Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Alcibiades on Socrates

When Alcibiades turns up, drunk as a skunk at Agathon's Symposium, he is startled to find himself lying next to Socrates. To Socrates annoyance, he starts making indiscreet comments about Socrates' qualities, physical, mental, and moral.

Socrates has a big head, he crows.  He's proud, because he'll grumble if he doesn't get a wreath as a man who "has never lost an argument in his life."  He has hollow legs, because he can drink all night and not get drunk.  He implies that Socrates talks rubbish ("the truth is just the opposite").

Socrates is like Silenus, i.e., ignorant, drunk, and lustful, but full of the images of the gods.  Or he is like Marsyas, also a satyr.  He's "impudent, contemptuous, and vile", a good "fluteplayer", that "possesses" people with words alone.  He's the only person that can make Alcibiades "feel shame".

Socrates is crazy about beautiful boys but not because they are beautiful.  He poses as an ironist, but inside he is godlike, "amazing".  Socrates is not really interested in carnal pleasures.  Alcibiades got alone with him and all he did was talk.  Then he got Socrates in bed with him and, in his "arrogance and pride," Socrates still wouldn't bite.

But now Alcibiades stops the clowning around and proceeds to admire Socrates' "courage and fortitude" with "strength of character and wisdom".  Money means nothing to him.  He's a hardy man, that "stood up to hunger" better than anyone in the Potidaea expedition.  He doesn't like to drink but when he does, nobody sees him get drunk.  And he's resistant to the cold.  He can focus on a problem, and he is brave, staying back to help and rescue the wounded Alcibiades and his armor, but was happy to have Alcibiades get the credit.  Even more brave was his coolness in retreat from Delium with Laches.

Socrates is unique; there is nobody like him.  You laugh at his arguments and "the same tired old words" but you come to realize that they are "worthy of a god, bursting with figures of virtue inside".  He's a deceiver, who "presents himself as your lover" but makes you fall in love with him.  Watch out, he tells Agathon.

At the end of the Symposium we see that Plato is a cunning fellow.  He knows that the best way to put across his idea of Love is not with the pedestrian mumblings of Eryximachus or the high-flown rhetoric of Agathon, or even Socrates hiding behind Diotima.  No, the best way is to bring riotous Alcibiades in and have him pretend to make a fool of Socrates, and in fact show that Socrates is the very incarnation of a man on the top rung of the ladder of love.  He is beyond loving one beautiful boy, or even several, or even learning beautiful things.  Look at him inside his armor of irony, and you see "just what it is to be beautiful."

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