Socrates, Alcibiades, and Ambition

From the lecture series: Masters of Greek Thought — Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle

By Robert C. Bartlett, PhD, Boston College

To begin to understand Socrates, it is best to consider how Plato presents Socrates as a teacher. The most obvious place to begin is with Socrates’ attempts to teach Alcibiades, a historical figure who went on to have an astounding—and highly controversial—political career in the Peloponnesian War.

Alcibades being taught by Socrates, Painting by François-André Vincent  1776
(Image: By François-André Vincent – Musée Fabre (brochure)/Public domain)

The Alcibiades I introduces the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades, which Plato evidently thought was very important. Why? Plato presents Socrates and Alcibiades together in a total of four dialogues which chronicle the beginning, the middle, and the end of their time together. No other person, apart from Socrates himself, of course, appears as frequently in the dialogues.

Alcibiades: An Extravagant Figure

Alcibiades was remarkably handsome. He was rich. His family was one of the most distinguished in Greece. In short, Alcibiades seemed to have the world by the tail.

Who was Alcibiades? He was, quite simply, one of the most astonishing figures in all antiquity. A born and raised Athenian, he lived from about 450 to 404 BC. His father was Cleinias, and he was killed in battle when Alcibiades was quite young. Alcibiades went to live with his uncle, who happened to be none other than the greatest democratic statesman in Athens, Pericles.

Illustration of "The return of Alcibiades to Athens" by Walter Crane from The story of Greece : told to boys and girls (191-?) by Macgregor, Mary.
The return of Alcibiades to Athens in 407 BC after his military successes abroad. (Image: By Walter Crane/Public domain)

Alcibiades was remarkably handsome. He was rich. His family was one of the most distinguished in Greece. In short, Alcibiades seemed to have the world by the tail. He also had a staggeringly quick rise to power in Athens. In the course of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and her allies, and while he was still quite young, Alcibiades managed to get himself elected as one of Athens’ generals. Not only that, he managed to persuade the Athenian democracy to undertake a mind-bogglingly ambitious plan to conquer the very distant island of Sicily.

This is a transcript from the video series Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

As the historian Thucydides tells us, Alcibiades lived his private life in a very extravagant way. For example, he single-handedly entered seven horses in the Olympic chariot races, placing first, second, and fourth; this was a very splashy thing to do. It would be like owning two or three of the teams vying for the Super Bowl.

This extravagance on Alcibiades’ part led the people, the masses in general, most of whom were poor, to be deeply suspicious of him. What exactly is he going to do? What exactly is he aiming at?

It so happened that on the eve of Athens’ setting sail with a vast armada to conquer Sicily, which was again Alcibiades’ plan, some young men happened to mutilate certain religious statues, which was taken to be a very bad omen by the masses. Alcibiades’ political enemies—he had, of course, political enemies—managed to link his name with these religious desecrations. Not long after Alcibiades set sail for Sicily, the people of Athens recalled him to stand trial for religious desecration. He decided not to return to Athens.

Learn more about Alcibiades one of the most fascinating and disturbing characters in all of Greek history

Alcibiades in Exile

Alcibiades managed to fight on three different sides in the same war…

So began his rather astonishing political ride. Alcibiades went first to Sparta, Athens’ greatest enemy. He aided Sparta in ways that did real damage to Athens. When he wore out his welcome in Sparta, Alcibiades went to the third great power in the area, namely, Persia, which was the traditional enemy of all Greeks alike. There he sought to wield as much influence as he could. In short, Alcibiades managed to fight on three different sides in the same war; even more amazing than that, he eventually succeeded in having himself recalled to Athens, after all that he had done against his city.

The assassination of Alcibiades by the Spartans in 404 B.C. Painting by Michele De Napoli 1839
The assassination of Alcibiades by the Persians in 404 BC. (Image: By Michele De Napoli/Public domain)

Although he did manage to lead the Athenian war effort for a time after his recall and to lead it well, he eventually fell afoul again of Athens and sought refuge in a place called Phrygia. There, some Persian agents, probably acting on a Spartan directive, assassinated Alcibiades in 404 BC.

Still, Thucydides’ portrait of Alcibiades is, on the whole, favorable or sympathetic. At any rate, Thucydides says that Alcibiades’ conduct of the war was second to none and that he could be blamed only for the conduct of his private life, which provoked the envy or the resentment of the people who were the obvious bedrock of the democracy. Whatever we might think of Alcibiades—colorful, talented, treacherous, and complicated—it is an odd thing for Plato to choose to shine a spotlight on him as a student of Socrates. Their association in Alcibiades’ youth got Socrates into some hot water.

