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Perspectives on Political Science

ISSN: 1045-7097 (Print) 1930-5478 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/vpps20

On Socrates and Alcibiades

Wayne Ambler

To cite this article: Wayne Ambler (2010) On Socrates and Alcibiades, Perspectives on Political
Science, 39:4, 198-201, DOI: 10.1080/10457097.2010.514561

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On Socrates and Alcibiades
WAYNE AMBLER

Abstract: Robert Faulker locates the core of his book in How can we understand “great” when “good” is already a
his chapters on Aristotle, Plato, and Xenophon. The most mere matter of opinion?
difficult of these discusses Alcibiades and Socrates’ relation- In hoping to encourage at least the effort to recover a su-
ship with him: in particular, what distinguished Alcibiades’ perior understanding of great statesmanship, Faulkner pro-
ambition, why did Socrates pursue him, and what effect did poses doing so by trying to learn how pre-modern thinkers
Socrates have on this ambitious leader? The following re- took account of it. He returns to the great thinkers of ancient
marks examine and support Faulkner’s case that Socratic Greece to see whether there is a better way to understand and
philosophy did indeed “moderate considerably [Alcibiades’] ground responsible statesmanship, and thus he states that
ambition to rule the world” and thus that ancient political his three chapters on Aristotle, Plato, and Xenophon are the
thought is essential for rendering towering ambition safe for most important in the book. I am persuaded by his illuminat-
democracy. ing analysis of the problems posed unwittingly by modern
theory, and I share his view that relativism is a problem of
Keywords: Socrates, Alcibiades, tyranny, philosophy, am- enormous proportions, both in practice and in theory. If we
bition can no longer use the phrase “great books” without putting
it in quotation marks, the notion of the great statesman faces
triple jeopardy, for it appears to be value-laden, elitist, and
rofessor Robert Faulkner’s Case for Greatness

P
sexist as well. Faulkner’s project fails, however, if the an-
argues that a full appreciation of the admirable
cients do not live up to their billing; and it is almost inevitable
and hugely important statesmanship of lead-
that they will seem not to, for they offer no easy answers.
ers such as Churchill, Lincoln, and Mandela is
We might like or even expect a classification of statesmen
currently impeded because the theories domi-
into good and bad, like Aristotle’s simple schema of three
nant in modern political science are challenged
good and three deviant regimes (Politics III.7): statesmen
by such adjectives as “great” and “good”; thus these theo-
that further the common good are honorable; those that do
ries even have trouble distinguishing statesmanlike ambition
not are not. But like Aristotle’s treatment of this very same
from its opposites, such as the evil Idi Amin or the confused
schema of regimes, the ancients’ treatment of statesmen also
Neville Chamberlain. Aggravating the problem are demo-
becomes much more complicated, and Faulkner does not
cratic tastes that are suspicious or envious of evidence of
disguise this fact. Although useful, the concept of the com-
towering superiority. Faulkner adds in conclusion that Niet-
mon good is not a sufficient guide for understanding great
zsche is on hand to exploit this confusion or “exacerbated
statesmen. Nor does Faulkner advance either Plato’s Alcib-
relativism,” for in the absence of a measured case for great-
iades or Xenophon’s Cyrus as models for emulation, even
ness, Nietzsche has come forward to defend his “blond beast”
though he devotes long chapters to their investigation. The
who rejects common decency and takes delight in cruelty
hope for a simple solution to a massive problem is bound
(240–2). It is with an eye on this threat from the right, a
to be disappointed, but of course the hope itself is a naı̈ve
threat made real in the last century, that Faulkner concludes
one. Faulkner’s goal is an improved understanding of the
his study and encourages further efforts to see whether honor-
great statesman, not a simple litmus test for detecting one or
able ambition might be put on more secure foundations. His
another recipe for producing one. Indeed, his very last sen-
immediate goal, of course, is more intellectual than political:
tence summons us to continue “looking” for such principles
as would defend moderate ambition against the Nietzschean
Wayne Ambler is at the University of Colorado at Boulder. variety. Guided by this more rational but more limited hope,
Copyright © 2010 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC Faulkner takes a deep dive into ancient philosophy to see
198
October–December 2010, Volume 39, Number 4 199

