“How do mirror neurons work in psychopaths?”, from Quora

Is Quora going to save the world?

A lengthy quote follows (https://www.quora.com/How-do-mirror-neurons-work-in-psychopaths).  For the purposes of this blog, I moved the claimed debunking opinion to the end.

Natalie Engelbrecht
 How do mirror neurons work in psychopaths?

Mirror neurons play a significant role in observational learning, and such neurons also play a central role in empathy (Lacoboni, 2009; Ramachandran, 2000). However, psychopaths are skillful in copying other people’s reactions or behaviour (i.e. seem to have more and/or more active mirror neurons).

As with all my answers on psychopathy and the dark triad (sociopathy, NDP and machiavellism, my answer begins by operationalizing the term psychopath from a previous answer I wrote:

Natalie Engelbrecht’s answer to What is the difference between sociopathy, psychopathy, and antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)?

V. S. Ramachandran is a neurologist and an author, who discusses the mysteries of the human brain and is a huge advocate for mirror neurons. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the 1990s by a team of Italian researchers studying macaque monkeys. Motor neurons fire in a monkey’s brain when the monkey reaches for a peanut. Interestingly, a subset of these neurons, called mirror neurons,also fire when the monkey watches another monkey reach for a peanut. They found that mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action.

For example motor neurons fire when we poke a person with a needle, but a subset of these neurons, the mirror neurons, fire when we witness someone else being poked with a needle. These mirror neurons appear to be our way of empathizing with another. They are the mechanism by which we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and are the basis of our empathy. As such, they may be the basis for human ethics.

Ramachandran notes that autistic children appear to suffer from mirror neuron dysfunction, resulting in a lack of empathy and an inability to relate to others. A separate article about mirror neurons notes that psychopaths and sociopaths have impaired functioning of the mirror neurons. Interestingly the MAOA-L gene, which I have previously written on is present in both psychopaths, people with ADHD and also those with autism.

Natalie Engelbrecht’s answer to What are the effects of having MAOA?

Recent advances in social neuroscience suggest a link between empathy and the mirror neuron system (MNS). Impaired empathy is one of the core diagnostic features of psychopathic personality disorder…. Consistent with previous data, observation of the painful stimulus was associated with a significant reduction in the amplitude of the TMS-induced MEP. Interestingly, the level of corticospinal excitability modulation was positively correlated with individual scores on the coldheartedness subscale of the PPI, such that individuals with the greatest MEP reduction were the ones scoring highest on the coldheartedness measure. These data suggest the existence of a functional link between ‘motor empathy’ and psychopathy.

Psychopathy and the mirror neuron system: preliminary findings from a non-psychiatric sample.

This research contradicts what a senior FBI profiler, tells Kevin Dutton (author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths): “Sadistic serial killers feel their victims’ pain in exactly the same way that you or I might feel it. They feel it cognitively and objectively, and emotionally and subjectively too. But the difference between them and us is that they commute that pain to their own subjective pleasure. Studies have also shown that some psychopaths have more ‘mirror neurons’ (empathy brain cells) than normal people. Further prosocial psychopaths can be more altruistic than the rest of us. Studies have shown that psychopaths are quicker to offer help to people in need than everyday folk.”

Thus the verdict is out. I suspect that born not raised psychopaths have more mirror neurons, as the MAOA-L gene research indicates, while sociopaths and others of the dark triad have less. Until, the terms are operationalized for research, the research will continue to be contradictory.

The role of shared neural activations, mirror neurons, and morality in empathy – A critical comment

Do Mirror Neurons Give Us Empathy?

The mind’s mirror

Ryan J Farrick

I read an interview with Ramachandran and he explains his hypothesis quite well. You can read the exchange here:

Do Mirror Neurons Give Us Empathy?

Ramachandran explains how, when we engage in physical activity, our brain fires off neurons which travel from our central nervous system to body parts. “Motor neurons” help our organs function and our muscles move. They are, in essence, responsible for our ability to breathe and interact with the world around us.

When we perform an action, our motor neurons activate our musculature in an appropriate way via synapses and a synaptic connection called the neuromuscular junction. Mirror neurons, which activate upon simply being shown a stimulus, provide a similar trace response. Your brain uses them to effectively “feel” an observation. That’s part of the reason why we cringe during violent movies and get nervous for flagging athletes – we can, in a very tiny and distant way, go through what they’re going through.

Ramachandran, being a professor at the University of California at San Diego, does a much better job explaining the implications:

A subset of these neurons also fire when I simply watch another person—watch you reach out and do exactly the same action. So these neurons are performing a virtual reality simulation of your mind, your brain. Therefore, they’re constructing a theory of your mind—of your intention—which is important for all kinds of social interaction.

