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Gender Theory in Plato (The Symposium)

I agonized over which aspect of Plato’s Symposium to write about in this post, since this dialog contains so much material, and so many “hooks” for a blogging. The overall theme is “Love” (Eros), the conceit being that several of the leading intellectuals of Athens are at a dinner party and have decided to entertain themselves by each giving a short speech about love. This allows Plato to write in several different voices and introduce different–and sometimes conflicting–views before Socrates, the last to speak, lays down the “official” Platonic platform: while it is fine and natural for common people to love other people and seek creative fulfillment through reproduction, the truly elevated philosopher loves Wisdom above all earthly attachments and is only fulfilled when philosophizing and creating knowledge.

Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant—for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor.

Just as Socrates finishes a drunken (or at least drunk acting) Alcibiades crashes the party and tells how his many attempts to seduce Socrates have failed. This serves to underscore Socrates’ point; Alcibiades is the iconic sex symbol of his time–at the peak of his physical beauty and as yet untouched by the political problems which will plague his later life. To the Greek mind it is extraordinary that anyone, male or female, would be impervious to his charms.

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

As is happens, though, I have already devoted whole posts to Alcibiades, while Socrates and his pursuit of Wisdom are the theme of the past few weeks. The section I would rather focus on now is Aristophanes‘ speech. While undoubtedly written by Plato, it is completely Aristophanic, capturing both the playwright’s intellectual brand of humor and his penchant for wild flights of mythopoetic fantasy. Humanity, says Aristophanes, was not always as it is now,

The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

However, these four-legged, rolling humans were too powerful, and soon challenged the gods themselves. Zeus, after considering how to punish them, decides to split them in half,

‘[A]nd then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’

Unfortunately, mankind longs so much for their sundered halves that,

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,—being the sections of entire men or women,—and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature.

This story then, besides being an artful Aristophanic pastiche, is also another one of the beautiful myths which Plato inserts into so many of his dialogs where they server besides the elenchus as a different and complementary, yet never inferior, vehicle for the exposition of his philosophy. It is important to remember that Plato never expects the reader to take these myths literally. Rather, they constitute a developing symbolic shorthand with which to manipulate constructs in conjunction with his theory of ideas.

This particular myth is important because it offers an explicit recognition of a concept of gender which is distinct both from reproductive sex and sexual orientation, a concept which Western thought has only recently rediscovered. Plato, at least in a limited sense, is the father of gender theory. Add the context of his argument for equality of women in The Republic, and he appears very modern indeed.

So if Plato was so far ahead of his time in the area we now call Gender Studies or Philosophy of Gender, why did so many centuries pass before the next big break-through? medieval Christianity, with its emphasis on asexuality as a gender ideal, clearly played a role. The gender dialog had gone silent long before Christianity became the dominant religion, however. It was in the bourgeoisie and aristocratic society of late pagan Rome, where nearly any sexuality was acceptable as long as it happened discretely and did not result in a scandal, that it became unacceptable to talk about gender. Upper caste Romans could (and did) do and be almost anything they wanted sexually, especially if the passive partner was a slave or other non-citizen. But it was in incredibly bad taste to talk about it. The whole society functioned on don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. By the time Christianity took over, with its overall distrust of sexuality in general, combined with biases inherited from ancient Judaism, which acknowledged only two genders corresponding to the two most common reproductive sexes, Plato’s ideas on the subject had already been tabled for a very long time.


Plato’s Gorgias

The Gorgias is probably among the last dialogs of Plato’s early period. In it we see him experimenting with the longer format, using multiple interlocutors, which he will later use to great effect in his magnum opus, The Republic. In it also, we get the sense that Plato is coming up against the limitations of the Socratic elenchus (question and answer technique) as a way of teaching philosophy; two of the three interlocutors remain unconvinced and refuse to change their position after Socrates questions them.
The second of these, Callicles, becomes openly hostile and refuses to continue, forcing Socrates to finish up in the sort of monologue argument which he hates. The fundamental weakness of the Socratic method, as any of us who have used it in the classroom know, is that it requires full participation from both sides (which is why I used to give my students a participation point every time they asked or answered a question in discussion section).

Gorgias was a prominent teacher of oratory (public speaking) from Sicily. The dialog opens with Socrates and his side-kick Chaerophon (whom we met in Clouds and heard mentioned in The Apology) waiting to meet Gorgias as he leaves a dinner party. They have heard that he is in town, and want to question him regarding Socrates’ current inquiry: what is the nature of oratory, and is it one of the true arts? When Gorgias comes out he is accompanied by Polus, a younger and less famous teacher of rhetoric, and Callicles, a budding Athenian politician who is hosting Gorgias while he is in town.

