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371 B.C.E.

The Memorabilia: Alcibiades Debates Pericles

The decrees of a tyrant are not law, but violent lawlessness. Are the decrees of a democratic legislature any better?

In this section of the Memorabilia, Xenophon is defending his teacher Socrates against those who blamed him for the percieved failings of his students. One such student, Alcibiades, only studied under Socrates as a means to an end, argues Xenophon, and so we should not take Alcibiades’s actions as evidence that Socrates had a corrupting influence on him. As evidence of this, Xenophon tells a story about how Alcibiades debated Pericles about the nature of the law and of political power. Xenophon claims Alcibiades just wants to show himself cleverer than Pericles by winning an argument against him, but Alcibiades’s argument, as presented by Xenophon and likely entirely fabricated by him, is actually quite good on the merits. Is not democratic law, like oligarchic or tyrannical law, also based on brute violence?

This excerpt comes from the 1897 translation of the Memorabilia by H. G. Dakyn. We do not know exactly when Xenophon’s original was written and published, but it references events that occured in 371 B.C.E. and Xenophon died in 354, which narrows the possible dates.

Perhaps enough has been said to explain the kind of intimacy which had subsisted between Critias and Socrates, and their relation to one another. But I will venture to maintain that where the teacher is not pleasing to the pupil there is no education. Now it cannot be said of Critias and Alcibiades that they associated with Socrates because they found him pleasing to them. And this is true of the whole period. From the first their eyes were fixed on the headship of the state as their final goal. During the time of their intimacy with Socrates there were no disputants whom they were more eager to encounter than professed politicians.

Thus the story is told of Alcibiades—how before the age of twenty he engaged his own guardian, Pericles, at that time prime minister of the state, in a discussion concerning laws.

Alc. Please, Pericles, can you teach me what a law is?

Per. To be sure I can.

Alc. I should be so much obliged if you would do so. One so often hears the epithet “law-abiding” applied in a complimentary sense; yet, it strikes me, one hardly deserves the compliment, if one does not know what a law is.

Per. Fortunately there is a ready answer to your difficulty. You wish to know what a law is? Well, those are laws which the majority, being met together in conclave, approve and enact as to what it is right to do, and what it is right to abstain from doing.

Alc. Enact on the hypothesis that it is right to do what is good? or to do what is bad?

Per. What is good, to be sure, young sir, not what is bad.

Alc. Supposing it is not the majority, but, as in the case of an oligarchy, the minority, who meet and enact the rules of conduct, what are these?

Per. Whatever the ruling power of the state after deliberation enacts as our duty to do, goes by the name of laws.

Alc. Then if a tyrant, holding the chief power in the state, enacts rules of conduct for the citizens, are these enactments law?

Per. Yes, anything which a tyrant as head of the state enacts, also goes by the name of law.

Alc. But, Pericles, violence and lawlessness—how do we define them? Is it not when a stronger man forces a weaker to do what seems right to him—not by persuasion but by compulsion?

Per. I should say so.

Alc. It would seem to follow that if a tyrant, without persuading the citizens, drives them by enactment to do certain things—that is lawlessness?

Per. You are right; and I retract the statement that measures passed by a tyrant without persuasion of the citizens are law.

Alc. And what of measures passed by a minority, not by persuasion of the majority, but in the exercise of its power only? Are we, or are we not, to apply the term violence to these?

Per. I think that anything which any one forces another to do without persuasion, whether by enactment or not, is violence rather than law.

Alc. It would seem that everything which the majority, in the exercise of its power over the possessors of wealth, and without persuading them, chooses to enact, is of the nature of violence rather than of law?

To be sure (answered Pericles), adding: At your age we were clever hands at such quibbles ourselves. It was just such subtleties which we used to practise our wits upon; as you do now, if I mistake not.

To which Alcibiades replied: Ah, Pericles, I do wish we could have met in those days when you were at your cleverest in such matters.

Well, then, as soon as the desired superiority over the politicians of the day seemed to be attained, Critias and Alcibiades turned their backs on Socrates. They found his society unattractive, not to speak of the annoyance of being cross-questioned on their own shortcomings. Forthwith they devoted themselves to those affairs of state but for which they would never have come near him at all.