Last post I talked about the perils of passion. One of our readers asked who Alcibiades was. Today’s post is a short story of his life and the reason he is one of my examples.
Alcibiades was an Athenian in the time of Socrates. He came from a wealthy family. He was a man overflowing with talent. He was beautiful physically. He was incredibly intelligent, brave, skilled in war and a natural born leader. We have no real comparison in modern times for a person like him. Men chased him desiring him as a lover. He rejected most of them. Socrates was attracted by his beauty but chased him because he perceived a depth of character in his soul. He felt he needed to act like a teacher to him; showing Alcibiades that even though he was wonderful there were many flaws he needed to fix. Because of their relationship Alcibiades accomplished many things.
When he became older he was involved in the Athenian democracies leadership. In the Great War between Sparta and Athens the Athenians did well against the Spartans while Alcibiades was involved in laying the military plans or being a directing general. Soon he loosed the holds of passion that Socrates had taught him to maintain.
After driving the Spartans to be desperate in their fight with Athens he convinced the Athenians to invade Syracuse as the final nail in the Spartan coffin. At this point he was driven by his ambition to succeed and to be revered. He had many enemies in the Athenian polity and he was always being reviled in public and private by some.
The Athenians had committed themselves to a risky strategy in the Syracuse invasion. They felt it was doable because of the genius of Alcibiades directing things. And then the lack of perceived love and adulation got to him and he defected to the Spartans! Imagine JFK defecting to the Russians at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is the kind of impact this was.
The Athenians were devastated. And soon the war turned bad for them. They lost the whole invading force (Imaging losing the whole invading force on D-Day). With Alcibiades help the Spartans gradually wore the Athenians down and won.
Alcibiades soon became disenchanted with the Spartans. He spent time debauching the leaders and seemed to undermine the morale of the Spartans. Eventually they exiled him.
He went from city state to city state creating wealth and always helping the city state out. He seduced everyone where he went. He lived a passionate life of pleasure and accomplishment. But the Spartans were terrified of him. They were afraid that he would go back to Athens and lead a revolt against the Thirty (a set of Spartan governors set up to rule conquered Athens). So they sent agents to kill him in his house in Phrygia. His bravery and skill terrified the agents sent to kill him. They set his house on fire and when he leapt out with bare sword to fight him they ran away and shot him with darts and arrows.
Passion for things was his mantra. He did everything with passion. If reason wouldn’t work he would seduce a person with words and charm. If that wasn’t enough he would seduce them physically or bribe them. He was more intelligent than almost everyone so he was arrogant and condescending. Being first was more important than the work itself. His own aggrandizement was the end game. He wanted to be loved and adored.
If he had been less driven by passion he might have been the greatest leader of the ancient world. Certainly Athens would have triumphed and perhaps he could have forged the Athenian democracy into a more workable structure. I’ve always thought that Plato’s philosopher-king was inspired by imagining the strengths of Alcibiades without the weaknesses. This balance between great gifts, ambition and lust is a difficult balance.
Lust is passion unleashed. It isn’t just physical lust. It can be lust to dominate, to win, to conquer, to master the world. It brings about wonderful heights but condemns afterwards to depressing lows.
There aren’t many people in history like Alcibiades. They are people of great talent but carry the flaws that passion exploits.
What do you think Alcibiades would answer if we asked the fundamental question of clarity? If I said, “Alcibiades, what is your desired outcome for all you do?” What would he answer? I think he would say, “Cliff, I want to be loved and adored by everyone. I want them to always listen to what I say and always take my advice.” See the passion here and its perils.
Note: Plutarch gives a life of Alcibiades and compares him to Coriolanus the Roman general. We commonly know Coriolanus from the Shakespeare tragedy of the same name. Some stories in Plutarch are disputed but the core driver of Alcibiades isn’t; his passion. Portraits of his ability and the way people revere him show up in some of Plato’s dialogues and in Xenophon. This is in case you want to read more about him than my short story.