A Plea for Alcibiades, or, How to Philosophize with a Bottle

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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29 Responses

  1. Alan Scott says:

    Nice to see the philosophers again, Jason. They’re always the highlight of your writing.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Dude! They weren’t drunk! There was an entire discussion at the beginning where they all said “dude, I am sooooo hung over from yesterday, let’s not get ripped”.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      Which, of course, spectacularly misses the point of this delightful essay.


    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jaybird says:

      they all said “dude, I am sooooo hung over from yesterday, let’s not get ripped”.

      That’s what all drunks say, in all times and in all places, when they use the imperative. Am I reading at a slant? You bet I am. I think most of what I said could stand without this point anyway.Report

  3. Rufus F. says:

    Well, I think it addresses many of my questions anyway, while posing other interesting ones. I’m not really sure you’re supposed to come out of the Socratic dialogue with answers anyway.Report

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    The Stoic, the Stoic
    Soused since the Mesozoic
    Thinks nothing of drinking all day
    The old Epicurean
    Needs to get some liqueur in him
    He’ll carouse the night away

    Crap. What rhymes with “Alcibaides”?Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    Hrm. If I’m not mistaken, I see the “polyamory” discussion hiding in your final paragraphs.

    Am I mistaken? Is that a discussion worth exploring?Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      I think it is. Maybe it’s not always a good idea to explore the discussion with one’s spouse.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      the “polyamory” discussion

      What, sex with parrots? (“Who’s a pretty boy? Who’s a pretty boy?”)Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        In practice, it tends to be a discussion of whether a person can have multiple, erm, “partners” and flourish, and have them flourish.

        The main debate generally veers off to whether a culture that engages in serial monogamy has a leg to stand on to criticize honest polyamory before breaking down in accusations of hidden agendas by either side of the debate.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

          In practice, it tends to be a discussion of whether a person can have multiple, erm, “partners” and flourish, and have them flourish.

          But they all have to be named “Polly”? I suppose it could be short for “Pollux”, so you can do girls and boys that have a twin. Odd lot, those Greeks.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jaybird says:

      It’s a discussion suggested by what I wrote. I hope I did not appear to rule on it decisively, because if I did, it was without evidence or argument.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        I didn’t get the idea that it was ruled on decisively, but I thought I saw it hiding there. I was wondering if that was deliberately alluded to or if I stumbled on a cobblestone that wasn’t actually there.

        I’m not a fan of polyamory, myself. It seems to be more of an addiction to “New Relationship Energy” (a wholly self-interested thing) than an actual instance of the human heart actually having enough love for many folks in practice. Sure, there may be a handful of exceptions out there… but for me to get to the exceptions, I tend to have to overlook a large number of bitter breakups full of betrayals. (And, interestingly, the exceptions tend to be small polyfidelitous groupings.)

        So that’s my take.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

          an actual instance of the human heart actually having enough love for many folks in practice.

          Or able to believe that “my beloved’s other beloved” isn’t a deadly enemy.Report

  6. Rufus F. says:

    “Diotima represents the overthrow of the homosocial discourse, which had been hegemonic,” the Academic continued. “You’re all going to die, Diotima said, unless you come to Woman, and thus homosexuality stands lower, not higher, on the great chain of being. Only Woman offers immortality.” Okay, is this academic Philip Rieff?

    Seriously, though, I do see Socrates’s introduction of Diotima as a rejection of the homosocial/misogynist discourse up to that point. However, I’m not sure that Socrates isn’t quite a bit higher in the chain of being than Diotima or the breeding straights. I don’t think we’re supposed to end up at the immortality of reproductive sex with women- apologies to women. Well, maybe most of us will, but I think this stands quite a bit lower in the chain of being than philosophical apprehension of beauty.

    I think his point with the story is that woman offers immortality of a sort, but philosophy offers genuine possession of the immortal and unchanging. It’s probably inappropriate, but I see Socrates as having achieved a sort of higher monkish immortality through philosophy than by having his sons. He certainly describes it as a superior occupation, right? So, I sort of see Diotima as a step closer to achieving the higher enlightenment of a Socrates. Also, while I admire him for holding a woman up as an example of higher wisdom, he did teach men, right? I think his students were supposed to apprehend Diotima and move beyond her ideal.