His hypothesis is that the ability of “mirror neurons” to subtly simulate an observed action underlies our capacity to feel empathy and, figuratively, put ourselves in another person’s shoes.

It turns out these anterior cingulate neurons that respond to my thumb being poked will also fire when I watch you being poked—but only a subset of them. There are non-mirror neuron pain neurons and there are mirror neuron pain neurons.

So these [mirror] neurons are probably involved in empathy for pain. If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain—saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.

While Ramachandran talks at some length about a link he speculates exists between mirror neurons and autism, he doesn’t touch upon the subject of psychopathy in his easily-understandable interview. However, it doesn’t take much imagination to draw the conclusion that a person who either lacks sufficient mirror neurons or who has defective mirror neurons might be less than empathetic.

Other studies (http://www.psy-journal.com/artic…) have contributed to the idea that a lack of emotionality can be correlated to a lack of reponsiveness from mirror neurons. The cited paper, linked to in the parentheses, describes how persons who scored high on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory had certain reactions to images of hands being poked with needles or knives. Specifically, individuals who had higher-than-average “coldheartedness” marks on the Inventory were observed to have experienced a stronger reduction in “TMS motor evoked potentials” versus those who had scored normally or lower than average.

That doesn’t prove that there’s a link between mirror neurons and psychopathy, but it does suggest that mirror neurons can either affect or be affected by traits associated with the label.

(apparently the study had a small sample size and a weak correlation between coldheartedness and strength of reduction in TMS-MEPs: Mirror Neurons in the Sociopath)

Mirror neurons are not well-understood and would not likely adequately explain psychopathy. Deformations and abnormalities in the amygdala also correlate with high scores on the PPI. Since the amygdala is at least partially responsible for our ability to deduce the meaning of facial expressions and read social cues, it makes sense that an un-empathic person might have structural deficiencies.

That link seems to have more evidence underlying it. Research suggests that a “global volume reduction” in the amygdala would positively correlate to the exhibition of psychopathic features in relation to the amount of shrinkage. Checking out (http://www.psy.cmu.edu/~scohen/S…) also shows that test subjects with larger amygdalae also had larger and more complex social networks than those with smaller amygdalae.

The conclusion of https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc… was that the posited link between amygdala volumes and psychopathic traits was valid. However, NCBI isn’t a perfect resource for peer-reviewed articles, and I didn’t do a validation check.

Psychopathy is a condition about which much remains to be explained. Speculation about the role of mirror neurons is exciting, but should be taken with a grain of salt.

If you have any interest in how the theory of psychopathy came into existence, I’d recommend checking out Hervey Cleckley’s book “Mask of Sanity” and Robert Hare’s “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths.” Both are quite easy and interesting to read and provide a sold informational foundation about the condition and its psychological components.

Nicolò Muller

Recent advances in social neuroscience suggest a link between empathy and the mirror neuron system (MNS). Impaired empathy is one of the core diagnostic features of psychopathic personality disorder.

A study investigated whether psychopathic personality traits in a non-psychiatric sample were related to MNS function.

Healthy participants viewed short videos known to activate the sensorimotor MNS for pain (a needle penetrating a human hand) while transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)-induced motor evoked potentials (MEP) were recorded as a measure of motor cortex excitability. Individual psychopathic personality traits were assessed using the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI) and correlated with the MEP findings. Consistent with previous data, observation of the painful stimulus was associated with a significant reduction in the amplitude of the TMS-induced MEP. Interestingly, the level of corticospinal excitability modulation was positively correlated with individual scores on the coldheartedness subscale of the PPI, such that individuals with the greatest MEP reduction were the ones scoring highest on the coldheartedness measure. These data suggest the existence of a functional link between ‘motor empathy’ and psychopathy.


Yohan John

I think a lot of nonsense has been spread in the media about mirror neurons.

There is very little evidence that mirror neurons have anything whatsoever to do with empathy. They are found all over the brain , and seem to have something to do with the ability to recognize or categorize actions. There is a huge gulf between recognition/categorization and the concept of empathy. Even imitation is not an indicator of empathy. You can, for example, imitate a person you are mercilessly making fun of. So mirror neurons can easily be considered a basis for imitation without empathy.

Why should the mere fact of a neuron firing when you do something and when I do the same thing have anything to do with empathy? We’d need a fully fleshed-out neural theory of emotion and motivation in order to make such a leap. No such theory exists.

