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What Socrates Knew  
Plato’s Alcibiades I

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, "Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure," 1791. [1]

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure, 1791

11,025 words

Author’s Note:

What follows is a transcription by V.S. of a lecture on Plato’s Alcibiades I. The  translation of Alcibiades I referenced is by Carnes Lord in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987). To listen to the audio in a player, click here [2]. To download the mp3, right-click here [2] and choose “save target as.”

Today, we’re going to be looking at Plato’s dialogue Alcibiades I. The Alcibiades I is an excellent Platonic dialogue. In the past, it’s been used as an introduction to Plato’s writings. That was in the ancient world. It’s one of the dialogues that in the last century has been disputed as to its authenticity, but there’s good reason to think that the people who are disputing it probably know less about Plato than the people in ancient times who accepted it as completely genuine and authentic. So, we’re going to accept it as completely genuine and authentic in honor of the ancients who did so as well.

The dialogue is really an excellent introduction to Plato, because it deals with all the central themes of Platonic or Socratic moral philosophy in a sort of synoptic way. It’s kind of longish, but, correct me if I’m wrong, my impression is that it read along fairly quickly. Did anyone have any real thorny patches in here or any real trouble getting through it? It strikes me as fairly straightforward. It’s lots of tedious “Yes” and “No.”

Alcibiades was an extraordinary human being. He was a very bad man, unfortunately. He was enormously attractive in many ways. He was quite good-looking, and everyone was quite impressed with him just physically. He came from a very good family. His father died when he was young. He was raised by Pericles, who was the leader of Athens for a very long time and really the man who brought Athens to the peak of its glory and then sent it on its way to utter decline and devastation. When you reach the highpoint there’s only down from there, and so he oversaw both the peak and the decline of Athens, although it only really hit disaster after his death, so he didn’t really see the Götterdämmerung, so to speak.

Alcibiades was rich, he was handsome, he was from a good family, and he had the best political connections you could ever imagine. He was also brilliant. He was very intelligent, very clever, a good speaker, charismatic. He was the paradigm of a person favored by fortune.

Whereas Socrates really is the opposite paradigm. The person who didn’t have any of these things by fortune. He wasn’t good looking, he wasn’t rich . . . Well, he did have some good connections. We have to give him that. He was well connected, but actually it was his connections which cost him his life at the end just as much as his philosophizing. So, I guess we can question just how well connected he really was.

Alcibiades was one of these troublesome connections. The other was Plato’s family. Plato’s family included two of the thirty tyrants that got Socrates into trouble, Critias and Charmides.

Socrates, with all of his disadvantages though, was a superlatively happy human being, whereas Alcibiades, with all of his advantages, was really a disastrously unhappy and destructive human being.

I don’t want to detail his life, but he had a political career that led him to death in his 40s. He rose very fast to the very peak of power in Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and then fell just as quickly when he was accused of religious sacrilege, the so-called mutilation of the herms, which took place just before the Athenian fleet sailed to Sicily to disaster. It was the downward turning point for Athens’ fortunes in the war, which led to its defeat and the end of its empire, and, well, Greece hasn’t really recovered ever since.

Alcibiades was enormously attractive to Socrates as he was to everybody else, but Socrates saw something different in him. Socrates saw an enormous potential for either evil or goodness, and this is the way potential works. The more capacity a human being has, the more capacity he has to do well or ill, and the only thing that makes the difference is the level of moral cultivation. Socrates was determined to take Alcibiades and make him into the best kind of person he could be, because if somebody didn’t do this he could be a real danger and, as it turned out, Socrates failed terribly with Alcibiades and he did turn into a real danger. He was a traitor to Athens. He worked for Athens’ enemies, the Persians and the Spartans, at various times. He was a pirate for a long time, and he got back into the good graces of the Athenians for a while, fell out with them, and finally ended up being assassinated by them while he was living in the territory of the Persian Empire in one of the Greek city-states on the coast of present-day Turkey. He was finally assassinated by his enemies back in Athens, who just didn’t want this moving variable out there upsetting their political plans. So, he came to a sad and violent end.

On page 176 to 177, Socrates has a little speech here that he ascribes to one of the gods. It’s at the very bottom of 176, about five lines from the bottom. Socrates says, “‘It seems to me that if one of the gods were to say to you, ‘Alcibiades, would you wish rather to live having what you now have or to die at once if it were not permitted you to acquire more?’ you would choose, it seems to me, to die. But as to what hope it is you now live on I shall tell you. You believe that if you come shortly before the people of Athens, and you believe this will occur within a very few days, upon coming forward you would approve to the Athenians that you are deserving of being honored more than Pericles or anyone else who has ever existed and, having proved this, that you will have very great power in the city and that if you are very great here that you will be so among the other Greeks and not only among the Greeks but also among the barbarians who share the mainland with us.” And that would be the Macedonians.

“And if the same god were again to say to you that you must hold sway here in Europe but will not be permitted to cross into Asia or to interest yourself in affairs there, it seems to me that you would again be unwilling to live on these terms alone without being able to fill with your name and your power all mankind, so to speak. And I suppose you believe that apart from Cyrus and Xerxes, no one deserving of mention has ever existed. But this is the hope you have then. I know very well I am not guessing. Perhaps then, since you know I speak the truth, you will say, ‘What has this to do then, Socrates, with the account you said you would give of why you don’t abandon me?’” Then he goes on to explain.

But anyway, let’s just sum up what we have here. Alcibiades is characterized by the most enormous hubris, the most enormous ambition. He thinks very highly of himself and he wants his fame to be spread throughout the entire world. He has the character of these great conquerors, like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, a person who is possessed of enormous skills and capacities and has a desire to be known by the whole world. And for the ancients the pre-eminent route for that was through politics and war, conquest. He wanted to create an empire and the greatest empire that existed at that time and that had really ever existed in history was the Persian Empire and Cyrus was the founder of it. And as far as he’s concerned, Cyrus and Xerxes, his successor as Persian emperor, were really the only people who counted in the world.

