] SOCRATES: Hence we have seen again that noble and good are the same thing.

ALCIBIADES: Apparently.

SOCRATES: Then whatever we find to be noble we shall find also to be good, by this argument at least.


SOCRATES: Well then, are good things expedient or not?

ALCIBIADES: Expedient.

SOCRATES: And do you remember what our admissions were about just things?

ALCIBIADES: I think we said that those who do just things must do noble things.

SOCRATES: And that those who do noble things must do good things?


[116d] SOCRATES: And that good things are expedient?


SOCRATES: Hence just things, Alcibiades, are expedient.

ALCIBIADES: So it seems.

SOCRATES: Well now, are not you the speaker of all this, and I the questioner?

ALCIBIADES: I seem to be, apparently.

SOCRATES: So if anyone stands up to advise either the Athenians or the Peparethians, imagining that he understands what is just and unjust, and says that just things are sometimes evil, could you do other than laugh him to scorn, since you actually say yourself that [116e] just and expedient are the same?

ALCIBIADES: But by Heaven, Socrates, I do not even know what I am saying, I feel altogether in such a strange state! For from moment to moment I change my view under your questioning.

SOCRATES: And are you unaware, my friend, what this feeling is?

ALCIBIADES: I am, quite.

SOCRATES: Well, do you suppose that if someone should ask you whether you have two eyes or three, two hands or four, or anything else of that sort, you would answer differently from moment to moment, or always the same thing?

[117a] ALCIBIADES: I begin to have misgivings about myself, but still I think I should make the same answer.

SOCRATES: And the reason would be, because you know?

ALCIBIADES: I think so.

SOCRATES: Then if you involuntarily give contradictory answers, clearly it must be about things of which you are ignorant.

ALCIBIADES: Very likely.

SOCRATES: And you say you are bewildered in answering about just and unjust, noble and base, evil and good, expedient and inexpedient? Now, is it not obvious that your bewilderment is caused by your ignorance of these things?

[117b] ALCIBIADES: I agree.

SOCRATES: Then is it the case that when a man does not know a thing he must needs be bewildered in spirit regarding that thing?

ALCIBIADES: Yes, of course.

SOCRATES: Well now, do you know in what way you can ascend to heaven?

ALCIBIADES: On my word, not I.

SOCRATES: Is that too a kind of question about which your judgement is bewildered?

ALCIBIADES: No, indeed.

SOCRATES: Do you know the reason, or shall I state it?


SOCRATES: It is, my friend, that while not knowing the matter you do not suppose that you know it.

[117c] ALCIBIADES: Here again, how do you mean?

SOCRATES: Do your share, in seeing for yourself. Are you bewildered about the kind of thing that you do not know and are aware of not knowing? For instance, you know, I suppose, that you do not know about the preparation of a tasty dish?


SOCRATES: Then do you think for yourself how you are to prepare it, and get bewildered, or do you entrust it to the person who knows?

ALCIBIADES: I do the latter.

SOCRATES: And what if you should be on a ship at sea? Would you think [117d] whether the tiller should be moved inwards or outwards,1 and in your ignorance bewilder yourself, or would you entrust it to the helmsman, and be quiet?

ALCIBIADES: I would leave it to him.

SOCRATES: So you are not bewildered about what you do not know, so long as you know that you do not know?

ALCIBIADES: It seems I am not.

SOCRATES: Then do you note that mistakes in action also are due to this ignorance of thinking one knows when one does not?

ALCIBIADES: Here again, how do you mean?

SOCRATES: We set about acting, I suppose, when we think we know what we are doing?

[117e] ALCIBIADES: Yes.

SOCRATES: But when people think they do not know, I suppose they hand it over to others?

ALCIBIADES: To be sure.

SOCRATES: And so that kind of ignorant person makes no mistakes in life, because they entrust such matters to others?


SOCRATES: Who then are those who make mistakes? For, I take it, they cannot be those who know.

ALCIBIADES: No, indeed.

SOCRATES: But since it is neither those who know, nor those of the ignorant [118a] who know that they do not know, the only people left, I think, are those who do not know, but think that they do?

ALCIBIADES: Yes, only those.

SOCRATES: Then this ignorance is a cause of evils, and is the discreditable sort of stupidity?


SOCRATES: And when it is about the greatest matters, it is most injurious and base?


SOCRATES: Well then, can you mention any greater things than the just, the noble, the good, and the expedient?

ALCIBIADES: No, indeed.

SOCRATES: And it is about these, you say, that you are bewildered?


SOCRATES: But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before [118b] that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

ALCIBIADES: I am afraid so.

SOCRATES: Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity, my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city's affairs, [118c] except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

ALCIBIADES: Yes, you know, Socrates, they say he did not get his wisdom independently, but consorted with many wise men, such as Pythocleides and Anaxagoras; and now, old as he is, he still confers with Damon for that very purpose.

SOCRATES: Well, but did you ever find a man who was wise in anything and yet unable to make another man wise in the same things as himself? For instance, the man who taught you letters was wise himself, and also made you wise, and anyone else he wished to, did he not?


