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Martha Nussbaum THE SPEECH OF ALCIBIADES: A READING OF PLATO'S SYMPOSIUM He had a golden shield made for himself, which was emblazoned not with any ancestral device, but with the figure of Eros armed with a thunderbolt. Plutarch, Alcibiades, 16 ALCIBIADES: I'm going to tell the truth. Do you think you'll allow that? (214e) He was, to begin with, beautiful. He was endowed with a physical grace and splendor that captivated the entire city. It did not decline as he grew, but flourished at each stage with new authority and power. He was always highly conscious of his body, vain about its influence. He would speak of his beauty as his "amazing good-fortune," and his "windfall from the godsli (2 1 7a) . But this was not the limit of his natural gifts. Energy and intellectual power had made him one of the best commanders and strategists Athens had known, one of the most skillful orators ever to enchant her. In both careers his genius was his keen eye for the situation—the way he could discern the salient features of the particular case and boldly select appropriate action. About all these gifts he was no less vain—vain, and yet also almost morbidly concerned with criticism and gossip. He loved to be loved. He hated to be observed, skinned, discovered. His heart, generous and volatile, was rapidly moved to both love and anger, at once changeable and tenacious. He was, then, a man of great resources who made deep demands on the world, both emotional and intellectual; and he did what resource and courage could to guarantee success. What else? He hated flute-playing, and the flute-playing satyr Marsyas. . . . He laughed, he staged jokes—at the expense of enemies, of lovers, 131 132Philosophy and Literature at his own. He once arranged for a suitor of his, a resident alien, to win the bid for the local tax receipts, to the great discomfiture oflocal suitors and tax-farmers. . . . When he wanted to win something, he took no chances. He entered seven chariots at Olympia and walked off with first, second, and fourth prizes. But that third prize, elusive, bothered him intensely. . . . He once sliced off the tail of his own dog, saying, "I am quite content for the whole of Athens to chatter about this. It will stop them from saying anything worse about me." . . . He financed extravagant spectacles. The people never had enough of him; he was their darling, their young "lion." The haters of democratic disorder hated him as its inspiration. . . . Once he invited a philosopher to dinner and told him the truth before bedtime. . . . He betrayed two cities. He said, "Love of country is what I do not feel when I am wronged." He crowned with garlands the empty head of a beauty who wrote tragedies without having a soul. . . . One dark night he went for a walk through the streets of Athens and defaced the statues of the gods, smashing genitals and faces. . . . The man he loved looked like a snub-nosed Silenus, as he turned over on the bed to sleep—like one of those toy Sileni you open up to see the shining statues of the gods inside. . . . All these things. His story is, in the end, a story of waste and loss, of the failure of practical reason to shape a life. Both the extraordinary man and the stages of his careening course were legendary at Athens; they cried out for interpretation, and for healing. The Symposium situates itself in the midst of this life and confronts the questions it raises for our thought about love and reason. Alcibiades is, of course, a major character in the dialogue, and many details of his life are recounted explicitly in his speech. But there are also more subtle signals. A man who died shot by an arrow will speak of the words of love as arrows, or bolts, wounding the soul (219b). A man who influentially denounced the flute as an instrument unworthy of a free man's dignity will describe himself as a slave to the enchanting flute-playing of a certain satyr (215b-d, 216c, 219c). A man who...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 131-172
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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