Xerxes was the one who brought the empire to its greatest expanse, and he also tried to conquer Greece, and, of course, he was noted for his insane hubris. When the waves were too choppy for him to cross in Greece he sent men down to the sea to beat them into submission. Even nature itself would have to submit to Persia’s emperor and his hubris. Of course, he was somewhat mad. This was treated as a paradigm of madness that even nature and the gods should submit to human sway.

But the fact is that unless you have this kind of extraordinarily swollen ego no one would ever go out and conquer the world or do any of the other great things or demonically bad things that have been done in history. Modest people don’t do things like that. It’s only the immodest and hubristic, and Alcibiades has not only the hubris but also the capacities to actually make a go of this. And, of course, he failed, but it wasn’t a very long time before Alexander the Great succeeded. He was very much the same kind of character. So, it wasn’t unreasonable for Alcibiades to have hopes like this.

Here we have a person who could have conquered the world had he had better luck. And Socrates takes this enormous ambition that he has and he tries to sell him on philosophy. He’s taking Alcibiades’ hubris, and he’s trying to channel that hubris towards the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, and so we go on here.

“I will tell you, dear son of Clinias and Dynomache, it is not possible for all these things you have in mind to be brought to a completion without me. So great is the power I suppose myself to have regarding your affairs and you and I suppose this is why the god did not allow me to converse with you for so long.” “The god” refers to his daimonion, which he mentions at the beginning that he has been causing Socrates to stay away from Alcibiades. Now he can talk to him. And Socrates is saying, “You want to conquer the world, my boy? You can’t do it without me.”

Now, this is an extraordinary claim! It’s extraordinary, and this is one of the reasons I think these flat-footed 19th-century scholars thought, “Well, this can’t be Plato! This doesn’t sound like Socrates. Socrates is claiming to know something really big!” But, of course, we find very important knowledge claims throughout the Socratic writings, as we will prove in this course.

He goes on, a few lines down: “I too hope to have the greatest power with you after having proved that I am invaluable to you and that no guardian or relative or anyone else is capable of bestowing the power you desire apart from me, though with the help of a god.”

So, Socrates is saying, “Not only will you rule the world, but I will do it right along with you. You can only do it with me.” This sounds extraordinary. These claims are hyperbolic, I understand, but they are claims that are directed towards Alcibiades, who’s young and has the most hyperbolic ambitions. So, Socrates is accommodating what he’s saying to the character of the person he’s dealing with.

So, Alcibiades says in response, a few lines from the bottom of 177, “You now appear much stranger still to me, Socrates, since you have begun to speak than when you followed in silence.” He was something to see even then when he was following in silence, which is interesting. This notion of Socrates’ silence as still being a spectacle has everything to do with this uncanny charisma he had, which is how he can teach without teaching in a sense. It’s this power to draw things out of people.

Now, Socrates shows Alcibiades, first of all, that he can’t do it without him, and he basically shows Alcibiades that he doesn’t know anything. Alcibiades says, “Well, I’m going to go up in front of the people, and I’m going to become acclaimed and famous in my city first, because I will be able to give them advice.” And he says, “Well, advice about what?” And he says, “Well, the things I know.” “What do you know, Alcibiades?”

On page 178 near the bottom, where it says d in the margin, or about a third up from the bottom, he says, “I would truly answer but these are matters I know better than they.” These are the things he’ll tell them about.

“‘On those matters you happen to know about, therefore, you are a good advisor,’ said Socrates.”

“‘How could it be otherwise,’ he says.”

Socrates says, “‘Do you know only the things you have learned from others or discovered yourself?”

“What else is there?”

So, there’s a choice here. All the things you know, Alcibiades, are either the things you’ve discovered from others or the things you’ve learned yourself. He sets him up with this premise. There are two kinds of knowledge: the things you’ve discovered from others and the things you’ve learned yourself.

Now, the first question I have is, is this an exhaustive classification of the kinds of knowledge that one has? The things we’ve learned from others and the things we’ve discovered ourselves. Both kinds of knowledge would seem to be things that come from outside, right? The things we learn from others are put into us, and the things we discover ourselves are things we go out and find. Alcibiades accepts that those are the only two kinds of knowledge. And on the basis of that acceptance, Socrates can easily show him that he doesn’t have the knowledge he needs in order to go into politics.

But it is a questionable assumption, so let’s just keep that in mind. There may be other kinds of knowledge besides the stuff that’s put into us by others or that we go out and get.

So, Socrates goes on through the kinds of things that Alcibiades knows. He says, “Alcibiades, you were taught how to write and you were taught how to play the cithara, and you were taught how to wrestle. You weren’t willing to learn how to play the flute. So, these are the things you know, Alcibiades. Are you going to go in front of the people and give them advice about how to spell properly and how to play the harp and how to do wrestling holds?”

He says, “No, no.”

“Well, these are the things you learned. What are you going to do?”

Near the bottom of 179, the answer comes in. He’s not going to give advice about lyre playing, wrestling, or house-building, or divination, or any of these other things. Why? Because these are arts and there are specialists for each of these arts.

And near the bottom of 179, wherever it says b, about five lines, Socrates says, “A diviner will be the person who will advise the public about divination, right?” Alcibiades says, “Yes.”

“Whether he is short or tall, fair or ugly, well-born or not well-born?”

“How could it be otherwise?”

“For advising on any matter belongs, I suppose, to the man who knows, not to the wealthy man.”

“How could it be otherwise?”

What Socrates is doing here is pointing out something very odd, which is interesting and bears reflection. It is totally irrelevant when you hire a plumber whether the plumber is good-looking or from a good family or is wealthy, favored by fortune in these ways.

But these things are enormously relevant to politics. Just think about politics. Think about somebody who really didn’t accomplish much in life, but we were all supposed to mourn his passing recently, namely John F. Kennedy, Jr. If he were short, bald, fat, and had a large wart on the end of his nose, his death would not have been mourned so vigorously. But he was beautiful, so everyone wept. He was prettier than his wife. And so the world wept. Everyone had all these desires and expectations for him that he didn’t seem to be able to live up to. He seemed to be fairly modest in his abilities, but he had the look.