“In fact we do not yet have the research to show that mirror neurons are vital for human empathy, and there are reasons to believe that empathy is possible without them.”

A Calm Look at the Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience – Mirror Neurons

In fact mirror neurons haven’t even been directly observed in humans: all the evidence comes from monkeys. This is because we are very rarely able to stick electrodes into people’s brains: this only happens for a small group of epileptic patients.

So we can’t even make any inferences about mirror neurons’ function in humans, let alone in the specific sub-group that is psychopaths. You can speculate away, but the actual neuroscientific evidence is extremely slim.


For more on the concept of mirror neurons, see this essay I wrote, in which I break down some key misconceptions and confusions.

Do mirror neurons explain understanding, or is it the other way round?

Also see the following:

  • Mirror Neurons — The unfalsifiable theory — Talking Brains
  • What’s So Special About Mirror Neurons? — SciAm
  • Mirror Neurons: The Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience? — Psychology Today

In fact a neuroscientist named Greg Hickok recently wrote a book debunking much of the mirror neuron hype:

The Myth of Mirror Neurons

Country of Liars ceased publishing in 2016. Anyone know why?

Anybody know the writer, Larry?

Earlier post:  https://pathwhisperer.info/2012/03/11/from-country-of-liars-character-assassination/.

Another tool for the bad guys

Scarily convincing fake video tool puts words in Obama’s mouth

New technology enables scarily realistic lip-sync Obama video

A computer program that can edit videos of people speaking to realistically make it look like they said something else has been created, raising fears of clips being tampered with online.

Researchers at the University of Washington have lip-synced a video of former US president Barack Obama using the program to superimpose new audio onto the clip.

The realistic results put words in Obama’s mouth by converting audio sounds into mouth movements and blending them onto an existing video of speech.


Soon it will be possible to animate millions of face and body pixels to create videos of individuals doing absolutely anything.  What a happy time for psychopathic elements of “law enforcement”!

Earlier:  https://pathwhisperer.info/2017/04/26/oh-great-bad-guys-gain-powerful-tool-for-framing-and-character-assassination-lyrebird-voice-software/

Title: U-S-A, U-S-A, United States of Assassinations; Subtitle: Oopsie, it seems some people don’t appreciate being termed probable psychopaths


A relative of mine received a call last week.  The caller asked for my relative by name, when the answer was in the affirmative, the caller replied “murder, murder, murder”.  ‘I’se paid my money, and I’se taken my chances.’  They haven’t.  They didn’t sign up for this.  Therefore I am going public.

There have always be reasons to do so and reasons not to do so.  a) One always wishes for a higher level of proof, not just to make bald assertions.  b) I have enough problem with readers’ Assumed Normalcy Bias on the main subject, let alone on high tech assassination attempts.  c) My comment numbers have never recovered from my first account of a remotely induced arrhythmia attack (presumably through microwave technology) in It seems I’m being harassed — though, in fact, I had left out the punch line that it had been an assassination attempt.  So until now, I have chosen not to take this matter public.  However I can’t allow my relatives to be threatened.  Plus I have always owed it to others in danger, to warn them so they can recognize situations and take proper precautions.  Plus, recently the threats to myself have perhaps become physical again.  So here it is.

To those suffering from Assumed Normalcy Bias/Disorder/Psychosis and believe they can always pound triangular pegs into square holes in support of the world as they think they know it — this is not for you.  I have no desire to engage you.  This is a warning to those who need to be made aware of danger.

I am claiming that the arrhythmias shown above were induced remotely.  What else could I conclude, if the arrhythmias came and went with physical obstacles?  The time I started to realize this was during the 2011 attack above (which only covered two days and rarely repeated until this series).  On Seventh Ave. and 49th, there’s a subway entrance at a corner of a building.  At the very corner is a massive support column for the whole building.  Feeling poorly, I stepped out of the foot traffic to rest leaning against the interior of this column.  Immediately my heart started collecting itself, coming back into rhythm.  I was flabbergasted.  In the current series, one time I was walking on Broadway heading uptown, and suddenly my bare arms became physically warm (this only happened that one time) and Ali and Foreman started going at it in my chest.  As luck would have it, I was half a block from a scaffolded building.  So within 10 seconds I was starting to respond positively.  A block further, we were sitting in a restaurant.  Within 5 minutes I was totally fine.  I have many stories like this.

It seems that assassinations have gone medical and thus almost invisible.  The techniques seem to work over distances, through some materials, including windows.

