2003 Norton Scholar’s Prize Winning Essay

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    Reading Alcibiades as an Appropriative Self

    Boris Rodin Maslov

    In an oral talk he gave in 1982—often read as a conspectus of his book on the "technologies of the self," which he never completed—Michel Foucault went back to the sources of "the care of the self" (epimeleia heautou), a concept central to his interpretation of the Late Antique ethics. Here Foucault points to the importance of the spurious Platonic dialogue Alcibiades as "the point of departure and a program for all Platonic philosophy" and for the classical pedagogical tradition (23). In Foucault’s account of the metamorphoses of the Greco-Roman subjectivity, this work assumes pivotal significance: its articulation of the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades becomes the model for the proper tactics both in education and in philosophical conceptualization of the self. This paper aims to contextualize this large-scale ethical shift in the anxieties of classical Athens. I will focus on the diverse literary and cultural models of identity (heroic, sympotic, tyrannical) associated with the figure of Alcibiades, and the reactions to the new conception of the self that it embodied.

    But first, what does epimeleia heautou refer to? Foucault points out that as a pedagogical principle it involves "a dialectic between political and erotic discourse": the transition to active life in the political sphere for Alcibiades is implicated with his passage from being an eromenos (passive voice participle, corresponding to the English "beloved") to asserting himself as an erastes ("lover"):

    Concern for self always refers to an active political and erotic state. Epimelesthai expresses something much more serious than the simple fact of paying attention. It involves various things: taking pains with one’s holdings and one’s health. […] It is used with reference to the activity of a farmer tending his fields, his cattle, and his house, or to the job of the king in taking care of his city and citizens, or to the worship of ancestors and gods, or as a medical term to signify the fact of caring. (Foucault 25)

    The figure of Alcibiades, then, embodied a radical revolution in the thinking about public success in relation to inner well-being. The self is no longer conceived of as an effect of social environment, but becomes an object of the reflective activity of continuous education. This activity constituted the field in which the Socratic philosophy positioned itself. It demands introspection, self-tending, Socrates teaches, rather than conformance to social norms and proper standards of behavior, to ensure the soundness of one’s soul. One way to approach epimeleia heautou is to relate it to the principle of the examination of one’s life, as it is articulated in Socrates’ speech in the Apology.

    This ethical project of introspection did include the dichotomy of the body and the soul, yet not in the Christian sense of the "evil" vs. "good" binary but rather as the opposition of the exterior (coded as "inessential") and the interior ("essential"). Notwithstanding this (and other) historical overlaying, this project was carried on enthusiastically in the modern age. Yet as the Apology testifies, the Socratic principle "unexamined life is not worth living" was not sympathetically received in the democratic Athens. The main charge brought against Socrates—that of "corrupting the youth"—points to his profession as a teacher, and thus to the other aspect of his ethical program, that of tending the self (in this case, not just one’s own). It was this practice that provoked most resentment on the part of his fellow-citizens.

    Alcibiades’ biography mirrors the narrative of Socrates’ trial: not a theorist, but a practitioner of new ethics, he was one of the Athenian youths, "corrupted" by the Socratic philosophy of the self (recall that he was Socrates’ student). Despite the fact that he was the most admired politician in contemporary Athens, he was, like Socrates, condemned by the demos. I would contend that it is the revolutionary model of the cultivated self embodied by Alcibiades—the other side of the Socratic coin—that proved most provocative for his contemporaries. Indeed, it continues to haunt modern imagination. Consider an example. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, one of the preeminent critics of German Enlightenment, engaged in the humanistic project of recovering the Individual, appealed to Alcibiades in an ode of the same title. Lessing undertook to rewrite Alcibiades’ notorious flight to Sparta—for his Athenian compatriots, plainly a betrayal of the fatherland—as an expression of positive, "interiorized" patriotism. What is more, as a modern scholar remarks, Lessing was modeling his own attitude on the hypothesized precedent of Alcibiades (Barner 36).

