Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Bronze Age Pervert (2): Alcibiades as the Alt-Right Hero

                                  Death of Alcibiades by Yakov Fyodorovich Kapkov, 1842

A Scene from Raphael's School of Athens, with Alcibiades on the Left and Socrates on the Right


The most memorable--and hilarious--passage in Bronze Age Mindset is chapter 50, which celebrates the Athenian Alcibiades as the most brilliant display of manly heroism, and as the kind of charismatic genius that must come after Trump to cleanse the modern world and make politics truly great again.  Alcibiades is set up against Socrates--and against Mitt Romney!

I'll begin with a sketch of Alcibiades' life, and then turn to Bronze Age Pervert's strange call for a new Alcibiades to transform the political world.

Alcibiades was born into one of the wealthiest aristocratic families of Athens in 452 BC.  When his father was killed in battle in 447, Alcibiades was sent to the household of Pericles to be raised as his ward.  

Alcibiades was stunningly beautiful.  Plutarch said that his beauty "bloomed with him in all the ages of his life, in his infancy, in his youth, and in his manhood; and, in the peculiar character becoming to each of these periods, gave him, in every one of them, a grace and a charm."  He had a reputation for sexual voracity, extended to both men and women.  One ancient commentator captured this in one good sentence: "As a boy, he enticed husbands from their wives; as a young man, wives from their husbands."

People were charmed not only by his physical beauty but also by his talents as a persuasive orator and as a military leader.  He was a man of strong passions, of which the most powerful was his ambitious desire for superiority.  He was known as an arrogant and violent man who enjoyed shocking people.

He became friends with Socrates, and they felt a mutual attraction to one another.  Alcibiades was above all a seducer who wanted to pull the whole world under his seductive dominance.  His ambitious self-promotion in his public life and his intemperate self-indulgence in his private life created many enemies among the Athenian citizens who suspected that he aspired to tyranny, and thus that he was a threat to Athenian democracy.

When the Peloponnesian War began in 432, Alcibiades fought early in the war as a hoplite--a heavily armed infantryman--alongside Socrates at the Athenian victory at Potidea.  Alcibiades was 20 years old, Socrates 37.  In one skirmish, Alcibiades fought with ferocious bravery and fell to the ground badly wounded, as the enemy swarmed around him. Socrates jumped into the fray and fearlessly defended him from the attacks of the enemy, which saved Alcibiades from certain death.  

When the battle was over, and the generals were deciding whom to honor with the award for bravery, Socrates refused the honor and argued that this should go to Alcibiades.  In a ceremony before the assembled soldiers, Alcibiades was given a suit of armor and a wreath as his award for outstanding courage.  

In 424, in the battle of Delium, when the Athenians were defeated, Socrates fighting as a hoplite was forced to retreat on foot, while being pursued by Boeotian horsemen; Alcibiades, who was riding for the Athenian cavalry, stayed behind to protect Socrates from attack.  So it is possible that Alcibiades saved Socrates' life.

In the debates over the war, Alcibiades argued for aggressively violent measures, such as the decree of extinction against Melos.  He spoke in favor of killing all the adult men and selling all the women and children into slavery, and then sending Athenian colonists to settle the place for themselves.  He took one of the captive Melian women as his concubine.

In 416, in one of the most conspicuous displays of his self-promoting superiority over all others, Alcibiades entered seven chariots in the 91st Olympic Games.  Only wealthy people could afford chariots and horses, and no one had ever entered so many chariots and horses in the games.  Alcibiades's chariots finished first, second, and third place in the race.  He also set up a lavish silken tent as his headquarters at the games, which was furnished with rich carpets, tapestry, and tables covered with silver and gold vessels.

When he returned to Athens, Alcibiades commissioned paintings of himself being crowned the Olympic victor by beautiful goddesses; and he exhibited these paintings for all the Athenians to see.  He also had the tragic poet Euripides write a victory ode for him:
"It is of you I sing, you, son of Cleinias!  Victory is wonderful.  But the most wonderful of all, won by no other Greek, is to run home with the winning chariot, the second, too, and then the third, to walk unwearied, crowned with Zeus' olive leaves, to hear your name proclaimed loud by the herald." 

In 415, Alcibiades persuaded the Athenian Assembly to launch a massive expedition for the conquest of Sicily, against the advice of older men like Nicias that this was a foolish mistake.  Alcibiades wanted this so that he could be in command and win the reputation from conquering not only Sicily but also Carthage. In 413, the Athenians were forced to surrender in Sicily, and this became the most calamitous defeat for the Athenians in the entire war.  Thousands of  Athenian soldiers were taken captive and either died or enslaved.

