Alcibiades as a Trumpian precursor

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David Stuttard calls Alcibiades the Donald Trump of ancient Greece:

Privileged and narcissistic, a man who considered truth to be subjective, who casually manipulated facts to suit his own ambitious ends, who believed that the world was divided into winners and losers, and was determined to win at any cost, no matter whom he trampled on: Alcibiades was a politician for our times. And since, as George Santayana famously remarked, 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,' we would do well not to forget him today.

Alcibiades was born to wealthy Athenian aristocrats in the middle of the fifth century bc, his city's Golden Age. Orphaned as a child, he became ward of the powerful Pericles, and as a young man forged a close friendship with Socrates, who (it is said) saw his potential for both good and bad, and tried to steer him towards the former.

Stuttard offers more context:

Tapping into inter-generational tension, the comic dramatist, Aristophanes, raised a laugh at their expense in Clouds, imagining a debate where Honest-Argument, personified as an old-school conservative, is trumped by his smart, young, charismatic, but decidedly amoral rival, Dishonest-Argument (in today's vocabulary, "alternative truth"). While (perhaps unfairly) Aristophanes named Socrates as the quintessential sophist, he gave his pupil a dramatic pseudonym, but dropped none-too-subtle hints regarding his identity. A flamboyant young hedonist, who spent family money on racing chariots, he clearly represented Alcibiades.

"For all his statesmanship," writes Stuttard, "Alcibiades was morally a loose cannon:"

Flagrantly consorting with prostitutes nearly cost him his marriage, but it was scandal of another sort that brought him down. On the eve of the Sicilian expedition, public statues of Hermes (believed to keep the city safe) were found to have been systematically smashed. A second outrage followed: blasphemous young men were accused of profaning one of Greece's most sacred rituals. And implicated in both was Alcibiades.

It didn't end well for Alcibiades:

He found refuge in the unlikeliest of places: first with Athens's mortal enemies, the Spartans, then with Greece's mortal enemies, the Persians. Somehow through persuasiveness, charisma, and shamelessly offering to help defeat his city, Alcibiades managed to stay one step ahead in the grim game of survival. But still he wanted to bask in Athens's limelight.

Desperation at home paved the way for his return:

Riven by internal faction, defeated in war, and plunged into economic crisis, the Athenians voted to drop all charges and recall him. At last he was where he wanted to be: Commander-in-Chief, the most powerful man in Athens.

Hubris was again his downfall, as one might expect:

Once more he escaped, but time had run out for both him and his city. Athens fell, defeated by the Spartan-Persian coalition, which Alcibiades had once done so much to encourage, and in Anatolia Alcibiades was shot dead by assassins.

Clever and hypnotic, but loyal only to himself, Alcibiades epitomized Athens. Heedless of his weaknesses, he exploited his city's failings, exacerbating fault lines for his private ends, and undermining hard-won democratic principles. To some he was a ruthless traitor, dangerously self-obsessed, a would-be tyrant (in Greek, an "unelected autocrat"). Others, swayed by his common touch, found stories of his excesses endearing. Once, when asked why he had cut off his handsome hunting dog's fine tail, he replied, "So people will be so obsessed with that, that they ignore anything worse that I might do."

The parallels to today are obvious, sad to say--though one hopes that Trump's reign will be less disastrous. Stuttard's book Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens has earned a spot on my TBR list.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 1, 2018 10:50 AM.

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