"Socrates and Alcibiades is a helpful and interesting book written by an excellent reader of Plato. The close readings of Alcibiades, Second Alcibiades, and Symposium are careful and insightful. Socrates and Alcibiades are two of the most colorful characters in Athenian history, and understanding their friendship is central to understanding Plato's political philosophy as well as Athens itself, the city that could not help but kill a philosopher. Helfer's book deftly moves readers deeper into those dynamics."—The Review of PoliticsIn the classical world, political ambition posed an intractable problem. Ancient Greek democracies fostered in their most promising youths a tension-ridden combination of the desire for personal glory and deep-seated public-spiritedness in hopes of producing brilliant and capable statesmen. But as much as active civic engagement was considered among the highest goods by the Greek citizenry, the attempt to harness the love of glory to the good of the city inevitably produced notoriously ambitious figures whose zeal for political power and prestige was so great that it outstripped their intention to win honor through praiseworthy deeds. No figure better exemplifies the risks and rewards of ancient political ambition than Alcibiades, an intelligent, charming, and attractive statesman who grew up during the Golden Age of Athens and went on to become an infamous demagogue and traitor to the city during the Peloponnesian War.
"Socrates and Alcibiades is unusually clear, powerfully argued, and intelligent. It makes a convincing case that, in witnessing Socrates' attempts to educate young Alcibiades, we are witnessing the first manifestations of what has come to be called Socratic political philosophy. The book is essential reading for scholars of Socrates and Plato, especially their moral and political thought, and for those interested in the understudied and under-theorized phenomenon of political ambition."—Robert C. Bartlett, author of Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates
"This book is an engaging, wittily written analysis of the conversations between Alcibiades and Socrates. Ariel Helfer captures well the challenges and difficulties of a Socratic education, and in the process, he also brings out important questions about the desire to do good, political power, dependence on the divine, and the meaning of fame."—Arlene Saxonhouse, University of Michigan
In Socrates and Alcibiades, Ariel Helfer gathers Plato's three major presentations of Alcibiades: the Alcibiades, the Second Alcibiades, and the Symposium. Counter to conventional interpretation, Helfer reads these texts as presenting a coherent narrative, spanning nearly two decades, of the relationship between Socrates and his most notorious pupil. Helfer argues that Plato does not simply deny the allegation that Alcibiades was corrupted by his Socratic education; rather, Plato's treatment of Alcibiades raises far-ranging questions about the nature and corruptibility of political ambition itself. How, Helfer asks, is the civic-spirited side of political ambition related to its self-serving dimensions? How can education be expected to strengthen or weaken the devotion toward one's fellow citizens? And what might Socratic philosophy reveal about the place of political aspiration in a spiritually and intellectually balanced life? Socrates and Alcibiades recovers a valuable classical lesson on the nature of civic engagement and illuminates our own complex political situation as heirs to liberal democracy's distrust of political ambition.
Ariel Helfer teaches political science at Michigan State University.