The School of Athens.  Rafael.  [public domain via Wikimedia]

The School of Athens. Rafael. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Gorgias good-naturedly agrees to answer Socrates’ questions, and Socrates soon proves to his own satisfaction that oratory, far from being the highest art, as Gorgias believes, is a spurious art–more of a knack, really. It relates to the true art of politics the same way that cooking relates to medicine and cosmology relates to physical training: it panders people’s enjoyment but isn’t actually good for them on any deep level.

At this point Polus wades into the discussion to defend his profession. His argument is that oratory is a good because those who become skilled in it can obtain great power and take advantage of those who are less skilled in court and the assembly. Socrates then launches a series of questions intended to school Polus on the difference between ends and means. Means cannot be good in themselves, but ends can. Next, Socrates introduces one of the most radical concepts in Platonic philosophy: it is better to suffer an injustice than to do one. Thus a man who uses oratory to become a tyrant and take unfair advantage of others is harming himself worst of all. Polus is clearly unconvinced by these assertions, but just as clearly out of his depth trading words with Socrates.

Callicles, who has been quiet so far, can restrain himself no longer. Socrates, he says, has been using logical tricks to take advantage of Gorgias and Polus, and they are too noble to call him on it. Socrates’ position is ridiculous because the natural law of the world is for stronger and “better” men to take from their inferiors. I was reminded of the line from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeny Todd,

In all of the whole human race Mrs Lovett
There are two kinds of men and only two,
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face.
Look at me Mrs. Lovett look at you.

Socrates, of course, is able to refute Callicles’ position in short order, and Callicles responds by shifting his position and even resorting to personal insults. Unable to hold his ground and unwilling to admit that he is wrong, he tries to end the conversation. Gorgias, however, who is now enjoying himself, urges him to continue. For the rest of the dialog he answers sullenly and agrees with Socrates only to get the discussion over with faster. Eventually he becomes so unresponsive that Socrates is forced basically to lecture. Meanwhile Socrates has broadened the topic to how a man should live virtuously to achieve the good live (i.e. eudaimonia). A great leader, according to Socrates, would live his life with order and self control. He would speak to the people in order to educate them and improve them in virtue, not merely to talk them into things and pander to them. Even famous men like Pericles and Cimon, while adequate as civil servants, were not great leaders because they used oratory and didn’t actually improve the people in their charge. At this point, the dialog has cycled back to Socrates’ initial conclusion that oratory is not more than a pseudo-art used to pander to the masses.

At the conclusion of the dialog, Socrates offers one of the myths which appear in several of Plato’s dialogues. This particular one deals with the judgement that awaits people in the afterlife. Those who behave unjustly will damage their souls in ways that will be obvious to the judges, who will consign them to punishment in Tarterus. This myth serves as additional support against Callicles’ position, possibly more appealing to a man like Callicles, who is apparently immune to reason.

The Gorgias treats with several concepts which are worthy of further consideration. For instance, the doctrine of avoiding revenge because doing injustice harms the doer became a cornerstone of Platonism, and later of Christianity. Almost as radical was the idea that punishment for injustice was good for the person punished, which has also enjoyed a long currency in Western Civilization, particularly in the Catholic Church. The main theme of the dialog, the distinction between legitimate education and oratory, is of particular interest in the modern world. While we have less opportunity to watch orators in person than classical Greeks, we are barraged all day with advertising and “news” using all the ‘ old techniques and appeals. As Socrates points out, while some of it may pander to us by giving temporary pleasure and telling us what we want to hear, none of it is good for our souls. None of it will bring us closer to eudaimonia in any way.

Plato: Introduction

The man we know as Plato was born Aristocles son of Ariston but adopted his old wrestling nickname as a nom de plume (Platon means “wide” in Greek). As a young man he considered a poetic career and seems to have written a tragic trilogy and several lyric poems. In his early twenties he discovered an interest in philosophy when his brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus became members of Socrates‘ circle. After Plato himself became a disciple of Socrates he burned his poems and resolved to be a full time philosopher. After Socrates’ execution Plato gradually extended his teacher’s philosophy to create his own school. Platonism was probably the most important school of thought in the ancient and medieval periods, heavily influencing both pagan and Christian writers. Even today, some writers consider Platonism “the secret religion of the majority of intellectuals”.

