On The Idea of Prayer in The Second Alcibiades

The two Alcibiades dialogues that have come down to us as Platonic are not cited by any authority, such as Aristotle. Instead, they have been ascribed to likely several generations after Plato, and attributed to his Platonic corpus, perhaps either by pupils or librarians at either Athens or Alexandria. Due to the impossibility of determining ancient authorship, we rely on our imaginations for grounding.

As in the First Alcibiades dialogue, Socrates interrupts Alcibiades in the second. Alcibiades is on his way to offer prayers to Zeus. The subject matter of the dialogue is prayer. Socrates suggests “caution” when asking the gods for anything, because people may receive what they request, and it may not always be good (as in the case of Oedipus asking the gods for his children to divide their inheritance by the sword). They discuss the difference between a sensible and a madman, because Alcibiades believes Oedipus was mad when asking the gods for such a dishonorable fate to befall his family.

At any rate, Socrates supposes that if the gods had granted to Alcibiades the award of “tyrant” of Athens, Hellas, and all of Europe, he would be pleased and call it a gift from the gods. Socrates exposes the inner tyrant of Alcibiades.

Prayer is not a guarantee of anything. In fact, in some situations people pray for goodness, but receive great evil from the gods. Not all gifts from the gods are good. The assumption of prayer is a state of ignorance, with a request to the god for a piece of the larger puzzle, a benefit. And all gifts are a kind of debt owed to the gift giver. For someone who continually receives gifts is at an imbalance, or an inequality, with the person giving the gifts.

Unless someone has perfect knowledge of the whole, and perfect knowledge of the mind of a god, he runs the risk of offending a god when in prayer (by unwittingly committing an act of blasphemy). Thus prayer is a risky activity. The word “prayer” comes down to us from the Latin precārius, meaning “something obtained by entreaty or request or by begging.” Socrates suggests the best course of action (the “wisest” course of action) is to remain silent.

At the close of this short dialogue, Alcibiades crowns a wreath upon Socrates’s head, as they mutually decide not to pray to the gods until they have gained further wisdom. Alcibiades suggests they partake in other customary rights. Socrates comments that the wreath is an “auspicious” omen, but that he will partake in whatever “gifts” Alcibiades has prepared for him. Alcibiades plays the role of god to Socrates, as gift-giver. Has Socrates also, in turn, given a gift to Alcibiades? Perhaps instead of advising him to avoid prayer, if Alcibiades had been instructed to partake in the customary rites and rituals, he would not have been accused of blasphemy in conjunction with his other treasonous affairs. In that way, we could have made a defense of Alcibiades, in the same way that Xenophon makes a defense of Socrates in his Memorabilia -that Alcibiades could not have been accused of profaning the sacred mysteries for he was “seen” by many in public completing the appropriate prayers and sacrifices.

For this reading I used an internet-based translation via Project Gutenberg.

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