Politics of the Soul in the Alcibiades

by James M. Magrini (Author)
©2021 Monographs XIV, 122 Pages


Politics of the Soul in the Alcibiades is an important book that develops an interpretation of the essence of the political (politics of the soul) as elucidated through the analysis of Socrates’ practice of “self-cultivation” or care for the soul. In the process, it also confronts the issue of the problematic relationship between philosopher and statesman that is present to Plato’s dialogues. The analysis contributes the following to ongoing scholarship: (1) It offers a detailed and critical discussion of the neglected and ofttimes maligned dialogue the Alcibiades; (2) It contributes to the reinterpretation of the traditional view of the Socratic method arguing for elenchus as an expression and instantiation of the normative politics it seeks to define; and (3) In developing a unique account of Socratic participatory democracy, it has the subordinate aim of demonstrating the value of Socratic practice over our own impoverished practice of political discourse. The text is suitable for scholars working in the fields of philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy, and classical studies. It would serve as an excellent secondary text for graduate level courses reading Plato’s dialogues because it contains an extensive and sustained discussion of the Socratic method. In addition to graduate students, it is appropriate for college students pursuing courses in philosophy in their third or fourth year of study. Laypersons who are intellectually curious about philosophy, particularly those interested in Socrates, will be attracted to this text.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Abbreviations and References
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Why the Alcibiades Matters
  • Controversy Surrounding “Platonic” Authorship
  • Alcibiades in the Historical and Philosophical Traditions
  • Reading the Alcibiades
  • Chapter Two: Socratic Elenchus, Method, and Education in the Alcibiades
  • The Socratic Education of Alcibiades
  • Socratic Elenchus: Attunement and Learned Ignorance
  • The Failure of Alcibiades’ Education
  • Chapter Three: Socratic Self-Knowledge and the Virtuous Order of the Soul
  • The Intimate Knowledge of the Soul
  • Self-Knowledge and Radical Limitations
  • The Well-Ordered Soul: Dikaiosune, Sophrosune, and Phronesis
  • Chapter Four: Socratic Virtues, Ethics, and Democratic Ideals in Dialectic
  • Socrates’ Critical-Elenchus: The Concern for Social Justice
  • Instantiating Phronesis of the Virtues in Socratic Dialectic-and-Dialogue
  • Socratic Dialectic and Democratic Ideals
  • Chapter Five: Socratic Politics of the Soul: Philosopher, Statesman, and Democracy
  • Statesman-as-Philosopher: The Virtuous Ordering of the State
  • Socrates’ Virtuous Practice of Politics in Athens
  • Socrates and Contemporary Dialogue: Dialektos, Parrhesia, and Oikeion
  • About the Author

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Politics of the Soul in the Alcibiades emerges from a close reading of the “Platonic” dialogue, Alcibiades I (First or Major Alcibiades), which is referenced as Alcibiades throughout. I have adopted a direct and accessible writing style for the communication of the material, for example, when analyzing this dialogue (and others), I distill the essence of original passages without reproducing the text of the dialogue at great length. My analysis does, however, emphasize the important sense of meaning conveyed by the Greek language.

The following key texts are referenced throughout this study: (1) English translations of Plato’s dialogues reference: Cooper, J. M., ed., Plato: Complete Works. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Passages from the Alcibiades are cited as (Alc. 132b–c); (2) I relied on the following invaluable commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades, the only one available in English: Denyer, Nicholas. Plato: Alcibiades. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001; (3) I consulted the Alcibiades I in Attic Greek as it is reproduced in Nicholas Denyer’s commentary (pages 33–82); and (4) When translating Greek terms and passages from the dialogues – in italicized transliteration – I consulted: Liddell, H., Scott, R. A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing, 2015.

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Abbreviations and References

References to the dialogues are cited as follows: (Alc. 135a). The abbreviations of dialogues are identical to those in Denyer’s commentary: Alc. = Alcibiades I, Ap. = Apology, Chrm. = Charmides, Crt. = Crito, Ep. = Epistles, Grg. = Gorgias, La. = Laches, Men. = Meno, Phd. = Phaedo, Phdr. =Phaedrus, Plt. = Politicus (Statesman), Prt. = Protagoras, Rep. = Republic, Smp. = Symposium, Sph. = Sophist, Tht. = Theaetetus