how the great statesman was understood by thinkers not at all conquer the world!—but this same ambition makes it hard for
shaped by the modern theories he finds noxious to normative Socrates to test Alcibiades’ assessment of this end or goal;
investigation. he thinks it needs no test: it is as natural as the solid rock
For the purpose of this short statement, I shall try to follow on which Hobbes thought to build his political philosophy.
his lead and focus on the chapter on Plato on Alcibiades. I If the question of the human good is important for Socratic
do so for several reasons: It is one of the three chapters he philosophy, Socrates faced the problem that the answer to
says are most important. It is among the longest. It is his the question seemed too obvious to Alcibiades to warrant
most difficult chapter, the one most difficult to understand on investigation.
first reading. And I was drawn in by his account of this man But what may seem obvious in itself seems less so when
he called a “notorious whirlwind of insolence, daring deeds, Socrates shows it to be in uneasy relation with other impor-
and ability” (82). tant aspects of the soul. Faulkner stresses that Alcibiades’
towering pride conflicts with his ambition: the former makes
THE PHILOSOPHER SOCRATES MEETS THE AMBITIOUS him pleased with himself just as he is; the latter makes him
ALCIBIADES hunger for what he lacks. Does grand ambition inevitably
come with towering pride? And does towering pride tend to
I will review Faulkner’s chapter on the Alcibiades look- produce a sort of inertia stemming from self-satisfaction? Is
ing for evidence on these three issues: 1. What is Al- this also a problem or apparent problem of the magnanimous
cibiades like? 2. What is Socrates trying to accomplish man described by Aristotle?
in these two conversations? 3. What are the effects of Faulkner shows that Socrates brings out a second contra-
Socrates’ efforts (intended or otherwise)? What I must diction within Alcibiades by teasing out evidence that Al-
sacrifice—reluctantly—are Faulkner’s analyses of the log- cibiades is in fact moved by an attraction to justice or to a
ical merits of each and every argument, his consideration of “justice-like courage” (102–5). After implying that politics
Socratic tactics in argument (111), his careful attention to may safely be guided by advantage, that in fact justice need
the text, and his eloquence. I will mostly be asking questions not complicate political decision-making, even if its appear-
in the hope of keeping key issues alive; it is beyond me to ance is important, Alcibiades indicates that he is prepared to
answer them. be courageous even at the expense of his life. Alcibiades had
seemed at first to value himself above all, but later he is seen
1. What is Alcibiades like? What are his chief character-
to value courage as much as his life.
istics? Does he, for example, display as advertised “the
I am persuaded and impressed by Faulkner’s detection of
soul of grand ambition”? A caution to readers who have
this tension or contradiction within Alcibiades, but I am not
not read these two Platonic dialogues: their circumstances
sure to what extent he sees it as part of the psychology of a
are not what we might expect for the display of such a
type: is confusion about the extent of even their own devotion
soul. There are no prancing steeds, no beautiful armor,
to justice typical of great statesmen as such? Do they waffle
and no crowds to address. There is just a young man and a
between worldly-wise or cynical dismissals of justice and
not-yet-old Socrates, but Faulkner is correct: the conversa-
more noble moments in which they embrace it passionately?
tions are telling nevertheless. Here is a list of the qualities
Does this sort of confusion exist in diluted form in the rest of
Faulkner detects in Alcibiades: pride, ambition, a concern
us as well? (The subtitle of the Alcibiades I is “On Human
for justice deeper than he was aware of, the intelligence
Nature,” though it is not clear that the subtitle is Plato’s
to see a good bit of what he does not understand (when
own.) But the point on which I am still less clear is this
it is shown to him), and the capacity to face—at least to
one: Faulkner shows that Socrates tries to purge or purify the
some extent—the consequences of his own ignorance on
poets’ myths about the gods and heroes. He fears these myths
important matters. Some of these qualities are in tension
would encourage in Alcibiades a terrible tendency toward
with one another, so one might say in general that the
retribution. They may even be linked to “moral furies of self-
main characteristic of Alcibiades is self-contradiction. A
hatred.” But if these furies come from Greek myths, can they
further point is that Faulkner sees “a terrible side of grand
constitute today the “darker side of grand ambition” now
ambition” in Alcibiades. This appears to be related to a
that these myths have lost their formative power? Is there
proneness to “evil deeds and evilly harsh retribution,” and
still a need for a Socratic reformation of religious beliefs
Faulkner links this to the poets’ harsh stories of the ancient
that are no longer taken seriously? I note in passing that
pagan gods and heroes.
Faulkner’s book has by my count only three brief references
With regard to his ambition alone, Faulkner shows that to Christ or Christianity, when one might expect this to have
Alcibiades has it in abundance. He also shows that Alcibi- had a powerful effect on the way statesmanship has been
ades considers the desire for tyranny to be as natural as the viewed and practiced in the last 2,000 years, as Machiavelli
desire to have children. Weaklings have no chance of sat- and Churchill both indicated. In stressing the importance of
isfying this ambition, so they put it aside, but as for those the then prevailing view of the gods, does the Alcibiades II
with the requisite capacities, who would not want to see it suggest that a modern Socrates would have a very different
satisfied? The power of this ambition gave Socrates an easy task in a world in which these vindictive gods and heroes
way to show or pretend that he could be of supreme use have been replaced, replaced at least for a time by a Prince
to Alcibiades—surely without Socrates’ help he could never of Peace and model of forgiveness?
200 Perspectives on Political Science

