On The First Alcibiades

The First Alcibiades is the (likely spurious) dialogue between Socrates and the confident young Alcibiades -the good-looking, charming, friend and relative of Pericles. Alcibiades is about to embark on a political career, instructing the people of Athens when to engage in war or peace. In some cases war is the right course of action, and in other cases peace is preferable. However this question is also a question of justice: when a war is the just course of action or its opposite. If Alcibiades knows the right course of action for the city, does he have an understanding of justice? Therefore, the dialogue is also about the question of justice. And this topic is important because, as we know, Alcibiades is the infamous leader of the Sicilian disaster (see Thucydides) and he was also blamed for profaning the Eleusian mysteries.

The First Alcibiades was long considered the proper introduction to Platonic political philosophy throughout antiquity, though perhaps a better modern starting point is by way of the Meno.

The setting of the First Alcibiades is not made explicit. Socrates has apparently annoyed Alcibiades (again) and followed him somewhere (contra the Symposium wherein Alcibiades bombastically intrudes on a gentleman’s party). Socrates confesses his love for Alcibiades, and tells him that he needs Socrates’s teaching if he is to accomplish any of his political ambitions (which are compared with those of Cyrus or Xerxes).

Alcibiades, in the dialectic, professes himself to be a good adviser to the Athenian people, though he is only an accomplished writer, lyre-player, and wrestler who descends from a noble and ancient Athenian family. Instead, Alcibiades intends to advise the Athenians on “war” and “peace” and the “concerns of the city.” And how does he know what is a better course of action for the city? On the basis of justice. Alcibiades claims to possess knowledge of justice.

The dialogue proceeds with it being revealed that Alcibiades either a) does not have the wisdom or knowledge he claims to possess, or b) he has it but is unable to articulate what it is that he possesses. If they have no self-knowledge or virtue, how can they possibly lead other men to war or peace? The dialogue comes to light as a reorientation of Alcibiades, an encouragement for him not to give up on the question of the just things (as well as the question of the nature of things) so that he may be a better adviser to the Athenians. Socrates concludes the dialogue on an ominous note: hoping the best for Alcibiades, but also fearing that the polis/demos may be too much for them both.

One question lingers in the dialogue, in the same way it does in the Republic, which is: To what extent can the demos blame the treasonous actions of a star pupil (Alcibiades) on his controversial teacher (Socrates)? Every Platonic dialogue is, on the surface, a defense of the Socratic life as both pious as well as just and beneficial for his youthful students. Without the teaching of Socrates, we are left to wonder what may have become of Alcibiades and his political ambitions.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of “The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues” and edited by Thomas Pangle. This translation was completed by Steven Forde.

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