Socrates, a man who needs no introduction, was a teacher of Alciabides, a fellow Athenian born of stock and raised under the care of Pericles, an accomplished politician and general. Socrates took it upon himself to moderate the intense ambition of Alciabides, who would later become a hawkish general at the prodigal age of 30.
Upon the eve of the massive Athenian invasion of Sicily, which Alciabides convinced the Athenians to undertake, he was implicated by his enemies in the defacement of religious statues and effectively exiled. He switched sides and helped the Spartans finish off the Athenians in the Peloponnesian Wars by giving them invaluable information. Once he extracted all he could from the Spartans, he aided the Persians, until finally returning to help Athens once again in their moment of weakness against the rising oligarchs, only to be bitterly exiled again.
The four texts in this book show dialogues between Socrates and Alciabides about life, experience, and politics when Alcibiades was around 21 years old and already a rising political star. (The two most significant texts are Alcibiades I and Alcibiades II.) These two men also had a love affair, as customary in those times. Within the dialogues is a strong homoerotic component where Socrates not only wants to educate Alcibiades, but seduce him as well.
Introductory highlights from the translator:
Was Socrates in any way responsible for the ultimate failure of Alcibiades? Socrates tells us he had two loves, philosophy and Alcibiades (Gorgias 481d-482b). But what did he see in Alcibiades in the first place? What did he try to teach him, and how did he try to teach it? Why did he fail?[…]
…these works provide us with a rich discussion of how Athens’ greatest philosopher loved and tried to teach her most talented and most ambitious youth—and why Athens turned on both of them.[…]
Alcibiades also made enemies among the Spartans, most notably King Agis, whose wife Timaea he was widely believed to have seduced (Alcibiades 1121b-c). In 412, when he learned that the Spartans intended to have him killed, Alcibiades took refuge with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, and offered advice to yet another of Athens’ traditional enemies.[…]
Alcibiades came to love Socrates, but not to love philosophy. Without this greater love he was overcome by his love for the glory only the fickle people of Athens could give—and take away.
Alcibiades was a chameleon who would switch sides to preserve his own skin and power, placing himself above the state. He made sure to always possess value for those he was dealing with to prevent them from killing him outright. He was a talented, extraordinary man that Socrates failed to temper, and who made too many enemies along the way. Those enemies examined all his actions with a microscope and exaggerated all his perceived errors. Once he was exiled a second time from Athens, he returned to the Persians, who he thought would welcome his presence. Unfortunately for him, they were now allied with Sparta, an enemy of Alcibiades at the time, and so he was killed.
Starting with Alcibiades I, Socrates schools his student to realize he does not know what he thinks he knows, and therefore has no real standing to make an upcoming political speech in front of the Athenian government. He shows this through a long line of questions that seems more like pestering and leading the witness, but of which the logic is sound (to prove one point, he builds up with a dozen or more questions). It did not seem enjoyable to be on the receiving end of Socrates’ line of questioning, and if he was alive today I have no doubt he’d be labeled difficult, or even a troll.
Socrates: Can you name anything greater than what’s just and admirable and what’s good and what’s advantageous?
Alcibiades: Certainly not.
Socrates: And isn’t it about these things that you say you are confused?
Socrates: But if you are confused, isn’t it clear from what came before that not only are you ignorant of the greatest things, but not knowing them you think that you do know?
Socrates: Then alas, Alcibiades, what a condition you suffer from! I hesitate to name it, but since we two are alone, it must be said. You are wedded to stupidity, best of men, of the most extreme sort, as the argument accuses you and you accuse yourself. So this is why you are leaping into the affairs of the city before you have been educated. You are not the only one to suffer from this; most of those who manage the affairs of the city are the same way, except a few—perhaps your guardian, Pericles.
Socrates suggests that most human harm is caused through ignorance by someone who thinks they know but doesn’t. Socrates describes how you know when someone is not ignorant:
Socrates: …those who understand something do understand it, that they are able to produce someone else who understands it.
