Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

Last May Cheri, a charming blogger from California, went to Greece for a seminar on Alcibiades. I hence posted on her blog a few hasty notes on this key figure of Greek history, in case they were of any help.

Here is the text (edited a bit.)

Tragedy of Unreason

Alcibiades to me is the golden dude of classical Greece, loved (and hated) by the Athenians immensely, a figure that shows both the splendour and the weaknesses of Athens in her golden time, the 5th century BCE. The Athenians, who were teaching the world to use reason efficiently, also knew they were capable of the utmost unreason, and were laughing at that while watching the comedies of Aristophanes.

This whole thing, the fall of Athens, smells in fact of tragedy, of irrationality. The facts are known if you have read Thucydides. It pains me that one of the most brilliant pupils of Socrates, like the most perfumed flower in the most beautiful garden, proved poisonous. Alcibiades’ mentor had always tried to bring to measure and to purity of reason a totally unprincipled, self-centred and often ‘going off the rails’ pupil.

Bust of so-called Alcibiades. Rome, Musei Capitolini

In this the Greeks remind me of the Germans a bit. Both incredibly deep and terribly rational and irrational at the same time. And in fact Nietzsche figured Greek irrationality out not by chance, and, again not by chance in the years of the fall of Athens the Bacchae by Euripides were on stage.

Alcibiades was beautiful and gifted in everything – even as an athlete in Olympia – but, when he once met a teacher on the street and asked him if he had any works by Homer, and having the teacher said “No, I haven’t”, he punched him on the nose and knocked him down. This was Alcibiades. Charming and crazy.

Socrates tears Alcibiades from the embrace of sensual pleasure. Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829)

Dramatis Personae

There are many characters in this tragedy, the annihilation of classical Greece, where the extreme quarrelsomeness and disunity of the Greeks stands out, within and without their cities, even in moments of extreme danger. Among such characters are Sparta, Athens, Socrates, Nicias, Syracuse, Alcibiades, Sophocles, Euripides etc.

According to Thucydides and Plutarch, Alcibiades had conceived an unimaginable plan for defeating Sparta. By conquering Syracuse first, in Sicily, and Carthage, Libya and Greek South Italy afterwards, he intended to get back to Greece with the immense resources thus accumulated and crush the Spartans.

Syracuse was as powerful as Athens and possibly bigger, the biggest Greek city of the Mediterranean.

Ancient Greeks’ New World

It is to be noted that Greek South Italy – I’m certainly not saying this because I am Italian – was considered by mainland Greece as America has always been considered by Europeans: a myth, a land of promise, of unlimited resources. Greece was smaller and much less fertile. Therefore many Athenians, young and old, were day dreaming together with their golden boy, they were day dreaming about a marvellous and more prosperous future. A bit like Alexander who, one century later, will dream (and will set out) eastwards, instead of westwards, in order to conquer new lands.

Karen Tiegren performing as Cassandra in the Trojan Women directed by Brad Mays at the ARK Theatre Company in Los Angeles, 2003. Click for credits

Before the departure for Sicily, The Trojan Women by Euripides was first performed in 415 BCE. In this work the prophetess Cassandra (see Karen Tiegren above as Cassandra) condemns the Greeks for going to war against Troy. We perceive Euripides’ disgust vis-à-vis the Athenian hubris of the moment. Also Thucydides considers the Sicilian expedition as an act of arrogance and as an example of a folk, the Athenians, misguided by their emotions.

We have to consider that the sublime Parthenon that you people are now admiring was considered by many Athenians as an act of arrogance or hubris. Many much preferred the old temple of Athena at the Acropolis – see below –, a simpler and more sober shrine. Of course the Parthenon is fantastic but the mixed emotions of the Athenians during their greatest century are interesting.

Old Temple of Athena at the Acropolis of Athens. Click for credits and to enlarge

We know of the plague that hit Athens during the war. Thucydides considered it as a metaphor of the ruin that will destroy the wonderful culture created by Pericles and those around him.