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Politics of the Soul in the Alcibiades is a book on Socratic philosophy, self-knowledge, and dialectic (elenchus) as the practice of self-cultivation. It develops an interpretation of the essence of the “political” (politics of the soul) as elucidated through the analysis of Socrates’ philosophy as dramatized in the Alcibiades. In the process, the text also confronts the problematic issue of the seemingly intractable relationship between philosopher and statesman that is present in Plato’s dialogues. Socrates seeks to train and educate Alcibiades prior to his involvement in Athenian politics as an advisor or “statesman.” Whereas it is common to encounter historical accounts of Socrates’ political views, our main focus is on the philosophical politics already instantiated by Socrates in his encounter with the young Alcibiades. Thus, we illuminate a decidedly philosophical understanding of ancient Socratic politics that is radically at odds with our contemporary understanding of politics and political discourse, and in the process, analyze what it means for Socrates and his practice of philosophy to be both a virtuous politician and a participatory and contributive member of the body politic. True politics, as the argument is developed, is inseparable from Socrates’ dedication to and practice of elenchus as a self-avowed critic of Athenian democracy. Socrates dedicated his life, which he eventually gave for the state, to the pursuit of philosophy, which is a life-task and vocation consisting of “caring for the soul,” or as it is identified in the dialogue, a process of “self-cultivation.” Socrates’ elenchus is ultimately, as this dialogue demonstrates, an ←1 | 2→ascetic educative exercise in deepening our knowledge or philosophical understanding, contributing to a developing sense of self in the company of other, like-minded and ethically concerned individuals. Since, as stated, Alcibiades desires a career in politics, Socrates urges him to commit in an unwavering fashion to the practice of self-examination and the cultivation of his soul, which includes pursuing the knowledge of the virtues and the manner in which they should be organized to foster and inspire an excellent life of ethical flourishing. This endeavor will not only enhance Alcibiades’ “private” life it will also benefit his “public” life, contributing to the betterment of the state and the citizens he will potentially serve and rule. The practice of Socratic self-cultivation is akin to developing, through a mode of self-organization, a “politics of the soul,” occurring within the context of elenchus as it is directed toward a deeper understanding of the virtues and the self. Socrates’ elenchus is shown to be a project that lives at the normative level and contains a critical element necessary for diagnosing political ills and then offering a philosophical prescriptive or corrective for those maladies.

Drawing inspiration from both Socrates and Alcibiades, the book offers readers a re-conceptualization of democratic discourse, which is far too often reduced to and so misunderstood as either an egalitarian exercise in uncritical tolerance or a degenerate mode of polemics. Ultimately, we learn that in the philosophical discourse between Socrates and the young political upstart that equality, equity, and justice are not merely democratic ideals to be sought and enacted, but rather virtues that the participants both embody and instantiate because these virtues are already present within the unfolding elenchus, but require critical and interpretive activity to wrest them from concealment as evident in key moments from the Alcibiades. This is because, as we argue, knowledge or phronesis of the virtues for Socrates is never a matter of possession and transmission, for the virtues are essentially normative in nature, and are therefore irreducible to knowledge associated with craft/art techne or science episteme – the precise forms of knowledge that the sophists claim to impart to their students for an appropriate fee. We must recognize that the process of self-examination for Socrates and the notion of democracy we develop are indeed inseparable from the difficult, and at times, discomforting aspects of the rigorous form of self-examination Socrates demands from Alcibiades. For it is the case that Socrates’ idea and practice of elenchus, his consistent understanding of philosophy and the philosopher, are antithetical to and the avowed enemies of both complacent and unchallenged ignorance as well as dogmatism; views hostile to an authentic and flourishing notions of what we encounter in the Socratic politics of the soul. Our analysis spans five chapters focused on detailed readings of various moments of the dialogue as they are synthesized, unified, and related to our developing interpretive idea of Socratic politics, and the titles of the chapters ←2 | 3→are as follows: (1) Why the Alcibiades Matters, (2) The Socratic Elenchus, Method, and Education in the Alcibiades, (3) Self-Knowledge and the Virtuous Order of the Soul, (4) Socratic Virtues, Ethics, and Democratic Ideals in Dialectic, and, bringing the book to a close, (5) Socratic Politics of the Soul Philosopher, Statesman, and Democracy, where the arguments and interpretations developed in the proceeding chapters are synthesized; they are brought into a concise dialogue with a contemporary understanding of political debate or “dialogue,” which is not only undeniably in a state of troubling decline, but also in grave danger of falling into an uncontrollable and unrecoverable death-spiral. However, it is noted that our reading does not attempt to apply Socratic philosophy to contemporary politics, instead we seek to draw potential lessons from the practice of care for the soul as we consider Socrates’ legacy.


XIV, 122
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XIV, 122 pp.

Biographical notes

James M. Magrini (Author)

Dr. James M. Magrini teaches Western philosophy at the College of Dupage. He has published over fifty peer-reviewed articles and seven philosophy monographs and was awarded the 2017 Michael Oliker Award in philosophy of education. In 2013 he was the Outstanding Part-Time Liberal Arts Faculty Member at COD.


Title: Politics of the Soul in the Alcibiades
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138 pages