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Socrates and Alcibiades: Four Texts (Focus Philosophical Library)

by David Johnson

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Philosophy, the Philosophers, and their Lovers, December 14, 2006

The main reason I first bought this book (and in this I assume that I am similar to many others) was that my large volume of Platonic Dialogues (in my case 'Collected Dialogues of Plato', E. Hamilton, & H. Cairns, editors) did not have either Alcibiades I or II included. Why weren't they included? -Not a word there. But here we learn that most,

"contemporary scholars doubt that Plato wrote the Alcibiades I, but on insufficient grounds. In antiquity, no one doubted the authenticity of the Alcibiades I (though many other works were doubted, including the Alcibiades II). The work was widely read, admired, and quoted as Plato's, and some went so far as to make it the first work of Plato on their students' reading lists. The doubts originated, it would seem, with Schleiermacher's condemnation of the dialogue in 1836. Schleiermacher's criticisms, and those of many others, are mainly matters of taste, too often based on superficial readings of the dialogues (all too many have failed to see that Socrates' central speech is highly ironic, for example). The dialogue is attacked for being insufficiently Platonic, too Platonic(i.e., too much like an introduction to Plato), or, somehow, both of these. More technical arguments based on the language of the dialogues have been made, but are no more convincing. The most prevalent argument these days is that it is hard to fit the Alcibiades I, which seems to combine early Platonic style with ideas current later in Plato's career, into our conception of Plato's development. But we know too little about Plato's development for such arguments to be conclusive; even the order of the publication of his dialogues, except for a few broad trends, is uncertain..." (David M. Johnson, Introduction, Note 7, page xiv.)

So, you see, the exclusion of Alcibiades I from the Platonic Corpus boils down, in the end, to contemporary taste. The arguments 'insufficiently Platonic' and 'too Platonic' render each other ridiculous while the argument from 'style' fails to take into account that Plato may have imitated the style of the early (or Socratic) dialogues for pedagogic purposes. The modern exclusion of this Dialogue is idiotic, as is (btw) the modern use of so-called 'stylometrics' to date the chronology of the dialogues. Plato, who with Homer is the greatest Greek writer, could have easily mixed styles for either (or both) philosophical or pedagogical purposes; - but how could stylometrics always tell the difference between an early style and an early style purposefully and skillfully imitated by the mature Plato?

Now, note that many of the ancients started their study of philosophy with Alcibiades I - it's theme of self-control was used to weed out those for whom philosophy would be dangerous. I mean they (the weeded students) would be either dangerous to themselves or dangerous to others if they continued with philosophy. A very great pity that in our 'enlightened' times we have no way (or mechanism) to do that. Welcome to an ever-widening hell...

But modernity is not the subject of this review. The three Platonic explications, and demonstrations (these are, after all, plays), included here of the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades are all very interesting. Alcibiades' life was as eventful as any Athenian; loved, respected, hated and feared by various polities (Athenians, Persians, Spartans) at various times he is the great example of what can happen if a supremely talented young man fails to be brought over to philosophy. Thus Alcibiades I is the dialogue of ambition -and who was more ambitious than Alcibiades?- an ambition that Socrates, perhaps surprisingly, does not try to squelch but rather redirect - towards philosophy. This is something, though not explicitly stated in the text, that Plato expects us to see (keep in mind that these dialogues appear after the life of Alcibiades is well-known): supremely talented young people that are not successfully turned to philosophy are in danger of turning into monsters.

Now, how does one control monsters? Alcibiades II is a meditation (among other things) on how to pray! Well, what exactly should we pray for? Socrates tells Alcibiades to avoid praying for specific things because without Knowledge we may well mistakenly pray for an evil; rather we should only pray for 'good things' - thus leaving ourselves entirely in the care of the god. A very great moderation indeed! Socrates advises Alcibiades not to pray until he learns (from Socrates, of course) what is worth praying for. (Are we to be left in the care of the god or of philosophy?) But does knowledge, I mean philosophical Knowledge, make bad men (i.e., those that lack self-control) good - or does it make them more dangerous?

Now, the Symposium ends with an already drunken Alcibiades crashing the party. During the Symposium various participants (most notably Agathon, Aristophanes and Socrates) gave speeches praising Eros. It is not merely a curiosity, I think, that wine and women (i.e., 'flute-players') had been excluded from a Symposium that is to be dedicated to speeches about Eros. So Alcibiades gives a speech too. While the others had praised Eros - we now learn that Alcibiades loved Socrates. Was Alcibiades the only one present who actually loved someone? This Symposium takes place, btw, during the time of the Peloponnesian War. The occasion the 'Symposium' is celebrating is the victory of Agathon in a contest of Tragedians. It has been argued that the clues that are woven into this dialogue -note that here Johnson only includes Alcibiades' speech from the 'Symposium'- suggest that it occurred on the night that Alcibiades was supposedly committing an outrage (the statues of Hermes were defaced) against the gods of Athens. Perhaps this is Plato's defense of Alcibiades? - He was too drunk to have done anything! Regarding his love for Socrates we read,

"Now, gentlemen, if I weren't in danger of seeming absolutely drunk, I'd tell you, and swear to it, what his words have done to me and still do now. Whenever I hear them, my heart leaps far more than those of the corybants, and tears pour from me, thanks to his words, and I see the same thing happening to very many others." (p 81, Symposium, 215e)

Perhaps the ego-maniacal Alcibiades didn't only love himself? There is, of course, much more to be said about Alcibiades and the Symposium -Plato is so delightfully enigmatic!- but I would direct those interested to the commentaries of Benardete, Rosen and Strauss. For beginning students I will say that besides Plato one should also want to consult what both Thucydides and Plutarch have to say about our Alcibiades. On Socrates one should of course consult Xenophon's Memorabilia which also has some mention of Alcibiades. The present volume has very readable translations with some good notes but they deserved a far longer, especially for Alcibiades I and II, Introduction and perhaps even a Commentary. (Also included in this volume are some fragments of Aeschines on Alcibiades.) Four and a half stars - five if an adequate (i.e., longer) Introduction and (hopefully a) Commentary are included in a new edition. The relation between philosophy, philosophers and those that love them deserves a fuller discussion. ( )
  pomonomo2003 | Dec 15, 2006 |
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