Display of books by Plato

Plato was a prolific writer. Today we have 37 of his dialogs (26 of which are believed to be authentic) and 13 letters, the authorship of which is hotly disputed. Will Durant once jokingly wrote that Plato wrote dialogs because he was a frustrated dramatist. In fact, Plato and his contemporaries believed that the only way to really learn philosophy was to discuss it with other philosophers. If this wasn’t possible, a dialog was the next best thing. It is important to remember that a philosophic dialog–much more so than a play–is meant to teach rather than to entertain. Because of this, it may contain sections that seem boring, repetitive, or different to understand. The dialog is meant to be parsed as a unity, however, and these passages are there intentionally, to make some point to the reader. Allan Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of the Republic, criticizes translators who abridge the boring sections of the dialogs or simplify the wording of difficult passages. According to him, any translation of Plato should be as literal as possible, even at the expense of readability (although, actually, Bloom’s translation is quite readable).

The Socratic Problem

Socrates didn’t leave any writings of his own, as far as we know, but he is a main character in all of Plato’s dialogs. The great unanswerable question in Platonic studies is where Socrates’ philosophy leaves off and where Plato’s begins. There are a couple avenues we can go down to gather clues: We can compare Plato’s earlier dialogs to his later work, on the assumption that he began by summarizing his master’s teaching and developed his own viewpoint as time went on. This approach relies on our ability to date the texts, which requires further assumptions and guesswork. We can also try comparing Plato’s portrayal of Socrates to the writings of others who knew him when he was alive, such as Xenophon and Aristophanes. Unfortunately, Xenophon was a mercenary soldier who dabbled in historical fiction and Aristophanes was a comic playwright. Their descriptions of Socrates are neither as complete nor as credible as Plato’s. Finally, we can read the opinions of writers who lived closer to the time of Plato and Socrates and might have had access to sources and oral traditions that are now lost. Of course, there is no guarantee that their educated guesses are any better than our own. Ultimately, the best answer we can produce to the Socratic problem will be little better than an opinion.


One subject that was apparently highly important to both Socrates and Plato was the cultivation of virtue and the question of whether or not it could be taught. Before we go on, though, lest we make the same mistake that Meno does in his eponymous dialog, we need to be sure we understand what virtue means. The word translated as “virtue” in most editions of Plato is actually the Greek arete. An equally valid translation would be “manly excellence”, which is not a common connotation of the modern English word virtue. Bloom puts it well when he writes,

It has been said that it is one of the great mysteries of Western thought “how a word which used to mean the manliness of men has come to mean the chastity of women.”

He goes on to imply that one can glean a summary of the entire history of political philosophy by comparing the changing usage of “virtue” in Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Rosseau.

Arete, according to the Greeks has five components: piety, justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom. One of the recurring themes in the dialogs is discussion of how these relate to each other and to virtue as a whole. As for the question of whether virtue can be taught–as opposed to being an innate quality with which some people are born–it seems that Socrates, the man who was wisest because he knew his own ignorance, was ultimately undecided. Plato’s answer, however, is based on his own theory of forms. Virtue, like every other idea, exists in an ideal form. Souls are exposed to the ideal forms of things before they become incarnate as humans. Thus teaching virtue is a process of leading the soul to remember the ideal which it has already encountered.

Reading Order

In general, I recommend reading all of the Great Books in the order in which they were written. For Plato, this order would be approximately:

Early Works Middle Works Late Works
Apology Cratylus Critias
Charmides Euthydemus Sophist
Crito Meno Statesman
Euthyphro Parmenides Timaeus
Gorgias Phaedo Philebus
Hippias Minor Phaedrus Laws
Hippias Major Republic
Ion Symposium
Laches Theaetetus

Another popular organizational scheme is to group the dialogs into thematic tetrologies, in which they are grouped into a 7×4 matrix; The rows are labeled: “What is man?”, “The Sophists”, “Socrates’ Trial”, “Speech and Knowledge”, “The Soul”, “Dialectic”, and “Man in the World”. The columns are labeled: “Cause”, “Desire and Nature”, “Will, Judgment, and Behavior”, and “Reason and Order”. The idea is to read the works in each row from left to right to explore a particular topic.

Another semi-thematic grouping is that used by The Penguin Group, which publishes some of the most popular translations. Penguin’s grouping has a lot to do with creating paperback volumes of a manageable length,

I will be mostly following the Penguin scheme for the simple reason that I mostly own the Penguin translations. I will be beginning with the dialogs in The Last Days of Socrates as I have found many forum posts which suggest it as a starting point for the study of Plato.

Great Books Project: End of Part I

I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock.  I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition.  Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact.  Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.

I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books.  Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.

Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section.  I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.

Great Books Authors Timeline: Ancient Greece (Click to Enlarge)

Great Books authors timeline: Ancient Greece (click to enlarge)

I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time.  Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.

I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world.  It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome (click to enlarge)

Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks.  Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time.  I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important.  I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.

