Alcibiades I (Major) is, I must admit, a tiny bit of a let-down after the Meno. While nobody seemed to doubt its authenticity in antiquity (Plutarch seems to have used it for a source on Alcibiades), modern scholars have disputed whether Plato wrote it; the 1927 Loeb I’m reading seems to think it’s authentic if early.
The dialogue is the first exchange between Socrates and Alcibiades. Socrates claims that his daimon has prevented him from addressing Alcibiades until now, but now that the young man is leaving the bloom of his youth (he must be 18-20, and thus too old to be an appropriate object of desire for older men) it’s evidently fine for the relationship to begin.
We see here that relationship develop which Alcibiades will describe so vividly in the Symposium. Socrates is able to persuade the young man that he mustn’t presume to advise the people of Athens on matters of justice or expediency until he has inquired into these subjects carefully himself; until he has taken care for his own soul.
Alcibiades can’t do this until he realizes his own ignorance, so much of the dialogue shows Socrates again behaving like the flat torpedo sea-fish we saw in the Meno. Alcibiades seems at first flustered, then genuinely dismayed to find that he doesn’t really know anything about how to make the polis better.
Two very different bits of the dialogue were most interesting to me. First, there is a long speech by Socrates about the education of the Spartan and Persian kings. Alcibiades has admitted that he doesn’t know very much, but has turned around and said it didn’t really matter, because nobody else in Athens really does either (“seeing that these men have gone in for politics as amateurs, what need is there for me to practise and have the trouble of learning? For I am sure that my natural powers alone will give me an easy victory over them” 119c). In response, Socrates says he should look not to Athenians, but to prominent foreigners as his real competition, and elaborates quite extensively on the brilliant education of Spartan and Persian royalty.
What’s remarkable about the passage is that of course the historical Alcibiades ended up spending quite a bit of time at both the Spartan and the Persian courts, charming everyone there just as he did in Athens. Plutarch tells us that the wife of the Spartan king fell madly in love with him and bore his child. So there is a special charge to Socrates’ question: “have you not observed how great are the advantages of the Spartan kings, and how their wives are kept under statutory ward of the ephors, in order that every possible precaution may be taken against the king being born of any by the Heracleidae?” 121c. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
The other quite lovely bit is towards the end, when Socrates has led Alcibiades to determine that what he must do is start with the Delphic admonition to “know thyself” — and that what this means is to know your own soul. But, Socrates claims, if the oracle commanded that one should “see oneself” then the eye would best do that by looking into the pupil of another eye, where it could see seeing, as it were, as well as see itself reflected. Just so, a soul can only know itself by regarding the knowing capacity of another soul. This is the erotic aspect of education Socrates lays out in the Symposium, but it’s quite an arresting image, and lovely to think about; that the soul can only know itself by attending to another soul, which is regarding it in turn. Only through mutual attention, then, can two souls know each other and thus themselves. A charming sentiment for the eve of my 20th wedding anniversary, even if Plato never had marital love in mind!