November 2, 2004
Kerry and AlcibiadesBy Ed Houser
It is Election Day and Americans are still trying to figure out John F. Kerry. Perhaps a little history will help. The human story is replete with men who are like one another, so much so that in the First Century A. D. the Greek historian Plutarch wrote a work he called Parallel Lives comparing earlier Greeks and Romans. In the spirit of Plutarch, I here offer a comparison between Kerry and the 5th Century B.C. Athenian warrior and politician Alcibiades.
As everyone knows, the Greeks gave us democracy — both the word and the thing — and Americans pride themselves on their democracy. No one more than President Bush, who wants to export democracy to the Muslim world. While democracy provides its citizens with many good things, like every form of government and every political way of life, democracy is open to abuses. The story of Alcibiades is a story of the abuses of Athenian democracy. Alcibiades's life involved privilege and wealth, war and politics, sex and personal ambition. I find the parallels striking for what they say about American democracy as much as what they say about John Kerry.
Alcibiades was born in Athens around 450, as Athens was assuming pre—eminence during the period after the Great War of the age, when the united Greeks had defeated the Persians (480), and before the Greeks started fighting among themselves in a second important war, the one between Athens and Sparta called by the historian Thucydides the Peloponnesian War (431—404). Alcibiades fought in the Peloponnesian War.
Kerry was born as a united world was defeating the Axis Powers in World War II and, as we all know by now, he fought in the Vietnam War.
Alcibiades was born into an aristocratic and wealthy Athenian family. But his father was killed in battle when he was very young, so the young Alcibiades was raised in the household of a distant relative, Pericles, the most prominent Athenian of his day and the man history has used to call this period in Greek history the age of Pericles.
Alcibiades was astonishingly handsome, quick witted, and determined; and he was showered with the privileges of aristocracy by his patron — money and horses, clothes and houses. Above all, he learned the charm and good taste that often comes with wealth, and he was given the best education then available in the Greek world. The elite teachers at the time called themselves sophists, a variant of the Greek word for wise. Pericles himself had brought the most well known sophist, named Protagoras, into his retinue; and young Alcibiades was schooled by the sophists, who perfected in him the art of political debate they called rhetoric.
Always headstrong, the handsome Alcibiades was more interested in a peculiar, ugly fellow among the sophists, a stone—mason named Socrates, who refused to call himself a sophist, but insisted on the more modest term philosopher, or a lover of wisdom. Socrates saved Alcibiades's life at the battle of Potidaea in 432, and Alcibiades returned the favor at the battle of Delium in 424. Alcibiades came to love Socrates, and Plato portrayed him as trying unsuccessfully to seduce Socrates into a homosexual relationship in his Symposium, a symbol of Plato's judgment that Alcibiades never learned to love the virtues Socrates offered him more than the sex, money, and power that were the stuff of his life.
As we know, Kerry was not born into wealth, though his mother's family had considerable social standing. But he came to wealth quickly, by marrying into money twice. And he was sent to Swiss boarding school, an elite New England prep school and Yale. Early in his political career he allied himself with the American family that in the 20th Century has been fully the equal in wealth and political power of Pericles's family in the Athens of 5th Century B.C., the Kennedys of Massachusetts. Privilege, education, and wealth Alcibiades and Kerry have in common, but how they used these gifts is even more striking.
During the first decade of the Peloponnesian War (431—420) the various Greek city states were forced into siding with Athens or Sparta, and during this time Alcibiades rose to prominence for his battlefield valor and his speeches in the Athenian political assembly, where he became famous for the debating skills he learned from the sophists. He was elected general for the first time in 420 — in the Athenian democracy even the generals were elected — and found himself opposed to Nikias, who had negotiated a short lived peace with Sparta.
Alcibiades convinced the Athenians to ally themselves with three cities in the Peloponnese and attack Sparta, but the Athenians were defeated and Alcibiades barely escaped ostracism. He needed to restore himself to favor with the Athenians and used his wealth to do so. At the Olympic Games in 416 he entered not one but seven different chariot teams and drivers. No one had ever stretched the rules of the game so far, and he won, his teams coming in first, second, and fourth places. It would be as if George Steinbrenner owned the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Cardinals and the Astros. Owning the field makes it very hard to lose.
