Saturday, December 25, 2010

Who's Your Daddy? (Alcibiades and the Character of Athens)

When the play Oedipus The King came to the stage of Athens in 429, the city on a hill had been brought low.  Yet it would go much lower.  Not only were the Athenians at war in the early stages of the Peloponnesian War, the experience of the plague brought suffering, chaos, lawlessness, and rampant death inside the city just as surely as they were beginning to experience the bloody cost of war at sea.  The importance and effectiveness of the play by Sophocles would have been dependent on whether Oedipus seemed to be one of their own to the audience.  It is likely that the Theban king would have been understood as a reflection of the Athenian character.  Though it is hardly a flattering portrait to kill your father and marry your mother, Oedipus does embody Athenian characteristics of efficiency, decisiveness, expediency, a balance of thought and action, and heroic self-sacrifice for the good of the state.  He was willing to go all the way in the diagnosis of the disease afflicting his kingdom, even when the process of healing the city would lead to his own tragic downfall.  He did, however, lift the plague.  War is like a plague, and plague is like a war.  The Athenians needed a leader like Oedipus Rex.  They chose instead Alcibiades.  Between these two models of leadership—one theatrical and one historical—Athens was like a drunk man chasing a balloon near a cliff.  Twenty-seven years later or so, the Athenians held their balloon, but they had run off the cliff after empire and glory.
Plutarch’s The Rise and Fall of Athens varies in its entertainment value in the nine important characters in the history of Greece.  When it comes to the historical character of Alcibiades, Plutarch’s usually evenhanded and sober prose literally leaps to life.  The good reverend’s review of the warrior pimp’s life is somewhere between The Odyssey and Penthouse Letters.  In many ways, Alcibiades is like the best and worst of Achilles and Odysseus all rolled into one living legend.  But he was real, so lock up your daughters…and your sons.  It is clear that he cast a spell on Athens, and that spell included Plutarch four hundred years later.  The only more reasonable characterization is that Alcibiades was like a god, and his mighty mojo included both war and love—the combination of them being the very best of life itself.  He was violent, lustful, irrational, resourceful, drunken, intemperate, adaptive, abusive, clever, orgiastic, disturbed, beautiful, absolutely resilient, and completely victorious in battle.  He is so far past our cautionary hubris as to make the usual Greek language of sober caution and wise humility completely irrelevant, which they were to him.  Unchecked by the usual virtues and boundaries of Greek wisdom, he was the Athenian Id unbound. 
Alcibiades shows how significantly war and empire changed the Athenian people and their character.  He seemed to believe that the best of Athens could only survive by staying on the offensive, a relentless vision of seductive destruction.  The Athenian character sought glory, after all, and there was no better way than pushing the boundaries and increasing the empire.  The Oedipus figure of this time was Nicias offering cautious responses to Alcibiades’s designs on Sicily.  Like an impotent Superego, he was no competition for the imperial libido of his fellow general.  Why do the Athenians need Sicily?  The truth is they don’t.  Yet even Plutarch believed that the end of the war might have been different had the Athenians always followed Alcibiades. 
Yet the sickly Nicias was an historical character far closer to the actual internal condition of Athens.  Though Alcbiades was clearly favored by the gods, Athens no longer was.  Alcibiades was a reflection of who Athens wanted to be, but not who they really were.  So they went after the balloon and sailed for Sicily, and they lost everything in just the way the Persian Empire had been defeated by them.  Xerxes limped home to his remaining empire.  The Athenians died far from home.  They died thirsty in a river filled with their own blood. 
Alcibiades shows how protracted war changes how people think and distorts language, wisdom, and common sense.  If the Athenians didn’t strike out again for empire, the Athenian character would somehow deteriorate.  This is a way of thinking that is hard to understand outside of war.  In the early example of Oedipus at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, a different kind of heroism was proposed by Sophocles, one that was willing to look internally for a cultural illness.  This introspection and self-diagnosis shaped an heroic character that did not simply lash out for more glory—striking out for empire instead of looking in the mirror.  It was an heroic ideal of the suffering servant that might have saved Athenian democracy.  In the example of Alcibiades instead of Oedipus, down can be up, and up can be down if you keep moving, strike the first blow, and ignore every warning sign of imperial decay.  When it came to Alcibiades and the question of Sicily, the Athenians did indeed choose their daddy.       

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