One of the most famous disciples of Socrates was Plato. He loved his master well, and wrote down many of his conversations, so that his words may still be read.
In a book, named the Symposium, Plato tells us that Socrates and his friends met at a banquet one day and spoke to each other in praise of love.
When it came to Alcibiades" turn to speak, he was eager to tell of the love he had for Socrates. He began by begging the others not to laugh if he said first of all that Socrates was like the images of the god Silenus, which they had often seen in the shops of Athens.
Now Silenus was a satyr, a strange figure that was half man, half goat. In his mouth were pipes and flutes upon which he played, while his images were made to open, and within each might be seen the figure of a god.
As the gay company thought of the uncouth figure of the satyr, at which they had often stared in shop windows, they could not but laugh at Alcibiades for comparing his master to such an image.
But when the young nobleman went on to speak of the god that was hidden in Socrates, just as the image of one was concealed in the body of the satyr, it may be that the laughter of the gay company was hushed. For in truth the disciple could say no greater thing about the master he loved than this, that within him he bore the likeness of a god.
But Silenus was not the only satyr that reminded Alcibiades of his master. Marsyas, a wonderful flute-player also made him think of Socrates. "For," said Alcibiades, "Are you not a flute-player, Socrates? That you are, and a far more wonderful performer that Marsyas. He indeed with instruments used to charm the souls of men by the power of his breath. But you produce the same effect with your voice only, and do not require the flute; that is the difference between you and him."
Pericles, and other great Athenian orators, Alcibiades had heard, he said, unmoved, while Socrates' words, "even at second hand and however imperfectly repeated, amaze and possess the souls of every man, woman and child who comes within hearing of them."
Alcibiades then told his astonished listeners how his master's eloquence held him as with chains of gold.
"This Marsyas," he says, "has often brought me to such a pass that I have felt as if I could hardly endure the life which I am leading. . . . and I am conscious that if I did not shut my ears against him, and fly from the voice of the siren, he would detain me until I grew old, sitting at his feet. For he makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do, neglecting the wants of my own soul, and busying myself with the concerns of the Athenians; therefore I hold my ears and tear myself away from him."
So greatly did the words of Socrates disturb Alcibiades that sometimes he even wished that his master were dead and could trouble him no more, and "yet I know," he adds quickly, "that I should be much more sorry than glad if he were to die; so that I am at my wit's end."
But it was not only his master's eloquence that Alcibiades praised before the gay company of revellers, it was his deeds as well.
During the Peloponnesian War both Socrates and Alcibiades were present at the siege of Potidæa.
"There we messed together," said Alcibiades, "and I had the opportunity of observing his extraordinary power of sustaining fatigue and going without food. In the faculty of endurance he was superior not only to me, but to everybody; there was no one to be compared to him, yet at a festival he was the only person who had any real power of enjoyment."
"Cold, too," Alcibiades said, "Socrates could bear without flinching. The winter at Potidæa was severe, the frost intense. The Athenian soldiers stayed indoors when they could; when they were forced to be out they put on as many extra clothes as they could find, their feet they swathed in felt and fleeces."
But Socrates, "with his bare feet on the ice and in his ordinary dress, marched better than the other soldiers who had shoes, and they looked daggers at him, because he seemed to despise them."
Yet another tale of his endurance Alcibiades told to the listening company.
"One morning," he said, "Socrates was thinking about something which he could not resolve; he would not give it up, but continued thinking from early dawn until noon—there he stood, fixed in thought; and at noon attention was drawn to him, and the rumour ran through the wondering crowd that Socrates had been standing and thinking about something ever since the break of day. At last, in the evening, after supper, some Ionians out of curiosity (it was now summer) brought out their mats and slept in the open air that they might watch him, and see whether he would stand all night. There he stood all night until the following morning, and with the return of light he offered up a prayer to the sun and went his way."
Not even yet had Alcibiades exhausted the praises of his master, and the gay company listened spell-bound and bewildered to the young noble. They had not guessed how well he loved, how gravely he had studied the words and ways of Socrates. Now it was of the courage of his master that he wished to tell, for Socrates had saved his life in battle.
"This was," said Alcibiades, "the engagement in which I received the prize of valour; for I was wounded and he would not leave me, but he rescued me and my arms; and he ought to have received the prize of valour which the generals wanted to confer on me, partly on account of my rank, and I told them so (this Socrates will not impeach or deny), but he was more eager than the general that I and not he should have the prize."
When the Athenians fled after the defeat of Delium, the young nobleman was on horseback, and being himself safe, he watched Socrates, who was among the foot-soldiers.
"There you might see him," said Alcibiades, "just as he is in the streets of Athens, stalking like a pelican, and rolling his eyes, calmly contemplating enemies as well as friends, and making very intelligible to anybody even from a distance that whoever attacked him would be likely to meet with a stout resistance; and in this way he and his companions escaped."
With one more tribute to his master, Alcibiades ended his discourse on love:
"His absolute unlikeness to any human being that is or ever has been is perfectly astonishing. His are the only words which have a meaning in them, and also the most divine, . . . extending to the whole duty of a good and honourable man. This, friends, is my praise of Socrates."
You will be glad to know that Socrates valued the love of his disciple and returned it.
"I only love you," said the philosopher, "whereas other men love what belongs to you; and your beauty, which is not you, is fading away, just as your true self is beginning to bloom. And I will never desert you, if you are not spoiled and deformed by the Athenian people: for the danger which I most fear is that you will become a lover of the people, and will be spoiled by them. Many a noble Athenian has been ruined in this way."