This terrible Peloponnesian war and the changes it provoked are well expressed by the Oedipus the King by Sophocles, first performed in 429. A great king, optimist, intoxicated by his success and capable of solving riddles ends up a blind, desperate wretch who has too late understood the nature of the horrible forces he cannot control.

Nicias, one of Alcibiades’s rivals, was a general and owner of a big portion of the silver mines around Attica’s Mt. Laurium, a sort of lager and one of the chief sources of revenue for Athens.

Sparta Won but Left Nothing

Helmed Hoplite from Sparta
Helmed Hoplite from Sparta

Sparta disliked all that Athens represented. Sparta was the winner and Athens the loser. The Spartans were very admired in antiquity but have not left anything of value in my view (but we must recognize that they voted against the total erasure of Athens). Athens left us a wonderful culture and a model for future democracies; Sparta was instead a model for all future regimes based on racism and eugenics (such as the Nazi).

The Spartans were a minority of war lords brutally ruling a totally enslaved majority of Helots.

But they were rational and prudent. And had charm too. It is known they combed their long hair for quite a time before engaging in battle. When their enemies saw the Spartans combing, it was time for quaking.”

30 thoughts on “Over at Cheri’s. Alcibiades, the Golden Dude of Classical Greece

  1. I’m going to print this post out for future reflection and study.

    Did you notice that I never answered the question I asked in that blog post? Who was Alcibiades? I haven’t answered it because, in my inadequacy, after 5 days of discussion about the various readings we were assigned, I couldn’t quite synthesize it all and come to any definitive conclusion.

    I have a binder full of notes and could not write a single essay about Alcibiades. You’ve motivated me to think about the subject again.

    Also, in a synchronicity of sorts, my first reading assignment due on September 22 is Keegans “The Face of Battle, and Euripides “The Trojan Women”. We are studying war this quarter.

    I shall need your tutelage as this subject is not my forte in any way.

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    1. Gosh, that was quick Cheri! Future reflection and study? Don’t forget these were hasty notes from a dilettante. In any case, to console you (and myself,) I am convinced nobody really knows who Alcibiades really was – we don’t have enough information. I’ll be there in any case if you need whatever I can give you, which is no big deal. Ciao!

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  2. Very odd, actually, to reflect that the Spartans, so important in ancient Greece, left us nothing of cultural value.

    One thing they left us was the English word ‘laconic’: The people from Laconia, the area around Sparta, were (to the Athenians) countrybumpkins who didn’t say much and just grunted. Didn’t say much > “laconic”.

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    1. Ah ah, if the word ‘laconic’ was all they left behind their legacy was no big deal at all.

      As far as I remember the Spartans at first developed a rich culture but at a certain point they had like an involution and totally closed in themselves. Odd in fact.

      PS

      I liked the ‘countrybumpkin’ term. You guys teach me a lot of English, really!

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  3. In Alcibiades the Athenians have left us a type or “un-hero” of their world. I think he is important because the Athenians view him as a failed product of their culture.

    He was strong, smart, educated by the best of them all, well to do, brave, ambitious, full of passion and life. Alcibiades was also reckless, scheming, rash, over-reaching, so self destructive that he also destroyed those around him and cost Athens dearly on the battlefield. Alcibiades is an example of what could go wrong in a society as great as Athens.

    Who is Alcibiades? He is the Ugly American. He is the best of his culture turned rancid and bloated. He is a hero that didn’t turn out well. He could have been a true hero, but his vices, his untreated vices that is for he took lessons in learning but not treatment for his soul from Socrates, destroyed his potential and did much damage to others too.

    There is something to be said for a people who not only leave us with their heroes and their victories (Sparta and Athens both do this), but also give us an insight into the weaknesses of their culture. Athens does this in the person of Alcibiades.

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    1. I recommend Philip Slater’s by-now classic “The Glory of Hera” on this head. Slater (though he has his own axes to grind in this life) did a service in tracing the connections between the Greek family/culture in general, Athenians in particular, and the implosion of characters like Alcibiades: “it is even more characteristic of Greek history than of Greek tragedy that men and cities overreached themselves in moments of success and were destroyed.” He makes a persuasive case for a direct connection between the rigid gender roles in Athenian society, the effect on how sons were brought up, and the brittle egos that led to hubris and foolish risks.