And because people look this way you start thinking in terms of politics: birth, connections, money, looks. These things matter in politics, but they don’t matter in the arts. And the question is why. Why do they matter in politics? It’s an interesting question. “In the arts” in the sense of crafts. Things like orthography, lyre playing, wrestling. In the performing arts, they do.

They matter remarkably little in some ways when you think about really great people. Even great actors and artists, a lot of them are not necessarily classically attractive. Glenn Close or Meryl Streep, people like this. I’ve seen far prettier women at least five times already today than them. But it doesn’t really matter because they overcome that through their sheer magnitude of talent. When you’re looking for starlets to decorate a movie set then looks matter more. Even in the performing arts, when you get to the better end of it, so to speak, looks matter less.

But it is interesting about politics, how looks and connections and money seem to matter.

Socrates then says, “OK, Alcibiades, if you were a person who was going to give advice on the city’s affairs, what kinds of affairs would you give advice on?”

He says, “Things like war and peace. Policy. Big issues.”

And what kind of advice would he give? Well, he would talk about what’s better and worse to do.

And Socrates says, “OK, if you’re going to talk about what’s better and worse, we have to know exactly in what terms you define the better and the worse.” When you talk about music or gymnastics. The better is the more musical. In gymnastics, it’s the more gymnastical, the better for exercising.

“What’s the better in politics?”

And he says, “Well, the just, and the worse is the unjust.”

This is at the bottom. The last line of 181. Socrates says, “You speak well. Come then, with respect to what is better in raging war and keeping peace, what term do you use for better in this sense? Just as you said what the better is in each of the other cases. That is, the more musical in the other case or the more musical, try to say what the better is here.”

And Alcibiades says, “Nothing occurs to me.”

“What a shameful thing,” Socrates says. “You want to go and advise people in politics, but you don’t know the term for the better and the worse in the political realm.”

And then Alcibiades finally gets it after a little bit of questioning and hedging. Here at the bottom, below b on 182.

Alcibiades says, “By way, Socrates, do you mean justly or unjustly?”

And Socrates says, “This very thing!” This is what we’re looking for: the just and the unjust. “But nothing occurred to you before, Alcibiades. Isn’t that shameful?”

And then the top of 183 where it says d in the margin, Socrates says, “Yet how is this, dear Alcibiades, has it escaped you that you have no knowledge of this?” Namely justice. “Or did it escape me that you were learning and going to a teacher who taught you to recognize the more just and the more unjust? And who is this, who is your teacher in this matter? Tell me as well, so you can introduce me and I too can become his pupil.”

He’s making fun of Alcibiades, because Alcibiades hasn’t gotten anyone to teach him this. He’s gotten the equivalent of piano lessons and wrestling lessons, but he hasn’t gotten any lessons in justice or injustice, and Socrates was pointing this fact out to him.

So, not only does he not know, which is shameful enough, but it’s even more shameful that he has made no provision to find out.

At the center of 183, Alcibiades asks, “Do you not suppose I could investigate to find these things out?”

Socrates says, “I do think you could investigate this if, that is, you supposed you did not know.”

Now, this is the classic Socratic knowing that you don’t know claim. You’re only going to search for knowledge if you know that you don’t know something. If you’re unaware of your own ignorance you’re never going to search for knowledge.

Alcibiades, thus far, has been unaware of his own ignorance, and Socrates makes fun of this and treats it as terribly shameful. And it is shameful.

Socrates continues, on the bottom of 183, to just sort of push on Alcibiades. “When did you learn the just and the unjust things? Three or four years ago when you were still a child?” Well, he thinks he knew it then.

“When were you ever ignorant of these, Alcibiades?” he says, and he doesn’t know when he was ever ignorant of it.

One of the things Plato does is he tries to show that Socrates does his best with people like Critias, Charmides, and Alcibiades, the people he was accused of wrongly associating with. Socrates gets off the hook if you believe these presentations, but that’s not the only purpose. I think it’s probably accurate. Socrates did try to work at these people and make them better. That seemed to be his mission. But the thing is that it didn’t always work.

And at the end, the very last line of the dialogue, clearly puts the blame not on Socrates but on the city, right?

Alcibiades, on page 221, “But so matters stand and I shall begin at this moment to take trouble over justice.” “Take trouble over,” you could translate it as “care for,” “begin to care for justice.”

Socrates says, “And I would wish you to continue doing so, yet I stand in dread not because I do not have trust in your nature but rather because seeing the strength of the city I fear it will overcome both me and you.”

So, in a sense, he’s not really blaming Alcibiades. He’s blaming Athens for corrupting Alcibiades, and that really is true. The city did corrupt him. It spoiled him, flattered him, wanted him to lead it, and then chewed him up and spat him out. Then brought him back and finally killed him.

Alcibiades was corrupted by the people of Athens, the argument is, not by Socrates. And not by his own nature, because his nature is, in a sense, innocent. It was the use that was made of his nature that made him bad.

Socrates shows Alcibiades that, “Look, you don’t know what you’re talking about yet you want to go out and you want to rule the world. If you want to rule the world, you’re going to have to know what justice is. How do you know that? Well, through philosophizing is the basic answer, through pursuing wisdom.” Well, how do you do that?

Near the end of the dialogue, it becomes really clear. First, you have to know yourself, and that has the broad, universal sense of knowing what a human being is and knowing the nature of the soul, but also the concrete sense of knowing who you are, because Alcibiades can’t pursue wisdom until he knows that he himself is ignorant. That’s one of the crucial things.

187 at the center: “‘How then is it likely,’ Socrates says, ‘that you should know the just and unjust things when you are in such uncertainty and plainly never learned them from anyone but discovered them yourself.’”

This is an important thing, but let’s actually flip back to 184, because there’s another issue that’s very important here at the top.

He’s pushing Alcibiades back, “When did you learn this? When did you learn this, you ignoramus?” Very top, first line of 184, he’s saying, “Didn’t you speak in a rather loud and confident when you were playing dice as a child about one or other of the children being wicked and unjust and behaving unjustly? Were you not speaking the truth?”

“No fair!” How many times have you heard little kids saying that? “No fair!”

And Alcibiades says, “But what was I going to do, Socrates, when someone was behaving unjustly towards me?” Except protest “no fair!”

