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In Plato’s Alcibiades I, the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades is a perfect example of seeing beyond the flaws of another and guiding them to be the best version of themselves. Socrates is defined as an erotic character who strives for truth and self-perfection in the form of wisdom and virtue. On the other hand, Alcibiades is young and ignorant of the truth. Socrates approaches the young Alcibiades during a time when Alcibiades was losing contact with his self and was only focused on gaining political power in Athens. Throughout the dialogue, Socrates’ main objective is to transform Alcibiades into an individual who also strives for self-perfection by obtaining the truth through the self-cultivation of his soul. In other words, Socrates wants to transform Alcibiades’ desire into an erotic desire. Socrates believes that the cultivation of the soul requires self-judgment, participation in dialogue, and active self-examination. Most importantly, for the soul to know itself, it must look outside of itself towards something that reflects the Good.

Alcibiades, son of Pericles was a very wealthy, handsome, and prominent figure in the city of Athens. At the beginning of the dialogue Socrates states,

In the first place, you fancy yourself the tallest and best-looking man around- and it’s quite plain to see you’re not wrong. Next, you think that yours is the leading family in your city, which the is greatest city in Greece: on your father’s side you have plenty of aristocratic friends and relations, who would be of service to you if there was any need; and on your mother’s side your connections are no worse and no fewer (104b).

Alcibiades was born into a well-known family in all of Athens and it was inevitable that fame and fortune were in his future. As a result of his high-class status, Alcibiades was known as an arrogant and self-centered individual. His main, and questionably his only objective in life was to gain political power over the city of Athens, whether that meant harming people in his life to gain more status. In philosophical terms, he possessed this desire, which comes from the Greek word thumos. Alcibiades possesses this desire, in which he has a passion for glory and fame, rather than erotic desire, which desires self-perfection and the Good.

Although Alcibiades presents himself as a self-centered, narcissistic individual, Socrates sees beyond these character flaws and recognizes his potential. Socrates states,

Alcibiades, if I saw that you were content with all the advantages I just mentioned and thought that this was the condition in which you should live out the rest of your life, I would have given up my love long ago; at least that’s what I persuaded myself. (105a).

Socrates’ love for Alcibiades is not driven by sexual desires, but rather by truth and wisdom. Socrates attempts to bring Alcibiades to self-knowledge by cultivating his soul, but first, he must convince Alcibiades of his ignorance so that he can effectively make a push toward obtaining the Good. Socrates questions Alcibiades,

Suppose I stopped you as you were about to take the podium and asked ‘Alcibiades, what are the Athenians proposing to discuss? You’re getting up to advise them because it’s something you know better than they do, aren’t you?’ (106c).

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Alcibiades claims that he will be an effective leader for the Athenians and will be able to guide his people through war and peace. To accomplish this, he must know justice to know how to wage war or make peace. Socrates demonstrates that Alcibiades does not know justice and states,

Well then, given that your opinion wavers so much, and given that you neither found it out yourself nor learned it from anyone else, how likely is it that you know about justice and injustice? (112d).

With this, Socrates questions Alcibiades’ suitability as a political leader. Also, Alcibiades doesn’t recognize his ignorance, which is a crucial part of gaining self-knowledge and cultivation of the soul.

Socrates is fully aware of Alcibiades’ ignorance and points out that before Alcibiades can truly know himself, he must first understand what sort of “self” he is aiming towards. Socrates makes two separate arguments that lead the way to understanding the self. In the first argument, he makes a distinction between a thing itself and that which belongs to the thing (128c-129a). He uses the analogy of a shoe and states that shoes belong to the feet, but are not identical with the feet; so, shoemaking, or caring for one’s shoes is not the same as caring for one’s feet (128c). This analogy can directly be related to the idea of self-knowledge, such that there is a difference between the self and what belongs to the self. In his second argument, Socrates refers to the body-soul dynamic to make the distinction between the self and what belongs to the self (129b-131a). He asks Alcibiades, “A shoemaker, for example, cuts with a knife and a scraper, I think, and with other tools. So isn’t the cutter who uses the tools different from the tools he’s cutting with?” (129c). In other words, a user of a thing is different from the thing that is being used. When this analogy is applied to the concept of the self, it suggests that a person is not the same as their body and that an individual is nothing other than his or her soul. Socrates states, “Since a man is neither his body, nor his body and soul together, what remains, I think, is either that he’s nothing, or else, if he is something, he’s nothing other than his soul” (130c).

After Socrates presents his arguments to explain to concept of “self”, he makes one last analogy between the eye and the soul to explain how Alcibiades should pursue cultivating his soul (132d-133c). Socrates states,

Then an eye will see itself if it observes an eye and looks at the best part of it, the part which it can see. But it won’t see itself if it looks at anything else in a man, or anything else at all unless it’s similar to the eye. So if an eye is to see itself, it must look at an eye, and at that region of it in which the good activity of an eye occurs, and this, I presume, is seeing (133a-133b).

In other words, if someone wants to see their eye, then they must use some type of mirror that reflects their eye. The eye itself can function as a mirror, in which the pupil reflects images to the viewer. When someone’s eye looks into another person’s eye, their eye can come to see itself. Applying this analogy to the cultivation of the soul and self-knowledge, for the soul to know itself, it must look outside of itself at another soul. Specifically, the soul must look at the best part of the soul, the rational and intellectual part. As Socrates states, “Then if the soul, Alcibiades, is to know itself, it must look at a soul, and especially at that region in which what makes a soul good, wisdom, occurs, and at anything else which is similar to it” (133b). By looking at another soul that is full of wisdom and truth, Alcibiades can come to truly know himself and cultivate his soul into one that strives to achieve the Good.

Although Socrates claims that for Alcibiades to know himself and cultivate his soul he must “look” into another’s soul, the question arises of how exactly one can “look” into another person’s soul. For Socrates, the practice of philosophical dialogue is the most important step in achieving the self-seeing soul described in his analogy. Philosophical dialogue enables an individual to not only gain an understanding of their current self but also a better self that is in the future. In Alcibiades I, the practice of philosophical dialogue reveals to Alcibiades both his current self and his potential self that he can become. Socrates’ analogy of the eye suggests that an individual’s journey of self-knowledge requires the presence of another person and soul. Arguably, without Socrates, a philosophically and morally mature individual, Alcibiades would never come to the reality of his ignorance and shortcomings. Philosophical dialogue possesses a level of connectivity essential for the pursuit of self-knowledge.

Throughout Alcibiades I, Socrates aims to transform Alcibiades’ self-centered personality and to instill a sense of the importance of self-knowledge and self-cultivation. Young Alcibiades has lived a life of self-indulgence and self-satisfaction. Throughout the years, Socrates kept watch of Alcibiades and waited for the right time to approach him. Alcibiades was preparing to enter the political arena in Athens and Socrates wanted to ensure that Alcibiades understood himself before he ruled over a whole city of people. Socrates utilized a question-and-answer dialogue form of speaking because he believed that participating in philosophical dialogue is the most important way someone can recognize their flaws and strive for perfection within themselves. This style allowed Alcibiades to recognize his ignorance and see the same potential that Socrates saw in him. Socrates advised Alcibiades that the cultivation of his soul requires the aid of another person who possesses a soul of virtue and wisdom. Once Alcibiades can look into the soul of another and see his potential, he will truly be able to gain full self-knowledge and obtain the ultimate Good.  

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