The path to understanding what you undertand and don’t understand comes from knowing yourself:
And don’t you think it’s disgraceful, if even the women of our enemies have a better idea of what sort of men we’d have to be to take them on than we do ourselves? Rather, you blessed man, be persuaded by me and the inscription at Delphi: Know Thyself—recognize that these are your opponents, not those you think. We will surpass not even one of them, if not through care and art. If you fall short of them, you will fall short of becoming a name among the Greeks and barbarians, something you seem to me to love as no one has ever loved anything else.
A lot of Socrates’ arguments are set up in a way not only to enlighten the young Alcibiades, but to lavish praise upon his soul or appearance.
Socrates makes the argument for what sounds similar to the philosopher king concept of his student Plato, whereby leaders must possess wisdom, moderation, and expertise before they attempt to lead.
Socrates: What about on a ship, if someone has the authority to do what seems right to him, but lacks the mind and the excellence of a helmsman—do you see what would happen to him and to those on board with him?
Alcibiades: I do—they’d all perish.
Socrates: Then in the same way, whenever a city or any office or authority lacks excellence, it follows that they will do badly?
Socrates: So one must not provide tyranny, my excellent Alcibiades, either for himself or for his city, if you two are to be happy, but excellence.
Alcibiades I ends with Socrates’ foreboding in that he has failed to properly educate Alcibiades:
Alcibiades: Well, this is how things stand, and I will begin from this point forth to care for justice.
Socrates: I’d like you to keep on doing that. But I am filled with dread, not because I do not trust in your nature, but because I see the force of the city and fear that it will overcome both me and you.
Alcibiades II starts off with a lesson of “be careful what you wish for.” The more I read ancient Greek texts, the more I realize that a lot of our modern beliefs and maxims have come from them. The construction of our reality is based upon their ideas.
You also see that some of our fellow citizens—and this we haven’t merely heard from others, but know ourselves at first hand—desired to become general and achieved this, but some of them are even now still in exile from this city, while others have ended their lives. Those who are thought to have done the best came through many dangers and fears, not only while serving as general, but when they came back to their own home, beseiged as they were by informers in no less a siege than that they endured at the hands of the enemy. The result is that some of them would pray to never have been general rather than to have served as general. Now if the dangers and labors led to some benefit, it would make sense. But, as it is, it is quite the opposite.
You will find that it is the same way concerning children, that some who prayed before now to have them, had them, only to fall into misfortunes and griefs of the greatest sort. Some of them had children who were completely bad, and spent their whole lives in grief. Others’ children were good, but met with misfortune which took them from their parents, who thus met with no less ill fortune than the others and would wish that their children had never been born.
But even though these things and many others like them are so very clear, it is rare to find anyone who would refuse what is given, or, if he were going to get something through prayer, would stop praying. The many would not refuse tyranny, were it given to them, or the generalship, or many other things that, when present, do more harm than benefit: they would even pray to get them, if they don’t have them already. A little while later they sometimes change their tune, unpraying the things they had prayed for at first. I can find no way to deny that it is truly vain for men to blame the gods by claiming that bad things come to them from the gods. “But they themselves by their own recklessness”—or foolishness, which we should call it—“have pains beyond what is fated.”
Another interesting thought:
So it is profitable for most people neither to know nor to think that they know, if, that is, they are more eager to do the things they know or think they know, and in so doing will be harmed most of the time rather than benefited.
In other words, it is better not to know, because if you think you know, it will cause you to embark on something that is sure to cause self-harm. People who decide on what will benefit them based on ignorance neglect to see the costs.
The Symposium text has Alcibiades drunkenly describing their intellectual and intimate relationship. He reviews both the strengths and weaknesses of Socrates and his skilled seduction powers, all in the presence of one of the philosopher’s other male lovers. It appears that Socrates seduced Alcibiades through complimentary and flowerly language while withholding all physical affection, putting Alcibiades in a state of confusion and insecurity. In modern times we do the opposite: we keep our speech void of affection and intimacy while quickly getting physical.
The text was at times too heavy on homosexual themes but I did enjoy Socrates’ thoughts on experience and life. The texts are short—you can probably finish them all in a couple of days. If you are interested in Ancient Greece, the comittment to finish these texts is quite modest.