2. What is Socrates trying to accomplish in these two conver- Finally, I did not notice any suggestion that Socrates might
sations? Faulkner rightly attempts to understand Socrates have sought out these conversations for some theoretical pur-
as well as Alcibiades, perhaps because he too has a claim pose of his own. If he could learn nothing directly from this
to possess the soul animated by the grandest ambition. boy, might he learn something about human beings by speak-
Perhaps, in fact, the philosopher Socrates has a claim ing to him? Are Alcibiades’ contradictory hopes illustrative
to being the highest representative of this type. Surely of more general human confusions, and might these be linked
Socrates’ conduct in stalking the young Alcibiades is at to problems the first political philosopher thought he had to
least as strange to readers as it was to Alcibiades, for it solve?
is not easy to see what the older wise man had to gain
3. What are the effects of Socrates’ efforts? This question
from conversations with this proud young man. Indeed,
gains force from the fact that it may well have been es-
this may have been Socrates’ first reported conversation
pecially because of his association with Alcibiades that
with a young man, the coming out of a philosopher who
Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the young. It is
thought it important to talk to the young men of Athens,
true that Alcibiades is never mentioned in Plato’s Apology
and became notorious for doing so, so it raises with special
of Socrates, but the very first line of this dialogue joins its
force the question of what motivated and guided Socrates
title in making it plain that Plato lets us hear only Socrates’
in these conversations. That Socrates spoke to this issue at
defense; the case of the prosecutors that made a defense
his trial hardly settles the question, since what he had to
speech necessary is entirely omitted. And when Xenophon
say there was enigmatic and contradictory (Plato, Apology
reports on the trial, he does mention Alcibiades and Critias
of Socrates 23b4–c1, 28d10–29a1, 29d2–30a4, 30a7–b4,
as important parts of the reason Socrates was convicted.
30e1–32a1, 32b1–5, 32e2–33a6, 36c2–d1, 38a1–8).
So two questions arise: Did Socrates get into trouble with
Athens because of his association with Alcibiades? And,
did he deserve to? (i.e., Did he have a beneficial or cor-
Read with this question in mind, Faulkner’s chapter men-
rupting effect on Alcibiades? In what senses?)
tions these possibilities: Socrates is in love, or he wants to
recruit Alcibiades as a philosopher, or he wants to reform Faulkner draws especially on the Protagoras and the Sym-
him so he will become morally better, or he wants to reform posium to credit Socrates’ philosophic statesmanship with
him so he will be less likely to harm Athens, or he wants to having enjoyed a good measure of success in the limited
reform him so he will be less likely to harm Socrates and/or goal of making Alcibiades more friendly toward philosophy.
philosophic activity in general—perhaps, that is, he wants to I am persuaded and impressed. Next question: did he make
turn him into a sort of guardian of philosophy. him more philosophic, more moral, or less threatening to
