- Socrates and Alcibiades: Plato’s Drama of Political Ambition and Philosophy by Ariel Helfer
Helfer opens his book with a series of vigorous reflections that have the virtue of challenging some of the reader’s deeply seated beliefs concerning political emotions. While we moderns see political ambition mostly as a threat to the public good that needs to be checked, ancients, the author suggests, considered that passion in a positive light. Indeed, they regarded political ambition as the manifestation of a powerful desire to achieve noble deeds in the civic sphere, an aspiration they saw as a central feature of human nature. That Alcibiades presents us with the most spectacular example of a man animated by such a passion is uncontentious, no matter how controversial this historical person was. By studying the character of Alcibiades as it appears in Plato’s dialogues, Helfer hopes to make a general contribution to the understanding of political ambition as a phenomenon.
Seen from this angle, the book participates in the recent wave of re-interpretation of the First Alcibiades only accidentally, its general purpose being wider and related to the history of political emotions. The core of the study, however, consists in a comprehensive interpretation of three texts: the First Alcibiades, the Second Alcibiades, and Alcibiades’s speech in the Symposium. While Helfer adopts a thematic approach in the introduction and conclusion, the central chapters take the form of a meticulous paraphrastic commentary. His style of exegesis resembles that of the contribution of a skilled sportscaster who alternates between descriptions of the game as it unfolds, and broader observations about a specific player’s history, the team’s performance, and the coach’s strategy. Although not uncommon in Platonic scholarship, this style may be wearisome for a reader already familiar with the dialogues who is expecting a more philosophically oriented reading, a hope raised by the strong conceptual reflections shared in the introduction.
The main virtue of the exploration led in those central chapters is the light it sheds on an aspect not explicitly depicted in the texts, namely, the potential evolution Alcibiades underwent between those encounters with Socrates. Helfer’s study also reads as an effort to assess Socrates’s pedagogical attempts to reorient his beloved’s passion, his political ambition, toward a different object. The attention Helfer pays to the intriguing question of the pedagogical benefit Socrates may seek for himself through his relationship with Alcibiades is one of the most original elements of his interpretation of the First Alcibiades. Helfer takes seriously Socrates’s declarations to the effect that he, himself, is in need of education, and he suggests that Socrates’s relationship with Alcibiades is a unique occasion for the philosopher to put his own pedagogical skills to the test and assess the worth and effectiveness of his method (57, 74, 92–93, 117, 193–94). One wishes that the author had developed that fruitful intuition a bit further, but this allusiveness is in line with the subtlety of Helfer’s general approach: his reading does not attempt to forcefully eliminate all ambiguities and points of obscurity found in the dialogues.
As is becoming increasingly common, Helfer does not feel the need to take a clear stance on the question of the dialogue’s authenticity. He starts with an open-minded perspective similar to the position expressed decades ago by Paul Friedländer in his foundational work on the First Alcibiades. Before being able to judiciously assess its authenticity, we have to do a dialogue justice by interpreting it intelligently. However, Helfer soon forgets his hermeneutic [End Page 361] prudence and refers to all dialogues studied as Plato’s. This hermeneutic position enables him to re-evaluate, for example, the (almost exclusive) attention paid to the erotic aspect of Alcibiades’s speech in the Symposium in light of the political and pedagogical focus of the First Alcibiades. Another original aspect of Helfer’s exegesis is his reluctance to give credence to the belief that Alcibiades aspired to tyranny. He...