Examining ambition : an interpretation of Plato's Alcibiades
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The relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades was infamous in antiquity. Alcibiades’ notorious betrayal of the Athenians during the Peloponnesian war helped to bring about Athens’ downfall, and the charges of corrupting the young and impiety for which Socrates was ultimately executed point unambiguously to the misdeeds of his most renowned and treasonous pupil. In Plato’s Alcibiades, Socrates approaches Alcibiades for the first time, claiming to have the power to bring the youth’s grandest and most tyrannical political hopes to a culmination. What does the ensuing conversation tell us about the nature of Alcibiades’ ambition and about Socrates’ intentions in associating with him? In this essay, careful attention is paid to the structure and unity of this underappreciated dialogue in order to uncover Plato’s teaching about the roots of political ambition and the approach of Socratic philosophy. The resulting analysis reveals that Socrates is interested in recruiting politically ambitious students because of how powerfully youthful political ambition seeks the good by means of just, noble, and honorable activity, and that Socrates’ hope is to awaken Alcibiades to the ambiguous and unquestioned character of his belief that the greatest human good can be obtained in the world of politics. Having recognized this as central to the Socratic project, we can consider how and to what extent political ambition relies on some misapprehension about the relationship of the good and the advantageous to the just and the noble.