Erotic Tyranny

Stuttard notes Euripides’s Dionysus is a possible parable: a cruel, charismatic god, who, upon returning to Greece from Asia, first infatuates and then destroys the unyielding ruling class. A theater director of ancient Greek drama and popular writer on Hellenic myths and persons, Stuttard knows how to narrate his character in context. Another dialogue, the Symposium, betrays his untamed appetites. Stuttard cites J. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Did he mean loyal Athenians, like Nicias, a colleague in Sicily and political enemy? Roberts: “An ambitious program of world conquest led by Nicias? Uninvited, he has come from nowhere, and when the symposium is over he has disappeared.” The party is just before the disaster in Sicily. As poets and philosophers finish discussing Eros — which physically is sexual attraction, but spiritually is reason stirring souls to strive for goodness — a drunk Alcibiades crashes the party. His adolescent anecdotes foreshadow future conduct: “The general picture,” P. Still, one attempt to make Alcibiades accessible overlooks more than it helps. We never get inside Alcibiades’s head. David Stuttard ably situates his biography, Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, with Athens’s naval empire warring with Sparta, civic institutions decaying, and audacious demagogues vying for power. He was richly audacious to win crowds and kings, for sure, but no traitor to his class. He does not alter Athens except insofar as to lead her, for his protean talents remain tied to patriotic affection. With knack for adopting habits, customs, and “transforming more completely than a chameleon,” Plutarch writes, he blended with good and bad, ably impersonating and learning anything. The god of love holding the victory crown encapsulates his profligacy, bravery, and lover’s quarrel. Pericles’s wife, Aspasia, even wrote Socrates a poem advising how to seduce Alcibiades, which Socrates refused, wanting instead to convert him. DECEMBER 31, 2018
IN THE CLASSICAL WORLD, moderation meant harmony within personal and political limits. If Alcibiades lacked character, in Stuttard’s telling he is one. Alexander acculturated as a lawgiver, leading subjects to reflect his ability to transcend cultures in, one scholar suggests, the “first globalization.” Whereas Alexander is institutional, Alcibiades is personal in adaptability. Desire dives to earth, spirit soars to heaven, and reason balances midair, reining in appetite and passion. This background was tailored for an entitled, ambitious rascal skeptical of gods and democracy. Thucydides records him saying, “if I harmed you badly as an enemy, I can do you great good as a friend,” for Alcibiades had appeared friendly to Athens, now a harsh enemy. His ambition was boundless. T. His assimilative capacities, erotic longings, and imperial pride translated the universalism of Socratic philosophy into political action. Maturing into a courageous fighter and cavalier right as peace broke, he did everything possible to revive war. He watched Sparta defeat Athens, and eventually both cities sought his death. His speech reveals he understands Socrates but remains unyielding. “Alexander succeeded where Alcibiades failed,” Alexandre Kojève posits, “But both wanted the same thing, and both tried to go beyond the rigid and narrow confines of the ancient City” — a project which “can be traced back to the philosophical teaching of Socrates.” Both philosophy and tyranny transcend local horizons and city limits. Her philosophers also forewarn. Rather than listening too little to Socrates, Alcibiades imbibed enough philosophy to imagine new political ambitions. His machinations reveal a potential friend to Athens, but mostly a foe. In individuals and states, pride comes before falls. Born among legendary aristocrats descending from Homeric warriors, orphaned Alcibiades was raised by Pericles, the premier statesmen who housed sophists, philosophers, and poets. Alcibiades defines and defies history because nobody could predict what he would do. He even affected revolution at home with promises of Persian money, but refused to join the oligarchic coup, then championed the dissident democratic navy and army abroad, and upon return home was named chief general. ¤
Ryan Shinkel is a historical researcher and a graduate student at St. Decline in Athens, Plato alleges, was due to Alcibiades, not Socrates. A tyrannical city has citizens enslaved to bodily cravings. The civics lesson is clear: be wary of spurned lovers. Classical antiquity, especially Athenian democracy, is a dimmed mirror whose parallels are noteworthy, but contrasts more so. Later soliciting Spartan protection for his assistance, he warned Athens sought the entire Mediterranean. Still, this analysis by Stuttard may underestimate how Plato tries to insightfully show Alcibiades in dramatic form. Stuttard generally succeeds. They both fell prey to the protean democratic passions issuing hemlocks one day and statues the next. Stuttard ends noting that this protean chameleon foreshadows Alexander, who geographically and culturally united Macedonia, Greece, Persia, and beyond. When base desire or mighty pride rules, an immoderate citizen mirrors an unbalanced state. Alcibiades leaves much to speculative reconstruction. Perhaps Stuttard’s best insight is showing Alcibiades’s impact on Greek theater. Stuttard details what Alcibiades did, but not always why he acted thusly, sometimes inferring his likely thoughts or feelings without sufficiently probing his motives. Having been rejected, he became her foe to win Athens back, treasons and revolutions be damned. His pride was his downfall. Rhodes notes in Alcibiades: Athenian Playboy, General, and Traitor, shows “an arrogant and violent man, who took no notice of the ordinary restraints on selfish conduct and positively enjoyed shocking people.” When Athens gossiped after he removed his dog’s tail, Alcibiades explained his wish to distract them from anything else. But Stuttard remains mostly modest. His pride was too visible. Befitting the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he charged only with a dagger into the night as arrows showered down upon him. As someone quipped at the time, youthful Alcibiades enticed husbands from wives, mature Alcibiades enticed wives from husbands. With several footnotes citing ancient parallels to populist 2016, Stuttard sardonically says Alcibiades wanted to “Make Athens Great Again,” and elsewhere writes “The Donald Trump of Ancient Greece” was “a scion of wealth who loved to win” and “manipulate the masses.” This shorthand proves