[118d] SOCRATES: And you too, who learnt from him, will be able to make another man wise?


SOCRATES: And the same holds of the harper and the trainer?

ALCIBIADES: Certainly.

SOCRATES: For, I presume, it is a fine proof of one's knowing anything that one knows, when one is able to point to another man whom one has made to know it.


SOCRATES: Well then, can you tell me whom Pericles made wise? One of his sons, to begin with?

[118e] ALCIBIADES: But what if the two sons of Pericles were simpletons, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Well, Cleinias, your brother.

ALCIBIADES: But why should you mention Cleinias, a madman?

SOCRATES: Well, if Cleinias is mad and the two sons of Pericles were simpletons, what reason are we to assign, in your case, for his allowing you to be in your present condition?

ALCIBIADES: I believe I am myself to blame for not attending to him.

[119a] SOCRATES: But tell me of any other Athenian or foreigner, slave or freeman, who is accounted to have become wiser through converse with Pericles; as I can tell you that Pythodorus son of Isolochus, and Callias, son of Calliades, became through that of Zeno; each of them has paid Zeno a hundred minae, and has become both wise and distinguished.

ALCIBIADES: Well, upon my word, I cannot.

SOCRATES: Very good: then what is your intention regarding yourself? Will you remain as you are, or take some trouble?

[119b] ALCIBIADES: We must put our heads together, Socrates. And indeed, as soon as you speak, I take the point and agree. For the men who manage the city's affairs, apart from a few, do strike me as uneducated.

SOCRATES: Then what does that mean?

ALCIBIADES: That if they were educated, I suppose anyone who undertook to contend against them would have to get some knowledge and practice first, as he would for a match with athletes: but now, seeing that these men have gone in for politics as amateurs, what need is there for me to practise and have the trouble of learning? [119c] For I am sure that my natural powers alone will give me an easy victory over them.

SOCRATES: Ho, ho, my good sir, what a thing to say! How unworthy of your looks and your other advantages!

ALCIBIADES: What is your meaning now, Socrates? What is the connection?

SOCRATES: I am grieved for you, and for my love.

ALCIBIADES: Why, pray?

SOCRATES: That you should expect your contest to be with the men we have here.

ALCIBIADES: Well, but with whom is it to be?

SOCRATES: Is that a worthy question to be asked by a man who considers himself high-spirited?

[119d] ALCIBIADES: How do you mean? Is not my contest with these men?

SOCRATES: Well, suppose you were intending to steer a warship into action, would you be content to be the best hand among the crew at steering or, while regarding this skill as a necessary qualification, would you keep your eye on your actual opponents in the fight, and not, as now, on your fellow-fighters? These, I conceive, you ought so far to surpass that they would not feel fit to be your opponents, but only [119e] to be your despised fellow-fighters against the enemy, if you mean really to make your mark with some noble action that will be worthy both of yourself and of the city.

ALCIBIADES: Why, I do mean to.

SOCRATES: So you think it quite fitting for you to be satisfied if you are better than the soldiers, but neglect to keep your eye on the enemy's leaders with a view to showing yourself better than they are, or to plan and practise against them!

[120a] ALCIBIADES: Of whom are you speaking now, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Do you not know that our city makes war occasionally on the Spartans and on the Great King?

ALCIBIADES: That is true.

SOCRATES: And if you are minded to be the head of our state, you would be right in thinking that your contest is with the kings of Sparta and of Persia?

ALCIBIADES: That sounds like the truth.

SOCRATES: No, my good friend; you ought rather to keep your eye on Meidias[120b] the quail-filliper and others of his sort -- who undertake to manage the city's affairs, while they still have the slavish hair (as the women would say) showing in their minds through their lack of culture, and have not yet got rid of it; who, moreover, have come with their outlandish speech to flatter the state, not to rule it -- to these, I tell you, should your eyes be turned; and then you can disregard yourself, and need neither learn what is to be learnt for the great contest in which you are to be engaged, nor practise [120c] what requires practice, and so ensure that you are perfectly prepared before entering upon a political career.

ALCIBIADES: Why, Socrates, I believe you are right; though I think neither the Spartan generals nor the Persian king are at all different from other people.

SOCRATES: But, my excellent friend, consider what this notion of yours means.

ALCIBIADES: In regard to what?

SOCRATES: First of all, do you think you would take more pains over yourself [120d] if you feared them and thought them terrible, or if you did not?

ALCIBIADES: Clearly, if I thought them terrible.

SOCRATES: And do you think you will come to any harm by taking pains over yourself?

ALCIBIADES: By no means; rather that I shall get much benefit.

SOCRATES: And on this single count that notion of yours is so much to the bad.


SOCRATES: Then, in the second place, observe the probability that it is false.


SOCRATES: Is it probable that noble races should produce[120e] better natures, or not?

ALCIBIADES: Clearly, noble races would.

SOCRATES: And will not the well-born, provided they are well brought up, probably be perfected in virtue?

ALCIBIADES: That must be so.

To proceed to part 3, click here.