Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

Socrates And Alcibiades

During the period of the Peloponnesian war two men became strikingly prominent in Athens, a statesman and a philosopher, as unlike each other in character, appearance, aims, and methods as two persons could well be, yet the most intimate of friends, and long dividing between them the admiration of the Athenians. These were the historically famous Alcibiades and Socrates. Alcibiades was a leader in action, Socrates a leader in thought; thus they controlled the two great dominions of human affairs.

Of these two, Socrates was vastly the nobler and higher, Alcibiades much the more specious and popular. Democratic Athens was never long without its aristocratic leader. For many years it had been Pericles. It now became Alcibiades, a man whose career and character were much more like those of Themistocles of old than of the sedate and patriotic Pericles.

Alcibiades was the Adonis of Athens, noted for his beauty, the charm of his manner, his winning personality, qualities which made all men his willing captives. He was of high birth, great wealth, and luxurious and pleasure-loving disposition, yet with a remarkable power of accommodating himself to circumstances and becoming all things to all men. While numbers of high-born Athenians admired him for his extraordinary beauty of person, Socrates saw in him admirable qualities of mind, and loved him with a warm affection, which Alcibiades as warmly returned. The philosopher gained the greatest influence over his youthful friend, taught him to despise affectation and revere virtue, and did much to develop in him noble qualities of thought and aspiration.

Yet nature had made Alcibiades, and nature's work is hard to undo. He was a man of hasty impulse and violent temper, a man destitute of the spirit of patriotism, and in very great measure it was to this brilliant son of Athens that that city owed its lamentable fate.

No greater contrast could be imagined than was shown by these almost inseparable friends. Alcibiades was tall, shapely, remarkably handsome, fond of showy attire and luxurious surroundings, full of animal spirits, rapid and animated in speech, and aristocratic in sentiment; Socrates short, thick-set, remarkably ugly, careless in attire, destitute of all courtly graces, democratic in the highest degree, and despising utterly those arts and aims, loves and luxuries, which appealed so strongly to the soul of his ardent friend. Yet the genius, the intellectual acuteness, the lofty aims, and wonderful conversational power of Socrates overcame all his natural defects, attracted Alcibiades irresistibly, and welded the two together in an intellectual sympathy that set aside all differences of form and character.

The philosopher and the politician owed to each other their lives. They served as soldiers together at Potidæa, lodged in the same tent, and stood side by side in the ranks. Alcibiades was wounded in the battle, but was defended and rescued by his friend, who afterwards persuaded the generals to award to him the prize for valor. Later, at the battle of Delium, Alcibiades protected and saved Socrates. These personal services brought them into still closer relations, while their friendship was perhaps the stronger from their almost complete diversity of character.

Unluckily for Athens, Socrates was not able to instill strong principles of virtue into the mind of the versatile Alcibiades. This ardent pleasure lover was moved by ambition, desire of admiration, love of display, and fondness for luxurious living, and indulged in excesses that it was not easy for the more frugal citizens to forgive. He sent seven chariots to the Olympic Games, from which he carried off the first, second, and fourth prizes. He gave splendid shows, distributed money freely, and in spite of his wanton follies retained numbers of friends among the Athenian people.

It was to this engaging and ambitious politician that the ruinous Sicilian expedition was due. He persuaded the Athenians to engage in it, in spite of wiser advice, and was one of those placed in command. But the night before the fleet set sail a dreadful sacrilege took place. All the statues of the god Hermes in the city were mutilated by unknown parties, an outrage which caused almost a panic among the superstitious people. Among those accused of this sacrilege was Alcibiades. There was no evidence against him, and he was permitted to proceed. But after he had reached Sicily he was sent for to return, on a new charge of sacrilege. He refused to do so, fearing the schemes of his enemies, and, when told that the assembly had voted sentence of death against him, he said, bitterly, "I will make them feel that I live!"