helpful to a point. A warmongering city has citizens consumed by love of honor. His shield insignia — a figure, flying Eros, who holds a victor’s olive wreath with outstretched hand — illustrates where. Perchance this apt comparison provides a hermeneutical key. Ostracism could not stop Alcibiades — he imitated too readily whomever he wished to charm. He explicitly sought to reclaim the Athens taken from him. But perhaps consider what Stuttard underestimates: philosophy. An exotically dressed man of action, glory, and sex, his profligacy won renown. When his offer of wealth and arms was for once honest, he was dismissed. A good introduction to the Peloponnesian War, his book critically uses ancient sources — Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, and Plutarch, among others — and contemporary historiography. The choice is stark: maintain balance within oneself and within city or mortal hubris gets humbled. War and love fulfilled similar desires and passions in him. As he was depicted in Plato, so also in Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles. Shameless Alcibiades, with limitless appetites for sex and fame, corrupted institutions amid wars and factions. In Persia, an army attacked his Melissa compound while assassins burned his home. Rather than having ignored Socrates, Alcibiades understood him only too well. Notably, when distinguishing poetry from history, Aristotle says poetry concerns motives, what someone with certain character inevitably says or does, while history concerns facts: “[A] specific fact is what Alcibiades did or what was done to him.” His example is telling. Stuttard ponders: “Yearning for philosophy, he lives a life of dissolution. As likely to earn first a hemlock, then a statue, divine blessings, then curses, Alcibiades was never one for moderation. Because jealous gods level excesses in love and victory, wealth and glory, anyone, slave or king, too big for his britches, invites divine retribution. In what follows, Alcibiades is possibly the first genuine cosmopolitan, if not vulgarly decriable as more globalist than nationalist. Already a decorated soldier married into the richest family, an Olympic charioteer, and as a youth elected general multiple times, his showmanship aided enemies and abetted their accusations of gross sacrilege. J. “What bitter anguish,” James Madison asks, would “Athens have often escaped if their government” safeguarded “against the tyranny of their own passions? When recalled for trial while beginning a doomed Sicilian campaign, he sought refuge in foreign kingdoms, advising their rulers and adopting their customs, first to Sparta, then Persia, and, after a homecoming and exile, Thrace. Some said Athens could not handle another Alcibiades; even one proved excessive. After their insults, he refused to prevent their defeat. Here the personal is political. This “aristocrat with Homeric heroic intentions living in an age of People Power,” Stuttard lectures, was “for some a roguish hero, for others an unscrupulous traitor.” In a final battle near the Hellespont, Alcibiades offered Athenian generals his assistance and his allies. Admittedly, his loyalties are often indiscernible. Stuttard cites Libanius — according to whom Alcibiades’s androgyny, seductive at night, dangerous in daylight, meant “changing his personality more readily than Proteus” — and Plutarch — who thought Alcibiades assumed any persona to please his company. If anything, his would-be tyranny was classier than a presidential pop star resembling Saul Goodman more than a vastly more spirited soldier and philosophical raconteur, as well as cunning leader, eloquent denunciator, if not loftier upstart. Handsomest of Greeks and hypnotic orator, Alcibiades charmed Socrates and bewitched assemblies. This colorfully outrageous and enigmatic personality stormed fragile wartime Athens in the fifth century BC — with a love of glory ignorant of limits, whether borders, customs, or comeuppance from the gods. In Protagoras, as Socrates debates what is virtue with sophists, Alcibiades intervenes, prompting a sneer: “Whatever Alcibiades decides to get involved with, he always has to win.” Ambition in argument betrays ambitions elsewhere. Stuck in sexual love, he refuses chastening by a higher kind. But nobody fully understands Alcibiades, which is why he continually fascinates. If only the student had listened to his teacher! Helping Sparta, and, after impregnating their queen, helping the Persian satrap, Alcibiades prolonged war with Athens. This familiar lesson to Greece abounds in her myths of wrathful gods chastening haughty men. He writes conversationally for general audiences with helpful details for scholars. Plato deemed Alcibiades a failed experiment. Thence, he fled to Thrace as a mercenary warlord. How they adapted is distinct. Most modern parallels end there. However, Stuttard thinks these portrayals are retrospective defenses of Socrates. Plato likens the soul to a flying chariot with winged-horses. But when reason does not reign, a disjointed soul sires a disjointed polity. But some providential defeats angered Athens. Fittingly, Plutarch paired his Life of Alcibiades with the Life of Coriolanus, the prideful patrician general who, exiled by Rome, sought vengeance by leading her enemies, in pursuit of his convoluted love for the public adulation he supposedly despised. Surely not.” Alcibiades esoterically cited himself. One must show how strange prior civilizations are with clear prose and crafty story. Alexander transcended Macedon, while Alcibiades loved Athens, however limitless his horizons and desires. Their love of honor adapted to whatever one culture happened to honor. Drunk, his speech in praise of Socrates is clear-eyed and articulate. With dominion over the earth, he proclaimed universal empire. Alcibiades marked her peak and decline. With patriotic sophistry, he reinterpreted the old military oath to enhance the lands within Athenian domain as witnessed by her crops and fruit trees, to mean instead along the lines that Athens rules wherever vegetation grows. His mistress Timandra performed last rites, while his enemies claimed his head. One horse signifies desire, another spiritedness, and the charioteer, reason. Refusing moderation by philosophy, he heeded not his wiser mentor. Popular liberty might then have escaped” reproach for “decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.” Many earned hateful adulation, but tyranny of passion at expense of liberty climaxed in Alcibiades. But Alcibiades’s desire and pride were elsewhere. Portrayed is a tyranny of a passion unchastened by philosophy.