Plato's Alcibiades

Stephen Fineberg (Knox College)

Articulating a widely held view, C. J. Rowe says of Alcibides' speech in Plato's Symposium:  “[M]ight we speculate that P[lato] wishes to suggest... that if only Alcibiades and others like him had been more prepared to follow S[ocrates] and his example, the city might never have been defeated.”  In the Symposium, Alcibiades admits that he ignored Socrates' advice to give up his political aspirations and pursue a more reflective life.  Had Alcibiades followed Socrates' advice, Rowe suggests, Alcibiades might never have persuaded Athens to sail under his command for Sicily where the city suffered a disastrous defeat.  I can not disagree with Rowe's assessment, and yet I think it is important to distinguish the historical Alcibiades from the Alcibiades who appears in Plato's dialogue.

Shortly following the dramatic date of Plato's Symposium, the historical Alcibiades, who for all we know never really met Socrates, set sail for Sicily.  The fictional Alcibiades, however, as he appears in the dialogue did meet Socrates on several occasions, and at every meeting, he suffers shame for not taking the philosopher's advice.  In the present paper I argue that Plato's fictional Alcibiades did not simply abandon Socrates and the philosophic life, but that, “enchanted” and “enslaved” by the power of Socrates' words, Plato's Alcibiades served Socrates, much as the warriors of Plato's ideal Republic serve the philosopher-king: Alcibiades, in the rarified company of aristocratic friends assembled at Agathon's house, not only praises Socrates but, as Bury demonstrates, Alcibiades imitates Socrates' very way of speaking.  In the Protagoras, where Alcibiades again appears in Socrates' company, Alcibiades' sole function seems to be the defense of Socrates' preferred mode of speaking -- Alcibiades interrupts more than once to prevent long speeches from prevailing over the dialogue form.

Like the historical Alcibiades, Plato's character is no philosopher, but in the dialogue, Alcibiades defends Socrates' speech because Socrates' words reveal Socrates' extraordinary restraint (sophrosune).  Not only does Alcibiades praise the restraint revealed by Socrates' words, however, but he praises the restraint shown by Socrates' actions.  Socrates, on military campaign, endured terrible cold, walking over ice in bare feet, and again when the whole army fell into frenzied retreat, Socrates led a few friends from the fight with such disciplined courage that no enemy dared harass them. Indeed, even when Socrates earned a military commendation, he insisted that it be conferred on Alcibiades -- Socrates is not ambitious.  The fictional Alcibiades is a warrior, not the unrestrained warrior who led Athens to war, but a man who can admire Socrates' restraint, and for that reason, I suggest, he both praises Socrates' words in the Symposium and defends Socrates' preference for dialogue in the Protagoras.

Finally, it may be that the fictional and ideal setting of the dialogues confronts the historical reality of the city itself when Plato juxtaposes the violence (bia), that is more than once associated with Alcibiades in the Symposium, and the compelling force (anangke) of Socrates' words (bia may even be heard at the core of Alci-bia-des' very name).  In the Symposium and in the Protagoras, whenever Alcibiades is so unfortunate as to fall into Socrates' company, the recklessness for which Alcibiades is so feared in the real city is moderated by Socrates' words, and Alcibiades himself is made to serve Socrates' philosophic purpose.  By Thucydides' account (Book 6), the reckless eros that led Athens to Sicily was not simply that of Alcibiades, but that of the city itself which failed to moderate Alcibiades and so properly harness his acknowledged talents. Plato's Socrates achieves what the real city failed to do: moderate Alcibiades.

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