Alcibiades: Fact, Fiction, Farce
Trafford Publishing (2009)
Reviewed by Ron Standerfer for Reader Views (12/09)
How to describe “Alcibiades: Fact, Fiction, Farce,” by Jack Meyer? To begin with, experience has taught me that whenever a book uses the word “farce” in the title readers can expect to encounter almost anything when they open the cover. On the other hand, I have to admit that Jack Meyer’s book maintains a thread of narrative logic throughout that, far from being Monty Pythonesque, leads the readers to where he wants them to be at the end. So far, so good.
At this point it is fair to ask, where does he want us to be and how did I know he took me there? That’s a fair question that is easy enough to answer. The back cover of “Alcibiades” contains the following: “Fundamentally, the intent is to use the Greek experience in the Peloponnesian War as an analogue for a critique of American foreign policy.” So what it boils down to is how well did the author combine the elements of fact, fiction and farce to realize that intent?
As far as facts go, there are very little hard facts known about the events surrounding the Peloponnesian War and the people who perpetrated it. What we do know is that Alcibiades was a charismatic politician and general who persuaded the Athenians to attack the Spartans whom he considered to be pushovers who could easily be overwhelmed by the superior Athenian Navy. The fact that the Spartans had a numerically superior, superbly well-trained army seemed to escape him. That’s too bad for as the result of that small oversight, the Spartans soundly defeated Athens causing a catastrophic loss of life on both sides and the end of Athenian society as they knew it. Also known about that period of history is that Socrates was very much a part of the Athenian political scene serving as a voice of reason that carried the discussion of whether or not to engage the Spartans in war into concerns of philosophical merit.
Given the scarcity of available facts it is only natural that Meyer would turn to the fiction and farce part of the equation to tell his story. He begins by painting Alcibiades as pompous, incredibly handsome, sometimes not-too-bright figure, who is a major party boy and whose thoughts seldom stray above his sword belt. Ironically, his final undoing was not his disastrous decision to pursue the Peloponnesian War but rather a spear through his heart and an arrow in his crotch, both launched by the angry brothers of a young Princess he had just bedded. Sic transit amore! Socrates, on the other hand is painted as a plodding, long-suffering mentor of Alcibiades whom the latter considers a bit of a bore. In Meyer’s story Socrates is forced to drink the cup of hemlock because of his role in the war instead of the real reason which was far more complex but based on the notion that he was an irritating gadfly in the political community and was considered to be somewhat of a pain in the ass.
It didn’t take me long to figure out what part of American foreign policy Meyer was critiquing by using the Peloponnesian War as an analogue. I’m not the brightest bulb in the literary chandelier but after seeing names like “Georgiripides” and “Rumshypocrites” a few times in the narrative I quickly concluded that we’re talking about that jolly band of brothers in the White House who convinced us to attack those pushovers in the Middle East; Iraq and Afghanistan. What drove me crazy was I never could figure out who is the modern day counterpart of Alcibiades. I immediately thought of Bill Clinton but he’s in the wrong administration. Dick Cheney maybe? Not a chance! As for Socrates, my money is on Colin Powell, although fortunately the good general has yet to consume any hemlock.
I’ve never had the opportunity to read classic Greek literature so perhaps it is a bit unfair for me to review “Alcibiades: Fact, Fiction, Farce,” by Jack Meyer. Nevertheless, I do believe it is a well-written and intriguing book that poses some valid concerns which he summarizes as follows, “As America continues to project itself into the general affairs of the world, will it be military force that is the final arbiter? Is coercion or cooperation the better long-term policy?” Seeking the answers to these questions is reason enough to read this book.