Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in the Alcibiades and Symposium

"Even now I am still conscious that if I consented to lend him my ear, I could not resist him, but would have the same feeling again. So I withhold my ears perforce as from the Sirens, and make off as fast as I can."

Nowadays, Plato is Socrates’ most famous student. But in his own day, Socrates’ most famous -- or notorious -- student was Alcibiades. The Greek historian Plutarch offers us a sketch of Alcibiades’ character and personality:

[1.3] As regards the beauty of Alcibiades, it is perhaps unnecessary to say aught, except that it flowered out with each successive season of his bodily growth, and made him, alike in boyhood, youth and manhood, lovely and pleasant. ... [1.4] Even the lisp that he had became his speech, they say, and made his talk persuasive and full of charm. ... [2.1] His character, in later life, displayed many inconsistencies and marked changes, as was natural amid his vast undertakings and varied fortunes. He was naturally a man of many strong passions, the mightiest of which were the love of rivalry and the love of preeminence.

This is clear from the stories recorded of his boyhood. [2.2] He was once hard pressed in wrestling, and to save himself from getting a fall, set his teeth in his opponent's arms, where they clutched him, and was like to have bitten through them. His adversary, letting go his hold, cried: "You bite, Alcibiades, as women do!"

"Not I," said Alcibiades, "but as lions do."

While still a small boy, he was playing knucklebones in the narrow street, and just as it was his turn to throw, a heavy-laden wagon came along. [2.3] In the first place, he bade the driver halt, since his cast lay right in the path of the wagon. The driver, however, was a boorish fellow, and paid no heed to him, but drove his team along. Whereupon, while the other boys scattered out of the way, Alcibiades threw himself flat on his face in front of the team, stretched himself out at full length, and bade the driver go on if he pleased. At this the fellow pulled up his beasts sharply, in terror; the spectators, too, were affrighted, and ran with shouts to help the boy.

[2.4] At school, he usually paid due heed to his teachers, but he refused to play the flute, holding it to be an ignoble and illiberal thing. The use of the plectrum and the lyre, he argued, wrought no havoc with the bearing and appearance which were becoming to a gentleman; but let a man go to blowing on a flute, and even his own kinsmen could scarcely recognize his features. ... [2.6] Thus, half in jest and half in earnest, Alcibiades emancipated himself from this discipline, and the rest of the boys as well. For word soon made its way to them that Alcibiades loathed the art of flute-playing and scoffed at its disciples, and rightly, too. Wherefore the flute was dropped entirely from the programme of a liberal education and was altogether despised. ...

[4.1] It was not long before many men of high birth clustered about him and paid him their attentions. Most of them were plainly smitten with his brilliant youthful beauty and fondly courted him. But it was the love which Socrates had for him that bore strong testimony to the boy's native excellence and good parts. These Socrates saw radiantly manifest in his outward person, and, fearful of the influence upon him of wealth and rank and the throng of citizens, foreigners and allies who sought to preempt his affections by flattery and favour, he was fain to protect him, and not suffer such a fair flowering plant to cast its native fruit to perdition. [4.2] For there is no man whom Fortune so envelops and compasses about with the so-called good things of life that he cannot be reached by the bold and caustic reasonings of philosophy, and pierced to the heart. And so it was that Alcibiades, although he was pampered from the very first, and was prevented by the companions who sought only to please him from giving ear to one who would instruct and train him, nevertheless, through the goodness of his parts, at last saw all that was in Socrates, and clave to him, putting away his rich and famous lovers. [4.3] And speedily, from choosing such an associate, and giving ear to the words of a lover who was in the chase for no unmanly pleasures, and begged no kisses and embraces, but sought to expose the weakness of his soul and rebuke his vain and foolish pride, “He crouched, though warrior bird, like slave, with drooping wings.” And he came to think that the work of Socrates was really a kind of provision of the gods for the care and salvation of youth. ...