    That said, Socrates is a cock-tease. One of the things I find interesting is that, while he rejects carnal love, to a certain extent he uses the lure of the erotic as a teaching aid. I think of Obama’s favorite term: “teachable moments”- Socrates won’t put out, but he’ll use your desire as a teachable moment! Again, I think it’s interesting that so many of his students are young men who’d like to sleep with him.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

      (Note: I do realize that much of this is already addressed quite well at the end of your post, but I think it’s worth discussing anyway.)Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Rufus F. says:

        The hierarchy I infer looks like this:

        Love of Forms and Ideas.
        Love of the arts, science, and justice.
        Male-male non-carnal love.
        Male-female carnal love.
        Male-male carnal love.

        Unanswered is the place of male-female non-carnal love. This is an interesting question, because it is the sort of relationship I infer (perhaps charitably) to have existed between Socrates and Diotima, and because its open declaration would have really subverted the dominant homosocial paradigm.Report

        • Your hierarchy looks about how I’d picture it. As for Socrates and Diotima, it’s certainly plausible, but kind of hard to say. Part of the difficulty, for me, in reading the dialogues is separating out what Socrates thinks and what Plato thinks. Karl Popper basically argues that Plato is the worst possible interpreter of Socrates’s ideas. At the least, I’d say they differ quite a bit.

          Also, I guess I’d wonder about the value of drunkenness. Socrates often describes spiritual/daemonic inspiration in terms that sound like drunkenness to me- I wonder if the drunken Alcibiades isn’t closer to truth than the always-sober Socrates, or if Socrates isn’t closer to a sort of philosophical drunkenness.Report

          • William Brafford in reply to Rufus F. says:

            Richard Rorty, in the context of a discussion of the difference between systematic philosophers and edifying philosophers:

            “The permanent fascination of the man who dreamed up the whole idea of Western philosophy—Plato—is that we still do not know which sort of philosopher he was. Even if the Seventh Letter is set aside as spurious, the fact that after millenniums of commentary nobody knows which passages in the dialogues are jokes keeps the puzzle fresh.”

            I sort of gave up on the search for the historical Socrates. I’m a little bit weird in that I think Socrates seems like a really annoying person not at all to be taken as a model (I sympathize with the Athenians at the trial), but I love Plato.Report

            • That’s so funny because I sort of take the opposite tack- anything that irritates me about Socrates, I just blame on Plato. I wonder if the Plato/Socrates divide is anything like the Beatles/Rolling Stones divide.Report

              • William Brafford in reply to Rufus F. says:

                I would think of Plato/Aristotle as the Beatles/Stones of ancient philosophy.

                Plato just does so much crazy narrative stuff — I mean, Diotima’s story, which is the highlight of the Symposium insofar as it’s presented as the true account, is four layers down! Stuff like this happens in other dialogues, too. The texts are astonishingly rich. And even Plato’s theory of forms ends up being a dead end, it lead to some of the most beautiful metaphysical theories we ever thought up. Although here’s a weird thing: we have references to dialogues by Aristotle, but they’ve all been lost. So the theory is that what we have is not Aristotle’s finished product, but rather his lecture notes. I wonder if Aristotle’s dialogues were as wonderfully strange as Plato’s.

                Which ideas do you attribute to Socrates rather than Plato, and why?Report

              • Well, certainly the Forms and the divinely-inspired nature of poetry, philosophy and leadership. In the Symposium, I feel like what he’s getting at with Diotima’s story is way out beyond the criticism of homosexuality (or maybe really the celebration of reproduction) that’s embedded in there- when there’s something like that which strikes me as a bit off, I usually blame it on Plato! In general, I think of the more mystical sections of the dialogues as the voice of Socrates and the more authoritarian/pessimistic sections as coming from Plato, who after all, saw his teacher put to death. I will admit that this is really an unfair set of assumptions to make!Report

              • I have always had it in mind that a lot of scholars attribute to Socrates the belief that his conversational method could lead to higher truths. After all, Aristophanes aside, Socrates is remembered as an enemy of the sophists. But I always thought the more formal doctrine of the Forms belonged to Plato. For one thing, when Aristotle criticizes the theory of the Forms, I think he argues with Plato and doesn’t bring Socrates up. The “real Socrates” is supposed to be closer to the one in Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito… I have no idea whether I am right about this, and I probably should have done a little more prep work for this discussion.Report

              • Trust me, you’re more prepared than I am. I’ve read all the dialogues, but very, very little secondary literature, and not nearly enough Aristotle.Report