Marcello Bacciarelli (c. 1731-1818), an Italian artist who relocated to Poland, painted this scene that features (on the left) the Athenian leader, Alcibiades, and (on the right) the great philosopher, Socrates. Well-endowed with good looks and intelligence, Alcibiades had no shortage of people who wanted to befriend and mentor him during his youth. Socrates, as the picture above suggests, was one of the intellectuals in Athens who was keen to have Alcibiades as his pupil. Plutarch (c. 50-120), a Greek-Roman scholar and biographer, wrote about the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades:
“The affection which Socrates entertained for him [Alcibiades] is a great evidence of the natural noble qualities and good disposition of the boy, which Socrates, indeed, detected both in and under his personal beauty….Yet such was the happiness of his [Alcibiades’] genius that he discerned Socrates from the rest, and admitted him, whilst he drove away the wealthy and noble who made court to him. And, in a little time, they grew intimate, and Alcibiades, listening now to language entirely free from every thought of unmanly fondness and silly displays of affection, but [was now taught by one who] sought to expose the weakness of his soul and rebuke his vain and foolish pride” (Life of Alcibiades, section 4).
Interestingly, Socrates’ tutoring of Alcibiades likely did not go the way that the philosopher had hoped. Instead of instilling the future Athenian general and statesman with virtue, Socrates apparently managed to only hone and sharpen the abilities of a man who would eventually become a notoriously unscrupulous political maneuverer. During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), Alcibiades acted like a mercenary, lending his talents to whichever party served his interests, regardless of if his employers were Athenian, Spartan, or Persian.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.