[6.1] But the love of Socrates, though it had many powerful rivals, somehow mastered Alcibiades. For he was of good natural parts, and the words of his teacher took hold of him and wrung his heart and brought tears to his eyes. But sometimes he would surrender himself to the flatterers who tempted him with many pleasures, and slip away from Socrates, and suffer himself to be actually hunted down by him like a runaway slave. And yet he feared and reverenced Socrates alone, and despised the rest of his lovers. ...

[6.2] Alcibiades was certainly prone to be led away into pleasure. That "lawless self-indulgence" of his, of which Thucydides speaks, leads one to suspect this. [6.3] However, it was rather his love of distinction and love of fame to which his corrupters appealed, and thereby plunged him all too soon into ways of presumptuous scheming, persuading him that he had only to enter public life, and he would straightway cast into total eclipse the ordinary generals and public leaders, and not only that, he would even surpass Pericles in power and reputation among the Hellenes. [6.4] Accordingly, just as iron, which has been softened in the fire, is hardened again by cold water, and has its particles compacted together, so Alcibiades, whenever Socrates found him filled with vanity and wantonness, was reduced to shape by the Master's discourse, and rendered humble and cautious. He learned how great were his deficiencies and how incomplete his excellence.

[7.1] Once, as he was getting on past boyhood, he accosted a school-teacher, and asked him for a book of Homer. The teacher replied that he had nothing of Homer's, whereupon Alcibiades fetched him a blow with his fist, and went his way. ..

[8.1] He once gave Hipponicus a blow with his fist -- Hipponicus, the father of Callias, a man of great reputation and influence owing to his wealth and family -- not that he had any quarrel with him, or was a prey to anger, but simply for the joke of the thing, on a wager with some companions. The wanton deed was soon noised about the city, and everybody was indignant, as was natural. Early the next morning Alcibiades went to the house of Hipponicus, knocked at his door, and on being shown into his presence, laid off the cloak he wore and bade Hipponicus scourge and chastise him as he would. [8.2] But Hipponicus put away his wrath and forgave him, and afterwards gave him his daughter Hipparete to wife.

[8.3] Hipparete was a decorous and affectionate wife, but being distressed because her husband would consort with courtesans, native and foreign, she left his house and went to live with her brother. Alcibiades did not mind this, but continued his wanton ways, and so she had to put in her plea for divorce to the magistrate, and that not by proxy, but in her own person. [8.4] On her appearing publicly to do this, as the law required, Alcibiades came up and seized her and carried her off home with him through the market place, no man daring to oppose him or take her from him. ...

[9.1] Possessing a dog of wonderful size and beauty, which had cost him seventy minas, he had its tail cut off, and a beautiful tail it was, too. His comrades chid him for this, and declared that everybody was furious about the dog and abusive of its owner. But Alcibiades burst out laughing and said: "That's just what I want; I want Athens to talk about this, that it may say nothing worse about me." ...

[10.2] Though great doors to public service were opened to him by his birth, his wealth, and his personal bravery in battle; and though he had many friends and followers, he thought that nothing should give him more influence with the people than the charm of his discourse. And that he was a powerful speaker, not only do the comic poets testify, but also the most powerful of orators himself [= Demosthenes], who says, in his speech "Against Meidias," that Alcibiades was a most able speaker in addition to his other gifts. ...

[13.1] On entering public life, though still a mere stripling, he immediately humbled all the other popular leaders except Phaeax, the son of Erasistratus, and Nicias, the son of Niceratus. These men made him fight hard for what he won. Nicias was already of mature years, and had the reputation of being a most excellent general; but Phaeax, like himself, was just beginning his career, and, though of illustrious parentage, was inferior to him in other ways, and particularly as a public speaker. [13.2] ... There is extant a certain speech written by Phaeax "Against Alcibiades," wherein, among other things, it is written that the city's numerous ceremonial utensils of gold and silver were all used by Alcibiades at his regular table as though they were his own. ...

