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Socrates and Alcibiades: The Alcibiades Major

  • Robert R. Wellman (a1)


Since Schleiermacher there has been little agreement as to the authenticity of the Alcibiades Major. Taylor, for example, doubts that Plato wrote the dialogue because of its language, its colorless portrayal of Alcibiades, and the textbook character of its substantive elements, and an impressive list of scholars seem to agree, although perhaps for different reasons. While fewer individuals—especially Friedlander and Vink—accept the dialogue as genuine, they at least have the ancient weight of Olympiodorus, Proclus, and Plutarch behind them. Perhaps the most interesting view to be presented in recent years is that of Clark who, in a heroic effort at compromise, ascribes the first two thirds of the dialogue to a student of Plato and the final part to Plato himself. Presumably the bulk of the dialogue is ascribed to a non-Platonic source since the majority of commentators question its authenticity, but I find Clark's position unconvincing, especially when she suggests that it was Plato's “usual affection for his pupils and associates” that prompted him to finish the work when the student died.



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1. While the question of the authenticity of the Alcibiades Major is irrelevant to my present purpose, there is a wealth of references for anyone especially interested in the subject. Among those who reject the dialogue as coming from the pen of Plato are Bidez, J., Eos; ou, Platon et l'Orient (Bruxelles, 1945), chap. 13; Bluck, R. S., “The Origin of the Greater Alcibiades,” Classical Quarterly, n.s. iii (1953), 46-52; Burnet, J., Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates and Crito (Oxford, 1924), pp. 27-28 n.; Dodds, E. R., Gnomon, xxvii (1955), 164 (a review of Westerink's edition of Proclus' Commentary on the First Alcibiades); Dupreel, E., Les Sophistes: Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias (Neuchatel, 1949), pp. 151 ff., and La Legende Socratique et Les Sources de Platon (Bruxelles, 1922), pp. 172-81; Gauss, H., Philosophischer Handkommentar zu den Dialogen Platos (Bern, 1952-1961), i, 2, 205 ff.; Hoffman, E., Platon (Zurich, 1950), p. 125; G. Jachmann, Der Platontext, Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen (1941), p. 308 ff.; Kerschensteiner, J., Platon und der Orient (Stuttgart, 1945), p. 203 ff.; Koster, W. J. W., Le Mythe de Platon, de Zarathoustra et des Chaldeens (Leiden, 1951), p. 23 f.; Lutoslawski, W., The Origin and Growth of Plato's Logic (London, 1897), pp. 197-98; Raeder, H., Platons philosophische Entwickelung (Leipzig, 1905), pp. 24-25; Ross, David Sir, Plato's Theory of Ideas (Oxford, 1951), p. 3; Shorey, P., What Plato Said (Chicago, 1933), p. 415; de Strycker, E., “Platonica I: L'authenticité du Premier Alcibiades,” Etudes Classiques, xi (1942), 135-51; and Taylor, A. E., Plato, the Man and his Works (London, 1960), pp. 13 and 522. The two most staunch adherents to the authenticity of the dialogue are Friedlander, P., Der Grosse Alcibiades; ein weg zu Plato (Bonn, 1921 and 1923) and Plato II (New York, 1964), and Vink, C., Plato's “Eerste Alcibiades,” een onderzoek naar zijn authenticiteit (Amsterdam, 1939), although authenticity is also maintained by Festugiere, A., Contemplation et vie contemplative selon Platon (Paris, 1935), pp. 67-68 and “Grecs et sage orientaux,” Revue de l'Histoire des Religions, csss (1945), p. 29 ff.; Grote, G., Plato and the other companions of Socrates (London, 1865), pp. 353-55; Grube, G. M. A., Plato's Thought (London, 1935), p. 8; Stallbaum, G., Platonis opera omnia (Berlin, 1826), v, 1, 295 ff.; and Stefanini, L., Platone (Padua, 1932), i, 78 ff. (1st ed.). Also see Clark, P. M., “The Greater Alcibiades,” Classical Quarterly, n.s. v (1955). 231-40, and Delcominette, E., Sur l'authenticité du “Premier Alcibiadé” de Platon (Liège, 1949). In general, those who doubt the dialogue's genuineness argue that the language is anachronistic or un-Platonic for Plato's early period, that the arguments are tedious, and that the character portrayal of Alcibiades is not worthy of Plato, even the young Plato. Bidez presents an excellent summary of the usual arguments against authenticity (pp. 119-20); I find his presentation the most persuasive of those opposed to authenticity. Friedlander summarizes the arguments of the doubters by saying they amount to one: “I do not like it.” Bluck is an exception: he argues for inauthenticity by translating αὐτὸ τὸ αὐτό at 129b and 130d as “mind.” I shall have more to say of this later (n. 11). Even the doubters, however, generally agree that it is “l'oeuvre très respectable d'un professeur érudit et de noble inspiration” (Dupreel), that the substance of the dialogue is “authentiquement platonicien” (Bidez), and that “there are several passages which it is hard to attribute to any lesser hand than Plato's” (Shorey); with a few exceptions, for example Jachmann, it is only with the “greatest reluctance” (Taylor) they ascribe the dialogue to a close student of the Platonic philosophy. Friedlander and Vink, on the other hand, counter these arguments, including Bluck's, with varying degrees of success and argue exhaustively and persuasively that the substance of the dialogue is worthy only of Plato himself. Other references of interest include Alain (Emile Chartier), Idées: Platon, Descartes, Hegel (Paris, 1932), p. 69 ff.; Croiset, M., Platon oeuvre completes (Paris, 1920), i, 50-59; Dittmar, H., Aeschines von Sphettos (Berlin, 1912), pp. 163-77; Field, G. C., Plato and his Contemporaries; a study in fourth century life and thought (London, 1930), p. 146 ff.; and cols. 2367-68 on Plato in Paulys.

