BMCR 2023.12.06

The second Alcibiades: a Platonist dialogue on prayer and on ignorance

, The second Alcibiades: a Platonist dialogue on prayer and on ignorance. Platonica minora, dubia et spuria. The unknown Plato: shorter, dubious, and spurious works in the Platonic corpus. Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing, 2023. Pp. 259. ISBN 9781733535786.

This volume contains an introduction, a new translation of the work, Chapters One through Six which go through the work in stages (three passages of dialogue separated by monologue), two chapters which seek to place the work historically, two appendices, 14 tables and a figure along the way on matters of language, and the usual front and back matter.

The introduction has four parts. The first considers how to think of prayer in an ancient Greek context and points out that the preoccupation with prayer in this dialogue moves from deciding what to pray for to deciding what to strive for and what to avoid (5). The second part is concerned with the drama in which Socrates and Alcibiades find themselves, presenting Socrates as a sort of tragic hero with his own fatal flaw (12). Part Three addresses the place of this work in the traditional corpus and what that might indicate about authorship, including the possibility that this work “may result from the augmentation and preparation for circulation of sketches left incomplete by Plato” (23). The fourth part suggests that, in this and some other dialogues, “the discussion between Socrates and his interlocutors does succeed in enabling readers to recognize something of importance from within themselves, presumably mirroring a positive cognitive advance on the part of the interlocutor” (24).

Chapter One argues that the focus is on Alcibiades’ state of mind and whether Alcibiades may pray for something that will be bad for him, as Oedipus did with his self-destructive, cursing prayer, rather than on the occasion of the dialogue. The chapter contains an interpretative excursus on the Oedipus reference in 138b-c.

Chapter Two points out that Alcibiades does not see that he might be mad as Oedipus was and that Socrates does not push this point, although it is suggested that megalopsuchia—an expression which does not occur elsewhere in the Platonic corpus—“has become something akin” to megalomania (72). The chapter goes on to point out other peculiarities of vocabulary (Tables 1 to 5) which might “lead us to doubt that Plato could be the author” (78) and, based on further analysis, it suggests that “the dialogue places an unusual emphasis on the personal perspective of the participants” (85)—what seems to the speaker rather than what is certain.  The tentative conclusion is that the dialogue’s “final version [may be] significantly later than the death of Alexander” (85).

Chapter Three picks up the dialogue at 141a, where Socrates induces Alcibiades to recognize that some things that he might pray for could turn out badly for him. It then notes the switch to a monologue, in which Socrates recounts “the gulf between people’s most earnest desires and what will actually be in their interest” (91).  Here the discussion of prayer takes a new turn: Socrates quotes from an unnamed poet whose lines offer “a prayer to Zeus that he will grant them what is best whether they pray for it or not, and ward off evils even when we pray for them” (96)—which is “central to the philosophy of prayer” (97). At the end of the monologue, Alcibiades has noticed “not just the consequences of human ignorance for the way we should engage with the divine, but the potentially devastating nature of ignorance more generally” (98). The chapter closes by drawing together the references to ruling all of Europe in 141b, to the dynastic murder of Archelaus in Macedonia in 141d, to Orestes’ and Alcmaeon’s matricides in 143c, and to the thought of Alcibiades’ imagined killing of his guardian in 143e-144a, which together might suggest that the author who completed the dialogue may have had Alexander and the Macedonian dynasty on his mind—a theme taken up again at the beginning of the next chapter.

Chapter Four moves on to the knowledge most important to someone and when ignorance would be beneficial. Despite the use of the superlative here for knowledge of what is best, the answer turns out to be circumstantial—“the best choice available for ourselves out of those available to us;” thus the argument is that ignorance ought only to be blamed “if we specify ignorance of what and ignorance for what persons and in what situations (143b6-c5),” so that ignorance can be beneficial in certain circumstances (105). The chapter goes on to suggest that the situation is similar in the city, though complicated there by the people involved—orators, who advise about wars, peace, walls, and harbors, as well as craftsmen, all of whom think that their own specialties are most important in deciding what to do, without knowing whether they will be best in the circumstances. And, to extend the argument, “the only kind of ignorance that receives significant criticism is ignorance of what is best [in the circumstances], and then only when one is prompted to action by some other kind of assumed knowledge” (119). The chapter ends with a few observations on the language.

