Saturday, May 31, 2014

Alcibiades Major

Plato scholars are split on whether Alcibiades, also called First Alcibiades, Greater Alcibiades, or Alcibiades Major, is actually Plato's. Until the nineteenth century, everyone accepted it as genuine, but at the turn of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher and a young Friedrich von Schlegel got together and decided to translate Plato's dialogues into German. Schleiermacher largely had to do the project by himself as Schlegel became interested in other things and the two started not getting along very well. Schleiermacher looked critically at the question of whether all the works in the Platonic canon were genuine, and concluded that Alcibiades was not, on stylistic grounds. This has not had universal acceptance, and has in the past thirty years been vigorously challenged. Part of the problem is that general stylistic considerations -- which can involve judgment calls about what Plato would write -- are the primary reason to doubt it; the dialogue itself has no definite anachronisms, its vocabulary is not particularly strange (although there are a few terms unique to the dialogue, there aren't actually very many, and stylometric tests have gone both ways), and it contains nothing that is difficult to square with other things in the authentic corpus. Much of Schleiermacher's argument rests on his assessment that it is clumsy in comparison with the authentic dialogues; but even in the nineteenth century the details of his argument were often regarded as somewhat exaggerated. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we know from undeniably authentic dialogues that Plato is stylistically versatile -- almost all the dialogues show Plato doing something you wouldn't expect simply on the basis of other dialogues. One reason for regarding it as inauthentic that seems to have played a role is that it often did not fit into any early-middle-late scheme of the order in which Plato wrote the dialogues, having similarities with dialogues throughout the corpus. But one could just as easily regard this as merely evidence that the Platonic corpus is more unified than scholars have thought -- reading it as a sign of inauthenticity requires having other reasons to regard it as inauthentic.

In any case, through most of its history Alcibiades has been regarded as the gateway to the Platonic dialogues, the one to start off with, so there are any number of reasons to read it even if it is not actually Plato's. It is also relatively funny.

You can read Alcibiades online in Lamb's translation at the Perseus Project.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)



The Plot

Socrates opens the dialogue addressing Alcibiades and explaining why, after having avoided Alcibiades for so long, he is now approaching him. Alcibiades has for some time been pestered by men wanting to be his erastes, but Socrates was prevented from doing so by his daemon, the divine voice that prevents him from doing things that are wrong. However, Alcibiades has repudiated most of the attempts of other men, and the divine sign now no longer prevents Socrates from approaching Alcibiades now that the latter is preparing to enter public life. Socrates offers to explain to him the real reason why he rejected the others, and why he, Socrates, can offer what they did not. Alcibiades is quite clearly not thrilled, but lets Socrates tell him, and Socrates replies that Alcibiades wants his reputation and influence "to saturate all mankind, so to speak" (105c).

Alcibiades refuses to commit on that point, but asks what makes Socrates so indispensable to that project, even if so. Socrates then begins to question him as to what he is capable of offering to the Athenian assembly. Socrates establishes that he does not know, and, as he often does, brings it around to the question of justice, which is important to public life, asking when Alcibiades learned what justice and injustice were, and how he learned it. The boy is unable to answer the question, of course, and so shows himself ignorant of the most important things:

SOCRATES: Good God, Alcibiades, what a sorry state you're in! I hesitate to call it by name, but still, since we're alone, it must be said. You are wedded to stupidity, my good fellow, stupidity in the highest degree--our discussion and your own words convict you of it. this is why you're rushing into politics before you've got an education. You're not alone in this sad state--you've got most of our city's politicians for company. There are only a few exceptions, among them, perhaps, your guardian, Pericles. (118b-c)

But Socrates in fact goes on to argue that Pericles is not an exception. Alcibiades attempts to use the fact that politicians generally go into politics without a real understanding of justice and injustice as an excuse for doing it himself, but Socrates vehemently rejects the idea, arguing that this is unworthy of Alcibiades' ambition: he is settling for competing against "Midias the cockfighter" rather than the real players on the world stage, like the king of Sparta or the king of Persia. There is then some extensive discussion of the educations of Sparta and Persia, to show that each has significant advantages over Alcibiades on important points. In order to compete with them, Alcibiades must follow the inscription at the oracle of Delphi, Know Thyself, and cultivate himself.