He did so. To him Athens was indebted for the ruin of its costly expedition. He fled to Sparta and advised the Spartans to send to Syracuse the able general to whom the Athenians owed their fatal defeat. He also advised his new friends to seize and fortify a town in Attica. By this they cut off all the land supply of food from Athens, and did much to force the final submission of that city.

Alcibiades now put on a new guise. He affected to be enraptured with Spartan manners, cropped his hair, lived on black broth, exercised diligently, and by his fluent tongue made himself a favorite in that austere city. But at length, by an idle boast, he roused Spartan enmity, and had to fly again. Now he sought Asia Minor, became a friend of Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap, adopted the excesses of Persian luxury, and sought to break the alliance between Persia and Sparta, which he had before sustained.

Next, moved by a desire to see his old home, he offered the leading citizens of Athens to induce Tissaphernes to come to their aid, on the condition that he might be permitted to return. But he declared that he would not come while the democracy was in power, and it was by his influence that the tyrannical Committee of Four Hundred was formed. Afterwards, falling out with these tyrants, Alcibiades turned democrat again, was made admiral of the fleet, and wrought the ruin of the oligarchy which he had raised to power.

And now this brilliant and fickle son of Athens worked as actively and ably for his native city as he had before sought her ruin. Under his command the fleet gained several important victories, and conquered Byzantium and other cities. The ruinous defeat at Ægospotami would not have occurred had the admiral of the fleet listened to his timely warning. After the fall of Athens, and during the tyranny of the Thirty, he retired to Asia Minor, where he was honorably received by the satrap Pharnabazus. And here the end came to his versatile career. One night the house in which he slept was surrounded by a body of armed men and set on fire. He rushed out, sword in hand, but a shower of darts and arrows quickly robbed him of life. Through whose enmity he died is not known. Thus perished, at less than fifty years of age, one of the most brilliant and able of all the Athenians,—one who, had he lived, would doubtless have added fresh and striking chapters to the history of his native land, though whether to her advantage or injury cannot now be told.

The career of Socrates was wonderfully different from that of his brilliant but unprincipled friend. While Alcibiades was seeking to dazzle and control, Socrates was seeking to convince and improve mankind. A striking picture is given us of the physical qualities of this great moral philosopher. His ugliness of face was matter of jest in Athens. He had the flat nose, thick lips, and prominent eyes of a satyr. Yet he was as strong as he was ugly. Few Athenians could equal him in endurance. While serving as a soldier, he was able to endure heat and cold, hunger and fatigue, in a manner that astonished his companions. He went barefoot in all weather, and wore the same clothing winter and summer. His diet was of the simplest, but in religious festivals, when all were expected to indulge, Socrates could drink more wine than any person present, without a sign of intoxication. Yet it was his constant aim to limit his wants and to avoid all excess.

To these qualities of body Socrates added the highest and noblest qualities of mind. Naturally he had a violent temper, but he held it under severe control, though he could not always avoid a display of anger under circumstances of great provocation. But his depth of thought, his remarkable powers of argument, his earnest desire for human amendment, his incessant moral lessons to the Athenians, place him in the very first rank of the teachers of mankind.

Socrates was of humble birth. He was born 469 B.C. and lived for seventy years. His father was a sculptor, and he followed the same profession. He married, and his wife Xanthippe has become famous for the acidity of her temper. There is little doubt that Socrates, whose life was spent in arguing and conversing, and who paid little attention to filling the larder, gave the poor housewife abundant provocation. We know very little about the events of his life, except that he served as a soldier in three campaigns, that he strictly obeyed the laws, performed all his religious duties, and once, when acting as judge, refused, at the peril of his life, to perform an unjust action.

