For reasons not entirely clear to me, my Loeb (1927) tells me that the Second Alcibiades is spurious while the first is not. The dialogue is about prayer, and the risks of being granted what you wish for, but the underlying assumptions being probed have more to do with desire. Socrates suggests to Alcibiades that if a god were to grant him power, but that power resulted in his death, then the prayer for power would result in harm rather than good; best (like the Spartans) simply to pray “that the gods will give them for their own benefit the beautiful as well as the good” (148c).
For Socrates this all has to do with knowledge, and specifically “knowledge of the best” — the possession of which alone allows one to pray safely. Desire without knowledge is dangerous. Knowledge — at least knowledge of “the best” — is what allows us to regulate our desires, to understand that things we think we want may end up being harmful.
It was interesting to read this right after the essay of Richard Seaford (currently at the top of the Obiter Lecta list) on the Greeks and money. Seaford claims that money differs from goods in being, theoretically, without limit. At a certain point, the argument goes, you have enough cows or tripods or slave women, but you never have enough money: when you have 6 talents you want 16, then 40. This unlimited nature is problematic for the Greeks, Seaford claims, and their philosophical tradition therefore values limit over the unlimited. Seaford quotes the Philebus in support of this, as well as Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics: “bad is of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans surmised, and good is of the limited”.
Seaford’s essay (like his 2004 book) is fascinating and thought-provoking. But I’m not sure I’m convinced that it’s the introduction of coinage that focuses the Greeks on the dangers of the limitless: desire (and other emotions, like anger) seems by nature to be infinite; this is why the Epicureans and Stoics tried so hard to learn to control it. The question raised by the Second Alcibiades is whether “knowledge of the best” is the way to do that. If I know that great power will put me in personal danger, will I stop desiring power? Perhaps. If I know that my child may be “utterly bad” or may be killed by disaster (142c), will I stop desiring children? What kind of a world will we end up in if everyone somehow gets this knowledge? This feels like a cost-benefit analysis gone wild!
The answer in the context of the dialogue is to avoid specific requests in prayer, and leave to the gods the question of what will be beneficial to us. But at the end, Alcibiades gives Socrates the garland he was going to offer to the gods; Plato (or whoever wrote the dialogue) clearly implies that Socrates possesses the knowledge of the best.