Mini-review: Nemesis, Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Nemesis, by David Stuttard, is the story of Alcibiades, the dashing, powerful, and rich Athenian statesman who was partially responsible for the disastrous expedition against Syracuse that helped change the tide of the Peloponnesian War, ultimately leading to the defeat of Athens. Alcibiades was brilliant, and had all the makings of a great politician and general, like his predecessor, Pericles (by whom he was adopted), and yet squandered the whole thing away, defecting from Athens to Sparta and then to the Persians, before being hunted down and killed by Spartan agents.

My interest in Alcibiades lies in the fact that he was also Socrates’ friend and pupil (and wannabe lover, though the philosopher had different ideas). In one of the Platonic dialogues (the Alcibiades Major), Socrates warns his student of the disaster to come, telling him that he (and politicians in general) just don’t have the right character for what they want to do:

“Then alas, Alcibiades, what a condition you suffer from! I hesitate to name it, but, since we two are alone, it must be said. You are wedded to stupidity, best of men, of the most extreme sort, as the argument accuses you and you accuse yourself. So this is why you are leaping into the affairs of the city before you have been educated. You are not the only one to suffer from this; most of those who manage the affairs of the city are the same way, except a few—perhaps including your guardian, Pericles.”

I’m currently writing a book, tentatively entitled The General and the Philosopher, to explore this historically and philosophically fascinating relationship, and more generally the theme of the interface between philosophy and politics. Stay tuned.

Published by

Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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