Plutarch’s opinion of Alcibiades

Plutarch’s “Lifes” is a historical piece of moral comparison. In his book he would often compare Roman men with that of Greek men. He presented someone whom had wondering morals against someone whose morals should be what the rest of society should abide by. We can therefore assume that when Plutarch is writing about Alcibiades he is using him as an epitome of bad morals and choices.

It is clear from Plutarch’s “Lifes” that he does not have a very high opinion of Alcibiades, as he never truly presents him in a favourably light. But what historians have to keep in mind when they are reading Plutarch, is that he is writing for moral purposes. He was also not present during the time of Alcibiades ,he therefore cannot have built a proper personal view on him. The opinion that he has is purely based on the works of historians such as: Aristophanes (he was an ancient Greek play write, therefore his primary objective was to entertain and not inform. If he was used then Plutarch would get an over exaggerated version of the true Alcibiades.) and Thucydides. Thus in his “Lifes” the reader will get a mixture of different sources opinions that make up that of Plutarch’s.

When he writes about Alcibiades he recalls stories of him as a young boy. In these he shows how even at a young age Alcibiades was stubborn but also highly influential. One of the stories that shows this is when he refused to play the flute. He then “ induced the other boys to do the same” “ consequence[ly] the flute disappeared from the number of so called liberal accomplishments and came to be utterly despised.” His hold over people lasted most of his life, Plutarch says that people were “captivated by the brilliance of his youthful beauty.” However, it was his violent behaviour and attitude that made people question his brilliance . This made many turn from him, and in fact turned two empires against him; Sparta and Athens.

Plutarch presents his violent nature quite predominantly throughout his early years. He includes stories such as when he “struck him [a teacher] with his fist and went off.” This was due to the fact that he did not have Homer’s works. And again he strikes Hipponicus because “ he had agreed with some friends to do it as a joke.” This not only shows that Plutarch Alcibiades is a violent character ,but also one that is arrogant.

Alcibiades’s arrogance is also a running theme throughout Plutarch’s piece. He states that “Alcibiades was carefree and easily led into pleasure: that lawless self indulgence.“ He also shows that even Socrates whom respected and loved Alcibiades saw that his pupil was “puffed up with vanity and the life of pleasure.” Plutarch presents this as evidence that Alcibiades is a lazy, arrogant pompous man. But he then seems to try and teach his audience that even those whom are of the worst nature can change or at least try and change. He says that “Alcibiades was compelled to learn how many his defects were and how far he fell short of perfection.” This shows Plutarch teaching his readers morals and using Alcibiades as his example.

Plutarch does shows him briefly in a favourable light, he says that both he and Socrates “fought with great courage.” Plutarch says in the same paragraph that when Socrates started to retreat on foot Alcibiades “would not ride on, but stay to stay to escort him.” This shows Plutarch revealing a kind, caring loyal side. This is have ever showed again through his work on Alcibiades. Suggesting either that Alcibiades did not really commit anymore unselfish acts, or Plutarch does not show his reader them. This can be applied to every single source that historians have on Alcibiades or any other person that the sources write about.

Plutarch commends Alcibiades on his rhetoric skills. He says that one of the reason that the Athenian people put up with Alcibiades behaviour for so long was due to the “power of his oratory.” His power of oratory was especially needed when the Athenians had, had enough of him. He went to Sparta and managed to convince them to let them on their side. They did , however, due to his attitude and war accomplishments “the most powerful and ambition of the Spartans were by now jealous and tired of him.” Alcibiades used rhetoric to hide behind the Persian King’s satrap Tissaphernes. He also managed to win over some Athenians as “he appealed to them as individuals.” This shows the power that he had over people due to just his voice, let alone his wealth which also meant that he had huge influence.

He was extremely clever and cunning with the way he got his own way he managed to play Nicias, Phaeax against Hyperbolus to get him ostracized. By doing this he was making sure that he was securing his place and that he would not be ostracised. Plutarch is showing how Alcibiades would do anything to save himself and heighten his fame.

Plutarch introduces and very spiteful side of Alcibiades, because Athens had wanted him dead he used Sparta to get to them. “Alcibiades so stirred them up and encouraged them…” “ with orders to take command and destroy the Athenian army.” He wanted revenge against those whom wanted to end what he wanted to do. Alcibiades would not let anyone stand in his way, not even an Empire. He was willing to destroy a whole empire because they wanted to destroy him.

Plutarch shows how even people of the time could not understand Alcibiades. Whereas the attitudes to the politician Cleon were very clear. “public opinion found to judge Alcibiades, because of the extreme inconsistency of his character.” It shows perhaps Plutarch isn’t even sure what to make of Alcibiades over all, as he may admire parts of Alcibiades’s character but dislike other parts.

Plutarch seems to use Alcibiades as a moral teaching tool, showing his despicable, violent and selfish side but also showing his more caring side to those he truly loved and admired (himself and Socrates). What is certainly clear from Plutarch is that Alcibiades primary goal was to make sure that he was safe and that he came out the best out of every situation. Some may admire him for this other may hate him. Plutarch seems to not hate him but does not commend his actions, however, what is interesting is the way he has written his work. When he has written a paragraph saying something bad about Alcibiades, he then follows this up with something good, but then follows this with another bad aspect.

Therefore in conclusion it would appear that Plutarch disliked his moral conducted, he noted that he tried to change. But this changed never happened, thus his bad conduct continued. And so did Plutarch’s view on his selfishness, violent and cunning character.


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