Faulkner’s most striking suggestion is that Socrates an- Athens?
ticipates the political success of the young Alcibiades and In Faulkner’s estimation, Alcibiades becomes more philo-
wants to make him friendly to the activity that eventually sophic only in a very diluted sense. That is, Socrates makes
cost Socrates his life—whether one sees this death as un- him “more attractive, amusing, and urbane,” and “more in-
avoidable punishment or as a chosen means to make the dependent of Athenian religious names and custom” (90,
world more safe for philosophy. Socrates may need to pose 95); Alcibiades becomes urbane, “one who resembles some
as a lover and as one who can help Alcibiades conquer the charmingly ironic member of Socrates’ philosophic circle”
world, but his own underlying goal, perhaps, is to make a (101). This is impressive, but Faulkner makes it plain that
future world-leader more respectful of his own vulnerable there was for Alcibiades nothing like the durable transfor-
activity. By publishing such an encounter, Plato would help mations there were in the cases of Xenophon and Plato.
make its lessons available to others: what is it that suddenly There are more than a few lines in which Faulkner implies
makes Socrates so deeply important to a boy who has so that Socrates makes Alcibiades less of a threat to Athens.
much and yet wants everything else (except philosophy)? He says that Socrates “moderates considerably the passion
I am taken by this notion, which Faulkner shows to be to rule the world” (126) and that he moderates his tyrannical
compatible with an initial hope to help Alcibiades become a desire by challenging his “evasion of thinking” (114). Per-
rigorous thinker in his own right. So if Alcibiades’ enthusi- haps his emphasis also on the way “Doctor Socrates” cures
asm for conversations with Socrates proves short-lived, why Alcibiades’ indignation implies that this is good for Athens
not at least win an ally if you cannot win a friend? Here (107).
we see Socrates as statesman for philosophy. What is the re- In another passage, however, when discussing the way
lationship between this attractive suggestion, which has the Socrates elicits in Alcibiades a strong attachment to justice,
support of evidence I cannot detail here, and passing impli- Faulkner says, “the difficulties of any ‘Alcibiades the Just’
cations that Socrates is moved also by the goals of moral are exacerbated by the Socratic bath he has taken. Alcibiades
reform, presumably for Alcibiades’ own good, and of reform has lost much of his native patriotism. He has lost much of
or moderation of his enthusiasm for tyranny, presumably for his faith in the rule of the people and in free politics. Indeed,
the good of Athens? Since Faulkner launched his investiga- the very premise of his new docility is reverence for the spec-
tion into ancient thought with political issues primarily in tacular trappings of (Spartan and Persian) monarchy” (113).
mind, it seems especially important to know whether and And elsewhere Faulkner seems to imply that Socrates has the
how Socrates helps to make Alcibiades a better statesman effect of raising Alcibiades above free politics and turning
for Athens. him toward “a rather effeminate despotism” (111). If Socrates
October–December 2010, Volume 39, Number 4 201

