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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Notes on Plato's Alcibiades

Just finished reading my second dialogue of Plato. Here I will blog a few of my thoughts on it, mainly for my own benefit. It is likely of no interest to anyone else.

Alcibiades is 39 pages; I started a week ago, reading for an hour a day. Plato is definitely easier to understand than Aristotle – at least the one work by Aristotle that I read. I can do 5 pages an hour of Plato, compared to 1 page an hour of Aristotle.

In Alcibiades, Socrates tries to show the would-be politician Alcibiades that he is not ready, and that he needs Socrates's guidance. In short: to prosper, what is needed is virtue (justice and self-control) and someone in whom to study it (namely Socrates). The dialogue identifies this as the most important quality for the leader of a nation to possess.

In general the points were well argued (see summary at the end of this post). One argument that was weaker than the others was the one about whether just things are advantageous:
  1. Just things are admirable
  2. People who do what's admirable do things well
  3. People who do things well live successful lives
  4. People are successful because they have good things
  5. Good things are advantageous
  6. Therefore, just things are advantageous
Strictly speaking, one can easily think of people who are counterexamples to 2, 3, and 4. But perhaps one is not to expect mathematical precision from the dialogues.

But the other arguments are sound. From experience it rings true that people who "don't know but think they do know" are dangerous, that one cannot become an expert by simply keeping company with experts, and that the highest good is to "know thyself".

So I'm glad I read it. If I ever become a politician, I will strive for justice and make virtue my guide. And if I don't, I will still do the same.

Notes on Alcibiades 

Category: Normative ethics

Summary: To prosper, what is needed is virtue (justice and self-control) and someone in whom to study it.

Question: What is the most important quality for the leader of a nation to possess?

  • 558–560 Preliminaries
  • 560–564 The goal of politics is justice
  • 565-568 Alcibiades does not understand what is just
    • 568–569 In the Socratic method, the answerer is the one saying things
  • 569–570 Alcibiades does not understand what is advantageous
  • 570–573 Just things are advantageous
    • 570 He who can persuade a group can persuade an individual
    • 571 Just things are admirable
    • 571–572 Things are admirable insofar as they are good, and contemptible insofar as they are bad
    • 573 What is admirable is good
  • 574–575 Not knowing yet thinking one knows is dangerous
  • 576 Associating with experts is not sufficient for gaining understanding
  • 576–580 Self-cultivation is necessary for overcoming the enemies of the country
  • 581–585 Rebutting the idea that to be a good man one must be an adviser in friendship and agreement
  • 585–586 Not through cultivating what one has does one cultivate himself
  • 586–587 One must know himself in order to cultivate himself
  • 587–588 The soul is the man
  • 588–589 Know thyself means know thy soul
  • 589–590 Not through knowing what one has (trade, wealth, the body) does one know himself
  • 591–592 To know one's soul, one must look at the place of knowing and understanding in another soul
  • 592–595 To prosper, what is needed is not power but virtue (justice and self-control) and someone in whom to study it


  • Thanks so much. Your website and summary have helped me a bunch!

    I thought you might be interested in this program I saw on Plato, related to Catholicism.

    It's amazing!

    God Bless!
    Elizabeth from New Rochelle, NY

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/03/2010 12:15 p.m.  

  • Hello Jon,
    I don't know what other dialogue of Plato you have read, but if you want some more information on the argument you couldn't get your head over, see Plato's dialogue the Statesman. Here Plato explains why people who act (morally) in a right way can look unsuccesful, but turn out to be succesful and vice versa. In short: it has to do with the fact that acting in a morally just way can look unadmirable from a profitable point of view, from people who are not after the right things, but who are greedy (etc.). But in fact the one who acts the former way, acts morally admirable.
    Good luck with your studies.
    Kind regards.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/30/2013 2:00 p.m.  

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