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Alcibiades, Capitoline Museum

I would like you to take into account what Alcibiades is. In any case, for the usual version, you should read in the Nine Greek Lives what Plutarch wrote about him, this to help you to take into account the stature of the personage.

I know well that this again is going to demand an effort from you. This life is described for us by Plutarch in what I would call the Alexandrian atmosphere, namely at a funny moment in history, in which all the personages seem to pass to the state of a sort of shadow. I am speaking about the moral accent of what comes to us from this epoch which involves a sort of emergence of shadows, a sort of nekuia as it is called in the Odyssey.

Plutarch’s construction, with what they contain moreover as a model, as a paradigm, for a whole moralistic tradition which followed, have this something or other which makes us think of the being of zombies: it is difficult to see blood flowing through their veins. But try to imagine from this singular career that Plutarch outlines for us, what this man must have been; this man coming here before Socrates, Socrates who elsewhere declares that he was protos erastes, the first to have loved him, Alcibiades, this Alcibiades who on the other hand is a sort of pre-Alexander, a personage no doubt whose political adventures are all marked with the sign of defiance, of extraordinary exploits, of an incapacity to situate himself or to come to a halt anywhere, and wherever he passes upsetting the situation and making victory pass from one camp to the other wherever he goes, everywhere hunted, exiled and, it must be said, because of his misdeeds.

It seems that if Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, it is in so far as it felt the need to recall Alcibiades right in the middle of hostilities to make him account for an obscure story, the one described as the mutilation of Hermes, which appears to us to be as inexplicable as it is ridiculous as we look back on it, but which surely involved fundamentally a character of profanation, of properly speaking insulting the gods.

Nor are we at all able to consider the memory of Alcibiades and his companions as settled. I mean that it is surely not without reason that the people of Athens brought him to book for it. In this sort of practice which evokes, by analogy, some sort of black Mass or other, we cannot fail to see against what kind of background of insurrection, of subversion with respect to the laws of the city, that there emerges a personage like Alcibiades. A background of rupture, of contempt for forms and for traditions, for laws, no doubt for religion itself… This is the disturbing thing that this personage carries with him. But he carries with him just as much a very singular seduction wherever he goes. And after this suit by the people of Athens, he does neither more nor less than pass over to the enemy, to Sparta, to this Sparta moreover that he Alcibiades has some responsibility in making the enemy of Athens, because, previously, he did all in his power in short, to make the peace negotiations fail.

So he goes over to Sparta and he immediately finds nothing better, nor more worthy of his memory, than to make the queen pregnant, something which everybody saw and knew about. It happens to be very well known that the king Agis has not slept with his wife for ten months for reasons which I will pass over. She has a child, and right away Alcibiades will say: in any case, it was not for the pleasure of it that I did this, it is because it seemed appropriate to my dignity to ensure that my descendants would have a throne, and in that way to honour the throne of Sparta with one of my own race. This sort of thing, as you can well imagine, may be captivating for a certain time, but it is not forgiven. And naturally as you know Alcibiades, having contributed this present and some ingenious ideas about the manner of conducting hostilities, is going to change quarters again. He can hardly fail to go to the third camp, to the Persian camp, to the one represented by the power of the king of Persia in Asia Minor, namely Tissaphernes who, Plutarch tells us, was a bitter enemy of Greece. To be frank he hates them, but he is seduced by Alcibiades.

It is from there that Alcibiades is going to set about reestablishing the fortunes of Athens. He does it in conditions whose story of course is also extremely surprising because it seems that it is really in the midst of a sort of network of double agents, of permanent betrayal, all the warnings he gives to the Athenians are immediately reported through a circuit to Sparta and to the Persians themselves who make it known to the specific person of the Athenian fleet who passed on the information; so that at the same time he in his turn comes to know, to be informed, that it is perfectly well known in the highest places that he is a traitor.

Each of these personages sorts himself out as best he can. It is certain that in the midst of all this Alcibiades redresses the fortunes of Athens. After all that, without our being able to be absolutely sure of the details, in the way that the ancient historians reported them, we must not be astonished if Alcibiades comes back to Athens with what we could call a really outstanding triumph which, despite the joy of the Athenian people, is going to be the beginning of a change of opinion.

We find ourselves in the presence of someone who cannot fail at every instant to provoke what can be called public opinion. His death is also quite a strange business. There are many obscurities about who is responsible for it; what is certain, is that it seems, that after a succession of reversals of fortune, of reversions each more astonishing than the other, (but it seems that in any case, whatever difficulties he find himself in, he is never disheartened), a sort of enormous confluence of hatreds is going to culminate in the destruction of Alcibiades by means of procedures which are those, which legend, myth say must be used against the scorpion: he is surrounded by a circle of fire from which he escapes and it is from a distance with javelins and arrows that he must be brought down.

Such is the singular career of Alcibiades. If I have shown you the level of a power, of a penetration of a very active, exceptional mind, I would say that the most outstanding trait is still the reflection which is added to it by what is described not alone as the precocious beauty of Alcibiades as a child (which we know is closely linked to the story of the type of love then reigning in Greece namely, the love of children) but this beauty preserved for a long time which meant that at a rather advanced age it makes of him someone who seduces as much by his form as by his exceptional intelligence.

Such is the personage. And we see him in a gathering which reunites in short learned, serious men (although, in this context of Greek love on which we are going to put the accent later on which already contributes a background of permanent erotism from which these discourses on love are going to emerge) we see him therefore coming to recount to everybody something which we can summarise more or less in the following terms: namely the vain efforts that he made when he was a young man, at the time Socrates loved him, to get Socrates to have sex with him.

This is developed at length with details, and in short with a considerable crudity of language. There is no doubt that he made Socrates lose control, show how disturbed he was, yield to these direct corporal invitations, to a physical approach. And this which is publicly [reported] by a drunken man no doubt, but by a drunken man the whole extent of whose remarks Plato thinks it worthwhile reporting to us—I do not know if I am making myself fully understood.

Imagine a book which might appear, I am not saying in our day, because this appears about fifty years after the scene which is reported, Plato produces it at that distance, suppose that after a certain time, to soften things a little, a personage like for example Mr. Kennedy, in a book composed for the elite, a Kennedy who would have been at the same time James Dean, comes to tell how he did his best while he was at the university to be made love to by … (let us say some kind of professor), you can choose the personage yourself. It is not absolutely necessary that he should belong to the teaching profession, because Socrates was not quite a professor. But he was all the same a rather special one. Imagine that it is somebody like Mr. Massignon and who at the same time is Henry Miller. That would produce a certain effect. It would lead to some difficulties for Jean-Jacques Pauvert who would have published this work. Let us recall this at the moment when it is a question of noting that this astonishing work has been transmitted to us throughout the centuries by the hands of what we should call in different ways different kinds of benighted friars, which means that we have without any doubt the complete text.

Jacques Lacan, Transference, 1960