Of the daily life of Socrates we have graphic pictures, drawn by his friends and followers Xenophon and Plato. From morning to night he might be seen in the streets and public places, engaged in endless talk,—prattling, his enemies called it. In the early morning, his sturdy figure, shabbily dressed, and his pale and ill-featured face, were familiar visions in the public walks, the gymnasia, and the schools. At the hour when the market-place was most crowded, Socrates would be there, walking about among the booths and tables, and talking to every one whom he could induce to listen. Thus was his whole day spent. He was ready to talk with any one, old or young, rich or poor, being in no sense a respecter of persons. He conversed with artisans, philosophers, students, soldiers, politicians,—all classes of men. He visited everywhere, was known to all persons of distinction, and was a special friend of Aspasia, the brilliant woman companion of Pericles.

His conversational powers must have been extraordinary, for none seemed to tire of hearing him, and many sought him in his haunts, eager to hear his engaging and instructive talk. Many, indeed, in his later years, came from other cities of Greece, drawn to Athens by his fame, and anxious to hear this wonderful conversationalist and teacher. These became known as his scholars or disciples, though he claimed nothing resembling a school, and received no reward for his teachings.

The talk of Socrates was never idle or meaningless chat. He felt that he had a special mission to fulfil, that in a sense he was an envoy to man from the gods, and declared that, from childhood on, a divine voice had spoken to him, unheard by others, warning and restraining him from unwise acts or sayings. It forbade him to enter public life, controlled him day by day, and was frequently mentioned by him to his disciples. This guardian voice has become known as the dæmon or genius of Socrates.

The oracle at Delphi said that no man was wiser than Socrates. To learn if this was true and he really was wiser than other men, he questioned everybody everywhere, seeking to learn what they knew, and leading them on by question after question till he usually found that they knew very little of what they professed.

As to what Socrates taught, we can only say here that he was the first great ethical philosopher. The philosophers before him had sought to explain the mystery of the universe. He declared that all this was useless and profitless. Man's mind was superior to all matter, and he led men to look within, study their own souls, consider the question of human duty, the obligations of man to man, and all that leads towards virtue and the moral development of human society.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Greek by Charles Morris


It is not surprising that Xanthippe scolded her idle husband, who supplied so much food for the souls of others, but quite ignored the demands of food for the bodies of his wife and children. His teachings were but vaporing talk to her small mind and to those of many of the people. And the keen questions with which he convicted so many of ignorance, and the sarcastic irony with which he wounded their self-love, certainly did not make him friends among this class. In truth, he made many enemies. One of these was Aristophanes, the dramatist, who wrote a comedy in which he sought to make Socrates ridiculous. This turned many of the audiences at the theatres against him.

All this went on until the year 399 B.C., when some of his enemies accused him of impiety, declaring that he did not worship the old gods, but introduced new ones and corrupted the minds of the young. "The penalty due," they said, "is death."

It had taken them some thirty years to find this out, for Socrates had been teaching the same things for that length of time. In fact, no ancient city but Athens would have listened to his radical talk for so many years without some such charge. But he had now so many enemies that the accusation was dangerous. He made it worse by his carelessness in his defence. He said things that provoked his judges. He could have been acquitted if he wished, for in the final vote only a majority of five or six out of nearly six hundred brought him in guilty.

Socrates seemingly did not care what verdict they brought. He had no fear of death, and would not trouble himself to say a word to preserve his life. The divine voice, he declared, would not permit him. He was sentenced to drink the poison of hemlock, and was imprisoned for thirty days, during which he conversed in his old calm manner with his friends.

Some of his disciples arranged a plan for his escape, but he refused to fly. If his fellow-citizens wished to take his life he would not oppose their wills. On the last day he drank the hemlock as calmly as though it were his usual beverage, and talked on quietly till death sealed his tongue.

Thus died the first and one of the greatest of ethical philosophers, and a man without a parallel, in his peculiar field, in all the history of mankind. Greece produced none like him, and this homely and humble personage, who wrote not a line, has been unsurpassed in fame and influence upon mankind by any of the host of illustrious writers who have made famous the Hellenic lands.