What we can learn from the love story between Socrates and Alcibiades.
Socrates struggled to make the young, rich, and handsome Alcibiades into a good man. He taught him that true love is the love of the soul, not of the body. When Alcibiades tried to seduce him, he rejected him with some pointed words.
Socrates was remarkably full-blooded for an ascetic philosopher. In Xenophon’s Symposium, he says, “For myself I cannot name the time at which I have not been in love with someone.” By all accounts, Socrates’ greatest love was with the blue-blooded Alcibiades (c. 450-404 BCE), who was by some 20 years his junior.
Alcibiades was the son of Cleinias, who claimed descent from Ajax the Great, and Deinomache, the granddaughter of Kleisthenes the Lawgiver. After the death of Cleinias at the Battle of Coroneia in 447 BCE, the 4-year-old Alcibiades passed into the guardianship of Pericles, the architect of the Athenian Golden Age.
Socrates and Alcibiades in Plato’s Alcibiades
Plato’s Protagoras, which is set in around 434 BCE, opens with an unnamed friend gently mocking Socrates for chasing the teenage Alcibiades. But in Plato’s Alcibiades, which is set two years later, Socrates warns Alcibiades, who is about to enter public life, that only knowledge can qualify him to advise the Athenians. Being noble, rich, and handsome are simply not good enough.
Since politics is about just action, Socrates asks Alcibiades to define justice. When he flounders, Socrates suggests that Alcibiades is perplexed about justice because he is ignorant about justice and does not know that he is ignorant about justice. When a person thinks he knows what he does not know, he will make mistakes, which, in politics, will be all the graver.
A humbled Alcibiades promises to take greater pains about himself to get the better of other politicians. Socrates points out that Alcibiades’ true rivals are not other Athenian politicians but the Spartan and Persian kings, who, in the long run, can only be overcome by virtue. So could Alcibiades tell him, what is virtue?
Alcibiades is at great pains to define virtue and variously suggests that it is “the better order and preservation of the city,” “friendship and agreement,” and “when everyone does his own work.” At last, he despairingly admits defeat: “But, indeed, Socrates, I do not know what I am saying; and I have long been, unconsciously to myself, in a most disgraceful state.”
Socrates continues: To make ourselves better, we must first know who or what we are. Neither the physician, nor the trainer, nor any craftsman knows his own soul, for which reason their arts are accounted vulgar. He who cherishes his body cherishes not himself but that which belongs to him, and he who cherishes money cherishes neither himself nor that which belongs to him but that which is at one further remove from him. He who loves the person of Alcibiades does not love Alcibiades but his belongings, whereas the true lover is the one who loves his soul. The lover of the body fades away with the flower of youth, but the lover of the soul remains for as long as the soul follows after virtue.
There is another similar-themed Alcibiades, written by Aeschines of Sphettus (another of Socrates’ students) and preserved in scattered fragments, in which Socrates relates a conversation that he once had with Alcibiades. To emphasize Alcibiades’ unpreparedness for public life, Socrates delivers an encomium [a formal expression of high praise] to the great Themistocles, whom Alcibiades arrogantly seeks to emulate and surpass—leading a weeping Alcibiades to place his head in his teacher’s lap and beg to be educated.
In the same year, 432, in which Plato’s Alcibiades is set, Socrates and Alcibiades fought in the Battle of Potidaea. Out in the field, the middle-aged plebeian and the young aristocrat became unlikely tent mates. In his Life of Alcibiades, Plutarch relates that “all were amazed to see [Alcibiades] eating, exercising, and tenting with Socrates, while he was harsh and stubborn with the rest of his lovers.” In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea and, after that, let him keep the prize for valour.
Socrates and Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium
Plato’s Symposium is set in 416 BCE, some sixteen years after his Alcibiades. The setting is a drinking party held by the playwright Agathon. Most of the guests have a hangover from the previous night’s revels, and all agree to curtail the drinking in favour of conversation. Since the young Phaedrus has been lamenting that the god Eros [Love] is not sufficiently praised, the physician Eryximachus suggests that each person present make a speech in praise of love.
As the company applauds Socrates’ speech, a drunken Alcibiades stumbles in supported by a flute girl. When he sees Socrates, he picks off some ribbons from Agathon’s garland and, with them, crowns Socrates, “who in conversation is the conqueror of all mankind.” When Alcibiades entreats everyone to drink and match him in his drunkenness, Eryximachus objects to “drinking as if we were thirsty” and suggests that Alcibiades instead make a speech in praise of Socrates.
Alcibiades says that Socrates always makes him admit that he is wasting his time on his career while neglecting his several shortcomings. So he tears himself away from him as from the song of a siren and lets his love of popularity get the better of him. Socrates may look like a satyr and pose as ignorant, but, like the busts of Silenus [the tutor of the god Dionysus], he hides bright and beautiful images of the gods within him. Attracted by his wisdom, he tried several times to seduce him with his famed good looks, but each time without success. Eventually, he turned the tables around and began to pursue the older man, inviting him to dinner and on one occasion persuading him to stay the night. He then lay beside him and put it to him that, of all his lovers, he was the only one worthy of him, and he would be a fool to refuse him any favours if only he could make him into a better man.
Socrates replied in his usual, ironical manner:
Alcibiades, my friend, you have indeed an elevated aim if what you say is true, and if there really is in me any power by which you may become better; truly you must see in me some rare beauty of a kind infinitely higher than any which I see in you. And therefore, if you mean to share with me and to exchange beauty for beauty, you will have greatly the advantage of me; you will gain true beauty in return for appearance—like Diomedes, gold in exchange for brass.
After this, Alcibiades crept under the older man’s threadbare cloak and held him all night in his arms—but in the morning arose “as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.”
In the same year, 416, that the Symposium is set, the city of Egesta in Sicily asked Athens for assistance against its neighbour Selinous, and Alcibiades persuaded the assembly to let him lead a force to Sicily. But as the Athenian fleet was about to set sail, all the hermai [sculptures with the head and genitals of the god Hermes] in the city were vandalized. The assembly recalled Alcibiades to face charges of impiety, prompting him to defect to Athens’ archenemy, Sparta. The Sicilian Expedition ended in disaster, and so diminished Athens that its empire began to crumble.
After some years, Alcibiades returned to Athens and served for a time as a general before being exiled and murdered. In the History of Animals, Plato’s student Aristotle mentions in passing his place of death: “In the mountain called Elaphoïs, in Arginusa, in Asia, where Alcibiades died, all the deer have their ears divided, so that they can be known if they migrate to another place, and even the foetus in utero has this distinction.”
Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.