[16.1] But all this statecraft and eloquence and lofty purpose and cleverness was attended with great luxuriousness of life, with wanton drunkenness and lewdness, with effeminacy in dress -- he would trail long purple robes through the market place -- and with prodigal expenditures. He would have the decks of his triremes cut away that he might sleep more softly, his bedding being slung on cords rather than spread on the hard planks. He had a golden shield made for himself, bearing no ancestral device, [16.2] but an Eros armed with a thunderbolt. The reputable men of the city looked on all these things with loathing and indignation, and feared his contemptuous and lawless spirit. They thought such conduct as his tyrant-like and monstrous. How the common folk felt towards him has been well set forth by Aristophanes in these words: “It yearns for him, and hates him too, but wants him back.” ...

[16.3] And indeed, his voluntary contributions of money, his support of public exhibitions, his unsurpassed munificence towards the city, the glory of his ancestry, the power of his eloquence, the comeliness and vigor of his person, together with his experience and prowess in war, made the Athenians lenient and tolerant towards everything else; they were forever giving the mildest of names to his transgressions, calling them the product of youthful spirits and ambition. [16.4] For instance, he once imprisoned the painter Agatharchus in his house until he had adorned it with paintings for him, and then dismissed his captive with a handsome present. And when Taureas was supporting a rival exhibition, he gave him a box on the ear, so eager was he for the victory. And he picked out a woman from among the prisoners of Melos to be his mistress, and reared a son she bore him. [16.5] This was an instance of what they called his kindness of heart, but the execution of all the grown men of Melos was chiefly due to him, since he supported the decree therefor. ... Aristophon painted Nemea with Alcibiades seated in her arms; whereat the people were delighted, and ran in crowds to see the picture. But the elders were indignant at this too; they said it smacked of tyranny and lawlessness. And it would seem that Archestratus, in his verdict on the painting, did not go wide of the mark when he said that Hellas could not endure more than one Alcibiades.

-- Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades

Plutarch paints a vivid and complex picture of Alcibiades: brilliant, handsome, charming, brave, ambitious, audacious, vain, violent, unscrupulous, amoral -- yet at the same time someone who felt the rebuke of Socratic criticism and the attraction of the Socratic lifestyle, so utterly different from his own. The dazzling, contradictory figure of Alcibiades has puzzled and fascinated historians for centuries.

Alcibiades’ political career was well-matched to his character. During the war between Athens and Sparta it was Alcibiades who first proposed the ill-fated expedition to conquer Sicily that I mentioned in my notes on the Laches. Nicias had opposed the expedition, but Alcibiades’ arguments in the Assembly won the day. However, just as the expedition was beginning, Alcibiades was accused of acts of sacrilege and summoned to stand trial for impiety. (Historians still debate whether Alcibiades was really guilty or was framed by his political enemies.) Unlike his teacher Socrates under similar circumstances, Alcibiades declined to stand trial and instead fled, defecting to the Spartan side. That is why Nicias rather than Alcibiades was given command of the Sicilian expedition, which might well have succeeded if Alcibiades had been in charge of it.

As the Greek historian Thucydides observes:

[6.15.2] By far the warmest advocate of the expedition was, however, Alcibiades, son of Clinias, who wished to thwart Nicias both as his political opponent and also because of the attack he had made upon him in his speech, and who was, besides, exceedingly ambitious of a command by which he hoped to reduce Sicily and Carthage, and personally to gain in wealth and reputation by means of his successes. [6.15.3] For the position he held among the citizens led him to indulge his tastes beyond what his real means would bear, both in keeping horses and in the rest of his expenditure; and this later on had not a little to do with the ruin of the Athenian state. [6.15.4] Alarmed at the greatness of his license in his own life and habits, and of the ambition which he showed in all things soever that he undertook, the mass of the people set him down as a pretender to the tyranny, and became his enemies; and although publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired individually, his habits gave offence to every one, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands [i.e., Nicias], and thus before long to ruin the city.

-- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Alcibiades served the Spartan cause well against Athens, until it was discovered that he had seduced the wife of the Spartan king, at which point he defected to the Persian Empire, the traditional enemy of both Athens and Sparta. After intriguing with the Persians for a while, Alcibiades was summoned back to Athens with a full pardon so that he could use his skill and influence to put an end to a civil war that had broken out. Alcibiades now served Athens faithfully as politician and general, but was nevertheless eventually exiled because many feared that he was plotting to become dictator. While in exile, he was assassinated by agents of his political enemies. He was in bed with his mistress, the courtesan Timandra, when the assassins approached:

[39. 2] The party sent to kill him did not dare to enter his house, but surrounded it and set it on fire. [39.3] When Alcibiades was aware of this, he gathered together most of the garments and bedding in the house and cast them on the fire. Then, wrapping his cloak about his left arm, and drawing his sword with his right, he dashed out, unscathed by the fire, before the garments were in flames, and scattered the barbarians, who ran at the mere sight of him. Not a man stood ground against him, or came to close quarters with him, but all held aloof and shot him with javelins and arrows. [39.4] Thus he fell, and when the barbarians were gone, Timandra took up his dead body, covered and wrapped it in her own garments, and gave it such brilliant and honorable burial as she could provide.

-- Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades

From Socrates’ standpoint, Alcibiades was a failure; Socrates did not suceed in winning him to the philosophical life. But many of Socrates’ enemies saw Alcibiades’ life of self-indulgence and treachery as evidence that Socratic teaching led to immorality. What else can you expect, they asked, from a teacher who spends all his time questioning people’s basic assumptions and thus undermining traditional beliefs and values?

Xenophon, another of Socrates’ students, tries to defend Socrates against this charge by arguing that Alcibiades was already morally corrupt when Socrates first became his teacher, and indeed that Alcibiades sought out Socrates merely because he hoped to learn from him the means to advance his own political career. Xenophon also shows us how Alcibiades used on Pericles, the foremost democratic politician in Athens, the style of philosophic cross-examination that he had learned from Socrates. (In addition to Alcibiades, Xenophon also mentions another of Socrates' students, Critias, whom we shall be hearing about later.)

[1.2.12] Among the associates of Socrates were Critias and Alcibiades; and none wrought so many evils to the state. For Critias in the days of the oligarchy bore the palm for greed and violence: Alcibiades, for his part, exceeded all in licentiousness and insolence under the democracy. [1.2.13] Now I have no intention of excusing the wrong these two men wrought the state; but I will explain how they came to be with Socrates. [1.2.14] Ambition was the very life-blood of both: no Athenian was ever like them. They were eager to get control of everything and to outstrip every rival in notoriety. They knew that Socrates was living on very little, and yet was wholly independent; that he was strictly moderate in all his pleasures; and that in argument he could do what he liked with any disputant. [1.2.15] Sharing this knowledge and the principles I have indicated, is it to be supposed that these two men wanted to adopt the simple life of Socrates, and with this object in view sought his society? Did they not rather think that by associating with him they would attain the utmost proficiency in speech and action? [1.2.16] For my part I believe that, had heaven granted them the choice between the life they saw Socrates leading and death, they would have chosen rather to die. Their conduct betrayed their purpose; for as soon as they thought themselves superior to their fellow-disciples they sprang away from Socrates and took to politics; it was for political ends that they had wanted Socrates. ...

