BMCR 2016.12.33

The Platonic ‘Alcibiades I’. The Dialogue and its Ancient Reception

, , The Platonic ‘Alcibiades I’. The Dialogue and its Ancient Reception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xii, 292. ISBN 9780521199124. $99.99.


In antiquity, the First Alcibiades was considered as a genuine product by Plato. In the curriculum established by Iamblichus it served as a preparatory reading for the study of Plato’s oeuvre. The authors explore the numerous possibilities to discuss the dialogue; their intention, however, is not so much to defend its authenticity as to explore the hypothesis that it may be interpreted along the same lines as any other dialogue of Plato. We find a remark, however, that there are features here that suggest that this dialogue cannot be by Plato at his dramatic best (38). Moreover, the language of the protreptic passage (119A-124A) differs from the language of the more dialectical parts (46), a pattern shared with some other dialogues of doubtful authenticity, such as the Alcibiades II, Hipparchus and Minos, although it is not a decisive evidence against Plato’s authorship. The authors also list arguments in favour of the ancient approach. The main points may be that the ancient commentators offer new perspectives that help us elaborate new questions and reflect on our hermeneutical approaches. It may lead to our willingness to suspend our own interpretive categories, including the underlying notion of what we mean by philosophy.

The first part deals with the dialogue itself. The authors suggest that the whole structure is centred around the theme of self-knowledge, as it was emphasized by the Neoplatonists as well. More precisely, the particular self-knowledge with which the dialogue is concerned is Alcibiades’ knowledge of who he really is. It is supposed to result from two sources: personal discovery and learning from another. When it comes to the notion of self-knowledge, the authors emphasize that, conceived as the knowledge of the divinity of the intellect, it differs from the traditional assumption that focuses on human finitude and imperfection as opposed to divine perfection. They also take sides in some vexed interpretive issues; they reject that the term ‘the self itself’ (αὐτὸ ταὐτό, 129B2), distinguished from ‘each self’ (αὐτὸ ἕκαστον), refers to any abstract idea of the self or selfhood (58-59), although they agree that we should envisage ‘the self itself’ as something superior to each individual self, and even perhaps to the collection of individual selves. Moreover, when Socrates asks (133B-C) whether there is a more divine part of the soul than the seat of knowledge, we run into a major point of dissent among interpreters. The theocentric approach insists that the passage is not solely concerned with the divine element in us but also with god (θεόν, 133C5), whereas the anthropocentric interpretation stresses that the imagery of mirror implies the impossibility of solitary self-knowledge and the necessity of dialogue with others. Drawing on Olympiodorus’ explanation the authors propose to find a balance between the dramatic and the theoretic elements, the divine and the human. There is more emphasis on the god within than on anything external. The compatibility of the two approaches is supported by Cicero’s approach, too (121), who connects the model of image-original (our mind is akin to the divine mind) and the model of virtual-actual (self-knowledge is not something given but a task to be performed by persons who are prepared for it).

The early reception of the dialogue is accompanied with the diffusion of Socratic dialogues about Alcibiades, as indicated by fragments on papyri; this might apply to the Erlangen papyrus 4, too, although it does not mention the name ‘Alcibiades’. Some of the imagery turns up in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and in the Aristotelian Magna Moralia (II.15.6) as well.1 The most important influence the Alcibiades exerted in early Hellenistic times may have been in Polemo’s Academy, especially in Polemo’s definition of ἔρως (‘a service to the gods for the care and salvation of the young’, quoted by Plutarch, Ad Princ. 780D = fr. 113 Gigante, and used twice elsewhere, too).2 Cicero was also influenced by the dialogue, as is attested by several passages to which the authors add two further ones, Tusc. V 70 and De rep. VI 26. The authors also suggest that Plutarch read it when compiling his biography of Alcibiades. It is not the only text where Plutarch is indebted to the Platonic treatise. The speech of Theanor in De Genio makes the concession that the lives of exceptional men are governed by the gods directly (593D), and its language is reminiscent of the eye-paradigm of lovers. Similar signs may be traced in the Eroticus as well. Discussion of the Middle Platonic commentary on the Alcibiades I reveals that it matters a lot to the argument in the mirror-analogy whether the eye sees its own excellence, or the soul sees its own excellence when searching for itself in an image.3 If the mirror is bad and the reflection is insufficient, the eye or the soul cannot produce a reliable likeness from which self-knowledge is possible.

