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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

The Softest Names to his Faults

Alcibiades as a young villain.

There is a type of popular villain today defined, in the main, by their extreme likeability. And they are so defined not only because they are likeable villains, but because there is at least some hint that the villainy and their likeability are inextricably linked. To explain, let us start with a detour that will comprise most of this (short) essay. I do not have a decisive point to make here, but I find this type of villain fascinating and having outlined him (I use gendered language advisably, this type of villain is overwhelmingly male), it is an archetype to which I will likely return in future essays on narrative fiction.

Alcibiades was, according to Plutarch, a failed student of Socrates, but a gifted orator. His story is marked by opportunism, switching sides in multiple conflicts from the Athenians to the Spartans to the Persians. As a military tactician, he favoured duplicity over straightforward siege warfare. He was constantly undone by the enemies he would quickly make, surviving by wit and further subterfuge, until (possibly) the Spartan admiral Lysander orchestrated his assassination in a storm of arrows, which Alcibiades willfully encountered.

There is so much morality-play theatrics packed into Alcibiades’s life, but the notion of him as Socrates failure is especially intriguing. Socrates influence has a high premium, so the emphasis on the sage philosopher’s inability to redirect and school the unruly young Alcibiades stands out. Plutarch emphasises Alcibiades as an incredibly compelling individual, for whom others wished to grant dangerous excuses:

‘The truth is, his liberalities, his public shows, and other munificence to the people, which were such as nothing could exceed; the glory of his ancestors, the force of his eloquence, the grace of his person, his strength of body, joined with his great courage and knowledge in military affairs, prevailed upon the Athenians to endure patiently his excesses, to indulge many things to him, and, according to their habits, to give the softest names to his faults.’

To exonerate Socrates of the charge of corrupting the youth, Xenophon is keen to give an account of the reason for these faults that do not stem from the philosopher. That is, Xenophon stresses Alcibiades beauty and ‘his influence in the state and among the allies’, all of which ‘exposed him to the corruption of many an adept in the arts of flattery; honoured by the democracy and stepping easily to the front rank he behaved like an athlete who in the games of the Palaestra is so assured of victory that he neglects his training; thus he presently forgot the duty which he owed himself.’ That is, Alcibiades curiously is said not only to have been exonerated of his faults because of his numerous advantages, but to have been led to his faults by his numerous advantages.

The problem of Alcibiades was that the many ‘liberalities’ fortune gave him (a natural munificence, good lineage, eloquence, grace, strength, prowess), only one (a certain courage) could be counted as a virtue. He therefore fell back on these gifts, and failed to cultivate what truly mattered, what he ‘owed himself’, virtue. He took from Socrates only what could further advance those advantages Alcibiades already had, by learning only how to argue better and not to argue virtuously.

Why have I taken nearly five hundred words writing about Alcibiades (as well as Socrates, through the lens of Plutarch and Xenophon)? It is not to say anything original; I am not sufficiently researched in any of the relevant fields to offer any great insight. Rather, it is because the almost mythic character of Alcibiades strikes me as redolent of a particular kind of villain that predominates in our current popular imagination. Note, not a real type of person our times are likely to produce, but an idea of a fictional antagonist our stories find for some reason to be a fixation.

Indeed, two of the top five villains of the American Film Institute’s villains’ poll all have qualities in common with this historical person as he is handed down to us. Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader (the other two, Norman Bates and the Wicked Witch of the West are villains of quite a different type). Anakin is so redolent of Alcibiades it is uncanny; defined by high expectations and innate brilliance, he is undone by the hubris of genius. Hannibal is more archetypally primordial, and in his TV series incarnation almost magical realist in his demonic qualities, but nonetheless various forms of non-moral brilliance predominate over the typical virtues.

Because this type of villain is more attractive by definition, the more romantic style of (anti-)villain is usually (although not always) of this type. (Exceptions include Carrie, Steerpike, Magneto, Itachi Uchiha and Killmonger, whose potentially good characters are undone by social and personal traumas. At least within the authorial frame.) But Daenerys Targaryen, Light Yagami, Tom Ripley, Tsukasa Shishio (obscure!), Walter White, Ozymandias, Crake, Toru Yasunaga, Thanos (film version), Orochimaru are varieties of Alcibiades-esque villains.

These are all anti-villains because the audience is invited to have some sympathy with them, even if that is framed as explicitly misplaced sympathy. They are not all equally well realised (I especially do not like Thanos’s film incarnation). Of any of them Plutarch’s line about Alcibiades, quoted above, could fittingly apply with minor modifications. They are all simply brilliant. Some fantastically so (Ozymandias, Thanos, Orochimaru), most merely implausibly. They are all, at least in part, brought to evil by their brilliance (with it being a bit more complicated in the cases of Light and Walter).

All of this makes them different to even the brilliant of those aforementioned exceptions, who could well have been good and brilliant and even sometimes display a great many conventional virtues (especially Itachi, who is almost not a villain at all.)

What is the value of this type of villain? Chiefly, narratologically they are handy. There is a lot of inherent tension and ambiguity in playing with audience emotions. But I would also suggest they explore something more mundane we all are sometimes pushed to feel about ourselves and others (irrespective of whether or not it is true, partially or wholly); that there is an inherent worth to displays of effort, and that not being called on to exert effort is morally deleterious. Of course Alcibiades turned out rotten, Xenophon suggests, he was not ugly like Socrates, he was not deficient in any way and had to apply very little of himself to master the easier things (worldly success), so why push to master the harder (moral success)?

Walter White is a strange example here, because he actively morally declines as he leans on his inherent genius. Whereas prior, he lived an exemplary but mediocre life. (Breaking Bad had an inherently Sadeian moral schema in which virtue is punished and vice rewarded, but which diverges a little from the subject at hand.) Ozymandias is a bit more complicated, too, because the authorial viewpoint (Alan Moore) seems less clear cut about condemning his actions. (Although Crake, whose actions are morally almost identical, is roundly condemned by Margarat Atwood.) Toru Yasunaga might not be sufficiently brilliant even, a point of ambiguity from Yukio Mishima. But as for Daenerys, Light, Tom, Tsukasa and Orochimaru, no ambiguity can be found (Orochimaru even has a sage-like Socrates figure in the wings).

I would suggest finally that this type of villain helps us deal with questions of moral complicity and corruption by othering evil, by relegating it to the extraordinary and thus expurgating everyday (ordinary) evils. This is not done explicitly, because it would be immediately absurd to suggest everyday evils are not so because they fail to display such grandiosity, but by a more nuanced association. That is, we like to see evil in such larger-than-life terms, not only as aspects of brilliance, but of unreachable brilliance. You will never really meet an Alcibiades (he is too unimaginably perfect), and that is comforting, because you can never really be Alcibiades either.

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