Chapter Five considers the second monologue, or the second part of the monologue, which returns to the subject of prayer. Here the prayers of the Spartans are in focus, because the Spartans, instead of praying for this or that, restrict their prayers to asking for “splendid as well as advantageous outcomes” (125). Their prayers are contrasted with the oracle of Ammon obtained by Alcibiades which predicted a favorable outcome for the Sicilian expedition (127). There is a concern here for “absolute duties toward others, rather than the most favorable of options for the individual,” which suggests that “there is a discontinuity between the central epistemological section and the monologues” (131). There follows a section on the language of the monologue, and the chapter ends with a reflection on the prayer at 143a.

Chapter Six discusses Socratic education—removing the mists and then applying the remedies that will promote knowledge of good and bad in Alcibiades. Focusing on the end of the dialogue, it points out that Socrates’ acceptance of the wreath which Alcibiades had planned to offer to a god fails to show “any real sign that he [Socrates] knows what is best for himself” (152). This chapter brings the commentary to a close.

Chapter Seven opens with the possibility that Alcibiades II reflects a drift toward the epistemology of Arcesilaus and the New Academy and may reflect the New Academic view of Platonic writing, including the view that Plato frequently used argument on both sides of the question, which one finds in this dialogue (163). Further, the author of Alcibiades II may have believed that writing in the Platonic style “involved imitating Platonic ways of conveying the speaker’s uncertainty” (173). The result is to make Alcibiades IIlargely compatible with what one might take to be the New Academic view of Plato’s ‘Socrates’ and of Platonic writing” (182). Evidence is presented in Tables 6 to 11.

Chapter Eight argues that Alcibiades II could not have been written by Plato and that a dating “after the 320s” (187) would be readily intelligible, with Crantor “tentatively” identified as the author and with Arcesilaus perhaps having had a hand in its revision, perhaps based on material which Plato had left (213). The argument has to do with the possibility that the dialogue fits the situation of Alexander and the internecine conflicts in the Macedonian monarchy better than that of Alcibiades and Athens, along with Alexander’s confusing gods and men and his prayer before Gaugamela. This part of the argument suggests that the dialogue may figure in the rivalry of Platonists with Peripatetics. Here the focus on the Platonists’ concern for knowledge of good and bad as opposed to the Peripatetics’ concern for science of all sorts pursued for its own sake comes into play, along with the construal of Peripatetic megalopsuchia as megalomania discussed in Chapter One (187-188). The rest of the argument is based on a further look at the language (Figure 1 and Tables 12 and 13), using principal component analysis, which illustrates some similarity of Alcibiades II to Eryxias. In a coda on Crantor and Arcesilaus at the end of the chapter, the results are summarized in the statement that “Plato was not the dominant influence on the dialogue as we have it” (213).

Appendices I (Table 14) and II give more detail on the language of the dialogue.

Scholars who study the dubia and spuria as well as the other dialogues in the Platonic corpus will find much of interest here in the method, the conclusions, and the remarks in passing as well as in the focused and current bibliography. Those who study Aristotle as well, however, may be taken aback by the comments on Peripatetic pursuit of knowledge for its own sake: “the Peripatetics sought to advance knowledge in a huge range of areas, without necessarily having any other end in view. The scientific life led them into a range of studies, most of them having no immediate benefit for the well-being of the community, but all offering quiet satisfaction to the researcher” (188). Even if the Nicomachean Ethics had fallen into disuse by the time Alcibiades II is supposed in this book to have been completed, the sentiments it expresses might well have lived on in the memory of the scholarchs, notably Books I and II on benefits to individuals and cities, which anticipate some of the themes explored in Alcibiades II, for example: “Since the present activity is not for the sake of observing as the others are (for we do not inquire what excellence is so that we may know, but so that we may become good, else it would have no benefit), it is necessary to investigate the things about actions, how they should be done” (1103b26-30). This is a point to be borne in mind in dealing with polemics among the schools. And there are others. One is Aristotle’s treatment of circumstances throughout the corpus, which might well have had an influence on Alcibiades II if the late dating is accepted. Another is Aristotle’s use of the language of prayer, or wish, in the Politics, especially where interpretation can be controlled by Aristotle’s quotation of or allusion to the poets (Homer and Phocylides) and the Midas myth. Perhaps Professor Tarrant will address these points more fully as he continues his valuable study of the dialogues and the post-Platonic Academy.