Before the launch of the Sicilian expedition, Alcibiades was suspected of committing impiety and sacrilege.  In one night, most of the stone Hermae in Athens--square religious figures at the doorways of private houses and temples that were thought to give divine protection--were mutilated.  There were suspicions that this was part of a conspiracy to overturn the Athenian democracy.  There were also charges that some young men in a drunken frolic had engaged in mock celebrations of the sacred Eleusinian Mysteries.  Alcibiades was implicated as guilty of these acts.  But it was decided that he should be allowed to lead the Sicilian expedition, with the understanding that he would be tried in court when he returned.  Then, after the expedition arrived in Sicily, enemies of Alcibiades in Athens persuaded the Assembly that he should be brought back to Athens for trial, and a ship was dispatched to Sicily to pick him up.

When Alcibiades heard about this, he fled to Sparta, where he adopted the customs of Spartan life, and he advised the Spartan leaders on how they could use his knowledge of Athens and Athenian plans to defeat Athens and win supremacy over the entire Hellenic world.  In Athens, he was sentenced to death in absentia.

Alcibiades had an affair with the wife of Agis, one of the two Spartan kings, and fathered a son by her.  He explained that he wanted to have Spartan children who could become a dynasty of Spartan rulers.

In 412, Alcibiades lost the support of the Spartan leaders.  Agis put out an order that he should be killed.  So Alcibiades shifted his loyalties to the Persian Empire, adopted Persian customs and offering advice as to how Persia could advance its imperial power by playing the Spartans off against the Athenians.  He became the adviser to Tissaphernes the Persian Satrap of Lydia.

He then opened negotiations with some Athenian generals, hoping that he could be recalled to Athens, and he told them that he could bring Tissaphernes to support Athens against Sparta if the Athenians overthrew the democracy, installed an oligarchy, and allowed Alcibiades to return to Athens.  Some of the Athenian generals argued against this, warning that Alcibiades only cared for his recall, and that the establishment of an oligarchy in Athens would drive away the Athenian allies.  Finally, the Athenians decided that Alcibiades had deceived them, and they broke off the negotiations.  Pisander (an Athenian oligarch) had argued for restoring Alcibiades to Athens and abolishing democracy.  

Finally, in 411, Pisander and others led a coup in Athens that overthrew the democracy and established an oligarchic tyranny--The Four Hundred.  They assassinated Androcles, the chief leader of the people, and the man mainly responsible for the banishment of Alcibiades.  Thousands of opponents of the oligarchy were murdered.  The Athenian Assembly ratified a new oligarchic constitution, and for the first time in one hundred years, Athens lost its democratic freedom.

But within a few months, the leaders of the oligarchy fell into conflict, and the Athenian naval troops at the island of Samos declared themselves opponents of the oligarchs, and devoted to restoring the democracy.  They recalled Alcibiades to Samos to become their general, hoping to win Persian support for their war against Sparta.  Alcibiades played both sides against the other.  The rule of the Four Hundred was replaced by the rule of the Five Thousand, and Alcibiades was recalled to Athens, although he did not return to Athens until 407.  Alcibiades had some success as a general leading Athenian troops against the Spartans.

Because of his military victories, Alcibiades was welcomed when he finally returned to Athens in 407.  All of the criminal charges against him were withdrawn.  The Assembly elected him the supreme commander of all Athenian military forces.

In 406, Alcibiades sailed out of Athens with thousands of hoplites and over a hundred ships.  The Persians were now supporting the Spartans financially, and the Peloponnesian fleet was growing faster than the Athenian.  Alcibiades moved his fleet to Notium.  He had to travel away, but knowing that the Spartan fleet was nearby, he left nearly eighty ships to watch them, and he put his fleet under the command of Antiochus, with an order not to attack the Spartans.  Antiochus disobeyed this order, attacked the Spartans, and the Athenians were totally defeated.  

Alcibiades was blamed for this loss, and his opponents in Athens took the opportunity to attack him and have him removed from command.  He went into exile in the Thracian Chersonese. Later, in 404, after the final defeat of Athens by Sparta at Aegospotami, Alcibiades moved to the Persian province of Hellespontine Phrygia, where he hoped to secure the help of King Artaxerxes against Sparta.

According to Plutarch,  Alcibiades was killed in 404 by the order of the Persian satrap Pharnabazus, following a request by the Spartan leader Lysander.  Alcibiades' house was surrounded and set on fire.  He rushed out of the house, naked, with only a dagger in hand.  He was killed by a shower of arrows and javelins.