Alcibiades is interested by now, so the discussion turns to self-cultivation. They conclude that this is cultivation of one's soul, and in particular one must have the self-control that comes from knowing the most divine part of oneself, the part where knowing and understanding take place. This is essential to Alcibiades' political ambitions, because the real prosperity of the city lies in justice and self-control, which Alcibiades can only give to Athens if he also has justice and self-control.

The boy by this point is impressed, and insists that from now on he will approach Socrates, and be his constant attendant. He will start cultivating justice in himself right now.

And Socrates replies that he hopes that Alcibiades will persevere, but he fears that the city, because it is so powerful, might get the best of both of them.


* The complexity of the erastes-eromenos relationship is too great to get into in any detail here. It is not found in the earliest strata of Greek culture, and seems to have arisen out of the confluence of a number of factors, including a strong emphasis on athletics and a highly misogynistic culture; Aristotle famously suggested that it might have been encouraged as a means of population control. For the Greeks, however, it was a mentorship relationship, allowing for sex, apparently always intercrural, that had very strict and complicated rules attached -- even the slightest violation of the rules or customs could result in the relationship being regarded as highly vulgar or degenerate. The relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades was famously nonsexual and purely educational; this is, in fact, the root of our phrase, "Platonic love".

* The four cardinal virtues make a brief showing in the description of the education of Persian princes (121e-122a).

The Thought

Although the argument is fairly straightforward, this dialogue covers quite a few issues. There is an especially interesting discussion of what the Delphic inscription really means. This includes a fascinating argument that part of knowing oneself is dialogue with another:

SOCRATES: You think about it, too. If the inscription took our eyes to be men and advised them, "See thyself,' how would we understand such advice?Shouldn't the eye be looking at something in which it could see itself?

ALCIBIADES: Obviously.

SOCRATES: Then let's think of something that allows us to see both it and ourselves when we look at it.

ALCIBIADES: Obviously, Socrates, you mean mirrors and that sort of thing.


SOCRATES: I'm sure you've noticed that when a man looks into an eye his face appears in it, like in a mirror. We call this the 'pupil', for it's a sort of miniature of the man who's looking.


SOCRATES: Then if the soul, Alcibiades, is to know itself, it must look at a soul, and especially at that region in which what makes a soul good, wisdom, occurs, and at anything else which is similar to it.

ALCIBIADES: I agree with you, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Can we say that there is anything about the soul which is more divine than that where knowing and understanding take place?

ALCIBIADES: No, we can't.

SOCRATES: Then that region in it resembles the divine, and someone who looked at that and grasped everything divine--vision and understanding--would have the best grasp of himself as well. (132d-133c)

If I had to pick one thing that sums up the dialogue, I think it would be this argument that knowing oneself requires interacting with someone else so as to recognize what is divine in them. Not only is it argued for, it is, in a sense, what Socrates has promised from the beginning, and what he is beginning to model throughout the dialogue. It also explains, I think, why Alcibiades is so genuinely intrigued by Socrates' offer.


Quotations are from D. S. Hutchinson's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, eds., pp. 557-595.


  1. Greta1:12 AM

    This is such an inspired series, particularly for one who has not read the dialogues so methodically-for which reason one may never have otherwise resd this particular dialogue. This theme, of the importance of dialogue to know the soul fits in wonderfully with Gadamer's Truth and Method, where among other things he stresses the importance of dialogue as a means to reach the truth (though truth is not in words but how they are used), the importance of perception in that one may look away but cannot hear away, and the hubris of modern science that purports to see all-but in this dialogue we see seeing limited to the pupil representative of perfect nature and truth, the latter of which Gadamer writes is neglected by science (insofar as it is not interested in the objective truth of what is said). Anyway, in this 'pupil' understanding, the interpreter is not alienated from the interpreted, which is another of Gadamer's complaints about science. These are just a few thoughts that came to mind, which I thought I'd share here in case they are of use-and as a sign for you that you have readers who don't always comment but who are interacting with what you write: thank you!

