Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: The Diva and the General: Who Wins?

[by Pauline Kaurin]

One of the most striking conversations or interchanges in Book 6 is between Alcibiades and Nicias. Alcibiades is arguing in favor of the expedition to invade Sicily, largely on this basis of his excellence and skills, as well as youthful energy, in addition to using his political skills to build a coalition against Sparta (6.16-7). He argues that the adversary is politically weak, will be easily divided and that the Spartan’s will be unable to harm the Athenians while they are on this expedition. Finally, he appeals to the desire to maintain and expand empire and that this expedition promises large benefits with very few risks.

Meanwhile Nicias is urging caution, pointing out the possible dangers, and refuting the idea that Sicily is weak and will put up very little resistance. He also points out that distance will make it difficult to keep Sicily subdues and also goes through the various difficulties that Athens has been through (the plague) and that they ought not be swayed by youthful eagerness that may not be based in fact and experience (6.11-12). He argues that they will need to be well provisioned, will require overwhelming force to succeed in this very dangerous mission.

One classical way to read this is as the politician who wants war, assumes it will be easy and is really in it for his own glory, as opposed to the seasoned warrior who sees the difficulties and dangers of warfare and views it as a last resort. This is certainly how my students viewed it and spent time discussing historical and contemporary parallels. One student even compared Alcibiades to Donald Trump! (An interesting discussion on that ensued…but I digress.)

But as a philosopher, I see these two characters through the lens of the Platonic dialogues in which they both appear. For Alcibiades, who appears at the end of Plato’s Symposium, a discussion on the nature of love and beauty, I see a Diva. Allow me to explain. Alcibiades enters the conversation at the very end of the dialogue and enters highly drunk, recounting his attempts to seduce Socrates. “Good evening gentlemen, I’m plastered,” (212E). As the master politician with a very high view of his abilities, we are treated to a recounting of the Machiavellian machinations he goes through in this process, along with Socrates’ rejection and disinterest in anything other than philosophical discussions. We also get a picture of both of them at war, in the retreat from Delium (221A), which reinforces this picture of Socrates as unconcerned with material privations, brave and generally obsessed with philosophy. Alcibiades professes his ire since he clearly thinks (in keeping with the practice of pederasty) that Socrates could benefit his career and ambitions and that Alcibiades represents a good catch! How could Socrates not find him attractive? Inconceivable.

Now, of course, this is all presented as a comedic end to the dialogue and Plato clearly has Alcibiades playing the fool’s part—even to the point of raising questions about whether he is really drunk or just being overly dramatic.

Nicias, on the other hand, who appears in the Laches—a discussion of courage and how to teach young men this virtue—is the very sober, sympathetic interlocutor with Socrates and Laches. Its clear from the dialogue that Nicias has tangled with Socrates before, knows the routine and professes to enjoy the intellectual conversation. In the course of the discussion he is charitable and genuinely tries to engage, while Laches gets (as most of Socrates interlocutors do) frustrated and cranky with Nicias. Of all the people who ought to be defensive about having trouble defining courage, it ought to be the good general.

What are we to make of all this? I would argue that looking at these figures through Plato only deepens my students assessments.  Nicias is the thoughtful, non-ego driven team player who is thoughtful and willing to consider a wide range of things. Alcibiades is entirely ego driven, sure he is right and cannot imagine how he can possibly be wrong or how anyone would disagree with him or resist his course of action. But who wins here? In the short term, Alcibiades gets his way; in the long term Nicias is right. So we ought to think about the reasons that we listen to the Diva Politicians, and not the Sober, Experienced Generals. Perhaps the Diva is the picture we want to believe and portray, and the General is the reality that we would rather not see or face.