Here is BAP's long passage on Alcibiades:
"Imagine a Mitt Romney, but different . . . a Romney who actually was capable of acting like he looks, and was worthy of his looks.  Imagine a younger Romney who rouses the nation to a new war, against India, through power of charisma and speech alone.  Then he leave on ship to head the armies conquering India.  But then come rumors that Mitt ran a Black Mass Satanist dinner in New York.  Also, people awaken one day and find that someone defaced the Holocaust Museum and the Lincoln Memorial . . . rumors spread that it is Mitt and his friends, in preparation to overthrow the government.  So he is recalled from his command to stand trial.  Instead of returning, Mitts runs to Russia where he becomes a major advisor to Putin.  Soon though, he finally has to leave in a great hurry when it is discovered he's been banging Putin's wife in secret.  He runs to China where, again, he miraculously becomes a major political force and advisor, adopting Chinese customs and language with ease.  After some time he leaves China and ends up living in Afghanistan with the tribesmen as one of them, in one of their mud fortresses, where he is finally found by American special forces and he goes out fighting, charging them repeatedly with machine gun in his glorious black-and-gold armor and Dune-like headset.  Exactly such, and more, was the life of the ancient Alcibiades from Athens.  How inconceivable!  Even as versatile and flashy a man as Trump is very far from this possibility in our time, though he at least makes such a type somehow believable.  There's nothing like it in almost any other era of history.  Someone like Talleyrand is famous for switching from the monarchy, to the republic, to Napoleon, and back, being somewhat successful under different forms of government, and that's rare enough to make him famous.  But that was all within one country.  Alcibiades' achievement is made all the more amazing by the fact that different cultures at that time were actually different, their ways of life entirely alien to one another, and yet he excelled everywhere.  I believe this is because in Athens, where he grew up, he picked the god of erotic passion as his patron.  He was very beautiful youth, admired and pursued by all the men and women.  He rejected the advances of the Pelasgian pedo-pervert Socrates, a story that Plato inverted and twisted like the lying cunt and Phoenician-asskisser that he was.  Alcibiades excelled in athletics and at skrewl he refused to play the flute because it made your cheeks look puffed up and ridiculous.  Other boys followed him, considering that the harp is noble, but playing the flute is something for slaves and cocksuckers.  As he grew in power, his shield had Eros with a thunderbolt on it, and this scandalized the older men.  In such way he showed that he was a disciple of the irrepressible life force, a devotee of the young god of sexual passion and total destruction; he showed that no law or world of man would stand in his way!  In the beginning was the word??  NO!  In the beginning was the demonic fire that bursts out in men like Alcibiades and lays low the cities of men and exposes all their nonsense!  Such men asre sent by nature to chastise us and be our Nemesis.  They are the great cleansing.  His story is told by Thucydides and Plutarch, though you must know that latter is a famous liar.  But I think there must be someone as colorful as Alcibiades among you" (115).
Although BAP's view of Alcibiades might come from his reading of Thucydides and Plutarch, much of his language here and elsewhere in his book echoes the language of David Stuttard's book Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, which was published early in 2018 a few months before the publication of Bronze Age Mindset.  BAP's reference to Nemesis is one indication that he was influenced by his reading of Studdard's book (see Studdard, 9, 17, 30-31, 34-36, 50, 55, 135-39, 273, 319 [n. 9]).

But if you compare the two books, you will see that BAP disagrees with Studdard about applying the Greek idea of Nemesis to Alcibiades.  Studdard invokes the Greek belief that hubris--the arrogant transgression of the limits of acceptable behavior that the gods place on humanity--will inevitably be punished by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution.  To avoid this, one should practice the virtue of moderation--obeying the teaching inscribed over the entrance of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: "Nothing in excess."  Alcibiades' flamboyant excesses ultimately brought disaster both to Athens and to himself.  Athens fell to defeat by the Spartan-Persian coalition that Alcibiades had encouraged, and in Anatolia, Alcibiades was killed by assassins sent by his enemies.

Quite the opposite of this account is BAP's claim that Alcibiades was himself the Nemesis sent by nature to punish ancient Greece with "the great cleansing," and that there is someone among BAP's readers who can become the new Alcibiades who will punish us with a "great cleansing."

Notice that BAP gives us no explanation of what it means to have a "great cleansing."  Nor does he give us any evidence that an Alcibiades can bring about that cleansing.  It's hard to see any transformative improvement in political life as a result of anything done by Alcibiades--or by the imagined Romney-as-Alcibiades.

BAP says that in the "human cycle of civilization," there has always been "the emergence of brotherhoods of savage men who have decided to purify the earth and rid it of the infestation of the human-cockroach" (51).  Is this what he means by "the great cleansing"--the extermination of those human beings who can be identified as subhuman vermin, the "bugmen"?  If so, haven't we heard this before--the brutish language of fascist and Nazi tyranny?  And what does this have to do with Alcibiades?