“moderates Alcibiades’ devotion to Athens by appealing to the eagle they are, but Faulkner brings Cyrus and Alcibiades
superiority far above what free Athens can bestow,” should into the pages of his book to see how Plato and Xenophon
we call this moderation or corruption? analyze them, not to promote them as models for emulation.
Now Faulkner has already made an effort to rescue Second, Faulkner shows in his treatment of Alcibiades that
Socrates from the charge I imply by pointing out that Al- reason is the authoritative principle of analysis. Socrates’
cibiades’ ambition might well have led him in this direction cunning questions elicit and test the previously unacknowl-
anyway, and yet I cannot help but wonder whether Socrates’ edged longings in Alcibiades’ heart of hearts. This does make
amusing discussion of the Persian Empire doesn’t have a last- it evident that the oracle’s command that we know ourselves
ing effect on the young man. Does it not matter that a man is not one easily obeyed; but difficult though it is, such knowl-
of Socrates’ intellectual power passes lightly over appeals to edge is presented as possible, and thus it stands as an attrac-
democratic justice and patriotism while painting a picture of tive alternative to the “exacerbated relativism” that bedev-
imperial splendor? Let me enlist the aid of the Alcibiades II ils contemporary analysis. Third, [Socratic] philosophy can
in order to raise a distinct but parallel question. As Faulkner help. By his clever engaging of the ambitious Alcibiades,
notes well, this text includes a wonderful dramatic sequence: Socrates wins his respect. As noted, he gets the crown that
at the very beginning, Alcibiades is heading off to pray, not Alcibiades had intended for the god, and Alcibiades’ speech
to party, and instead of being accompanied by flute girls and in the Symposium testifies to the enduring power of his en-
wearing ribbons, as he is in his most visually striking ap- counter with Socrates. This encounter did not turn Alcibiades
pearance in Plato, he is solemn and wearing or carrying a from politics to philosophy, but Faulkner argues forcefully
wreath suitable for a man offering sacrifice to the gods. Af- that it did “moderate considerably his ambition to rule the
ter a fifteen-minute conversation with Socrates, he takes the world” (126). If modern political institutions can serve as one
wreath that he was taking to the gods and puts it on Socrates barrier against immoderate ambition, and the political reli-
instead. What does it show that, in the short term at least, de- gion Lincoln advocated in his Lyceum Address as another, we
votion to Socrates has supplemented or replaced that to a god? also know that “experience has taught mankind the necessity
of auxiliary precautions.” Faulkner’s chapter on Plato’s Al-
CONCLUSION cibiades makes a strong case for the unfamiliar thesis that
philosophy as embodied by Socrates can itself make a major
As the foregoing has indicated, Faulkner presents a patient contribution toward moderating and redirecting the ambition
reading of his ancient sources: he does not comb them to of extraordinary characters who through circumstances and
pick points that might support a predetermined solution to ability may otherwise wreak havoc on the body politic.
the modern dilemma as he sees it. The principal fruits of Faulkner’s book makes enormous demands on the reader.
his efforts are thus in the details of his interpretations; as In ranging from Arendt, Rawls, and Nietzsche to Plato,
I have tried to suggest, they are considerable. But what do Xenophon, and Aristotle, Faulkner challenges one at every
they teach with regard to his main theme? My first point turn—first because of the difficulty of the texts he inter-
in conclusion is best put in the negative: Faulkner does not prets and, second, because he often interprets them in ways
call for an Alcibiades or a Cyrus to solve our problems, unfriendly to our democratic and relativistic sensibilities.
nor does he think they were unproblematic leaders in their Certainly he sustains his main case: ambition and politi-
own day. To the contrary: Alcibiades is improved by his cal greatness are always fraught with moral ambiguity and
conversations with Socrates, but he nonetheless emerges as hence are singularly difficult to understand. Moreover, they
a visibly flawed character. Whatever may be the case with are especially difficult for us to understand because of the
Plutarch’s presentation, Plato’s text does not leave the reader sensibilities just mentioned. Add the tremendous influence
with the ambition of emulating Alcibiades or with the hope that great men and women have had in shaping the destiny
that another Alcibiades might emerge on the world scene. of nations, and the result is a theme easily worthy of the
So too with Cyrus: as even the title of Faulkner’s chapter further looking Faulkner calls for on his last page. But the
begins to indicate, he is hollow. Cyrus is a model, but he is best case for the greatness of the book, I think, lies especially
a model that is questioned and found wanting (128, 139–40, in its probing analyses of the ancient texts that are at its
144, 176). Members of Lincoln’s family of the lion or tribe of core.