Is the Political Leader Teachable?

The intense friendship between Socrates and Alcibiades must have struck many Athenians as odd. A generation separated them in age; then, too, they were a study in contrasts. While Alcibiades charmed, Socrates irritated. Alcibiades’ beauty led those around him to swoon, whereas Socrates’ bulging eyes invited comparisons to a torpedo fish. Alcibiades was wealthy and politically well-connected whereas Socrates embraced his poverty and his humble lineage. Alcibiades strove to become the leading Athenian statesman, whereas Socrates only participated in politics when necessary. Alcibiades was licentious and immoderate, whereas Socrates was possessed of a remarkable self-control. When the Athenians recalled Alcibiades to charge him with impiety, he fled to Sparta, turning traitor. When they charged Socrates with impiety, he faced the accusation head on, accepted the death penalty, refused offers to help him escape, and died loyal to Athens’ laws and citizens.

The relationship seems to have captivated Socrates’ associates. Aeschines, Antisthenes, Phaedo, Euclides, and Plato wrote philosophical dialogues featuring the pair in conversation. But it was also a problem for philosophers. Socrates, after all, was accused of corrupting the youth, and many of Socrates’ detractors had Alcibiades in mind as one of two key examples of his maleficent influence.[1] If Socrates had dedicated his life to the pursuit of wisdom and virtue and exhorted others to join him, what are we to make of Alcibiades’ distinctly unphilosophical life?

Ariel Helfer’s Socrates and Alcibiades: Plato’s Drama of Political Ambition and Philosophy reckons with Plato’s treatment of the relationship. Not only did Plato write two dialogues featuring conversations between Socrates and Alcibiades (Alcibiades and Second Alcibiades), but Alcibiades is present and offers brief comments in a third (Protagoras), and Alcibiades enters a fourth quite dramatically—drunk and loud—offering a speech about his relationship with Socrates that Helfer dates to the eve of his fateful Sicilian expedition (Symposium).

Socrates Takes an Arrogant Student Down a Peg (or Two)

Helfer, an assistant professor of political science at Wayne State University, offers a close reading of these encounters, taking the reader line by line through the development of the Socrates-Alcibiades relationship in the Platonic corpus. He carefully analyzes both the drama of the dialogues and the nuances of the argument. What emerges, he tells us, is a case study in political ambition. Helfer identifies philotimia as the nearest equivalent of political ambition but notes that Plato offers no explicit treatment of that concept. So instead, Helfer distinguishes five key aspects of Alcibiades’ political ambition in Plato: his desire for renown, his love of power, his love of honor, his desire to be a benefactor, and his desire for the greatest goods.

The broad outlines of the relationship are as follows: Socrates first approaches Alcibiades by explaining that he had been following Alcibiades through his youth, waiting for just the right moment to introduce himself. Now having just passed the bloom of youth, Alcibiades no longer enjoys the attention of other admirers. Socrates seizes this moment to flatter him, and it is not long before he draws out Alcibiades’ immense political ambition to lead and to counsel the Athenians on matters of justice.

But, as is characteristic of Socrates’ conversations, after flattering Alcibiades, some devastatingly critical challenges follow. Socrates poses questions until Alcibiades admits that he is actually unsure about the nature of justice. Socrates then tells Alcibiades that he’s “wedded to stupidity” and Alcibiades concedes that Socrates appears correct in his assessment. Alcibiades, whose arrogance only moments earlier had him imagining himself as the greatest future leader of the Greeks, now feels confused. Whereas in several other Socratic dialogues, Socrates is content to leave his interlocutors in such a state of aporia (bewilderment), in Alcibiades (and Second Alcibiades), he helps Alcibiades come to see the need for a teacher, someone who can help him learn what he must know before he turns to the affairs of the city.

Alcibiades pledges his loyalty to Socrates at the end of each Alcibiades dialogue, though less explicitly in the second. In his final appearance in the Platonic corpus, he describes his deep affection for Socrates. He is impressed by Socrates’ unfailing rebuffs of his sexual advances and also his incredible courage when they were on campaign together at Potidaea.

Plato’s depictions of Alcibiades end here, before Alcibiades has been accused of profaning the Eleusinian mysteries or desecrating the herms; before he leads the disastrous Sicilian expedition; before he defects to Athens’ greatest enemies—Sparta and Persia—and before he is welcomed back by the Athenians again.

Helfer proves to be a sure guide to Plato’s characterization of Alcibiades. Regardless of how one judges the interpretative choices he makes, one will find the sort of insights that emerge only from meticulous care in reading Plato.

He ultimately sees Socrates’ education of Alcibiades as a failure. Why? Because Alcibiades never abandons his belief that politics, rather than philosophy, is the means to the greatest goods. The teacher tried to turn his student to philosophy but never fully succeeded. According to Helfer, “the whole Platonic drama of Socrates and Alcibiades . . .  suggests that Alcibiades’ pursuit of a political career was a second-best outcome from Socrates’ perspective.”

But this might overstate the case, given how painstakingly this account reveals Plato’s portrait of Alcibiades to be full of suggestion but very little precision about Socrates’ goals with respect to him. One of the many virtues of the book is that Helfer takes seriously Socrates’ claim that he is not merely helping Alcibiades. Rather, he foresees in his relationship with Alcibiades a benefit to himself, namely that Alcibiades will play some role in Socrates’ own philosophical education.

Plato’s Radical Idea

As Helfer notes, while Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the American Founders were skeptical of political ambition and were concerned with curtailing it, it was not necessarily problematic for the Greeks. Ambition was essential for the flourishing of political community, the Greeks believed. But was the life and career of the historical Alcibiades taken by Plato as evidence that political ambition can never be reoriented to the Just, the Good and Beautiful as Socrates had hoped? Plato’s Alcibiades was, at least for a period of time, devoted to Socrates, and, when associating with Socrates, ready to focus on greater goods. (Only late in their relationship, as he describes in his Symposium speech, did Alcibiades plug  his ears and run from Socrates as though he were approaching the Sirens.) If Socrates could not succeed in educating a great statesman when he had the brilliant, gifted, ambitious Alcibiades ready to follow him, with whom might he succeed?

Perhaps the conclusion Plato drew from the case of Alcibiades is one that Helfer never takes up. Maybe one must, paradoxically, implant political ambition in those who lack it. Plato raises this radical idea—that philosophers must be made into rulers—in The Republic and his Seventh Letter. If Alcibiades could not be made a philosopher, maybe a philosopher must be made into the next Alcibiades. Might this be the Platonic teaching on political ambition?

I hasten to add that confident pronouncements about Plato’s intent are rarely justified, and one can learn much from Helfer’s caution in approaching the works of that great philosopher. In the end, Plato raises many challenges for his readers but leaves them to draw their own conclusions. For those looking to make sense of the complex portrait drawn of Alcibiades in the Platonic corpus, Helfer’s book is an excellent starting point.

[1] The other example was Critias, a leader of the oligarchy that overthrew the Athenian democracy in 404 B.C. See, for example, Xenophon, Memorabilia (1.2).


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