[1.2.24] And indeed it was thus with Critias and Alcibiades. So long as they were with Socrates, they found in him an ally who gave them strength to conquer their evil passions. But when they parted from him, Critias fled to Thessaly, and got among men who put lawlessness before justice; while Alcibiades, on account of his beauty, was hunted by many great ladies, and because of his influence at Athens and among her allies he was spoilt by many powerful men: and as athletes who gain an easy victory in the games are apt to neglect their training, so the honour in which he was held, the cheap triumph he won with the people, led him to neglect himself. [1.2.25] Such was their fortune: and when to pride of birth, confidence in wealth, vainglory and much yielding to temptation were added corruption and long separation from Socrates, what wonder if they grew overbearing? [1.2.26] For their wrongdoing, then, is Socrates to be called to account by his accuser? And does he deserve no word of praise for having controlled them in the days of their youth, when they would naturally be most reckless and licentious? Other cases, at least, are not so judged. [1.2.27] For what teacher of flute, lyre, or anything else, after making his pupils proficient, is held to blame if they leave him for another master, and then turn out incompetent? What father, whose son bears a good character so long as he is with one master, but goes wrong after he has attached himself to another, throws the blame on the earlier teacher? ...

[1.2.39] Now, all the time that Critias and Alcibiades associated with Socrates they were out of sympathy with him, but from the very first their ambition was political advancement. For while they were still with him, they tried to converse, whenever possible, with prominent politicians. [1.2.40] Indeed, there is a story told of Alcibiades, that, when he was less than twenty years old, he had a talk about laws with Pericles, his guardian, the first citizen in the State.

[1.2.41] "Tell me, Pericles," he said, "can you teach me what a law is?"

"Certainly," he replied.

"Then pray teach me. For whenever I hear men praised for keeping the laws, it occurs to me that no one can really deserve that praise who does not know what a law is."

[1.2.42] "Well, Alcibiades, there is no great difficulty about what you desire. You wish to know what a law is. Laws are all the rules approved and enacted by the majority in assembly, whereby they declare what ought and what ought not to be done."

"Do they suppose it is right to do good or evil?"

"Good, of course, young man, -- not evil."

[1.2.43] "But if, as happens under an oligarchy, not the majority, but a minority meet and enact rules of conduct, what are these?"

"Whatsoever the sovereign power in the State, after deliberation, enacts and directs to be done is known as a law."

"If, then, a despot, being the sovereign power, enacts what the citizens are to do, are his orders also a law?"

"Yes, whatever a despot as ruler enacts is also known as a law."

[1.2.44] "But force, the negation of law, what is that, Pericles? Is it not the action of the stronger when he constrains the weaker to do whatever he chooses, not by persuasion, but by force?"

"That is my opinion."

"Then whatever a despot by enactment constrains the citizens to do without persuasion, is the negation of law?"

"I think so: and I withdraw my answer that whatever a despot enacts without persuasion is a law."

[1.2.45] "And when the minority passes enactments, not by persuading the majority, but through using its power, are we to call that force or not?"

"Everything, I think, that men constrain others to do without persuasion, whether by enactment or not, is not law, but force."

"It follows then, that whatever the assembled majority, through using its power over the owners of property, enacts without persuasion is not law, but force?"

[1.2.46] "Alcibiades," said Pericles, "at your age, I may tell you, we, too, were very clever at this sort of thing. For the puzzles we thought about and exercised our wits on were just such as you seem to think about now."

"Ah, Pericles," cried Alcibiades, "if only I had known you intimately when you were at your cleverest in these things!"

[1.2.47] So soon, then, as they presumed themselves to be the superiors of the politicians, they no longer came near Socrates. For apart from their general want of sympathy with him, they resented being cross-examined about their errors when they came. Politics had brought them to Socrates, and for politics they left him.

-- Xenophon, Recollections of Socrates

Such is Xenophon’s account of the relation between Socrates and Alcibiades. As we shall see, Plato’s account is somewhat more subtle and nuanced, and not quite so hostile to Alcibiades. (Xenophon’s account is a bit awkward as a defense of Socrates, since in painting Alcibiades as a complete scoundrel he inadvertently suggests that Socrates was too dim-witted to see through Alcibiades’ motivations; Plutarch and Plato, by contrast, both seem to think that there was something genuinely valuable in Alcibiades’ character that Socrates recognized and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to salvage.)