And Socrates says, “What should you do, you mean, if you happened at that time to be ignorant of whether you were being unjustly treated or not?” So, Alcibiades, what should you have done when you were a small child if you knew that you didn’t know what justice is?

Alcibiades’ response is interesting. He says, “By Zeus! I was not ignorant but knew clearly that I was being treated unjustly.” Even when he was a child.

Socrates says, “You suppose, therefore, you had knowledge of the just and the unjust things even as a child, as it appears.”

“I did, and I did have the knowledge.”

“At what time did you discover it for surely it was not at the time you supposed you knew.”

“No, indeed.”

“Then when do you believe you were ignorant? Consider that you won’t find that time.”

“By Zeus, Socrates! I cannot say when I was ignorant.” Meaning when he’d learned it, right? When he learned what justice and injustice are.

“Therefore, you do not know these things by discovering them.” He didn’t discover them.

“And no one taught you, did they?”

He says, “Well, I was taught them!”

“Who taught them?”

And he says, where it says e in the margin of 184, “From the many.” The demos, the majority. Oh no, we’re back to democracy.

And Socrates says, “Well, how would they know?”

The majority of people don’t know, say, how to make bridles for horses, which is a small thing, or how to teach you to be a bridle-maker or whatever little example he gives. So, how should the majority know a bigger thing like what justice is if a majority of people don’t know small things. He actually talks about playing checkers or something.

And Alcibiades, at the top of 185 where it says 111a, says something extremely interesting. He says, “I at least learned Greek from them!” Which is no small thing if you’ve ever tried to study Greek! It’s very hard, and he learned it as a child.

“I at least learned Greek from them, for example. I couldn’t say who my teacher was. I would refer you rather to the very ones you assert are not weighty teachers, the majority.”

Isn’t that interesting? And he’s saying, “I learned Greek from the many, why couldn’t I learn justice?” And that’s an important question.

But Alcibiades shouldn’t give up so soon. Alcibiades, in a sense, was right when he says that he always knew what justice is, because it’s not the case that everything we know is something that somebody sticks in us or something that we go out and find.

The unstated other possibility is that we do have innate knowledge. In this case, it’s true that he always knew this, and there was no time that he was ignorant.

What Socrates is not treating as a possibility is that he has an innate knowledge or that innate knowledge of justice is possible, but that is Plato’s position, that we do have an innate knowledge of this.

He’s keeping this under wraps though. Why? For the purposes of this discussion and for the purposes of educating poor Alcibiades, he has to make Alcibiades feel as ignorant and as incapable as he possibly can. Because if Alcibiades were to be told, “Alcibiades, all you need to know to rule the world is the difference between the just and the unjust and you do know it,” well, that’s the end of Socrates’ educating Alcibiades. So, what Socrates has to do is downplay the possibility of that kind of innate knowledge and say, “Look, you need me to help teach you.”

Another question is this: “If justice is learned, how is it that one could learn Greek from the majority of people but not learn justice from the majority of people?”

One way to look at it is this: Greek, or any language, is conventional, and conventions exist among the many, whereas for Plato, ultimately, to know what the good is is a matter of knowing nature, and knowing nature is not something that’s widespread. The crafts, the arts, are based on knowledge of the nature of particular things, and that’s why craft knowledge is so widespread. That’s why there are specialists.

In a way, Socrates is trying to argue there are moral specialists, and “I’m one of them.” “I can teach you.”

The thing is that, in a way, he’s right. Even if Alcibiades knows what justice is he doesn’t know that he knows it.

So, Socrates is saying, “Alcibiades, you think you know, but you really don’t. You’re ignorant of your own ignorance.” But the truth is that he’s ignorant of his own knowledge, too. Because, in a certain way, he does know it. He knows that he doesn’t know that he knows it, and what he needs is somebody like Socrates, who, if not by sticking it in him to teach him justice, can bring it out of him by bringing it to the surface and making it articulate. And this is why you do need a philosopher, and there is room for the moral expert, but the moral expert doesn’t teach by putting in. The moral expert teaches by bringing out.

Question: What do you mean about knowing about nature?

Well, ultimately, what I mean is simply this: the good is based, in some way, on human nature for Aristotle and Plato and Socrates. All the ancient Greeks, really, ultimately believed that what is right is right by nature, and the nature you look to is human nature.

Question: So, they’re talking about human beings and not about nature nature?

Yeah, human nature. But human nature is less known to us than the nature of cats and dogs, because it’s so close, right?

So, there are conventional views about human beings that we have to deal with, and everyone knows that conventional wisdom is widespread. It’s evenly distributed. Everyone can speak a language, which is an extraordinary thing, because these are conventions, but when it comes to knowledge of nature in some ways we are clueless. And it’s precisely because we understand ourselves so much from such early times when we were just babies, in terms of conventional wisdom, that the natural world is veiled from us, and we are veiled from ourselves, in a sense.

Socrates’ project therefore in a sense has two dimensions. One is to break down false self-interpretations and false self-understandings that are foisted on us by society. And the main source of those are the poets for the ancient Greeks. For the ancient Greeks, the poets were the ones who wrote the religious texts in myths. We’d say the theologians and screenwriters. Everything from the media and the arts to religion.

Who are the people who put on that shadow puppet show in the cave? It’s the media, in a sense. The poets are the ones who do this. We need to break down these false self-interpretations, and what Socrates is constantly doing is criticizing these things and trying to break them down.

But then once you break these things down you need to find the proper self-interpretation in some way.

Again, that involves two levels. One, there are certain universal truths about human nature, which are objective, and there are certain particular truths about each individual human nature, and these are also objective.

The one thing that is so wonderful about ancient Greek ethics is that it incorporates what’s sensible about moral relativism. Believe me, there is something sensible about it, because the purchase that moral relativism has on people is that it seems to speak to the sense that each individual is just that: an individual. That we’re all unique in some way, and so isn’t it really for each individual to make his own way in life? This is what’s appealing.

But for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, that’s all well and good, but what they want to argue is that individuality is itself something that’s very objective, that we come into the world with a daimon, with an internal nature that’s quite objective and fixed, a set of potentialities, temperaments, and things like that, and the good life is precisely the life you lead in harmony with your nature and a life that is somehow expressive of your nature. And that’s objective.

