Alcibiades by Plato

Alcibiades I

by Plato

Translated by Benjamin Jowett

“Alcibiades” represents Socrates trying to educate the young, ambitious Alcibiades on the meaning of true prosperity, which is justice and self-knowledge.

Persons of the Dialogue :
SOCRATES, ALCIBIADES.

Socrates : Son of Cleinias, I think it must surprise you that I, the first of all your lovers, am the only one of them who has not given up his suit and thrown you over, and whereas they have all pestered you with their conversation I have not spoken one word to you for so many years. The cause of this has been nothing human, but a certain spiritual opposition, of whose power you shall be informed at some later time. However, it now opposes me no longer, so I have accordingly come to you ; and I am in good hopes that it will not oppose me again in the future. Now I have been observing you all this time, and have formed a pretty good notion of your behavior to your lovers : for although they were many and high-spirited, everyone of them has found your spirit too strong for him and has run away. Let me explain the reason of your spirit being too much for them. You say you have no need of any man in any matter ; for your resources are so great, beginning with the body and ending with the soul, that you lack nothing. You think, in the first place, that you are foremost in beauty and stature — and you are not mistaken in this, as is plain for all to see — and in the second place, that you are of the most gallant family in your city, the greatest city in Greece, and that there you have, through your father, very many of the best people as your friends and kinsmen, who would assist you in case of need, and other connections also, through your mother, who are not a whit inferior to these, nor fewer. And you reckon upon a stronger power than all those that I have mentioned, in Pericles, son of Xanthippus, whom your father left as guardian of you and your brother when he died, and who is able to do whatever he likes not only in this city but all over Greece and among many great nations of the barbarians. And I will add besides the wealth of your house : but on this, I observe, you presume least of all. Well, you puff yourself up on all these advantages, and have overcome your lovers, while they in their inferiority have yielded to your might, and all this has not escaped you ; so I am very sure that you wonder what on earth I mean by not getting rid of my passion, and what can be my hope in remaining when the rest have fled.

Alcibiades : Perhaps also, Socrates, you are not aware that you have only just anticipated me. For I, in fact, had the intention of coming and asking you first that very same question — what is your aim and expectation in bothering me by making a particular point of always turning up wherever I may be. For I really do wonder what can be your object, and should be very glad if you would tell me.

Socrates : Then you will listen to me, presumably, with keen attention if, as you say, you long to know what I mean, and I have in you a listener who will stay to hear me out.

Alcibiades : Why, to be sure : only speak.

Socrates : Look to it, then ; for it would be no wonder if I should make as much difficulty about stopping as I have made about starting.

Alcibiades : My good sir, speak ; for I will listen.

Socrates : Speak I must, I suppose. Now, although it is hard for a lover to parley with a man who does not yield to lovers, I must make bold nevertheless to put my meaning into words. For if I saw you, Alcibiades, content with the things I set forth just now, and minded to pass your life in enjoying them, I should long ago have put away my love, so at least I persuade myself : but as it is, I shall propound to your face quite another set of your thoughts, whereby you will understand that I have had you continually before my mind. For I believe, if some god should ask you : “Alcibiades, do you prefer to live with your present possessions, or to die immediately if you are not to have the chance of acquiring greater things ?” I believe you would choose to die. But let me tell you what I imagine must be the present hope of your life. You think that if you come shortly before the Athenian Assembly — which you expect to occur in a very few days — you will stand forth and prove to the people that you are more worthy of honor than either Pericles or anyone else who has ever existed, and that having proved this you will have the greatest power in the state ; and that if you are the greatest here, you will be the same among all the other Greeks, and not only Greeks, but all the barbarians who inhabit the same continent with us. And if that same god should say to you again, that you are to hold sway here in Europe,  but are not to be allowed to cross over into Asia and to interfere with the affairs of that region, I believe you would be equally loth to live on those sole conditions either — if you are not to fill, one may say, the whole world with your name and your power ; and I fancy that, except Cyrus and Xerxes, you think there has never existed a single man who was of any account. So then that this is your hope, I know well enough ; I am not merely guessing. And I daresay you will reply, since you know that what I say is true : “Well,  Socrates, and what has that to do with your point ?” I am going to tell you, dear son of Cleinias and Deinomache. Without me it is impossible for all those designs of yours to be crowned with achievement ; so great is the power I conceive myself to have over your affairs and over you, and it is for this very reason, I believe, that the god has so long prevented me from talking with you, and I was waiting to see when he would allow me. For as you have hopes of proving yourself in public to be invaluable to the state and, having proved it, of winning forthwith unlimited power, so do I hope to win supreme power over you by proving that I am invaluable to you, and that neither guardian nor kinsman nor anyone else is competent to transmit to you the power that you long for except me, with the gods help, however. In your younger days, to be sure, before you had built such high hopes, the god, as I believe, prevented me from talking with you, in order that I might not waste my words : but now he has set me on ;  for now you will listen to me.