    We should not dismiss Lessing’s reading of Alcibiades as a mere anachronism: it may be derived from Alcibiades’ self-representation—or, more precisely, from the representation of his self-representation in near-contemporary sources. In fact, Lessing may be paraphrasing his model’s own words. The following quotation comes from the speech Alcibiades delivered after landing in Sparta, as it is reported by Thucydides:

    I claim also that none of you should think the worse of me if, in spite of my previous reputation for loving my country, I now join in vigorously with her bitterest enemies in attacking her. […] The Athens I love is not the one which is wronging me now, but that one in which I used to have secure enjoyment of my rights as a citizen. The country that I am attacking does not seem to me to be mine any longer; it is rather that I am trying to recover a country that has ceased to be mine. (469)

    The remarkable twist of Alcibiades’ argument, readily embraced by Lessing as that of a patriot at heart, depends on the essentially Socratic dichotomy of the "interior" (and thus more genuine) vs. "exterior" affiliation, even though, perversely, it is expressed in the language of lost and regained citizenship. The overt, and unprecedented, egotism of Alcibiades’ words is grounded in a paradigm of the cultivated self that seems to invert Socrates’ (and Foucault’s) emphasis on the tending of the inner world of the soul as opposed to paying vain attention to the "exterior," or the body. In my view, however, Alcibiades’ case points not to an inversion or perversion but rather to a radically broad application of the principle of the tending of the self: it covers every aspect of personality, including political reputation, social status, demeanor, bodily appearance, etc. It is the consistency with which Alcibiades’ rhetoric and attitudes, as read by his contemporaries, refer to his editing of self as a means of realizing certain political aims that allows us to relate it to the concept of epimeleia heautou, as it is elaborated in Plato’s Alcibiades.

    An example will help to clarify the point. Alcibiades’ flagrant manipulation of identity was clearly the most discomforting characteristic for those men who wrote about him in antiquity: it marked him as attractive and repulsive at the same time. As Plutarch tells us in the Life of Alcibiades, the primary reason for Alcibiades’ popularity among the Spartans was his "adopting Spartan customs in his everyday life":

    Thus, in Sparta he was all for physical exercise, the simple life, and an appearance of forbidding austerity; in Ionia for luxury, pleasure, and indolence; in Thrace he could drink with the best; in Thessaly he was never out of the saddle, and when he found himself in the company of Tissaphernes the satrap, he surpassed even the magnificence of the Persian in his pomp and extravagance. (267)

    What made these transformations possible, I would argue, is Alcibiades’ skillful deployment of various cultural models of the self. In what follows, I would like to consider several literary allusions that, taken together, suggest a strategy—which, given the kind of evidence we possess, most likely represents a combined result of Alcibiades’ self-presentation and the cultural efforts to account for it. This brings about remarkable semantic effects, such as the oscillation of positive and negative connotations in metaphors whose origin we can no longer securely establish.

    Let us begin with an image Plutarch uses in his description of the adaptive nature of Alcibiades: he could

    assimilate and adapt himself to the pursuits and the manner of living of others and submit himself to more startling transformations than a chameleon. Even the chameleon cannot take on the colour of white, but Alcibiades was able to associate with good and bad alike, and never found a characteristic which he could not imitate or practise. (267)

    The comparison with a chameleon is generic and represents a strongly positive notion of duplicity. It finds its paradigmatic expression in a passage of Theognis (ll. 213-18), who commends the ability of the octopus to change its color as a marker of a clever (rather than treacherous) man. We encounter the same image in Pindar’s fragment 43:

    Child, likening your mind most to the skin of a sea beast, living in the rocks, consort with all cities: willingly praising the one who is present, think different sorts of things at different times.

    (Translation is my own.)

    Notably, the hypothetical context of Pindar’s fragment, given the figure of address to the "child," is the same as that of the lines of Theognis: it is a didactic admonishment addressed by an older man (erastes) to the boy (eromenos) at the symposium. We can therefore read the image of the chameleon-like self as an integral part of sympotic identity. Alcibiades, who, both as a boy and as a grown man, lived an aristocratic life of debauchery and excess in Athens, must have associated with the vestigial tradition of sympotic wisdom. As Thucydides tells us, the resentment of the demos against Alcibiades was provoked by the outrages reported to take place at the parties in which he took part: as a matter of fact, he was sentenced to death for profaning Eleusinian mysteries at one such party.

    Precisely because the sympotic mentality was antidemocratic, it is hard to evaluate Plutarch’s use of the chameleon simile. It allows for several interpretations: it can be read as a negative characterization of Alcibiades’ duplicitous personality (as antidemocratic), as an image that serves to exonerate him of a charge of duplicity (because the image has aristocratic connotations), or, most temptingly, as a representation of Alcibiades’ identity as he himself pursued it.