The modern relativist viewpoint is more that you can create yourself. This is Nietzsche’s destructive legacy. The notion of the self as a creation of who? Well, the self. That we are somehow masks that we create, and there is no face behind the mask. That we are just poses and personas all the way down.

But the point is that if that were true, then we could be happy no matter what. If we could create a self, why not create a self that’s fully actualized, just sitting on our asses in front of the television? That would be the surefire route to happiness. Everyone would be happy.

But the fact is that many people, especially people who are engaged in this constant process of self-reinvention, are terribly unhappy, because they’re living lies.

And what’s the truth? The truth is that they have a real nature that they’ve never discovered and have betrayed on some level.

So, there’s a real, deep sense of the weighty, objective nature of the ideal self that commands that we be true to it, because we can be false to it. If there’s a matter of truth and falsehood, there’s some kind of standard there. Self-betrayal would be impossible if you create yourself, because whatever you say would be true, and that’s just not the way things work.

What Socrates is saying to Alcibiades, “Alcibiades, you’re ignorant, you’re ignorant of your ignorance, and you need to investigate it, so let me help you.”

Then there are various arguments where Alcibiades is sort of beaten down. Alcibiades makes the claim that justice is advantageous, and Socrates says, “Alcibiades, how would you know that if you don’t know what justice is? And if you don’t know what justice is then how would you know it’s not the same as the advantageous?”

And Socrates gives an argument where he argues poor Alcibiades into accepting that justice is indeed advantageous, and then he raises the question, “Well, how did you know this, Alcibiades?” And it is a good question.

Now, let’s go forward. On 196, Socrates says something very strong. Here’s a very strong knowledge claim. He’s talking about Alcibiades’ lack of knowledge of his own ignorance, and Socrates says, just above the center of 196, “Alas, then, Alcibiades, what a condition you’ve come to be in. I hesitate to use the term, but as we two are alone I shall say it all the same. It is stupidity, excellent fellow, in its most extreme form that you are living in the midst of, as the argument accuses you as well as you yourself. This is why you are rushing towards the political things before you have been educated, but you are not the only one in this condition. The many among those who practice the things of the city are also, except for a few at any rate, perhaps including your guardian Pericles…”

And as it turns out when we read the Gorgias, Pericles is pretty bad off, too. Pericles, if he knew something, would surely have taught his own sons his art, and yet he didn’t manage to do that. Pericles is just a fudger, is what it turns out. He’s sort of fudging his way through things, and he lucked out for a long time.

So, actually, now let’s move a good ways forward and get into something that’s extremely rich.

The sub-title that’s been given to this dialogue in antiquity is On the Nature of Man. Socrates, once he gets Alcibiades concerned with knowing how to differentiate between right and wrong and give good advice and make good use of things, especially in the political realm, he eventually moves him around to an absolutely crucial question and that’s the question at the center of page 212.

He’s talking about using tools and work and things like that. The question is, is the human body a tool? And if it is a tool, what is it the tool of?

At the center of that page, 212, he says, “‘A human being is different, therefore, from his own body?’ Socrates asks.” Apparently. And Socrates says, “Than whatever is man. And isn’t it odd that we speak of having a body and having a soul, as if our body and our souls were somehow different from us?”

Well, as it turns out, the soul is what we truly are, for Socrates.

So, Alcibiades says, “I don’t know what man is.”

“But you can. At least as something that uses the body.”


“Does anything use this other than the soul?” The soul would be the thing that uses the body.

And then he says that man is one of three things then. He’s the body, the soul, or the body and the soul together. And what rules the body is what man is, and the soul rules the body, and therefore the soul is what is most truly us.

If wisdom is the capacity to make use of things and all the things that we use are somehow used by the body. We use tools with our hands, we press pedals with our feet, we persuade other people with our tongues, our speech, and so forth. All of these things are bodily activities and so the next question is, well, if we’re going to make right use of all the things the body uses, do we make right use of the body?

Well, yes, but who is the user of the body? The soul is, and therefore the soul is going to be the thing where wisdom resides, unless there’s something above the soul which makes use of it. And, as it turns out, there’s nothing above the soul. The soul is the last thing, and therefore the buck stops there. You can pass the buck back, but it’s got to stop somewhere, and it’s the soul where wisdom resides.

He goes back to something that was raised last time. This is Socrates’ persuasive definition of wisdom. Wisdom makes right use of everything, but what about wisdom? Can it be rightly or wrongly used? Well, Socrates says the buck stops there. There’s got to be a stopping point. There’s got to be a sort of ultimate authority, if you will, that not only makes right use of other things but makes right use of itself.

Otherwise, it’s just an endless regress, in which case nothing ever gets rightly used and there is no wisdom. So, we simply have to presuppose that there is something, namely wisdom, which is intrinsically or unconditionally good, and the locus of this wisdom is going to be the soul, because the soul is the actual thing that moves everything else in the world of human action.

The soul uses the body, the body uses tools, the body drives cars, the body engages in politics, writes poems, and things like that, and the soul runs it, so the soul has to be where the buck stops, namely wisdom residing in the soul.

Then he starts breaking the soul into its parts, and he doesn’t go through all the parts, but he clearly says that wisdom resides in the rational part of the soul, which is the most divine.

Now, at the center of 213, just below the center of this, well, actually above the center where it says c, Socrates says, “Since man is neither body nor body and soul together, what is left, I suppose, is either that he is nothing or, if he is something, that man turns out to be nothing other than the soul.”

“Quite so.”

Near the bottom of this page, he talks about what’s happening between the two of them. It’s communication between their souls.

“You and I are using speeches, one soul towards the other,” he says. This is just below e in the margin. Which is kind of nice. Philosophy is a rapport of souls, a dialogue of souls.

And he goes on, he says, “It seems it is with the soul, therefore, that we are bid to become acquainted by the one who enjoins us to know ourselves.” To know the soul, therefore, is to know ourselves and it is with the soul that we know ourselves. So, the soul is the knower and the known, in a sense, here to whom this injunction of the Oracle of Apollo says, “Know thyself.”