  2. Greta1:10 PM

    Just for the record, in my comment, I was narrowly connecting mostly sections 132 and 133 with Gadamer. If you return to him later, I woukd love to read your thoughts and impressions.
    I have just finished reading this dialogue from start to finish. *If* I may share a few of my thoughts, they are as follows:
    -One cannot be taught by the many (what a great observation and so distant to 'internet university')
    -There are great arguments in this dialogue to use with unambitious students, such as, their audience will not necessarily be the one in immediate view, or, how in the eyes of a rival *woman* (more on this in a bit) it is humiliating if one will not at the green age of 20 take pains to care for the self; also it is noted that to make this effort is much harder at 50 than at 20
    -In the eyes of the Spartans, the uneducated would count as "but a child" reminds me of the Timaeus when the Hellenes are called children by the Egyptians
    -The Spartan wife as authority (Socrates was said to have been educated by a woman, Diotima)
    -To not adopt the dictum know thyself through pains and skill would mean mockery by both Greeks and barbarians---who incidentally in this dialogue are shown to all descend from Zeus, if I understood correctly
    -Vice as slavery: as there is much talk about Dante's Divine Comedy these days, this point may be used there, too, possibly.
    I wonder if Schleiermacher doubted this text also because Socrates' questions are on the whole more quickly refuted (at least in the reader's mind) than in some of the more well-read dialogues? Just a thought, as I said, I have not read these contested dialogues until your inspired posts.
    Hopefully I have not overstayed my welcome on your blog, but rather than write a response blog post of my own, I thought I would present these thoughts to you here, for whatever they are worth (we all know two cents is worth nothing these days!)

  3. branemrys4:50 PM

    The role of women and their relation to education is definitely interesting in this dialogue.

    I think one of the things Schleiermacher explicitly notes about the dialogue is that it doesn't obviously form any kind of continuous argument -- the threads are short, so to speak, so that Socrates does not develop the arguments as much as he does in other dialogues. So your suggestion about his doubt might well be right.

  4. Enbrethiliel7:05 AM


    I'm still about halfway through this. I'll get back to you when I'm done.

  5. branemrys10:49 AM

    Sure thing! I've been finding your live-tweet interesting.

  6. Enbrethiliel3:51 PM


    I am back and I am EXHAUSTED. Socrates doesn't make it easy, does he? But just when I thought I'd let something else fly over my hopeless head, for the sake of reading on, it would come back like a boomerang in a later point and whack me with its meaning.

    The declaration of love at the end is so beautiful! Socrates doesn't seem serious at the beginning, and he's really insulting in the middle, but in the end, his words are downright romantic! LOL!

    I agree with you about the heart of the dialogue, which really fits the "framing device" of the Platonic relationship. We really do have to admire and love what is best the soul of another in order to recognise what is best our own souls. It's not an obvious conclusion, though, and I wonder how Socrates figured it out. It's not the sort of insight you'd expect from the stereotypical modern philosopher who tries to figure everything out on his own. (And by "you," I mean "me" . . . and by "stereotypical modern philosopher," I mean the Philosophy major I met in uni who humbly informed me that he was the best philosopher in the city, while a mutual friend of ours was the second best.)

  7. branemrys4:58 PM

    Socrates definitely does nothing accidentally! Everything does something -- which is why you can pick a good Platonic dialogue and spend an entire life on it!

    One of the things I think is interesting about Alcibiades is that it's almost, almost Christian -- self-knowledge, the foundation of moral life, requires loving others so as to love the divine in them, which is not quite there and yet getting so very close to Christian love of God and neighbor. Maybe St. Justin Martyr, who was a Platonist who converted to Christianity, was on to something when he said that Christ was partly known by Socrates, in his own way. Certainly some of the Neoplatonists thought that Socratic teaching was a way in which God worked (the Theages, which I'll probably be sneaking in between Charmides and Phaedrus, is about that).

    I think it would be hard to find many modern philosophers feeling their way long this direction in the way Socrates does; and I suspect you're right that it's because for them philosophy is not built on, and structured by, friends working to help each other improve themselves.

  8. Enbrethiliel11:59 AM


    When self-knowledge and the soul started coming up, I did wonder whether I was reading something (anachronistically?) Christian into it! I'm not surprised that the Neoplatonists, whom I vaguely recall reading about in Sophie's World (sigh), found Platonic thought to be so compatible with Christianity.

  9. branemrys6:20 PM

    Ah, Sophie's World; it's been a long time since I read that.

    I think we can probably say that, at the very least, the Platonists and Christians shared a lot of early vocabulary, even if they sometimes took it in different directions.


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