2. This approach is, I believe, an appropriate modification for Socrates' educational ideas of Schleiermacher's question for resolving the Socratic problem.

3. Considering the importance Socrates attributes to the δαίμων later (127e) in pursuing the discussion further, and hence its intimate connection with the erotic relationship between the two men, Bidez, (op. cit. , pp. 113–14; Strycker, de, op. cit., p. 144) is surely incorrect in saying that “Le 'signe démonique' de Socrate y recoit une importance excessive ….”

4. Clark, (op. cit. , p. 234, n. 1) believes the situation that opens the dialogue is “grotesque.” I am at a loss to understand why, as I fail to comprehend Bidez (op, cit., p. 105): “On y respire une atmosphere abstraite, theorique, tout entière dominée par les problemes et non par les personnes.” Rather, , with Friedlander, (Plato II, 232), from the beginning “the encounter [of Socrates and Alcibiades] is frought with a tension unequalled in Plato,” a tension provided certainly not by “une atmosphere abstraite,” but by an intensely erotic atmosphere. Also see Alain, (op. cit., p. 69 ff,).

5. Cf. Schaerer, R., La Question Platonicienne (Neuchatel, 1938), pp. 5152. Note especially p. 51, n. 2: “Les Grecs du quatrième siècle n'ont aucun mot pour exprimer exactement l'idée moderne de sincerité. La notion se confond entièrement, pour Platon, avec celle de verité, de connaissance, de clarté, ou de realité. Repondre sincerement, selon lui, c'est repondre de son propre fonds: εξ ἑαυτόν ou réellement: Ὅντως, ou conformement à sa propre pensée: μη παρἀ δόξαν.

6. The identification of dialectical levels in Socratic dialogues is an arbitrary expedient for analytical purposes. The dialectical levels of any given dialogue will vary according to the objectives of the analysis. In the Alcibiades Major, for example, if the objective is to gain further insight into the Socratic epistemology, the dialogue would be carved into somewhat different dialectical levels than the ones I will identify. Ultimately, of course, a Socratic dialogue must be seen synthetically in its entirety.

7. See Gorgias 474c on αἰσχρός and κακός .

8. While most commentators deal at least briefly with the Royal Speech, I would refer especially to Bidez, , op. cit. , pp. 122–25; Bluck, , op. cit., p. 47; n. 9; Jaeger, W., Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of his Development (Oxford, 1934), 131 f.; Friedlander, (op. cit., pp. 235-36 and 350-51, n. 12). The argument over the oriental influence in the Royal Speech is one instance of restricting its context.

9. Friedlander, (op. cit. , pp. 235–36) disagrees; he believes the “pride of the young man begins to collapse” earlier, at 116e. This is too strong a statement for 116e, although I would agree Alcibiades is “perplexed.” But given the fact this is their first direct encounter I cannot believe the “highminded” Alcibiades would collapse so quickly and easily. I have already cited the appropriate sections of the text 116e-119b which I believe support this point of view.

10. This interpretation overcomes Taylor's, (op. cit. , p. 525) problem with this transitional passage as being “oddly abrupt.”

11. This apparent “adumbration of the Platonic ‘idea’ or form” (W. R. M. Lamb in the Loeb edition of the Alcibiades Major, p. 194, n. 1) at 129b (αὐτὸ ταὐτό) and 130d (αὐτὸ τὸ αὐτό) has caused some discussion amongst commentators. Bluck translates αὐτὸ τὸ αὐτό as mind “and finds essential support in this interpretation for the rejection of the dialogue” (Friedlander, , op. cit. , p. 351, n. 13). Since this is a later meaning of the phrase, it sounds strangely as though Bluck is at least partially assuming the very thing he sets out to demonstrate, although I have not read the introduction to his edition of the Alcibiades where I imagine he clarifies this point. Friedlander, (Der Grosse, ii, 17), on the other hand, claims αὐτὸ τὸ αὐτό occurs naturally in its context and does not necessarily carry a technical implication. Clark, (op. cit., pp. 235-36) counters Bluck and cites Friedlander for support: she believes at 129b it means something like “what exactly self is.” The arguments of Friedlander and Clark are even more cogent if we maintain a consistently functional connotation to ψυχ ཱུ, in which case the allusion is not to some mysterious “same-in-itself” (Lamb's translation, which seems wholly unsatisfactory) but to the problem of knowing the very process of knowing itself. This is warranted, as I will try to show, by the mirror passage. Cf. infra and my “The Problem Posed at Charmides 165a-166c,“ Phronesis, ix, 2, 107-14.

12. For comments on the mirror passage see, among others, Bidez, , op. cit. , pp. 114 and 119; Bluck, , op. cit., p. 46, n. 2; Clark, , op. cit., 236 ff.; Friedlander, , Plato II, pp. 236-38 and 351-52; Jaeger, , op. cit., p. 165, n. 1; Kerschensteiner, , op. cit., p. 202, n. 3; Strycker, de, op. cit., pp. 146-49; and des Places, E., Revue des Etudes Grecques, xliv (1931) 164. Clark's discussion is especially interesting, in which she connects the mirror passage with the myth in the Phaedrus and the educative function of astronomy in the Timaeus.

13. On the use of intelligence for σ ο φία see Festugiere, , op. cit. , p. 68, n. 3.

I am indebted to the Research Council of the University of Massachusetts for a grant that assisted in the preparation of this paper.


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