“It would seem so.”

“Whoever knows something of the things belonging to the body, therefore, knows his own things, but not himself.”

That’s because the body is mainly a tool of the soul, and if you know the body you know something that belongs to you, but you don’t know you, because you’re the owner and the owner of the body is the self.

There were two injunctions at the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. One is “Know thyself” and the other is “Nothing too much,” “Everything in moderation” and the two are treated as equivalent.

And so, on 214, the equivalency is brought in here. About 15 lines down, Socrates says, “If then it is moderation to know oneself, nobody is moderate by his art. Art doesn’t make one moderate.” Why? Because art is morally neutral in some sense. Art can allow you to change things, to get things done in the world, to make things, but it can’t tell you enough is enough.

The art of the money-maker does not have a cut-off valve in it or something like that saying, “Enough is enough.” You need something else to come in and say, “OK, I’ve made enough.”

I saw in the news yesterday, “Americans are working more than ever before.” We work ten weeks a year more on average than the Germans do. Ten weeks a year. Two and a half months of our lives are spent working more than the average German. Do the Germans have a lower standard of living than we do?

Again, art doesn’t limit itself. It needs something extra to limit it. That’s an appeal to wisdom. Socrates then says, next line, “On this account then, these arts seem to be sorted and the kind of learning that does not belong to a good man.”

This is very snobbish, but he’s saying, “Look, gentlemen don’t practice these kinds of arts. They don’t know these kinds of arts. Or if they do, they also have the wisdom to use them properly.”

But if you’re just a cog in a great machine, if you have an art and you just respond to other incentives and you don’t have the capacity, in a sense, to govern yourself, there’s something slavish about that. No free man would want to be just a cog in a great machine with no capacity to say enough is enough.

Becoming merely specialists, and this is what our education system forces on people – get a specialty, maybe what that does is that makes us slavish rather than free, because it makes us simply cogs in a large machine, but the shots are not called by us. In fact, they’re not called by anybody. Things just seem to have a life of their own now, because more people are working longer and longer hours as an incentive to find ways of doing without sleep, and so there’s an industry now, or there will be an industry, of reducing the amount of sleep, and pretty soon we’ll be 24-hour a day little robots running around.

That’s not fitting for free men, Socrates says. To be a free person is to have the ability to limit yourself, and that means you’re more than just your job, you’re more than just the art or craft that you’ve learned. You also have to have the capacity to make right use of it. There’s something profoundly true about that.

This is why liberal education is so important. We have merely technical education in most universities, which teaches people how to be slavish little cogs in great machines, but it doesn’t teach them how to be free individuals exercising control over their lives.

Then the soul is discussed in connection with love. We can skip over that.

So, Socrates, at the bottom of 215 where it says c in the margin, says, “After this then, we agree that we should take trouble over the soul and look to this.” “After this” means “after looking at political things,” clearly.

“And that taking trouble over bodies and money should be handed over to others.” These are things for specialists: doctors, financial advisors, things like that. You just hand things over to the specialists. But each person can’t hand over to a specialist the task of caring for his soul. You have to take primary concern of that, of course.

“In what way then might we know this most plainly, for if we know this it would seem we will also know ourselves.” The soul, right? How to take care of it, that’s how we know ourselves.

“But in the name of the gods, do we really not understand the Delphic inscription we mentioned just now, which is so well spoken?”

“What do you have in mind when you say this Socrates?”

“I’ll tell you what I suspect this inscription tells us and advises us, for there are probably not examples of it in many places but only in the case of sight.”

“And what do you mean by this?”

He says, “You consider it, too. If giving advice to an eye as to a man, he had said, “See yourself,” how would we take this admonition?” “See yourself,” he says to the eye.

“To look at that in looking at which the eye would see itself.” OK, well, how do you see yourself? Looking at the thing in which the eye would see itself. “Well, what does the eye see itself in,” he says.

He says, “Mirrors and things of that sort.” The eye, to see itself, needs to look into a mirror.

Well, what does the soul need to see itself, to know itself? Well, it needs a mirror.

Center of 216 where it says 133a, “Have you considered that the face of the one looking into the eye appears in the sight of the one opposite as in a mirror, this being what we call the pupil, a sort of image of the one looking in?”

We see our faces mirrored in the pupils of other people’s eyes.

And then there where it says b in the margin, Socrates says, “If the eye is going to see itself, therefore, it must look at the eye.”

That’s the best mirror: another eye. Like knows like, so the best mirror of an eye is another eye. So, we see our eyes by peering into the eyes of others.

Well, apply this to the soul. How is the soul to know itself best? By peering into another soul.

“It is therefore, dear Alcibiades, that if the soul too is to know itself it should look at the soul and, above all, at that place in it in which the virtue of the soul, wisdom, comes to exist and at any other thing to which happens to be similar.”

So, we look into the soul to see the self and, specifically, that part of the soul in which wisdom comes to exist. Now, the soul has parts, right? There’s the desiring part, there’s the spirited part, and there’s the rational part, and wisdom resides in the rational part of the soul. So, we need to peer into the reason of other souls and of our own soul.

How do we do that? Well, the best way of doing it, as Socrates says a little earlier, we are associating in speeches with one another, one soul to the other.

So, the best way of peering into the soul of another and seeing oneself is through speeches, through dialogues, through philosophizing as Socrates practices it, through having discussions with people about virtue and goodness. That’s how we come to know ourselves, and we do need somebody else there, because, again, although we know everything important in some way, the soul knows it all already, it needs the interaction of another through conversation to bring to the surface and make explicit what’s there already.

Now, there’s a little passage that’s bracketed on page 217, which might have been interpolated by Eusebius or added by Eusebius, who was a Christian apologist in early Late Antiquity. It’s found only in Eusebius.

“One argues that it’s God or the Divine that’s ultimately the mirror in which we know ourselves.”

That’s not in the Platonic manuscripts that have come down to us as a dialogue. Socrates does talk about “the god,” but he could be referring to his daimonion and then the Eusebius passage seems to be moving it in the direction not of one’s little daimonion but God, you know, in the big G sense, which might not be the case.

