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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Al and Socrates

by Philip Martin | June 5, 2022 at 2:05 a.m.


Alcibiades was born with pretty much everything.

He was young and handsome and rich, the scion of one of Athens' most distinguished families, the Alcmaeonidae, who could trace their lineage back to Ajax the Great. Al's father--who was descended from Spartans--was killed in battle during the First Peloponnesian War, when Al was about 3 years old. So the boy went to live with his mother's cousin, the great general and politician Pericles.

Pericles was big on education, so it's no surprise he brought in the best teachers to instruct Al in "gymnastike" (physical education) and "mousike" (music, poetry and rhetoric).

But Al was an unruly kid, viciously smart and full of himself. He was reckless and vain and tended to dissipation. He confounded his teachers, and a lot of them wrote uncomplimentary things about him, which we can still read in the Snapchat era.

On the cusp of adulthood, Al was a freaking rock star. Some of the common people gossiped about his lifestyle and his callowness--he never had a real job but planned to stand for a seat in the Athenian Assembly--but didn't lack for self-confidence.

Being rich and powerful, he had many lovers, most of whom were young men because Greek society tightly controlled its womenfolk, passing them from father to husband, limiting their availability to suitors.

The whole Greek man-on-boy sexual dynamic was like the circumstantial homosexuality of prison populations--lots of guys who wouldn't necessarily identify as gay or bi had sex with other guys because it was what they could get. And offering your body to someone who was rich and/or powerful could be a good career move.

Plus, as Plato would note, Al was flat-out gorgeous. Who wouldn't want to be his baby?

Socrates had his eye on Al since he was a kid. Some say he was an old goat who was infatuated with Al, silently stalking the kid for years before making his move. Others argue that Socrates was a virtuous man who was loyal to his wife and was only interested in the state of Al's soul. But that's something for the nerds to argue about.

Anyway, a few days before Al presented himself to the Assembly, Socrates walked up to Al and told him he wanted to be his lover.

Al was bemused.

He knew Socrates. Everybody knew Socrates; he was the Dirty Walking Man of Athens. Fat, ugly and unkempt. He only owned one cloak. His hygiene was poor. But he had developed a cult following among the youth of Athens as a teacher who professed to teach absolutely nothing; he only asked questions.

Socrates started telling Al how great his family was, especially his Uncle Peri, but that Al was probably going to turn out to be more worthy than his uncle "or anyone who ever existed." Socrates said he never approached Al before because Al hadn't recognized in himself the potential for true greatness, but now that he did, maybe he'd listen to Socrates, who said he could help him achieve all he desired, which was no less than to rule the world.

Flattered, Al agreed to answer Socrates' questions. First he established the subjects that Al had studied, and that while Al would be happy to advise the Athenians on subjects where his knowledge was greater than theirs, he would not presume to advise them on any subject about which he knew jack squididdley. Socrates told Al that he would be "a good adviser on things about which you actually know."

Socrates asked: How do you know these things you know? Because, Al said, he learned them. This meant, Socrates continued in his inimitably annoying fashion, that there was a time when Al didn't know what he now knew.

Socrates then listed the subjects Al has studied: writing, playing the harp, wrestling. He noted that Al refused to learn to play the flute. And he allowed that there were probably some other things Al learned of which he was not aware.

But was he prepared to advise the Athenians on writing? No, Al said.

How about playing the lyre? Al said he wouldn't.

And Socrates observed that the subject of wrestling didn't often come up in the Athenian assembly. But the assembly probably would consider building, in which Al had no expertise. And Al can't tell the future; best to leave that to the professional diviners, right? Sure, Al agreed.

As they went along. Socrates got Al to concede that it's better to go to war for a just cause than an unjust one. But, Socrates pointed out, he'd never been taught how to discern what is just, though even as a child he was confident about what was fair and unfair. Al said he was never taught this, but he still must have learned it, in the same way that he learned Greek--"from the many."

It wasn't long before Socrates had broken Al--he got the kid agreeing that he really knew nothing. Which is, by the way, where philosophy starts.

By the end of the dialogue, Al told Socrates that their roles were reversed. Now he wanted to be Socrates' lover--"from this day nothing can keep me from attending on you, and you from being attended on by me."

Whether they actually slept together is a matter of conjecture. Socrates' fans say certainly not. Me? I'm no scholar.

Some of you probably know what happened to Al and Socrates; Alcibiades made a lot of enemies and got tossed out of Athens after his soldiers desecrated some religious statuary. He managed to fight for and betray every side in the Peloponnesian Second War, eventually landing back in Athens for a period before incurring the wrath of the city again and fleeing to Persia where he was finally assassinated, probably by Persians and Spartans working together for once.

A few years later, Socrates got tried and was made to drink hemlock. One of the key charges against him was corruption of the youth of Athens--a major talking point was that the flip-flopping, evil-doing Al was one of his students.

But Al actually behaved himself when Socrates was around, the counter-argument went, the kid was rotten before the old man ever got his hands on him. Socrates was good for Al; it wasn't his fault he couldn't transform the brat into a virtuous person.

I hate wrapping these things up with a bow. I figure you either get the point, or the whole story's Greek to you, or you might just go on believing that you know what you know because you know it and it feels right. Seems like there are a lot more Als out there than Socrateses.

pmartin@adgnewsroom.com


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