Learn more about how the exile of Alcibiades by the Athenians gives Lysander his chance to prove himself

In Xenophon’s chapter of the Memorabilia meant to clear Socrates of the charge of corrupting the young, Xenophon is forced to explain, or explain away, their connection. Xenophon argues that Alcibiades was moderate or self-controlled for as long as he was with Socrates and that he became so extravagant only when he broke with Socrates.

Socrates’ Pursuit

With this as a preface, let’s turn now to look at Plato’s presentation of the beginning of the association between Alcibiades and Socrates. The dialogue takes place on the eve of Alcibiades’ planned entrance into Athenian democratic politics. Young as he is, he thinks he is ready to lead the city. We learn immediately that Socrates has been watching Alcibiades for quite a long time, but he has chosen this moment to speak to him for the first time.

Alcibiades supposes, and Socrates at first gives him reason to suppose, that Socrates is just another fellow courting the handsome young man in the ancient Greek manner. Socrates presents himself as a would-be lover of Alcibiades, one who has, for some reason, never approached him before and who persists in his interest in Alcibiades even after the other suitors have turned their attention elsewhere.

Learn more about how Acibiades military genius and political skill restores Athens to a commanding position

For the record, Socrates’ interests in Alcibiades do prove to be entirely of the soul rather than of the body. The action or drama of the Alcibiades I includes an amazing transformation: At the beginning of the dialogue, the poor and rather obscure Socrates presents himself as a lover courting the handsome and sought-after Alcibiades who is, at best, indifferent to Socrates at the beginning. By the end of the dialogue, though, this is what Alcibiades says:

I want to say the following; that we will probably be changing roles, Socrates, I taking yours and you mine, for from this day nothing can keep me from attending on you, and you from being attended on by me.

We have to ask, how does this obscure fellow Socrates succeed in making of Alcibiades not the pursued but the pursuer, eager to spend time with Socrates above all others? It is an amazing transformation.

Alcibiades’ Greatest Desire

Alcibiades, Socrates guesses, wants to rule the world, and Alcibiades, in effect, confirms this statement because he doesn’t deny it.

Socrates begins wooing Alcibiades, if that’s the right expression, in a time-honored way: He flatters him. He lists all of Alcibiades’ very many advantages in life, both natural and conventional. Socrates adds, “If I thought you were satisfied with these, I would never have approached you.” For Alcibiades, it turns out, wants something more out of life, even more than what he has.

Socrates goes so far as to say that if Alcibiades had to choose between remaining content with what he is and what he has or dying, Alcibiades would choose to die. So what, then, does Alcibiades long for? Socrates takes a guess. It’s this: to hold sway not only in Athens, but in all Greece; and not only in Greece, but in all Europe; and not only there, but in Asia, too. Alcibiades, Socrates guesses, wants to rule the world, and Alcibiades, in effect, confirms this statement because he doesn’t deny it.

The very statement of this staggering ambition, a young kid who literally wants to rule the world, would seem to put Socrates and Alcibiades farther apart. Yet Socrates here states, “It is not possible for all these things you have in mind to be brought to completion without me.” In effect, Socrates says, if you want to rule the world, come see me first.

Learn more about the Greek politicians whose voices rose above the fray

What follows is a classic example of Socratic dialectic or conversational scrutiny. Socrates seeks to discover what it is that Alcibiades thinks he knows, such that he can now skillfully guide Athenian public affairs.

Common Questions About Socrates and Alcibiades

Q: Who exactly was Alcibiades?

Alcibiades was a rock star Athenian statesmen with handsome good looks, money, and a clever mind. He was a brilliant orator and fearsome general.

Q: How do we know of Alcibiades with Socrates?

Alcibiades was one of Socrates’ more beloved and assiduous students, who appears in four dialogues. 

Q: What made Alcibiades betray Athens?

Alcibiades‘ very aggressive political stance led his enemies to run him out of Athens on the charge of sacrilege. 

Q: What killed Alcibiades?

Alcibiades was assassinated in 404 BCE by the arrows of Persian soldiers as his house was set ablaze.

This article was updated on November 11, 2020

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