NightCafe AI image of Taylor Swift and Plato

Image generated by AI generator NightCafé, using the inputs “Taylor Swift” and “Plato.”

There is an author’s note on the fan fiction website Archive of Our Own that was screenshotted and shared across social media. It reads:

Please stop leaving comments that relitigate your real-world parasocial love or equally parasocial hate for Taylor Swift. This is not the forum for that, this is an erotic mind control story about Taylor Swift enthusiastically falling under the influence of a mysterious amulet, the origin of which is not explored though is likely sorcery based.

Likely sorcery-based mysterious amulets aside, the note rightfully points to the fact that in the real world no one seems to be capable of being normal about Taylor Swift. It seems that to take a position on her as a musician serves a double purpose. To opine about Swift demands staking a claim to a particular corner of our fractured political discourse: Conservatives say she’s a government psyop to get everyone to vote for Joe Biden, many on the Left deride her as a billionaire who has contributed enormously to climate change and is silent on the critical moral issues of our time, and a certain sect amongst her fans known as “Gaylors” think her lyrics and other clues point to her secret queerness and relationships with women—which culminated in a whole news cycle after the New York Times published an op-ed about the phenomenon.

Much ink has been spilled on whether she’s a feminist hero or ruthless capitalist villain. YouTuber Alexander Avila’s two-and-a-half-hour video essay “This Video Isn’t Just About Taylor Swift. It’s About You” painstakingly goes through her whole career with a fine-tooth comb with respect to many of these questions. So at the risk of being yet another voice in the endless cacophony of opining about Swift, I must confess I have a “take,” one that might seem a little bizarre. I think she’s a modern day Alcibiades. 

Alcibiades was a fifth-century Athenian general: no one could be normal about him either. Losing his father when he was young, he and his brother came under the guardianship of Pericles, the Athenian general who led Athens through the early years of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles died during the great plague of Athens, and Alcibiades became one of the major figures in the struggle for power that followed. 

On the first level, I think it’s worth pointing out the similarities between Swift’s much speculated about dating life and that of Alcibiades. Swift is famous for her expositional lyrics that wink at certain high profile ex-boyfriends, leaving her fans to play detective. This too produces a double effect. It gave her the reputation of being an unserious artist who just writes break up songs; it also is, in part, what creates the cult of Swift. Her life is handed down to us as an enigmatic puzzle in her lyrics. As one falls further and further down the Swiftie rabbit hole, more and more esoterica is revealed.

When her producer and longtime friend Jack Antonoff revealed that her recently released “You’re Losing Me” (which many took to be about her recent ex Joe Alwyn) was in fact written in December 2021, fans went wild. Had there been problems between them for that long? Was the whole of her recent album Midnights actually a retrospective on their seemingly perfect relationship? To be engrossed in the speculation (including the speculation about her relationships with women) is to be engrossed in a lore where one is endlessly pulling apart fact from fiction or lyrics from reality. Before too long one feels as if they have experienced something akin to the Eleusinian Mysteries. 

Similarly, Alcibiades’s own erotic life is bound up with lore. In 1970, Robert J. Littleman published a paper attempting to get the stories of Alcibiades’s love life straight. In it, he evaluates the sources we have, including the suggestion that he was intimate with queen Sparta, the (probably libelous) accusation he had an incestuous threesome, and the complicated, seemingly erotic relationship he had with Socrates (and other Athenian men through the institution of pederasty). 

It is precisely in one of these sources regarding Socrates and Alcibiades, Plato’s (possibly apocryphal) Alcibiades Major, that I would like to focus the bulk of my attention on with respect to my comparison to Taylor Swift. 

The setting: Socrates approaching Alcibiades after many years of keeping his distance. He has witnessed Alcibiades in love over the years. He tells Alcibiades: “Over this time I have been observing closely, paying attention to how you have been towards lovers, for of the many high-minded ones who became your lovers, there is none that have not been surpassed in mind by you and thus fled.” It is Alcibiades’s ambition that is on the table. In Greek, Socrates’s opening speech lyrically emphasizes repeated homonyms for hyper and mega, underscoring Alcibiades’s largesse in the face of already quite proud lovers. 

