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§ v. Alcibiades and his Speech.

Alcibiades was about 34 years old at this time (416 B.C.), and at the height of his reputation1. The most brilliant party-leader in Athens, he was a man of great intellectual ability and of remarkable personal beauty, of which he was not a little vain. It was, ostensibly at least, because of his beauty that Socrates posed as his “erastes”; while Alcibiades, on his side, attempted to inflame the supposed passion of Socrates and displayed jealousy whenever his “erastes” showed a tendency to woo the favour of rival beauties such as Agathon. Other indications of Alcibiades' character and position which are given in the dialogue show him to us as a man of wealth, an important and popular figure in the smart society of his day, full of ambition for social and political distinction, and not a little influenced, even against his better judgment, by the force of public opinion and the on dit of his set. With extraordinary naïveté and frankness he exposes his own moral infirmity, and proves how applicable to his case is the confession of the Latin poet, “video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor.” He is guiltless, as he says, of pudency, nor would ever have known the meaning of the word “shame” (αἰσχύνη) had it not been for Socrates.

Yet, totally lacking in virtue though he be, the Alcibiades of the Symposium is a delightful, even an attractive and lovable person. Although actually a very son of Belial, we feel that potentially he is little short of a hero and a saint. And that because he possesses the capacity for both understanding and loving Socrates; and to love Socrates is to love the Ideal. Nominally it is Socrates who is the lover of Alcibiades, but as the story developes we see that the converse is more near the truth: Alcibiades is possessed with a consuming passion, an intense and persistent infatuation for Socrates. And in the virtue of this “eros” we find something that more than outweighs his many vices: it acts as the charity that “covers a multitude of sins.”

The speech of Alcibiades, in spite of its resemblance in tone to a satyric drama composed under the influence of the Wine-god, fulfils a serious purpose—the purpose of vindicating the memory of Socrates from slanderous aspersions and setting in the right light his relations with Alcibiades2. And as a means to this end, the general theme of the dialogue, Eros, is cleverly taken up and employed, as will be shown in a later section.3.

In regard to style and diction the following points may be noticed. In the disposition and arrangement there is a certain amount of confusion and incoherence. Alcibiades starts with a double parable, but fails—as he confesses—to work out his comparisons with full precision and with logical exactitude. This failure is only in keeping with his rôle as a devotee of Dionysus.

Frequency of similes: 216 A ὥσπερ ἀπὸ τῶν Σειρήνων: 217 A τὸ τοῦ δηχθέντος...πάθος: 218 B κεκοινωνήκατε...βακχείας.

Elliptical expressions: 215 A, C; 216 B, D, E; 220 C, D; 221 D; 222 B.

Anacolutha: 217 E; 218 A.

1 “The character of Alcibiades, who is the same strange contrast of great powers and great vices which meets us in history, is drawn to the life” (Jowett, Plato I. p. 526).

2 See Introd. § ii. (A) ad fin.; and Gomperz, G. T. II. pp. 394 ff.

3 See Introd. § vi. 3, where some details of the way in which Alcib. echoes the language of the earlier speakers will be found.

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  • Cross-references from this page (5):
    • Plato, Symposium, 216b
    • Plato, Symposium, 218a
    • Plato, Symposium, 220c
    • Plato, Symposium, 221d
    • Plato, Symposium, 222b
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