In this painting, the French artist, François André Vincent (c. 1746-1816), features two prominent figures from the history of ancient Greece. On the left side of the artwork, the armored individual with the salmon-colored cloak draped over his gear, is the infamous Alcibiades—a brilliant, but unpredictable and unscrupulous, statesman and military leader from Athens. Opposite the armored figure, the sitting man clothed in blue and white is the educator who tried (but failed) to suppress Alcibiades’ vices, while also cultivating his talents. This mentor was the great philosopher, Socrates. Yet, due to Alcibiades’ physical beauty and mental brilliance, Socrates had many rival scholars and philosophers vying to be the one to instruct the young talent. Nevertheless, great attracted great, and Alcibiades chose Socrates as his mentor. Plutarch (c. 50-120), a Greek-Roman scholar and biographer, wrote about the relationship between this particular teacher and student pair:
“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 unprincipled 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.