Studying the less honourable (The Plutarch Project Volume Nine)

Why study Alcibiades?

Even scholars who have studied Alcibiades for years are still trying to decide if his accomplishments outweigh his mistakes and faults.For Plutarch, there are two “telling details” about Alcibiades: the sight of him flouncing along the street in a purple robe; and the extra-soft bed that he had fitted out on his warship. Neither of these examples, in Plutarch’s opinion, showed the right kind of dignity, resolve or courage for a virtuous leader. In the case of Alcibiades, his double-dealing and lack of personal restraint (including his involvement with the wife of a Spartan king) eventually led to a horrible death.

So why study Alcibiades, particularly in our context of character and citizenship studies? Do we read it only as a negative example of what not to do? Do we admire his intelligence, if not his ethics?

I would like to suggest at least two reasons. First, when we look at Alcibiades himself, we learn something about the qualities necessary for leadership, and see how those qualities were or weren’t apparent in his life. What mistakes did he make? How did he become powerful, and how did he abuse that power?

Second, we can consider the role that citizens play in civil affairs. How can we choose our leaders carefully? What basis do we have for following someone or turning against him? How do we react if we think our leaders have done wrong? There is much to consider here about crowd behaviour and the effects of propaganda.

A Dividing Line.—Both Shakespeare and Scott use, as it were, a dividing line, putting on the one side the wilful, wayward, the weak and the strong; and on the other, persons who will…To make even a suggestive list would be to range over all history and literature. Let me say again, however, that here is a line of study which should make our reading profitable, as making us intimate with persons, and the more able for life. (Charlotte Mason, Ourselves)

(From The Plutarch Project Volume Nine, now available on Amazon.com)

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