From History to Speculative Fiction: How to Write a Peloponnesian War Story

In recent weeks I have been blogging about The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides as part of my ongoing Great Books project to improve my writing.  For non-fiction writing the value of the History is obvious; Not only is it one of our most important primary sources  about the ancient Mediterranean world, but Thucydides’ political and diplomatic analysis is also applicable to many other periods and his methods represent a watershed moment in the evolution of the discipline of history itself.  As writers, though, we should never read a history book without asking ourselves what we could take from it and how we could adapt it to create fiction.

History itself is a literary genre; the History and the Novel are first cousins.  In this post, however, I am writing mainly about adaptations of history into genre fiction.  The two modern genres that do this most obviously are historical fiction and alternate history, both of which, fall under the general umbrella of speculative fiction in the currently fashionable nomenclature.

The Peloponnesian War has fueled the creative flames of of many a speculative fiction author.  Not only is it a dynamic and interesting period, but it has the advantage that good primary sources exist, yet not so many of them that a writer can not read all of the important works over the course of a few weeks.  Two modern writers who have handled the period effectively are Rosemary Sutcliff and Harry Turtledove, both prolific writers and acknowledged masters of their respective genres.  Both chose to focus their narrative around the life and career of Alcibiades who, as I wrote last week, is an intriguing character for a number of reasons.

Sutcliff’s work, The Flowers of Adonis (1969), is a full-length adult historical novel which follows Alcibiades from the start of the Sicilian expedition to his death.  She draws material mainly from Thucydides, Xenophon’s Hellenica, and Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades.  Sutcliff’s most characteristic style, seen in most of her young adult novels, is to tell the story through the first person point of view of a single main character, usually a young person who is a minor participant in a historical event.  This technique works well in YA fiction because it makes it easier for readers to relate to the character and immerse themselves in the time and place.  In The Flowers of Adonis, however, Sutcliff abandons this style and tells the story through the first person viewpoints of numerous supporting characters, often switching characters several times in a chapter.  The one character whose point of view and inner thoughts we never see is Alcibiades.  This is an incredibly effective structure because it allows the reader to see how Alcibiades is perceived by his friends, lovers, enemies, and the common people in the city of Athens and the Athenian fleet, yet the reader must draw their own conclusions about the man’s thoughts and motivation.  By not showing any of Alcibiades’ internal dialogue, Sutcliff avoids conveying an over-familiarity which might undermine the “larger than life” aspect which is such an enduring part of the character’s mystique.


Turtledove’s work, The Daimon (2002), is an alternate history novella which was written for the anthology Worlds that Weren’t and has since appeared in other collections.  Like Sutcliff, he draws heavily from Thucydides and Plutarch.  He also introduces material from Aristophanes‘ plays and Plato‘s dialogues.  Like Sutcliff, he starts his story in Athens as Alcibiades and his forces are preparing to depart on their invasion of Sicily.  This is an alternate history, though.  The point of departure from actual history is when Socrates, despite being a bit too old for such adventures, decides to volunteer for the expedition.   This means that when the assembly sends a ship to recall Alcibiades to stand trial for blasphemy Socrates is on hand to advise him to ignore the summons and stay in the field.  Under Alcibiades’ leadership the Athenians win the Sicilian campaign instead of suffering the crushing defeat which was the turning point of the actual Peloponnesian War.  This allows Alcibiades to force a Spartan surrender and return home victorious to install himself as a tyrant, changing the entire course of world history.

The Daimon differs from The Flowers of Adonis in several important ways.  Being a novella, it covers a single plot arc, in contrast to The Flowers of Adonis which, like most novels, has several secondary plot lines.  Unlike Sutcliff, Turtledove uses a limited third person point of view which follows both major and minor characters.  Besides being typical of his own style, this makes it easy for him to insert narrative details of the historical period, and vivid details are the key to creating believable worlds in speculative fiction.  The most important difference, though, lies in the fundamental question that each story strives to answer.  You can’t have speculative fiction without speculating.  The Daimon, while it is certainly character driven, is primarily concerned with causation.  Did the defeat in Sicily cause Athens to loose the war?  Did Alcibiades’ absence cause the defeat?  Did the Athenian defeat shape later history?   The Flowers of Adonis, on the other hand, is effectively a 383 page character study of one person.  What did Alcibiades want?  What made him the way he was?  Why did he do the things he did?

Of course historical fiction does tend to be rather concerned with character, while exploration of causation could be considered the purpose of alternate history.  In this case, however, I think the difference flows just as much from the authors’ interests and their decision about the kind of story they wanted to tell.