Indeed, I could more literally translate “high-minded” as something like “big thoughts.” A theme that, ironically enough, comes up in Swift’s “Now That We Don’t Talk,” when she sings, “I don’t have to pretend I like acid rock / or that I like to be on a mega yacht / with important men who think important thoughts.” This isn’t just incidental: a consistent theme amongst gossip blind items about Swift’s failed past relationships have focused on the size of her fame and image simply being too overwhelming to those she dates. She pontificates on this in her song “Peace,” where she sings, “Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?” 

Swift and Alcibiades are both larger-than-life figures, full of pride and ambition. Yet one key difference is that Swift herself cracks the door open to an image of her inner life through her music. It is there that we find, perhaps, the illusion that we might grasp who she really is. In the case of the Alcibiades Major, the image of Alcibiades is crafted by a different poet—Plato. 

Still, as the dialogue progresses, the problem of Swift rears its ugly head. Socrates ends up claiming that, in fact, he is the only one of Alcibiades’s lovers to ever truly love him. The others loved what Alcibiades possessed; his beauty, his youth, his proximity to political power. Socrates, on the other hand, loves something deeper and more grounded than that. Socrates is apparently able to love the self by itself. 

The difference between the self by itself and the self’s chimeric appearance made up of all the properties that belong to it might also be a version of the philosophical (and poetic) tendency to distinguish between the inside and outside of a thing. All of us in our strong opinions on Swift, for instance, think we have laid claim to some sense of who she is by herself. We savvy media consumers think we can see her as she truly appears, unlike those other not-so-savvy media consumers who think they have got it right. One way of seeing Plato’s depiction of Alcibiades is as a version of this problem. 

Take any of the accounts we have of Alcibiades, from Thucydides to Plato and Plutarch: it appears as though the Athenian public was obsessed with Alcibiades. Each in turn believed they had grasped him. He served as an avatar for both Athenian pride, and for Athenian corruption. 

Whereas Swift invites us to think of her interiority through her famously autobiographical lyrics, one might argue that we do not have the same for Alcibiades. Yet Alcibiades himself was not uninterested in poetry. Plutarch famously tells us of his deep love of Homer. Douglas Frame, in his book Hippota Nestor, presents the case that Alcibiades may have tampered with the Athenian state text of the Iliad in order to gain favor with the Spartans before his defection. 

Like Swift, Alcibiades enjoyed both the dizzying highs and dizzying lows of public opinion (although both never quite fell completely out of favor). Alcibiades’s many betrayals and double crossings might be called the first “Reputation era,” named after the album Swift released after falling out of complete public adoration after the infamous Kanye West phone call. Swift in her Reputation era leaned into her supposed reputation as a hated villain. The album still sold extremely well, revealing that there was perhaps something artificial about that reputation to begin with, just as Alcibiades never was completely repudiated.

My point with the Alcibiades comparison then is not meant to be a trivial one. I think it’s important to think through culturally why we just can’t be normal about Swift. Alcibiades was the perfect person upon whom to project all of one’s feelings about the Athenian imperial project. He was its poster boy—and also willing to sell the city-state out whenever it suited. In that way, Alcibiades himself was not so much an avatar for the times: it was the shadow Alcibiades, the blank Alcibiades, that was that was the avatar of public imagination.

Swift too will be whatever you need her to be. She’ll be your “Miss Americana,” she’ll be your traitorous villain. As she sings “Mastermind”: “No one wanted to play with me as a little kid / so I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since / to make them love me and make it seem effortless.” At the end of the day, that’s her beauty. As someone who grew up on her music, I can hear my life in her lyrics. 

It is also totally sensible to me how people hate her. In her Miss Americana documentary, she promises to be unmuzzled and more political going forward—and yet continues to carefully curate exactly when and where she says anything political. Her meticulous image-crafting portrays absolute poetic power over the self. It also makes her look completely powerless. 

In Alcibiades’s case, it is not actually Alcibiades who turns out to be the avatar for an Athens in peril. It is the beautiful image of Alcibiades that Plutarch compares to Helen—that other poetic projection upon which the whole Trojan War hangs, a mythic woman who Euripides turns into a literal idol. 

With Alcibiades and Helen in mind, maybe we should take Swift seriously in Dear Reader” when she sings: “You wouldn’t take my word for it if you knew who was talking.” 

Jack Condie is a PhD student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Instagram: @cxndie.

This essay is part of a Public Seminar symposium on the Taylor Swift phenomenon—from fandom to philosophy.