08 Dec Alcibiades had all the gifts, all the means… (JACQUELINE DE ROMILLY) | Part C’
The friendship between the young man and the philosopher is seen best in the dialogue that opened this chapter, Plato’s Symposium. But the ties they shared are confirmed in many quarters, in both dialogues and biographies. It is true that Socrates loved Alcibiades and Alcibiades loved Socrates. Even if we put aside the erotic aspect of their relationship, it suggests Alcibiades’s deep comprehension, at least temporarily or sporadically, of another Socratic ideal, the desire to follow the path of goodness, which reveals an exceptional understanding and admiration. After all, it was to Alcibiades, the failed disciple, that Plato assigned the task of describing his master.
In the Symposium a handsome young man enters and sits next to his host. Once there, he notices with awe that his neighbor on the other side. They exchange coy remarks. Alcibiades learns what the diners were talking about and decides that he himself will give a toast to Socrates. He begins, and it is these famous pictures of Socrates that have moved generations of readers. In all of Plato’s works, no text is more personal, or more profound, on the subject of the master.
In other words, Alcibiades could depict, in the liveliest way, the personality of Socrates; and, by his own account, he was also touched, moved, and inspired.
He begins with a comparison to the statues of the Sileni. Like them, but without the flute, Socrates charmed all who heard him, and Alcibiades described the effect of his words: “They strike us, trouble us, and we are possessed.” And then he says, speaking only for himself: “When I hear him speak, my heart beats faster than any Corybantes in a trance; his words make my tears flow; and I see great numbers of other people who feel the same emotions.” After listening to Socrates, “it didn’t seem possible to go on living as I had before . . . ; he forced me to promise myself that, when I was lacking so much, I should persist in thinking not of myself but of the affairs of Athens.”
In other words, Socrates was like these statuettes (Sileni) in that inside he holds the most precious wisdom: “When he grows serious and the Silenus is exposed, has anyone else ever seen the fi gurines enclosed inside? I don’t know. But I have. And I found them to be so divine, so precious, of such complete beauty, so extraordinary, that I would have done on the spot whatever Socrates asked me to do.”
There followed a long speech on Socrates’s temperance, on his independence from external things, and on his courage. The speech describes Socrates admirably, but it also shows something about Alcibiades. It shows him impassioned in the evocation of a moral idealism, moved by the idea of the good, ready to change his life, a disciple more sensitive, more moved, more passionate than any other. The beautiful youth, inebriated from the beginning, could also be drunk with exaltation for the discovery of the good: “I myself have seen it . . .”
That is quite a gift Plato has given him. None of the previous speakers and none of the disciples who appear in the dialogues have had such royal treatment. Whatever the reasons for this choice, which will not become clear until the end of the book, we must admit that it reflects a real relationship that left a deep impression. Alcibiades may have been influenced by a charm that affected him deeply.
We will return to this charm in the next chapter, and to an implied amorous context. What mattered here, in a chapter that opened with Plato’s Symposium, was to add that extra spark, unlike anything else, that further enhanced the individual and his reputation. From the beginning, this young man is not just the archetypal “golden boy.”
The very phrase “young man” calls for an additional comment. We think of Alcibiades as a young man. And it is partly Plato’s fault if this label has stayed with him and added to his charm.
Alcibiades was never old: he wasn’t fifty years old when he died. However, at the time of the Symposium he was no longer a young man. He was probably born between 452 and 450 BCE. When the Peloponnesian War began, he had just left the tutelage of Pericles. He had his own house, his own slaves. He would soon assume political responsibilities. But his character was still that of an adolescent—brilliant, bold, a little irresponsible, the way he would always be seen. The events in the Symposium are thought to have occurred in 416, when Alcibiades was thirty-five years old. But he was still seen as a “boyfriend,” someone other men pursued, and as a spoiled child, one who could say anything and was forgiven everything. This adolescent view has, in some way, permeated our image of him, and is imprinted there forever.
In 416, it should be said, Plato was twelve years old. He never knew the young Alcibiades. There was a generation between them. But the legend of Alcibiades is etched in our minds. And in relation to Socrates he is always seen as an adolescent. Plato, who was never very faithful to chronology, portrays him thus, at the expense of realism.
It should be added that Alcibiades, even while remaining very handsome as he aged, eagerly projected youthfulness.
He assumed major political roles as soon as his age permitted, and he made a strength of his youth. When opposing Nicias, in that very same year of 416, he spoke for youth and claimed the right of young people to speak and offer advice.
That claim occurred during the debate about the Sicilian expedition. Nicias, who opposed the expedition, viciously attacked the ambitious young Alcibiades. Nicias was himself more than fifty years old. He did not mince words: “And if there be any man here, overjoyed at being chosen to command, who urges you to make the expedition, merely for ends of his own—especially if he is still too young to command . . .” And he summarized: “When I see such a person now sitting here at the side of that same individual and summoned by him, alarm seizes me; and I, in my turn, summon any of the older men.” There it is, in fifth-century Athens, the contrast between old and young that we know well. The same theme occurs in the theater fairly often. It is something we might call a social phenomenon. But Alcibiades was not to be intimidated. Yes, he was young. He points to his success and declares: “Thus did my youth and so-called monstrous folly find fitting arguments to deal with the power of the Peloponnesians, and by its ardor win their confidence and prevail. And do not be afraid of my youth now, but while I am still in its flower and Nicias appears fortunate, avail yourselves to the utmost of the services of us both.”
Later in his speech he repeats scornfully: “Do not let the passive policy which Nicias advocates, or his setting of the young against the old, turn you from your purpose, but in the good old fashion by which our fathers, old and young together, by their united counsels brought our affairs to their present height. . .; neither youth nor old age can do anything the one without the other.” As in the Symposium, youth will continue symbolizing the young man of thirty-five. And in his hands, his youth became an advantage, another means of persuading individuals and mobs, another means of making everything about himself.
He had everything. He had too much. Why would he not think that he was more important than anyone else? He became a symbol worthy of reflection for all time, and the most dazzling symbol of all. In every era there are brilliant boys whose youth seems a golden age. There are many gifted young men with talent for political life. But Alcibiades had all these qualities and more. His nobility, his beauty, his boldness were incomparable; what is more, his country had attained the highest degree of power and culture. His ambition was boundless. Moreover, the teacher who was drawing him to the good demanded absolute truth and justice. Thus, the life of Alcibiades represents an ideal and an unforgettable symbol. It has meaning for every era. And perhaps more than in any other age, it has meaning in ours. Alcibiades, as a figure of selfish ambition in a democracy in crisis, reveals, through the betrayals and scandals of his own time, crises of our times—even though there would seem to be no discernible Alcibiades among modern politicians.
Actually, as in a blueprint, we see his destiny leading him and Athens. It began with small scandals of an insolent selfishness and grew into plots of political audacity—up to the day when the scandals swept violently over him. In a democracy, scandal is and always has been dangerous.
Alcibiades’s scandals began early and continued for a very long time.
The Life of Alcibiades
Jacqueline de Romilly