It seems to be philosophizing and not through religion that one comes to know. And, of course, the god that Socrates refers to at the beginning is probably the god he refers to here and that’s his daimonion, which refers to his knowledge of the soul as we’ve seen from the Theages when we looked at it last time.

So, on 217 about a third of the way down, about ten lines down there’s that bracket above the passage, so we’ll just keep that in mind. It might not be Plato’s writing.

And then Socrates basically says, “Well, look, Alcibiades, if you want to learn all this stuff, get under way. Start pursuing wisdom if you want to rule the world.” And then basically sort of wraps it up.

On 219, about six lines down, second line on 219, he says, “If you’re going to practice the things of the city correctly and nobly, you must give the citizens a share of virtue.”

“How could it be otherwise?”

“Can one give a share of something he did not have?”

“How could he?”

“You must first acquire virtue yourself then as must anyone who is going to rule and take trouble not only privately over himself and the things belonging to himself but also to the city and the things of the city.”

And so, Socrates has, at least at this juncture, successfully persuaded Alcibiades to pursue wisdom, to pursue virtue if he wants to rule the world. And so, any of you who want to rule the world — or better, just to rule over yourselves — are well-recommended to pursue the same line of enquiry.

This is a great summary of the whole Platonic moral philosophy. It’s a great speech persuading one to pursue philosophy. It has all the elements: the daimonion comes in, knowledge of the soul, “know thyself,” the necessity of philosophical conversation with another person to try to bring to the surface what we know but don’t know that we know.

It’s important also to recognize that the claim that one needs to know one’s ignorance is very much a rhetorical claim here that functions to shame Alcibiades into encouraging him to pursue wisdom.

Individuality and Poetry in Plato

How does individuality get into Plato? Because Plato really does seem to believe that the only things you could truly know are universals or ideas and that all the things in the world of change around us are merely objects of opinion. You might just have to say we really don’t know ourselves as individuals. We just have opinions about ourselves as individuals.

So, self-knowledge for Plato would depend on knowing human nature or knowing universals, because that for him is the only thing that’s truly knowable. Particular things are not knowable, yet obviously in some sense we know them. We just don’t know them with any kind of certitude, because they’re always changing and growing and decaying.

I think though that it’s right, here where they talk about “know yourself,” there’s a kind of universality in that, too, because what’s most truly us is the soul, and then the question is what kind of knowledge of the soul are we going to be talking about.

Well, it turns out that the main concern here is with virtue, and the virtues are universals too. So, when Alcibiades is told to know himself and to take trouble over his soul — you could just say care for the soul — he’s really being encouraged it seems to pursue virtue. And pursuing virtue requires a certain self-knowledge, primarily self-knowledge about the nature of man and the nature of the soul and how it’s perfected, which is the same for everybody when we’re talking in general terms about the virtues.

But there is a particular dimension of self-knowledge in here that’s very clear and that’s in the earlier parts when Socrates says, “Look, Alcibiades, you suppose that you know that you don’t know.”

Now, that’s really talking about Alcibiades as an individual. He doesn’t know, and he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know, and that’s the most blameworthy ignorance of all. That really is self-knowledge of him as a particular individual.

He has an interesting question: Where does knowledge of the individual come in for Plato? How does he account for that?

This is one of the reasons why I think that Plato incorporates within him a strong defense of poetry.

Last week, I talked about this book by Julius Elias called Plato’s Defense of Poetry. Elias makes a distinction between strong and weak Platonic defenses of poetry and the weak defense of poetry is very widespread.

It’s basically this: Plato has very strong, negative opinions about poets. He thinks that they’re dangerous, they’re corruptors of the soul, and that in a well-ordered society they should be subjected to censorship and that poetry should be edifying rather than merely entertaining or prurient or corruptive or some other way. So, Plato is a very strong critic of the poets, but yet at the same time he himself is a poet, and so some people have to ask, well, what is Plato’s defense of poetry? And the defense of poetry that Elias calls “the weak defense” is simply to say that poetry is useful merely to edify. It’s a way of communicating ideas that can be gathered up and formulated better in philosophical terms, but since not everybody is so swift as to be able to follow Plato’s philosophical arguments, we need some way of popularizing them, so somebody comes up with these fanciful, poetic myths to get this stuff across. And so, poetry is useful merely as a way of popularizing things that are known philosophically or knowable philosophically.

Now, Elias argues that there’s a stronger defense of poetry in Plato, and I totally agree with this thesis. His argument is this: Plato recognizes that reason fails in many ways. For instance, in various dialogues, knowledge of the idea of the good or the just or the various virtues, to somehow give a complete, exhaustive account of what justice is or courage or self-control is never going to happen. Philosophical dialectic is always going to be incomplete. It’s always going to break off at a certain point.

And, because Plato recognizes that as we ascend from the particular to more and more fine-grained accounts of universals, there is never going to be a point where we can just say, “OK, we finally got it now. We can stop.” There’s always going to be the necessity of poetry.

And what is poetry? Poetry uses the imagination to sort of leap ahead of the laborious and slow grinding of the dialectic, getting closer and closer and closer to the truth. It tries to leap over that, and through some kind of imaginative account grasp what philosophy is struggling towards in its very slow, plodding way. Philosophy is tortoise-like, whereas the imagination, like a hare, can take a single leap and get to the end it’s aiming at.

Plato is a strong defender of poetry, because he recognizes that philosophy is not adequate to its own tasks, and, therefore, it needs to be supplemented by something that can leap ahead of the careful unfolding of philosophical dialectic and simply make educated guesses or tell likely stories, hypothesize about the way things ultimately are.

Now, there’s another way in which philosophy is inadequate though, and that poetry has to come in and that’s, if you will, at the other end of the scale. You can talk about rising from particular things to universals, and this is how the Platonic dialogues work. You try to, say, articulate what justice is, the universal, and you start out with particular examples, often times, like giving things back that are owed, or you try to define piety in the Euthyphro.

Euthyphro begins not with a definition, but with an example of piety, and Socrates says, “I don’t want an example. I want a definition. I want something general.” And so, philosophy begins moving in this direction towards the universal.