These two works are only two examples, drawn from only two genres, of the sort of fiction an author can create from a historical event like the Peloponnesian War.  The ancient historical works we have about the period provide enough background for an infinite number of stories, told in an infinite number of ways.  Perhaps the next will be written by you or me.

Thucydides Book V: Enter Alcibiades

Thucydides’ fifth book marks an intermission in the Peloponnesian war.  Neither Athens nor Sparta has much to show for a decade of bloodshed and expense, and both are exhausted.  Brasidas and Cleon, “who had been the two principle opponents of peace on either side”, have both been killed in the battle of Amphipolis, clearing the way cooler heads to negotiate a peace treaty.  None of the root causes of the war have changed, but neither side is interested in recommencing hostilities on the mainland yet, even though abroad the “unstable armistice did not prevent either party doing the other the most effectual injury”. This time of comparative peace lasts nearly six years, but it is a tense time for all of Greece as alliances shift.  Argos, a powerful city which has remained neutral so far, begins lure away many of Sparta’s allies and is clearly preparing to make a move of her own.

Against this background, Thucydides introduces one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, characters in Greek history.  “Alcibiades, son of Clinias, a man yet young in years for any other Hellenic city,” is the new star of Athenian politics.  He maneuvers the Argives into siding with Athens and attacking Sparta, traveling to Argos to personally oversee raids.  Later in Book V, he is promoted, becoming the youngest of the Athenian generals.

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Even in his own lifetime, Alcibiades seemed larger than life and more than human.  He is gloriously handsome, athletically gifted, and indecently rich.  The scion of one of the most famous noble dynasties in Athens, he has been fostered by Pericles and educated by Sophocles.  Even his enemies admit that he is a brilliant diplomat and commander.  When we meet him in Book V, Alcibiades has already distinguished himself in the army and, now in his early thirties, has emerged as a leader in Athens’ pro war, pro democratic party, filling the vacuum left by Cleon’s death.  There are many who fear his growing influence, naked ambition, and questionable personal morality,

[A]lthough publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired, individually, his habits gave offence to every one, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.

His ostentatious lifestyle too is a cause for concern.  Amidst the austerity of war-time Athens, he is famous for his decadent parties, the splendor of his home and clothing, and for the unprecedented act of entering no less than seven chariot teams in the Olympics.   He rationalizes these expenses as being good for the city,

“The Hellenes, after expecting to see our city ruined by the war, concluded it to be even greater than it really is, by reason of the magnificence with which I represented it at the Olympic games, when I sent into the lists seven chariots, a number never before entered by any private person, and won the first prize, and was second and fourth, and took care to have everything else in a style worthy of my victory. Custom regards such displays as honourable, and they cannot be made without leaving behind them an impression of power. Again, any splendour that I may have exhibited at home in providing choruses or otherwise, is naturally envied by my fellow citizens, but in the eyes of foreigners has an air of strength as in the other instance. And this is no useless folly, when a man at his own private cost benefits not himself only, but his city: nor is it unfair that he who prides himself on his position should refuse to be upon an equality with the rest. “

Many are unconvinced.  For the moment, though, Alcibiades’ rise seems unstoppable.

We will be hearing of Alcibiades again, and often.  From this point on, he is one of the central personalities in both Thucydides’ history of the war and Xenophon’s sequel, The Hellenica.  He is also heavily featured in Plato’s dialogues, and Plutarch’s Lives and appears in the pages of Aristophanes, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and others, down to the modern day.

One of the things that makes Alcibiades so fascinating is how un-Greek he is.  The polis, or city state, was the basic unit of Greek society.  Plato, Aristotle, and others wrote at length about how no one could live a happy life outside the polis.  Individualism was always subordinated to the good of the state and a man without a polis was an alien everywhere.  Yet Alcibiades switches sides several times in the course of the war.  He is an individualist at a time when individualism was subordinated to the state, a humanist centuries before the humanist movement, and a Nietzschean superman centuries before Nietzsche was born.  Alcibiades served only Alcibiades.  He was one of those people who were so brilliant that they didn’t believe the rules applied to them.  In many ways he seems like he would have fit in better as a hero in the epics of Homer than as a politician in the histories of the classical period.

One of the most ingrained assumptions of the Greek society was that hubris was always punished.  Alcibiades’ refusal to follow the rules, whether it be by mocking the Gods or impregnating the King of Sparta’s wife often got him into trouble.  He spent a large portion of this life as a hated fugitive and died early and violently.  But he also experienced many moments of glory and triumph and his enduring fame, his kleos, is based as much on his ability as on his ethical failings.  Perhaps he would have seen that as an acceptable trade-off.

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée, c. 1781 [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]