Alas, Alcibiades, what condition you suffer from!
An excerpt from my new book: The Quest for Character — What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders
[If you like this excerpt, please consider getting and reviewing The Quest for Character.]
The year is 430 BCE. The place, Athens. The time, shortly after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which — twenty-six years later — will end in Athens’s defeat and a general weakening of the Greek city-states, so much so that they will soon become easy prey, first of Philip II of Macedon and then of his son Alexander “the Great.”
But that will come later. Right now, two friends are in the midst of a momentous conversation that will mark not just their lives but the future of the city they love: Socrates and Alcibiades, the philosopher and the future statesman and general. Socrates is about forty years old, while his companion has just turned twenty. Despite his youth and inexperience, or more likely because of it, Alcibiades is full of self-confidence. He tells Socrates that he doesn’t need anyone or anything. He can rely on his own strengths, from his undisputed physical beauty to his penchant for daring, from his noble ancestry to his considerable wealth.
The young man is preparing to appear, a few days later, in front of the Athenian people. He is looking forward to the occasion, which he fully believes will result in honors being showered on him the likes of which have never been granted before, not even to his adoptive father, the statesman Pericles — who will die the following year, struck by the plague that has already put Athens at a great disadvantage in its war against Sparta. A war, incidentally, that has been orchestrated in part by Pericles himself.
Socrates throws cold water on Alcibiades’s expectations. He warns Alcibiades that he will not accomplish the things he wants to accomplish without Socrates’s help. That’s bold talk! But Socrates backs it up with an observation to which his young companion readily assents: Sound advice about politics and statesmanship comes from those who actually know and have thought about such things, not from wealth, which is Alcibiades’s main…