In Socrates and Alcibiades, Ariel Helfer provides a new interpretation of Plato's account of the relationship between Socrates and the infamous Athenian general Alcibiades, in the process revealing a complex Platonic teaching on the nature and corruptibility of political ambition. 2 illus.
In the classical world, political ambition posed an intractable problem. Ancient Greek democracies fostered in their most promising youths a tension-ridden combination of the desire for personal glory and deep-seated public-spiritedness in hopes of producing brilliant and capable statesmen. But as much as active civic engagement was considered among the highest goods by the Greek citizenry, the attempt to harness the love of glory to the good of the city inevitably produced notoriously ambitious figures whose zeal for political power and prestige was so great that it outstripped their intention to win honor through praiseworthy deeds. No figure better exemplifies the risks and rewards of ancient political ambition than Alcibiades, an intelligent, charming, and attractive statesman who grew up during the Golden Age of Athens and went on to become an infamous demagogue and traitor to the city during the Peloponnesian War.In Socrates and Alcibiades, Ariel Helfer gathers Plato's three major presentations of Alcibiades: the Alcibiades, the Second Alcibiades, and the Symposium. Counter to conventional interpretation, Helfer reads these texts as presenting a coherent narrative, spanning nearly two decades, of the relationship between Socrates and his most notorious pupil. Helfer argues that Plato does not simply deny the allegation that Alcibiades was corrupted by his Socratic education; rather, Plato's treatment of Alcibiades raises far-ranging questions about the nature and corruptibility of political ambition itself. How, Helfer asks, is the civic-spirited side of political ambition related to its self-serving dimensions? How can education be expected to strengthen or weaken the devotion toward one's fellow citizens? And what might Socratic philosophy reveal about the place of political aspiration in a spiritually and intellectually balanced life? Socrates and Alcibiades recovers a valuable classical lesson on the nature of civic engagement and illuminates our own complex political situation as heirs to liberal democracy's distrust of political ambition.
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