Alcibiades is a Platonic dialogue focusing on the themes of self-knowledge, and self-care. Measured with stylometric criteria the dialogue is placed in the philosopher’s early or Socratic writing period. Alcibiades is complemented by the indication “first” or “major” (= Alcibiades I) so that it be distinguished from the indisputably spurious Alcibiades II (= “second” or “minor”).

Dramatic context and persons

Alcibiades is a direct or dramatic dialogue acted out between a thirty-seven-year-old Socrates, and the young Alcibiades. Their conversation takes place in Athens on the eve of the expedition to Potidea (432 B.C.). Alcibiades, just before turning twenty (123d), is preparing for his first public speech at the Assembly (105a-b). The dramatic scene of the dialogue is minimal: the two interlocutors are having a private conversation with no others present.

Originality

In antiquity, the authenticity of the dialogue was never impugned. But its ascription to Plato was doubted in the early 19th c. by F. Schleiermacher. This was due to his appraisal of the dialogue as stylistically poor, inadequate in presenting the characters, and abundant in absurdities and untenable arguments. Many scholars after Schleiermacher supported his position. Lately, the dialogue’s genuineness is generally accepted as a result of more objective (stylometric as well as semantic) analyses.

Content and form

Socrates is for the first time engaged in a discussion with Alcibiades, and he speaks highly of him (104a-c). The young man has all the qualifications needed to shine in public life: distinct beauty, aristocratic origin, great wealth, and powerful political connections. For all that, Socrates claims that the young man cannot meet his ambitions without Socrates’ help (105e). Alcibiades affirms that his aspiration for excellence and political power is almost without limitation (106a). The discussion (106b-116e) is triggered by Alcibiades’ wonder over the kind of help that Socrates can provide him. The ensuing discussion makes it clear that Alcibiades does not know what justice is nor political expediency – even though he believes that these are matters of the outmost importance for a political ruler. Thus, after eliciting Alcibiades’ confession of his ignorance (116e), Socrates exhorts him to cultivate himself (119a), and not to underestimate the qualifications of his future opponents. A lengthy monologue by Socrates (121a-124b), which divides the dialogue into two parts, follows. Socrates concludes his speech with the Delphic injunction “know thyself”.

In the second part of the dialogue, Alcibiades is compelled to confess anew his ignorance (127d) over important matters of political practice: good counsel (εὐβουλία), social coherence and unanimity (φιλία, ὁμοψυχία). From this point comes forth a claim to the cultivation of one’s self, as a process of making one’s self better. Socrates identifies the self with the soul in opposition to the body which is considered to be only an instrument of the soul. The live exchange of views in an interpersonal discussion is regarded as the method par excellence of making one’s self better (127e-130e). Thus, the Delphic dictum is construed as a command for self-knowledge through contact with another person. Socrates adduces the analogy of the eye, which can only see itself in a mirror or in the pupil of another’s eye (132e-133b), and from this analogy he claims that “if the soul is to know itself, it must look at a soul, and especially at that region in which the goodness of the soul, i.e. wisdom, occurs” (133b). Alcibiades is convinced to begin cultivating himself in the context of his relation with Socrates (135d). With an irony characteristic of Plato’s pen, Socrates expresses, by the end of the dialogue, his satisfaction for the upshot of the discussion, and, at the same time, his concern that Athens may get the better of both the interlocutors. This is a clear insinuation about the catalytic fascination that the “praise of the people” held for Alcibiades, and about his later tragic course. It is also an insinuation about the conviction to death of Socrates himself.

Interpretation

Alcibiades thematizes self-knowledge as a condition for taking proper public action. We should take it as granted that the ancient readers of the dialogue knew the eventful political career of Alcibiades as well as its unfortunate conclusion. The dramatic discussion between Socrates and Alcibiades fleshes out the dilemma between choosing a life dedicated to the pursuance of political power and public honors, and following a life concentrated on knowledge and self-improvement. Plato’s aim with this dialogue is double: not only to shake off the popular accusations against Socrates, i.e. that he contributed to the education, and the tyrannical aspirations, of the “enfant terrible” of the Athenian democracy, but also to recommend (Socratic) philosophy as a method of dialectical self-knowledge and self-improvement.

Historical significance

The historical significance of Alcibiades has been great. In antiquity, the dialogue was appraised as the most suitable introduction to Platonic philosophy as a whole (Albinus 5.11-17; Diogenes Laërtius III.62), and since Iamblichus it was placed first in the curriculum of Neoplatonism. This placement occasioned the composition of many hermeneutical commentaries on the dialogue by various Neoplatonists. Only two of these works survive today: Proclus’ and Olympiodorus’ commentaries.

In modern Greek literature, a small extract from Alcibiades found its place in the poem “Argonauts” by Geroge Seferis (included in his poetry collection Mythistorema). In Western philosophy the “care for the self”, which is the subtitle of the third volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality as well as a key notion in modern discussions about self-improvement, stems from Plato’s Alcibiades. This dialogue is the first surviving work from Greek antiquity in which the concept of personal identity, already thematized in the well-known “I investigated myself” by Heraclitus (fr. 101 D-K), becomes the subject of rigorous deliberation.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Denyer, N. Plato: Alcibiades. Cambridge, 2001.
  • Pradeau, J.F., Marbœuf, C. Platon: Alcibiade. Παρίσι, 1999.
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