Sunday, June 17, 2007
By Joshua Simon
The story of Socrates and Alcibiades, which I'm about to tell here, is an example of the tragic history of thought versus action. At the Kaospilot it, this history is being broken.
At the KaosPilot, the teams receive both theoretical and practical knowledge – they attend classes and experience the "real world". Both on the outposts around the world, and back in school, the Kaospilots develop a variety of capacities – both the ability to abstract and simplify and the ability to create, change and influence reality. The mith of theory vis-à-vis praxis is being bridged on a daily basis at the Kaospilot.
In 399 BC, Athenian philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death for "corrupting the young men of Athens". This accusation referred mainly to Socrates' relationship with his pupil (and lover), Alcibiades (450-404 BC). Socrates and Alcibiades shared a relationship of Pederasty - in this tradition of Athens, the Eromenos was an adolescent boy who was in a love relationship with an adult man, known as the Erastes, who guided him into the life of the Polis.
though the story of Alcibiades, Socrates and Athens may appear to some, as a remote historical anecdote, it is a useful lesson when we want to address questions regarding the educational process – seduction and teaching and contemplation versus action.
The story of Athenian politician and military leader Alcibiades, is one of betrayal and treachery. Considered the most handsome man in all of Greece, Alcibiades was notorious for his promiscuous behaviour. Growing up without a father, he was put under the custody of his glorious uncle, Pricles. During the course of the Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades changed his allegiance on several occasions. In his native Athens in the early 410s BC, he advocated for an aggressive foreign policy, and was a prominent proponent of the Sicilian Expedition against the Spartans, but fled to Sparta after his political enemies brought charges of sacrilege against him (he was accused of destroying sacred statutes while partying with his friends and lovers). In Sparta, Alcibiades served as a strategic advisor, proposing several major campaigns against Athens. Soon he made powerful enemies also there, and it is said he got the Spartan queen pregnant. For this reason and more, he was forced to defect to Persia. There he served as an advisor to the satrap Tissaphernes until his Athenian political allies brought about his recall. Alcibiades then served as an Athenian general for several years, gaining many victories for the Athenian fleet. His enemies eventually succeeded in exiling him a second time and assassinated him in his residence in Asia Minor.
During this "World War" of his time, Alcibiades served the different rivalling camps. Addressing the Spartans after he had defected from the Athenian expedition to Sicily (which he lead), Alcibiades says: "I hope that none of you will think any the worse of me if, after having hitherto passed as a lover of my country, I now actively join its worst enemies in attacking it, or will suspect what I say as the fruit of an outlaw's enthusiasm. I am an outlaw from the iniquity of those who drove me forth, not, if you will be guided by me, from your service; my worst enemies are not you who only harmed your foes, but they who forced their friends to become enemies; and love of country is what I do not feel when I am wronged, but what I felt when secure in my rights as a citizen. Indeed I do not consider that I am now attacking a country that is still mine; I am rather trying to recover one that is mine no longer; and the true lover of his country is not he who consents to lose it unjustly rather than attack it, but he who longs for it so much that he will go all lengths to recover it" (quoted in Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War; Book VI). For many, Alcibiades is the incarnation of the decline of Athenian democracy. His relativistic political conduct won him immense hatred.
Alcibiades' contemporary writers Plato, Thucydides, Xenophon (and later on Plutarch), regard him as the main cause for Socrates' execution. The main accusation in Socrates' trial is that he corrupted the youth of Athens – namely, taught Alcibiades, the great traitor. I would argue that from his perspective, Alcibiades never betrayed Athens – even when he fought against her leaders, he was looking for her people's love and approval. In his world, he represents the option of non-loyalty, unbelonging and singularity.
Alcibiades appears in numerous dialogues by Plato, amongst them The Symposium and Alcibiades I. Both texts unravel Socrates' employment of seduction as an educational tool. In Alcibiades I, which takes place around 432 BC, Plato represents an attempt by Socrates to seduce eighteen year old Alcibiades. Alcibiades is a youth, whose beauty is now starting to flower. Socrates is an older man, who has been waiting for a suitable moment to strike up a conversation. The moment has now come, for the two of them to be alone together, and able to speak intimately. In return for Alcibiades' favours, Socrates offers him an educative experience that will make him, as he matures, a useful participant in Athenian political life. During this dialogue, there is some aggressive talk about undressing and gazing at the reflections in one other's eyes. By the end of the dialogue, Socrates' persistence gets some reward: Alcibiades promises at any rate to grant him with what he wants. Nevertheless, this is no usual seduction. The beauty that attracts Socrates is a beauty not of the body but of the soul: he offers Alcibiades to follow the self investigation that he brings, to contemplate and philosophize. But philosophical seducers like Socrates face a peculiar difficulty: there is no philosophical reasoning that they can expect to be effective. While young Alcibiades is consumed with plans for world domination, Socrates offers self reflection.
At the time of The Symposium, which occurs a few years later, in 416 BC, Alcibiades is at the prime of his Athenian political career – he just won the races at the Olympic games with seven chariots and he was about to embark on the Sicilian Expedition leading the Athenian fleet. When he arrives drunk at Agathon's house, he crushes the party. Nevertheless, Alcibiades feels uncomfortable by the presence of Socrates. He says: "He [Socrates] is the great speaker and enchanter who ravishes the souls of men; the convincer of hearts too." He has convinced Alcibiades, and made him ashamed of his mean and miserable life, Alcibiades says. He asserts that Socrates uses the commonest words as the outward mask of the divinest truths.
But all this flattery could not help Socrates' pedagogical project succeed with Alcibiades. At the core of Alcibiades' relationship with Socrates lays the tension between reflection and action – Socrates, the philosophy teacher who dedicates his life to reflection, and his pupil who chose a life of action and involvement in the world. Eventually, Alcibiades chose a political career and not a philosophical one. This is regarded by many as Socrates' greatest failure. Alcibiades betrayed Socrates - it is Alcibiades choosing politics over philosophy that hurt him the most. Alcibiades' greatest betrayal is not in fighting against his Athenian compatriots but in choosing to fight. He betrayed Socrates much more than he betrayed Athens. Alcibiades chose political involvement over contemplation, and action over reflection - he chose history over philosophy.
Therefore, from that respect, Socrates was accused for no reason – it is obvious that his pupil turned against him by pursuing political greatness. Had Socrates chose to defend himself against his prosecutor's allegation, he could have present his failure with Alcibiades as his best defense.
At the Kaospilot, it is exactly this tragic dichotomy, that brought Socrates to be betrayed by his beloved pupil, that is being transgressed