BAP's presentation of Alcibiades as "a disciple of the irrepressible life force" requires that he scorn Plato's presentation of Alcibiades as a lover of Socrates who was entranced by Socrates' philosophic discourses, but who then felt ashamed of himself when his love of the Athenian demos stirred his political ambition and pulled him away from living the intellectually erotic life of Socratic philosophy.  When they were together on the campaign to Potidaea, Alcibiades saw Socrates' truly manly nature as combining the courage of the warrior and the contemplative life of the philosopher.

The deepest insult to Alcibiades came when he tried to sexually seduce Socrates, and Socrates spurned him and disdained his youthful charms.  Alcibiades had failed to understand what Socrates had said to him in their very first conversation, when Alcibiades was 20, and Socrates was 37--that Socrates was the only true lover of Alcibiades because he loved Alcibiades' soul rather than his body (Plato, Alcibiades, 127d, 129e-132b, 135d; Symposium, 213e, 215d-221b, 222a-b).

BAP dismisses this as a lie when he says that Alcibiades "rejected the advances of the Pelasgian pedo-pervert Socrates, a story that Plato then inverted and twisted like the lying cunt and Phoenician-asskisser that he was."  Remarkably, BAP gives us no reason to believe this claim.  It is true, however, as Studdard indicates, that Plato does say that Socrates could sometimes "catch fire" and "could not contain himself" when he saw a young man's naked flesh under his tunic (Charmides, 155d).  So we might wonder how he could resist the attraction of Alcibiades' physical beauty.

But then how does Trump fit into all of this?  While the appearance of another Alcibiades today seems inconceivable, BAP observes, Trump does somehow point to that being possible: "Even as versatile and flashy a man as Trump is very far from this possibility in our time, though he at least makes such a type somehow believable."  BAP doesn't explain this.  Stuttard has written an essay on Alcibiades as "the Donald Trump of ancient Greece," but BAP sees Trump as falling short of Alcibiades, even if Trump somehow prefigures a new Alcibiades, who must be one of BAP's readers.


MNewsham said...

Must admit, this is the first Alcibiades/Mitt Romney crossover I have heard of.

Kent Guida said...

Thanks to you, Larry, and to Michael Anton for devoting so much effort to explicating BAP, so I don’t have to read him.

Haven’t read the Stuttard book, either, but I think it’s worth pointing out that BAP’s Alcibides reference, whatever it owes to Studdard, ultimately comes from Nietzsche. Like so many others, BAP does Nietzsche no favors by taking him literally but not seriously. Nietzsche’s mention of Alcibides comes in the context of laying out why ‘the morality of timidity’ is inadequate for the survival of a political society.

In Beyond Good and Evil 199, Nietzsche writes, “If we imagine this instinct [for obedience] ever advancing to its furthest excesses, in the end there will be nobody with the independence or the ability to command …What a relief it is for these European herd animals, what a deliverance from an increasingly intolerable pressure, when, in spite of everything, someone appears who can issue unconditional commands; the impact of Napoleon’s appearance is the last major piece of evidence for this …”

Then he mentions Alcibides in aphorism 200:

"Man, in an age of disintegration in which the races are mixed, who has in his body the legacy of diverse origins, which is to say contradictory and often not even only contradictory drives and standards of valuation,
which fight each other and seldom give each other peace, -such a man of late cultures and refracted lights will, on average, be a weaker man: his most fundamental desire is that the war, which he is, should finally have an end; happiness appears to him, in accordance with a tranquillizing medicine and way of thought (for example, the Epicurean or the Christian), principally to be the happiness of rest, of being undisturbed, of repleteness, of being finally at one, as the 'Sabbath of Sabbaths', to
speak with the holy rhetorician Augustine, who was himself such a man. If, however, contradiction and war in such a
nature have the effect of being one more stimulus to life and one more thrill, and if, in addition to the powerful and irreconcilable drives, the actual mastery and finesse in waging war on oneself, I mean self-control, self-outwitting, is inherited and cultivated: then those enigmatic, magically elusive and incomprehensible people
develop, predestined to victory and seduction, the finest examples of whom are Alcibiades and Caesar (in whose
company I would like to rank that first European to my taste, the Hohenstaufen Friedrich the Second), and perhaps
amongst artists Leonardo da Vinci. They appear at precisely the same time in which that weaker type, with its desire to rest, steps into the foreground: both types belong together and arise from the same causes."

Nietzsche needs a more serious interpreter than BAP. In fact, your commentary helps drive home the point that this whole Alt Right business is a lot of hot air, perhaps only a convenient straw man for the lazy press to attack. Much easier than looking into, say, Antifa.

But I do admit the image of Mitt gone rogue will stick with me forever.