      Slater is witty, hence forgivable for being opinionated (he called Plato “Athenian culture’s most atherosclerotic product”).

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    2. @Zeus

      Interesting analysis. Self destruction seems evident to me too here, and yes, his vices probably were among the causes of his failure.

      I believe ancient wisdom considered vices differently. At the base of many so-called vices are in fact those pleasant things which make life worth living. Why then are they self-destructive (which I believe they are)?

      To many ancients (though not to all of them) it was only a question of lack of measure (which to them was often connected to arrogance). They loved life before death, not after death, and were not inclined to reject its pleasures.

      So being wise resided in the correct measure in which we enjoy life, which implies moderation and non addiction.

      As someone wrote “a right measure prevents the genesis of vice, which incidentally is nothing but a measure not correct – i.e. excessive – which has become a habit.”

      Just trying to understand the past. Other ancient views (Stoics, mysteries) were though different and more similar to Christian views.

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      1. Epicurus is a good one to look at for this too. Epicurus preached not only for the pleasures, but the moderate, measured, correct balance and use of the pleasures. Regardless of an afterlife, there was a right way to live and a right way to act. Alcibiades did not act rightly (and disaster followed), because his did not live rightly and the the consequences of that wrong living are the story of Alcibiades.

        Many would also take from this story the need of citizens to live and act correctly and to live correctly to act correctly and that thus the State should have quite a say in one’s personal life — Plato certainly thinks so. Another day:)

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    3. @Sledpress

      I checked at Amazon, Sled. The perspective of Philip Slater’s study, the 5th century Athenian family, with the education of the children by undervalued mothers within a competitive male society, seems very interesting and could in fact explain some of the Athenians’ oddness.

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      1. Xenophon’s “Economics” gives us an insight into what a “well managed” estate, including the role of wife and women in general was thought and so too the role of the men.

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  4. Zeus, thank you! Alcibiades as the anti-hero, interesting. Although, for some odd reason, I came away from my seminar liking/feeling sorry for Alcibiades. And Sledpress, Slater’s book sounds very good; I’ll put it on my list for next summer (when I will once again have time for recreational reading). Thanks.

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    1. You should feel sorry for him. The Alcibiades handed down to us was a failed hero. He “could have been a contender!” The whole thing is that he took the pleasures in excess, as ends in themselves, and the risks he took with Athens’ power were not careful and measured for success, and he blew it for himself and others. He could have been something very different.

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      1. I do feel sorry for him, for Socrates and for Athens. I in fact spoke of ‘tragedy’. I agree on the pleasure thing.

        The theme is though very complex and my notes over at Cheri’s were hasty. I might shift now a bit, but, we are somewhat fascinated by Socrates because of Plato’s success in later western philosophy. Socrates was condemned for impiety and for corrupting the youth. Among the youths ‘corrupted’ by Socrates were Alcibiades but also Critias, one of the thirty tyrants, a sort of blood-thirsty, ancient Robespierre. Why Aristophanes mocks a group of pro-Sparta aristocratic youths as “socratified” ?

        I am not defending Alcibiades, but Socrates may shoulder a bit of responsibility for his ‘going off the rails’ in some way. A much debated theme among historians. Socrates (and later Plato) was anti-democratic, anti-Pericles, he didn’t believe that the people were capable of self-govern. Which possibly partly explains why Alcibiades – who favoured Athenian anti-democratic forces – went to Sparta, anti-democratic par excellence, and offered his services to defeat democratic Athens.

        This *article on Socrates’ trial* sheds some light on Alcibiades too and on 5th century Athens.

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    2. @ Cheri, don’t be put off by some fairly dated psychoanalytic Freudianism in the opening chapters. Slater was writing the year before Woodstock, forsooth, but once you factor for some mirth-inducing theories that were then received about, say, homosexuality in general, he puts forth terrific insights about the familial transmission of narcissism and the revealing archetypes of a culture. Along the way he is very funny about another subculture, that of modern academics 🙂

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      1. Wow. Just getting back to this comment thread. I do apologize everyone, but I am over committed this year. After January, things will slow down.