Alcibiades : You seem to me far more extraordinary, Socrates, now that you have begun to speak, than before, when you followed me about in silence ; though even then you looked strange enough. Well, as to my intending all this or not, you have apparently made your decision, and any denial of mine will not avail me to persuade you. Very good : but supposing I have intended ever so much what you say, how are you the sole means through which I can hope to attain it ? Can you tell me ?

Socrates : Are you asking whether I can make a long speech, such as you are used to hearing ? No, my gift is not of that sort. But I fancy I could prove to you that the case is so, if you will consent to do me just one little service.

Alcibiades : Why, if you mean a service that is not troublesome, I consent.

Socrates : Do you consider it troublesome to answer questions put to you ?

Alcibiades : No, I do not.

Socrates : Then answer.

Alcibiades : Ask.

Socrates : Well, you have the intentions which I say you have, I suppose ?

Alcibiades : Be it so, if you like, in order that I may know what you will say next.

Socrates : Now then : you intend, as I say, to come forward as adviser to the Athenians in no great space of time ; well, suppose I were to take hold of you as you were about to ascend the platform, and were to ask you : “Alcibiades, on what subject do the Athenians propose to take advice, that you should stand up to advise them ? Is it something about which you have better knowledge than they ?” What would be your reply ?

Alcibiades : I should say, I suppose, it was something about which I knew better than they.

Socrates : Then you are a good adviser on things about which you actually know.

Alcibiades : To be sure.

Socrates : And you know only the things you have learnt from others or discovered yourself ?

Alcibiades : What could I know besides ?

Socrates : And can it be that you would ever have learnt or discovered anything without being willing either to learn it or to inquire into it yourself ?

Alcibiades : No.

Socrates : Well then, would you have been willing to inquire into or learn what you thought you knew ?

Alcibiades : No, indeed.

Socrates : So there was a time when you did not think that you knew what you now actually know.

Alcibiades : There must have been.

Socrates : Well, but I know pretty nearly the things that you have learnt : tell me if anything has escaped me. You learnt, if I recollect, writing and harping and wrestling ; as for fluting, you refused to learn it. These are the things that you know, unless perhaps there is something you have been learning unobserved by me ; and this you were not, I believe, if you so much as stepped out of doors either by night or by day.

Alcibiades : No, I have taken no other lessons than those.

Socrates : Then tell me, will it be when the Athenians are taking advice how they are to do their writing correctly that you are to stand up and advise them ?

Alcibiades : Upon my word, not I.

Socrates : Well, about strokes on the lyre ?

Alcibiades : Not at all.

Socrates : Nor in fact are they accustomed to deliberate on throws in wrestling either at the Assembly.

Alcibiades : No, to be sure.

Socrates : Then what will be the subject of the advice ? For I presume it will not be about building.

Alcibiades : No, indeed.

Socrates : For a builder will give better advice than you in that matter.

Alcibiades : Yes.

Socrates : Nor yet will it be about divination ?

Alcibiades : No.

Socrates : For there again a diviner will serve better than you.

Alcibiades : Yes.

Socrates : Whether he be short or tall, handsome or ugly, nay, noble or ignoble.

Alcibiades : Of course.

Socrates : For on each subject the advice comes from one who knows, not one who has riches.

Alcibiades : Of course.

Socrates : And whether their mentor be poor or rich will make no difference to the Athenians when they deliberate for the health of the citizens ; all that they require of their counsellor is that he be a physician.

Alcibiades : Naturally.

Socrates : Then what will they have under consideration if you are to be right in standing up, when you do so, as their counsellor ?

Alcibiades : Their own affairs, Socrates.

Socrates : Do you mean with regard to shipbuilding, and the question as to what sort of ships they ought to get built ?

Alcibiades : No, I do not, Socrates.

Socrates : Because, I imagine, you do not understand shipbuilding. Is that, and that alone, the reason ?

Alcibiades : That is just the reason.

Socrates : Well, on what sort of affairs of their own do you mean that they will be deliberating ?

Alcibiades : On war, Socrates, or on peace, or on any other of the states affairs.

Socrates : Do you mean that they will be deliberating with whom they ought to make peace, and on whom they ought to make war, and in what manner ?

Alcibiades : Yes.

Socrates : And on whom it is better to do so, ought they not ?

