The Problem with Alternative Facts
The image we get from Plato’s dialogues of his teacher, Socrates, is strange and often startling. He wanders around Athens speaking to everyone, bothering most people, rarely taking the hint. He is generally barefoot and goes without bathing such that it is notable when he does. In Plato’s Alcibiades, we get perhaps the strangest of accounts.
At the time of the dialogue, Alcibiades is 18 years old. He is from a noble family, and apparently has every desirable trait imaginable — he is the tallest, the most beautiful, and wealthy. In fact, Alcibiades imagines himself to be so tremendous that he has rejected all of his suitors. No one else can measure up. Yet, Socrates persists. In fact, Socrates has been watching Alcibiades from a young age, hanging behind the crowd of well-wishers and flatterer for years, but he has not yet spoken to the young hero. He has waited until precisely this day to speak to Alcibiades,just days before Alcibiades makes his pitch to the Assembly of Athens, before his political career will begin in earnest.
At its heart, Socrates has approached Alcibiades with a very simple question. He wants to know what qualifies Alcibiades to be the leader of Athens, what will he advise Athenians about and where did he learn it? In essence, Socrates wants Alcibiades to tell him what he knows about justice. A hard question for anyone to answer, but Alcibiades doesn’t even seem to know that justice should be at the heart of his leadership. He struggles to even grasp the word that might describe how a city acts when it acts well. Let’s eavesdrop for a minute
Socrates: Do you mean [the city will] be discussing who they should make peace with and who they should go to war with and how?
Socrates: But shouldn’t they do that with the ones with whom it is better to?
Socrates: And when it is better?
Socrates: What do you call better in both going to war and keeping the peace? … Now tell me what’s better in this case too.
Alcibiades: I really can’t do it (107d-108e).
Now Alcibiades is not stupid. He understands that conventionally, it is better to go to war for a just cause and to wage war justly. But he also knows that justice is not always to one’s advantage. So Alcibiades wants to deal with alternative facts. As long as the question of justice is left unbroached, he can find lots of reasons to go to war. When Socrates asks him the pretty simple question, “Who would you advise the Athenians to wage war on? Those who are treating us justly, or those who are treating us unjustly.” Alcibiades hesitates, “That’s a hard question … Even if someone thought it necessary to wage war on people who were treating us justly, he wouldn’t admit it”(109c) Instead, we can surmise, such a person would find an alternative account, one that painted the other in negative terms,thereby justifying acts of aggression on the grounds that they are just, when they are really only for the sake of some material gain.
Socrates, however, knows one “fact” for which you can’t find a suitable alternative for. It may suit Alcibiades’s needs most of the time for justice to be a radically relative term, except, when he is the victim of what he takes to be unjust actions. While Alcibiades struggles to even say the word justice, he has known from very young age, from being cheated while playing a game, what injustice and unfairness are. Yet, here is the rub. Once you have untethered justice from any objective principles, asserted that it is relative, and placed it in the realm of alternative facts, you no longer have any grounds upon which to claim that someone else has treated you unjustly. Instead, that’s just your interpretation of the facts, and there’s no reason, unless you happen to be holding the bigger spear or gun, for your interpretation to hold more weight than anyone else’s. And, just to prove his point, Socrates bullies Alcibiades in the conversation, until Alcibiades cries out, “Stop pushing me around”(114d).
Socrates has been watching Alcibiades his entire life. He knows that Alcibiades is the best and the brightest, and he knows that Alcibiades will someday lead Athens. Socrates also knows how dangerous this might be because for all of his lessons — lyre-playing, wrestling, rhetoric — no one has thought it was necessary to teach Alcibiades about justice.
Unfortunately, Socrates also fails. Alcibiades goes on to be a great general, leading Athenians to victory in Peloponnesian War. Until, of course, it is no longer to his advantage, and he betrays his country, joins the opposing side and is partly instrumental for Athens downfall.
But that’s just an interpretation of the facts.
Originally published at sara-macdonald.com on January 26, 2017.