In order to understand the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades as presented by Plato, it is important to know some background about Greek sexual mores. The ancient Greeks conceptualized and categorized sexual orientation differently from the way we do. For us, the primary division is between heterosexuality and homosexuality; the primary focus for us is whether one chooses sexual partners of the opposite sex or of one’s own sex. The Greeks divided the sexual landscape differently; for them the primary division was not between heterosexual and homosexual, but between active and receptive sexual roles -- more crudely, between “penetrator” and “penetratee.” Mature men were assigned to the active role; women, and younger men, were assigned to the receptive role. Likewise, the “active” partner was expected to be the sexual initiator and pursuer, while the passive or “receptive” partner was expected to be coy and evasive. (In short, Greek culture embraced a bisexual analogue of familar heterosexual stereotypes.) Thus it was expected that mature men would be attracted both to women and to young men. A handsome youth like Alcibiades would naturally, then, have attracted many older male admirers. Such admirers would generally offer political advice and assistance to ambitious young men in return for sexual favours.

Socrates initially presents himself to Alcibiades in the role of one of these admirers. It turns out, however, that Socrates is not seeking sexual favours, but is interested in Alcibiades’ soul rather than his body. Indeed, Socrates argues that the soul (the Greek term might also be translated “mind” or “psyche”) is the true self, so that those who love Alcibiades for his physical beauty are not in love with Alcibiades himself but only with his body; the only true lover is the lover of one’s soul. This doctrine is the origin of the term “Platonic love.”

It remains a matter of dispute, however, whether Socrates had no sexual interest in Alcibiades at all, or whether he felt such an interest but decided to sublimate it into a more spiritual attraction. At any rate, Socrates seems to have had a deep suspicion of sexual desire in general. Xenophon tells of a conversation he himself held with Socrates:

[1.3.8]Of sensual passion he would say: "Avoid it resolutely: it is not easy to control yourself once you meddle with that sort of thing." Thus, on hearing that Critobulus had kissed Alcibiades' pretty boy, he put this question to me before Critobulus: [1.3.9] "Tell me, Xenophon, did you not suppose Critobulus to be a sober person, and by no means rash; prudent, and not thoughtless or adventurous?"

"Certainly," I said.

"Then you are to look on him henceforth as utterly hot-headed and reckless: the man would do a somersault into a ring of knives; he would jump into fire."

[1.3.10] "What on earth has he done to make you think so badly of him?" I asked.

"What has the man done? He dared to kiss Alcibiades' son, and the boy is very good-looking and attractive."

"Oh, if that is the sort of adventure you mean, I think I might make that venture myself."

"Poor fellow! [1.3.11] What do you think will happen to you through kissing a pretty face? Won't you lose your liberty in a trice and become a slave, begin spending large sums on harmful pleasures, have no time to give to anything fit for a gentleman, be forced to concern yourself with things that no madman even would care about?"

[1.3.12] "Heracles! what alarming power in a kiss!" I cried.

"What? Does that surprise you?" continued Socrates. "Don't you know that the scorpion, though smaller than a farthing, if it but fasten on the tongue, inflicts excruciating and maddening pain?"

"Yes, to be sure; for the scorpion injects something by its bite."

[1.3.13] "And do you think, you foolish fellow, that the fair inject nothing when they kiss, just because you don't see it? Don't you know that this creature called 'fair and young' is more dangerous than the scorpion, seeing that it need not even come in contact, like the insect, but at any distance can inject a maddening poison into anyone who only looks at it? Maybe, too, the loves are called archers for this reason, that the fair can wound even at a distance. Nay, I advise you, Xenophon, as soon as you see a pretty face to take to your heels and fly: and you, Critobulus, I advise to spend a year abroad. It will certainly take you at least as long as that to recover from the bite."

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