But, according to Elias, there’s always a gap there, and since we can’t just settle with this gap, especially when we’re dealing with the most important issues, we have to try to leap over it and make some kind of speech about these universals that depends upon the use of the imagination, if you will, the poetic faculty, and this is why Plato’s dialogues so often end with myths, and these myths are poetic creations.

But there’s a gap at the other end, the lower end, of the scale, too, because for Plato you don’t really know particulars either. You only know universals, but you don’t get to the universals, and since you don’t get to the universals we need myths. But also, since we don’t really know particulars, yet we have to give an account of them, what do we do?

Well, we need the poetic here as well, in this sense: literature takes concepts that are all universals, and it paints pictures of things that are concrete. It takes general terms and invokes something very specific and concrete, and it invokes character.

This is why Plato writes dialogues. The myths are part of the dialogues, but the dialogue form as a whole is a very interesting thing. Why does it exist? Well, it exists because Plato is absolutely certain that the dimension of individual character matters. You can’t read any of these dialogues and get to what Plato’s talking about unless you recognize that everything he says is directed towards particular people, who are his interlocutors in the dialogues, and everything he says is accommodated to those people, and specifically to Socrates’ understanding of their character and the needs these people have for, if you will, spiritual growth.

Socrates thinks of himself as a leader of souls, as a psychagogue. The dialogues are psychagogical in the sense that the lead the souls of the particular people that Socrates is conversing with towards virtue. But he can only do that if he directs everything he says to the needs of the particular people around him. This dimension of particularity, though, cannot be captured in general terms, so we need to have it narrated to us. We need to have it portrayed, and this is why we have dialogues, because the dialogues use very subtle touches — a word here, a word there, a small gesture, slight variations of oaths, the way the person responds to Socrates, sometimes there are actions that are narrated — to give clues to the nature of the person’s character. By seeing the person’s character and getting a sense of it, then we can judge the meaning of what Socrates is saying.

So, the knowledge of individuality really has to be narrated in some sense, and this is what the dialogues are. They’re stories. The Greek word for narrative is myth, mythos, so the dialogues are myths, and they contain myths within them as well.

They are myths, because we have to have narratives to capture concrete individuality, and they contain myths, because we also need the poetic faculty to, in a sense, leap ahead of the orderly, slow, and never completed unfolding of rational argument in order to make statements about the most important things.

And what are the most important things? Well, the most important things have to do with, again, the soul and its care. So, most of Plato’s myths have to do with psychagogical issues.

He tells stories about the nature of the cosmos, which are very inconsistent. It defies reason to try to collate all of Plato’s different accounts of how the world fits together into a systematic philosophy. The neo-Platonists did a pretty good job of it by introducing all kinds of distinctions and saying, “This is really a metaphor for this,” and so forth. But really the myths are inconsistent as statements about fact. But they are quite consistent with the goal of leading the particular people in the dialogues that he’s speaking with towards some sort of perfection, some sort of virtue.

It is not accurate for me to say that for Plato the interest is only in the universal. It is accurate to say that philosophy as such is really only capable of dealing with universals and dealing with them only if it approaches them asymptotically, slowly getting closer and closer, never fully articulating them.

But the competence of philosophy as such is in the self-reflective, self-critical, careful, articulation of knowledge of universals. That’s what philosophy does. To get to knowledge of the self as a concrete individual, you have to deploy, as it were, the skills of the poets.

This is why literature is just absolutely necessary for a proper education, because it is the best way we have of understanding ourselves as concrete individuals, and it teaches us how to use general, abstract terms to evoke and understand concrete individuality.

So, it’s Plato the Artist, who, in a sense, deals with the individual. Plato the Philosopher can only move in the direction of the universal.

That, I think, is the truth about Plato. Clearly, he wouldn’t write dialogues if he didn’t think that individual character mattered, but the thing is that philosophically, just insofar as he is a philosopher, he can’t deal with it. This is why he recognizes the limitations of philosophy. Philosophy does have its limits, but by recognizing its limits philosophy can annex what it needs from poetry and go forward. Its appropriation of the poetic is very critical. It has to be subordinated to the philosophical goal, which is ultimately the practical goal of self-actualization which is a process that requires knowing yourself as a concrete individual. There’s no question about that.

Yet, at the same time, it’s surprising how much of our knowledge of ourselves as concrete individuals is aided and abetted by seeing ourselves in terms of larger universals.

A Note on Empire

Plato, and Aristotle later, were in some ways theorists of empire. The greatest theorist of empire at the time was not Aristotle, though, but another student of Plato, Xenophon, and Xenophon’s book, The Education of Cyrus, is a fictional work. It’s really the first novel ever written that we know of. It’s the first historical romance, if you will. It purports to be the story of the creation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus, but it’s almost entirely fictional. And what it is, it’s a kind of parable not of how the Persian Empire was created so much as how a world empire could be created on the basis of a Greek city-state, because the old Persia that Cyrus turned into the nucleus of an empire was portrayed as a completely Greek or Hellenic style city-state. The process by which Cyrus creates this empire is narrated, and it’s quite exciting and interesting, but along the way absolutely profound lessons about the nature of political order are built into the text and really this was the blueprint for Alexander’s ambitions.

Xenophon, since the last century really, has not been very widely read or respected, but until the last century he was considered to be one of the wisest men who ever lived.

Amongst the moderns, Machiavelli was Xenophon’s greatest fan. Machiavelli refers to Xenophon more than any other ancient author.

Another great follower of Xenophon was Queen Elizabeth I. She read the Cyropaedia very carefully, and if you look at Xenophon’s account of the Persian Empire and the education of its rulers it’s basically a blueprint for the British aristocracy right down to the great estates with the parks around them, the absolute obsession with dogs, horses, and hunting. All of these things have very, very interesting practical, educational meanings though.

So, he actually gives a sort of theoretical rationale for what seems for most people to be the most Philistine lifestyle you could possibly imagine, the lifestyle of the British aristocracy, these country folk.

But one of the things that most amused me when I started reading about the Brits was that, you know, “country folk” here are very simple and poor whereas in England Country Living magazine is the magazine of the aristocracy, and the Queen thinks of herself as a simple country woman.