Alcibiades : Yes.

Socrates : And at such time as it is better ?

Alcibiades : Certainly.

Socrates : And for so long as they had better ?

Alcibiades : Yes.

Socrates : Now if the Athenians should deliberate with whom they should wrestle close, and with whom only at arms length, and in what manner, would you or the wrestling-master be the better adviser ?

Alcibiades : The wrestling-master, I presume.

Socrates : And can you tell me what the wrestling-master would have in view when he advised as to the persons with whom they ought or ought not to wrestle close, and when and in what manner ? What I mean is something like this : ought they not to wrestle close with those with whom it is better to do so ?

Alcibiades : Yes.

Socrates : And so far as is better, too ?

Alcibiades : So far.

Socrates : And at such time also as is better ?

Alcibiades : Certainly.

Socrates : But again, when one sings, one has sometimes to accompany the song with harping and stepping ?

Alcibiades : Yes, one has.

Socrates : And at such time as is better ?

Alcibiades : Yes.

Socrates : And so far as is better ?

Alcibiades : I agree.

Socrates : Well now, since you applied the term “better” to the two cases of harping for accompaniment of a song and close wrestling, what do you call the “better” in the case of harping, to correspond with what in the case of wrestling I call gymnastic ? What do you call the other ?

Alcibiades : I do not understand.

Socrates : Well, try to copy me : for my answer gave you, I think, what is correct in every instance ; and that is correct, I presume, which proceeds by rule of the art, is it not ?

Alcibiades : Yes.

Socrates : And was not the art here gymnastic ?

Alcibiades : To be sure.

Socrates : And I said that the better in the case of wrestling was gymnastic.

Alcibiades : You did.

Socrates : And I was quite fair ?

Alcibiades : I think so.

Socrates : Come then, in your turn — for it would befit you also, I fancy, to argue fairly — tell me, first, what is the art which includes harping and singing and treading the measure correctly ? What is it called as a whole ? You cannot yet tell me ?

Alcibiades : No, indeed.

Socrates : Well, try another way : who are the goddesses that foster the art ?

Alcibiades : The Muses, you mean, Socrates ?

Socrates : I do. Now, just think, and say by what name the art is called after them.

Alcibiades : Music, I suppose you mean.

Socrates : Yes, I do. And what is that which proceeds correctly by its rule ? As in the other case I was correct in mentioning to you gymnastic as that which goes by the art, so I ask you, accordingly, what you say in this case. What manner of proceeding is required ?

Alcibiades : A musical one, I suppose.

Socrates : You are right. Come then, what is it that you term “better,” in respect of what is better in waging war and being at peace ?  Just as in our other instances you said that the “better” implied the more musical and again, in the parallel case, the more gymnastical, try now if you can tell me what is the “better” in this case.

Alcibiades : But I am quite unable.

Socrates : But surely that is disgraceful ; for if you should speak to somebody as his adviser on food, and say that one sort was better than another, at this time and in this quantity, and he then asked you — What do you mean by the “better,” Alcibiades ? — in a matter like that you could tell him you meant the more wholesome, although you do not set up to be a physician ; yet in a case where you set up to have knowledge and are ready to stand up and advise as though you knew, are you not ashamed to be unable, as appears, to answer a question upon it ? Does it not seem disgraceful ?

Alcibiades : Very.

Socrates : Then consider and do your best to tell me the connection of “better” in being at peace or at war with those to whom we ought to be so disposed.

Alcibiades : Well, I am considering, but I fail to perceive it.

Socrates : But you must know what treatment it is that we allege against each other when we enter upon a war, and what name we give it when we do so ?

Alcibiades : I do : we say we are victims of deceit or violence or spoliation.

Socrates : Enough : how do we suffer each of these things ? Try and tell me what difference there is between one way and another.

Alcibiades : Do you mean by that, Socrates, whether it is in a just way or an unjust way ?

Socrates : Precisely.

Alcibiades : Why, there you have all the difference in the world.

Socrates : Well then, on which sort are you going to advise the Athenians to make war — those who are acting unjustly, or those who are doing what is just ?

Alcibiades : That is a hard question : for even if someone decides that he must go to war with those who are doing what is just, he would not admit that they were doing so.

Socrates : For that would not be lawful, I suppose ?

Alcibiades : No, indeed ; nor is it considered honorable either.

Socrates : So you too will appeal to these things in making your speeches ?

Alcibiades : Necessarily.

Socrates : Then must not that “better” about which I was asking in reference to making or not making war, on those on whom we ought to or not, and when we ought to or not, be simply and solely the juster ?

Alcibiades : Apparently it is.