        Intriguing, Sled.

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  5. Irrationality was integral to Greek culture as Nietzsche knew and the scholar Dodds wrote about. It seems to me our framing of his life (A) is at the level of intellectual fantasy, i.e., what the few whose writings survived thought about him. Sort of like trying to fathom Paris Hilton in 1000 years if all you had was some commentary from the New York Review of Books.

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    1. It seems to me our framing of his life (A) is at the level of intellectual fantasy…sort of like trying to fathom Paris Hilton in 1000 years

      Yes, well said. Nonetheless, historians cannot but try to further understand A’s deeds, personality, motives, connected as they were to so many important events and characters – the death of Socrates, for example, or characters like Pericles and perhaps mysterious Aspasia too.

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      1. @sledpress:

        Because intellectuals sometimes take it upon themselves to comment on pop culture. I’m sure you could find a few references to PH there if you search. It was just an analogy anyway.

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  6. Hey Man (of Rome),

    I was watching a message on Youtube by this Christian Apologetic. His name is Ravi Zacharias and he was talking about The Existence Of God. I would love to hear your thoughts about this subject.

    D

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    1. Hi Mortadello.

      The topic is very big and cannot be discussed here. Technically I am called an agnostic, one who ‘doesn’t know’. I have explained a bit what I feel *here* (you can search for the term agnostic in that page to get quicker to the point).

      *Here* you also find some texts and discussions. It is the result of the query ‘agnostic’ in my blog.

      Ciao D

      G

      PS
      Recently I got closer to some religion, in my unorthodox way, it goes without saying 🙂

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  7. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol. I, is very good on the anti-democratic elements of Plato and his circle. It is a good antidote to the 2000 year long love-fest for Plato.

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  8. sorry I haven’t had time to read you. Working against the clock… Thxs for your congrats… over at Cheri’s. Once I’m through with the editing labor, which to me seems eternal… will send the 270 pages to the editor… And from there on only God knows… ask Andrea. But I’m happy… and sad at the same time, I’d been on that train for 20 months… Abrazos señor romano

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    1. Cara lady messicana, non ti preoccupare. Capisco il lavoro, l’impegno. Yes, I know from Andreas how complicated it is. Only, when you have more time, maybe at Cheri’s, pls tell us a bit more about your book. Ok?

      Abrazos señora mexicana.

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  9. It is a story based on true facts but… for obvious reasons (some people are still alive) turned into fiction. A girl first conceived as an idea in his father mind, then artificially conceived back in the 60’s (when those procedures were not very conceivable) and guided all her life by him… towards beauty. To give you a glimpse: he was 5.4, the mother 5.2 and she is 5.9, a top model back in the 80’s (when she attended a writing workshop of mine), nowadays an actress, producer and film director. An unbelievable and deeply painful ‘construction’ of a human being. Want to know how I call her in the novel? Crista (a name related to her real name). There you are, hombreromano. Abrazos

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    1. Mi sembra una trama molto affascinante, che dà spazio agli approfondimenti psicologici. I well understand what to ‘construct’ a son or a daughter can mean and how painful it can be. I’ve seen examples among the people I know.

      You seem to live in a milieu of artists. Your own family is full of artists. So you’ll have no difficulty in reconstructing gli ambienti Ana.
      Un abbraccio forte.

      Non passi in Italia dalla Spagna?

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  10. Hope you have not seen an example like this. Yes, I do live surrounded by artists, which makes it even more difficult. Up to now I’ve had 2 readers all along the process, a French novelist-journalist and a Spanish psychologist, they both seem to like it a lot and have been very encouraging. All my life had only written short stories, essays and that kind of stuff, this is my first novel although there’s been one hiding for years in a drawer… Italy not this time, maybe next year. Gracias por tus palabras. Abrazo de vuelta.

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  11. Ana,
    Your story sounds most intriguing. I adore the thought of a woman being guided, mystically in some ways, toward beauty. Beauty. A word filled with all sorts of connotations. Maybe one of the most misunderstood words in the English language.

    Beauty.

    I look forward to following the life of your book.

    Like

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