Socrates and Alcibiades: Plato's Drama of Political Ambition and Philosophy

Socrates and Alcibiades: Plato's Drama of Political Ambition and Philosophy

Socrates and Alcibiades: Plato's Drama of Political Ambition and Philosophy

Socrates and Alcibiades: Plato's Drama of Political Ambition and Philosophy


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.


Why Study Political Ambition

The most interesting reasons for studying political ambition have become the hardest to see. “Ambition” nowadays tends to signify a zealous, even ruthless desire for gain or advancement, and is therefore often distrusted in the political arena. the purpose of government in the best case, after all, is not to enrich or empower the politicians who administer it, but prudently and justly to provide what is necessary for people to live out a harmonious and fulfilling coexistence. Ambition is to be tolerated in the private sphere, if at all, and “political ambition” often connotes something akin to political corruption: a willingness to misuse political power and public trust for selfish ends. We might study this sort of political ambition in order to understand better how it can be muted, or perhaps controlled, channeled, and molded into something politically constructive. Moreover, we might study it with a view to protecting the legacy of vigilance against tyranny and oppression that we inherit as citizens of liberal democracy. Such studies of political ambition would be worthwhile. They could not, however, be as philosophically far-reaching as a study that begins with the fuller and more complex, albeit less familiar, understanding of political ambition.

Indeed, if the above description appears caricaturish, it is because we sense that political ambition can also be something noble and good. We may think, for example, of those who pursue careers in politics in order to do good in their communities and in the world, to improve the lot of their fellow citizens, to be champions of justice, democracy, and freedom of thought. Someone who exhibits this type of political ambition will see in politics not a set of mundane administrative tasks but the stage upon which humanity’s most admirable goals are pursued and achieved. We are thus led to distinguish between two different phenomena, each bearing the name of political . . .

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