The Neoplatonist reception up to Proclus is discussed at length. Starting with Plotinus, the authors analyse some parts of Enn. I 1 to show that this treatise was written after the Alcibiades (or at least 129E-133D) had been re-read (158). Words from the dialogue appear in Plotinus’ treatise and the terminology of mirrors can also be seen here. It is particularly interesting that Plotinus’ argument in ch. 13 on the subject undertaking the discussion (“we or soul, or we, but by soul?”) is interpreted with reference to 129B and 133C-D.4 A short note on I 4 and IV 8 also indicates that ideas of the self are present, including the soul using the body. Porphyry alludes to the dialogue in his commentary on the Delphic command to self-knowledge (Fr 275 Smith). Here Porphyry recognises that the knowledge of oneself as an individual is different from the knowledge of others. Thus self-knowledge becomes the knowledge of something unique.5 The oeuvre of Iamblichus is divided into two phases, an earlier and a later. The first phase is characterised by the De Mysteriis and the authors suggest that the Alcibiades I did not play such a prominent role in the curriculum. Along with the Protrepticus the treatise seems to bear witness that at some point Iamblichus repressed the importance of Delphic self-knowledge, whereas in some fragments he seems to admit that self-knowledge is absolutely basic. At Athens, the revival of Platonic philosophy marked an important new beginning for the reading of Plato’s works. Syrianus and Hermias (whoever is the true author of the commentary on the Phaedrus) used the dialogue to support their conception of an ‘erotic art’ ( in Phdr. 217.6-13, see also 10.19-28) that teaches us to search for the one worthy of love and then, after a philosophical discussion, to win him over to and teach him the art of love. Proclus’ systematic commentary on the dialogue has come down to us in an imperfect form; after a detailed introduction it covers the first ten Stephanus pages only. The authors emphasize the threefold distinction of Socratic knowledge into dialectic, obstetrics and erotic ( in Alc. I 27.16-28.2). It is important to see that the surviving part contains important arguments in epistemology. It states that the notions (λόγοι) within constitute the foundations of our knowledge, and dialectic is the process whereby to build on them. The lines 133C8-17 are discussed under the heading ‘The Christian Alcibiades ’ very cursorily, in two and a half pages.

The authors dedicate a separate chapter to Olympiodorus, not surprisingly since both of them wrote about the commentator abundantly. They insist that his exegetical method is relatively subtle and has the merit of being rather sober and erudite; this is why Tarrant could call him ‘one of the first classicists’ (196). They also draw attention to the skopos he gave to the dialogue, which contains an important restriction in its scope: that the dialogue is about knowing oneself politically ( in Alc. I 8.6), thus introducing different levels of self-knowledge. It implies that the dialogue operates purely within the scope of Alcibiades’ political ambitions. On discussing the commentator’s use of the figure of Socrates, along with its dialectical implications, the authors point out that the old general treatment of Neoplatonism as ‘Platonism without Socrates’ is false (202). On the other hand, we find a nice transition from the civic dimension to self-care with an analysis of political science in terms of Aristotle’s scheme of four causes.

The last chapter is devoted to more general issues. The authors expand on their findings and draw some lessons for modern interpreters. The differences between ancient and modern approaches make us more conscious of our presuppositions and practices, and urge us to reflect on them. Moreover, they also suggest that the text is a revision from Plato’s later period that explains the various occurrences of late vocabulary that have intruded into a style that otherwise looks earlier (265). As for the philosophical side of the work, they argue that the dialogue is the starting point of what we may call the philosophy of the self (272).

There are two small points to be raised against the arguments. In more general terms, it may be fairly difficult to mark out specific references to the dialogue in other texts. If we do not have verbatim quotations, there is always the question whether the author read the dialogue itself or is acquainted with it by way of a summary or an anthology. Furthermore, the argument exploiting the difference between the Greek γνῶθι σεαυτόν and the English ‘know yourself’ (72-73) may be strained. One may also criticize a structural element in the work. Whereas Olympiodorus’ interpretation is discussed in a separate chapter, some of his views are described at length in the chapter analysing the content of Alcibiades I, which may seem superfluous.

There are a few small slips, the only noteworthy one being on p.188 where authors claim that the term ἔνοπτρον occurs in the New Testament, although in the passage referred to (I Cor. 13.12) we have δι᾽ ἐσόπρου.

The book is furnished with an appropriate bibliography and two indices. It is a fine work of scholarship.


1. The connection between this passage of the Alcibiades and the MM has already been noted by A. Linguiti, ‘Amicizia e conoscenza di sé nell’ Alcibiade primo e nelle Etiche di Aristotele’, Annali dell’ Istituto di filosofia di Firenze 5(1983), 1-28.

2. One might sympathise with the authors’ suggestion that the definition does not necessarily involve a sexual relationship, but I would not rule it out off-hand either; after all, it is an Academic definition of ἔρως, not of φιλία ( pace the authors in p.118, n.108).

3. The description of this work is missing from the bibliography. The edition has been preceded by F. Lasserre. ’Anonyme. Commentaire de l’Alcibiade I de Platon,’ in F. Decleva Caizzi, M. S. Funghi, M. Gigante, F. Lasserre, A. Santoni (eds.), Varia Papyrologica. Studi e Testi per il Corpus dei Papiri Filosofici Greci e Latini 5. Florence: Olschki, 1991, 7– 23. Some of the difficulties in Lasserre’s text have been discussed by F. Vendruscolo, ’Una riconsiderazione di P. Princ. Inv. AM 11224C: Commento al Alcibiade I’, ZPE 99(1993), 279-285.

4. The authors give the impression that Plotinus’ main source in the passages under discussion was the Alcibiades, but it seems we have to be much more generous towards other texts, mostly Aristotelian, as has been emphasized by G. Aubry, Plotin. Traité 53 (I, 1). Paris: Cerf, 2004, 337-342, whereas C. Marzolo, Plotino. Che cos’è l’essere vivente e che cos’è l’uomo? I 1 [53] Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2006, 180-181 points to Platonic antecedents other than the Alcibiades. It is a pity that the authors do not engage with these rival approaches.

5. One might feel uneasy about the translation of ἄνθρωπος as ‘person’. In late antiquity, the concept of ‘person’ became a vexed problem and one may feel more comfortable with the translation of the Greek term as ‘man’. By contrast, we may need a list of parallel passages where the translation of ἄνθρωπος into ‘person’ is completely obvious and legitimate.