What has this to do with Kerry, the erstwhile supporter of so—called campaign finance reform? Let me mention 527s and George Soros and Michael Moore and moveon.org and the prospect of a 'Florida 2000" in a half dozen states, not to mention the Heinz fortune. Kerry has pushed the envelope of opportunism in a way strikingly reminiscent of Alcibiades.
But there is more, much more. Restored to favor, in 415, Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians that if attacking the huge Spartan army head—on wouldn't work — they had been trying that for fifteen years — a more nuanced approach would be to do an end run around the big guy on the block, Sparta, and pick off an easier target, the Spartan ally Syracuse in Sicily. Alcibiades sailed with the fleet for Sicily as general but was called back to Athens. On the way back he found out he had been condemned for the desecrations of the statues of the god Hermes that had happened just before the fleet left.
Alcibiades then jumped ship and escaped to Sparta, of all places. Alcibiades knew the Spartans would be as suspicious of him as the Athenians now were, so he used the military intelligence at his disposal — remember, he was a general — to advise the Spartans how to defeat the Athenians in Syracuse, which they did, the single worst defeat for Athens in the war. He also advised the Spartan King Agis to fortify the city of Decelea near Athens as a forward point of strength, while Alcibiades himself stayed behind in Sparta and seduced the king's wife.
The Spartans then sent Alcibiades to foment unrest among the Athenian allies along the Ionian (now Turkish) seacoast, which he did. But the Spartans became suspicious of him and Alcibiades then changed sides again, leading the Athenian fleet to victories in the far eastern Mediterranean. He returned to Athens in 407, where he was given a hero's welcome and put in charge of all Athenian operations in the war. But a naval defeat made him unpopular and he again escaped, this time to Thrace. Having changed sides twice, going from Athens to Sparta to Athens, Alcibiades ended on the sidelines, where he could not stand to be. So his final move was to take refuge with the old enemies of all the Greeks — the Persians — who murdered him in 404.
John Kerry stood on both sides of his own war, fighting as a US Naval Officer in Vietnam before he came home to lead the Vietnam Veterans against the War, which launched him on his political career. But strangest of all is the third step in his dance: Kerry's argument that it is precisely his service in Vietnam — a war he first fought in for America, then came to abominate and so turned to lead an anti—war effort that clearly most of his comrades in arms conceive as an act of Alcibiadesian betrayal — was not an inopportune and youthful mistake, but is his primary qualification to lead the nation in another war.
Will the Americans follow the example of the Athenians, who elected Alcibiades commander in chief in 407, after he had jumped ship to go over to the Spartan side in 414, by electing Kerry Commander in Chief in 2004? And will they do so on the grounds the they should turn away from the large war in Iraq and go after the smaller target of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden hiding out in the hills along the Afghanistan—Pakistan border, much as Alcibiades had convinced the Athenians in 415 to turn away from the Spartans and go after the easier target, the Syracusans, with such disastrous consequences for Athens?
Finally, consider the long range results. The Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War, in no small part owing to the actions of Alcibiades. If Kerry is like Alcibiades, I would not wager on the Americans winning the War on Terror under his command. And what subsequently happened to Athens, beyond losing the Peloponnesian War, which was bad enough? Losers in war often take revenge where they can. But Alcibiades had died in the same year they lost the war — 404. In 399, the Athenians turned against Alcibiades's teacher Socrates, accusing him of corrupting the youth of Athens, and they were thinking of Alcibiades when they put forward this charge.
After all, somebody had to pay for Alcibiades's depredations, and he couldn't since he was already dead. Who better to pay the price than the man who taught Alcibiades how to make the weaker argument appear the better in leading the Athenians hither and yon during their lost war?
Athenian democracy then killed Socrates, the man history has most closely connected with that democracy; and in so doing it killed itself. It killed itself in significant part because it had been duped by Alcibiades, a man history has evaluated, in the words of one leading scholar, this way: 'Perhaps the most gifted Athenian of his generation, Alcibiades possessed great charm and brilliant political and military abilities but was absolutely unscrupulous.'
Ed Houser teaches ancient and medieval philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.