    A similar hermeneutic aporia will confront us when we turn to another cultural metaphor, used to circumscribe the phenomenon of Alcibiades. In Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades, Alcibiades is represented as a paradox of Greek cultural masculinity: he is at once an effeminate man, ruled by passions and lacking self-control, and an epitome of the Athenian citizen who would never suffer to be subjected to another’s power: "He was a man of many strong passions, but none of them was stronger than his desire to gain the upper hand over his rivals" (246). To illustrate this ideological oxymoron, Plutarch adduces a remarkable incident that supposedly happened to Alcibiades as a boy:

    Once, when he was hard pressed in wrestling, rather than allow himself to be thrown, he set his teeth in his opponent’s arms as they gripped him and held on so hard he would have bitten through them. The other let go his hold and cried out, "Alcibiades, you bite like a woman!" "No, like a lion," was his reply. (246)

    To uphold his status as an unimpeachable and impenetrable man, Alcibiades has recourse to a quite womanly way of defense (in fact, his opponent’s exclamation casts the whole scene as a metaphor of a failed sexual assault). In countering the charge of unmanliness, Alcibiades displays his dexterity in shifting cultural identities. The comparison with a lion is marked as belonging to the concept of epic hero (specifically, it is elaborated in extended similes of Achilles in the Iliad).

    Alcibiades’ self-designation as a lion exhibits his aspiration for the Homeric model of masculinity, which, however, is not entirely unproblematic in the context of classical Athens: it was probably coded as elitist and aristocratic, and may have served as an indication of Alcibiades’ tyrannical inclinations (Wohl 351). According to Plutarch, the feeling of the demos for Alcibiades, in harmony with that of the Athenian political leaders (to whom his behavior "suggested the habits of a tyrant" [258]), "have been very aptly expressed by Aristophanes […] in the guise of a metaphor:

    Better not bring up a lion inside your city,
    But if you must, then humour all his moods. (258-59)

    In these two lines, the lion simile assumes hubristic connotations, while the Homeric overtones of the word are suppressed. The sentiment conveyed in the lines of Aristophanes is akin to the anxious expectation of the tyrant in Theognis (ll. 39ff.), where the city is said to give birth to a man "who will set straight our evil hubris": a terrible retribution for the presumptuous behavior of the aristocratic oligarchs in charge of the city. Thus, the lion metaphor can be read both as belonging to Alcibiades’ own construction of his identity and as a sign of cultural anxiety surrounding his personality; most likely, it is both.

    The pattern of literary allusion in the representations of Alcibiades suggests that the philosophical and ethical paradigm of epimeleia heautou can be related to a concomitant cultural development: the concept of the self embodied by the figure of this scandalous Athenian politician. Our evidence does not suffice to posit the latter either as a deviant product of Socratic ideals or as a provocation that influenced the conceptualization of subjectivity in Platonic (and post-Platonic) thought. As far as our reconstruction goes, however, Alcibiades can be viewed as an instantiation of what I would term the appropriative self—a personality generated through the shuffling of cultural and social identities and affiliations. Significantly, we are unable to locate the work of cultural construction, clearly underway on the ideological site that was the figure of "Alcibiades": was it a part of the self-positioning of the historical Alcibiades, or a mediated expression of anxieties surrounding the (democratic) subject in classical Athens? This question will probably remain unanswered, yet the hermeneutic challenge it contains itself testifies to the existence of a social reality, which provided a background to the large-scale ethical shifts investigated by Michel Foucault.

    Works Cited

    • Barner, Wilfried. "’Vaterland’ und ’freywilliges Elend’: Uber Lessings Alcibiades." Poetik und Geschichte: Viktor Zmegac zum 60. Geburtstag. Ed. D. Borchmeyer. T¸bingen: M. Niemeyer, 1989. 22-36.
    • Foucault, Michel. "Technologies of the Self." Technologies of the Self: a Seminar with Michel Foucault. Eds. L. H. Martin et al. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. 16-49.
    • Plutarch. The Rise and Fall of Athens. Nine Greek Lives: Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Aristides, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, Lysander. Trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960.
    • Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972.
    • Wohl, Victoria. "The Eros of Alcibiades." Classical Antiquity 18 (1999): 349-85.