Alcibiades I
Author: Plato


The First Alcibiades is a conversation between Socrates and Alcibiades.
Socrates is represented in the character which he attributes to himself in
the Apology of a know-nothing who detects the conceit of knowledge in
others. The two have met already in the Protagoras and in the Symposium;
in the latter dialogue, as in this, the relation between them is that of a
lover and his beloved. But the narrative of their loves is told
differently in different places; for in the Symposium Alcibiades is
depicted as the impassioned but rejected lover; here, as coldly receiving
the advances of Socrates, who, for the best of purposes, lies in wait for
the aspiring and ambitious youth.

Alcibiades, who is described as a very young man, is about to enter on
public life, having an inordinate opinion of himself, and an extravagant
ambition. Socrates, 'who knows what is in man,' astonishes him by a
revelation of his designs. But has he the knowledge which is necessary for
carrying them out? He is going to persuade the Athenians--about what? Not
about any particular art, but about politics--when to fight and when to
make peace. Now, men should fight and make peace on just grounds, and
therefore the question of justice and injustice must enter into peace and
war; and he who advises the Athenians must know the difference between
them. Does Alcibiades know? If he does, he must either have been taught
by some master, or he must have discovered the nature of them himself. If
he has had a master, Socrates would like to be informed who he is, that he
may go and learn of him also. Alcibiades admits that he has never learned.
Then has he enquired for himself? He may have, if he was ever aware of a
time when he was ignorant. But he never was ignorant; for when he played
with other boys at dice, he charged them with cheating, and this implied a
knowledge of just and unjust. According to his own explanation, he had
learned of the multitude. Why, he asks, should he not learn of them the
nature of justice, as he has learned the Greek language of them? To this
Socrates answers, that they can teach Greek, but they cannot teach justice;
for they are agreed about the one, but they are not agreed about the other:
and therefore Alcibiades, who has admitted that if he knows he must either
have learned from a master or have discovered for himself the nature of
justice, is convicted out of his own mouth.

Alcibiades rejoins, that the Athenians debate not about what is just, but
about what is expedient; and he asserts that the two principles of justice
and expediency are opposed. Socrates, by a series of questions, compels
him to admit that the just and the expedient coincide. Alcibiades is thus
reduced to the humiliating conclusion that he knows nothing of politics,
even if, as he says, they are concerned with the expedient.

However, he is no worse than other Athenian statesmen; and he will not need
training, for others are as ignorant as he is. He is reminded that he has
to contend, not only with his own countrymen, but with their enemies--with
the Spartan kings and with the great king of Persia; and he can only attain
this higher aim of ambition by the assistance of Socrates. Not that
Socrates himself professes to have attained the truth, but the questions
which he asks bring others to a knowledge of themselves, and this is the
first step in the practice of virtue.

The dialogue continues:--We wish to become as good as possible. But to be
good in what? Alcibiades replies--'Good in transacting business.' But
what business? 'The business of the most intelligent men at Athens.' The
cobbler is intelligent in shoemaking, and is therefore good in that; he is
not intelligent, and therefore not good, in weaving. Is he good in the
sense which Alcibiades means, who is also bad? 'I mean,' replies
Alcibiades, 'the man who is able to command in the city.' But to command
what--horses or men? and if men, under what circumstances? 'I mean to say,
that he is able to command men living in social and political relations.'
And what is their aim? 'The better preservation of the city.' But when is
a city better? 'When there is unanimity, such as exists between husband
and wife.' Then, when husbands and wives perform their own special duties,
there can be no unanimity between them; nor can a city be well ordered when
each citizen does his own work only. Alcibiades, having stated first that
goodness consists in the unanimity of the citizens, and then in each of
them doing his own separate work, is brought to the required point of self-
contradiction, leading him to confess his own ignorance.

But he is not too old to learn, and may still arrive at the truth, if he is
willing to be cross-examined by Socrates. He must know himself; that is to
say, not his body, or the things of the body, but his mind, or truer self.
The physician knows the body, and the tradesman knows his own business, but
they do not necessarily know themselves. Self-knowledge can be obtained
only by looking into the mind and virtue of the soul, which is the diviner
part of a man, as we see our own image in another's eye. And if we do not
know ourselves, we cannot know what belongs to ourselves or belongs to
others, and are unfit to take a part in political affairs. Both for the
sake of the individual and of the state, we ought to aim at justice and
temperance, not at wealth or power. The evil and unjust should have no
power,--they should be the slaves of better men than themselves. None but
the virtuous are deserving of freedom.

And are you, Alcibiades, a freeman? 'I feel that I am not; but I hope,
Socrates, that by your aid I may become free, and from this day forward I
will never leave you.'

The Alcibiades has several points of resemblance to the undoubted dialogues
of Plato. The process of interrogation is of the same kind with that which
Socrates practises upon the youthful Cleinias in the Euthydemus; and he
characteristically attributes to Alcibiades the answers which he has
elicited from him. The definition of good is narrowed by successive
questions, and virtue is shown to be identical with knowledge. Here, as
elsewhere, Socrates awakens the consciousness not of sin but of ignorance.
Self-humiliation is the first step to knowledge, even of the commonest
things. No man knows how ignorant he is, and no man can arrive at virtue
and wisdom who has not once in his life, at least, been convicted of error.
The process by which the soul is elevated is not unlike that which
religious writers describe under the name of 'conversion,' if we substitute
the sense of ignorance for the consciousness of sin.

In some respects the dialogue differs from any other Platonic composition.
The aim is more directly ethical and hortatory; the process by which the
antagonist is undermined is simpler than in other Platonic writings, and
the conclusion more decided. There is a good deal of humour in the manner
in which the pride of Alcibiades, and of the Greeks generally, is supposed
to be taken down by the Spartan and Persian queens; and the dialogue has
considerable dialectical merit. But we have a difficulty in supposing that
the same writer, who has given so profound and complex a notion of the
characters both of Alcibiades and Socrates in the Symposium, should have
treated them in so thin and superficial a manner in the Alcibiades, or that
he would have ascribed to the ironical Socrates the rather unmeaning boast
that Alcibiades could not attain the objects of his ambition without his
help; or that he should have imagined that a mighty nature like his could
have been reformed by a few not very conclusive words of Socrates. For the
arguments by which Alcibiades is reformed are not convincing; the writer of
the dialogue, whoever he was, arrives at his idealism by crooked and
tortuous paths, in which many pitfalls are concealed. The anachronism of
making Alcibiades about twenty years old during the life of his uncle,
Pericles, may be noted; and the repetition of the favourite observation,
which occurs also in the Laches and Protagoras, that great Athenian
statesmen, like Pericles, failed in the education of their sons. There is
none of the undoubted dialogues of Plato in which there is so little
dramatic verisimilitude.