These attacks commenced shortly after publishing and sending to the administration and de Blasio attorneys the post, Psychopaths gone wild jurisprudence, the psychopathic weaponization of the legal system and misuse of the law for political hits, psychopaths walking among us include . . ., in June of 2016.  The possible ‘psychopaths walking among us include[d]’:  Eric Holder, William Canary, and later, John J. Miller and Rikki Klieman (Clear and present danger).

I do have defenses and work arounds, so I no longer have the extreme arrhythmias of the top left two examples.  I don’t wish to state what they are, in case they have work arounds for my work arounds.  But it is not rocket science, research what interacts with microwaves and try all-the-above.  If the cause is not actually microwave in origin, the defenses would still interact with many other electro-magnetic waves also.

Let me add, at least this is a validation of my work.



“Best book to understand Gaslighting”

Just saw this:

Hi there,

Im looking for a book that explains gaslighting really well. Its for me and my Dad.

My mum abused me as a child, along with her siblings.
ts a big family secret they have kept well by using group gaslighting.  Their gaslighting, and pretending nothing happened/excluding me, is probably the last biggest hurdle I have in healing (My dad was also manipulated by them).  At some level…I still find it hard to believe myself.

So i’m looking for a really good book about gaslighting.  Any help would be very much appreciated!  https://cassiopaea.org/forum/index.php/topic,44230.msg716939.html#msg716939

Among the answers:

The term stems from the film Gas Light which is free available on youtube so maybe apart from the recommended books about psychopathy it’s useful to (re)watch the film to get better understanding?

There is a book called “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life” by Dr. Robin Stern. I read it a few years ago and thought it was excellent. 
George Simon’s book “In Sheep’s Clothing” is really good too.

Another good one is: The Empathy Trap: Understanding Antisocial Personalities by by Jane McGregor and Tim McGregor.

The authors also had an interview on SOTT Talk Radio: https://www.sott.net/article/270014-Behind-the-Headlines-The-Empathy-Trap-Understanding-how-predators-manipulate-peoples-strengths-and-weaknesses


For those who have never experienced gaslighting I would suggest starting with the movie itself.

I once went into the local precinct to report that I thought that individuals were entering my apartment (I suspected an ex and a friend).  The PAA asked me if anything was stolen.  I replied no, only that electrical/electronic devices were turned on and off.  She just looked at me.  I was almost embarrassed to be saying it out loud.  I never got to the part, “oh yeah, and I think the guy was a cop.”

There are actually two types of gaslighting:  the first where the victim is not aware that the gaslighting is purposeful, the second where the victim is fully aware (by the gaslighter’s intent) but can’t say anything because no one will believe them.


What’s the explanation of James Comey’s bad judgement?

Easy, his arrested development is approximately at the 9 year old level.  Also look at his facial expressions.  I’ve never seen him walk, but it might be worth paying attention to.  I believe he’s a psychopath.

Now, some readers may be saying, ‘wait a minute, how could all these fine upstanding individuals in fine upstanding jobs be psychopaths?”  Why not?  They aren’t rare.  There are more SAPs (socially acceptable psychopaths) than failed ones.  They aren’t wearing sandwich boards announcing what they are.  Ted Bundy would probably have appeared to be a fine upstanding judge if his plans had come to fruition.

This is a good time to drain the swamp at the FBI.  Test every FBI agent for psychopathy.

The FBI has been a criminal organization for a long time.  They tried to murder by suicide Martin Luther King Jr. by sending him a blackmail tape of a sexual encounter accompanied by a letter suggesting he protect his reputation.  Serious felony.  No FBI individual was ever arrested or even fired for this crime.  They successfully murdered by suicide the actress Jean Seberg.  They compromised or blackmailed or threatened (perhaps to take away her children) an ex-girlfriend of Washington Mayor Marion Barry into setting him up in a cocaine sting.  This is what the FBI does.

Here, The F.B.I. Deemed Agents Faultless in 150 Shootings – the FBI found itself blameless.  That’s a shocker.

“The F.B.I. takes very seriously any shooting incidents involving our agents, and as such we have an effective, time-tested process for addressing them internally,” a bureau spokesman said.

But if such internal investigations are time-tested, their outcomes are also predictable: from 1993 to early 2011, F.B.I. agents fatally shot about 70 “subjects” and wounded about 80 others — and every one of those episodes was deemed justified, according to interviews and internal F.B.I. records obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The last two years have followed the same pattern: an F.B.I. spokesman said that since 2011, there had been no findings of improper intentional shootings.

How arrested in development of them.  An adult knows that perfection is unobtainable.  A child thinks perfection is better than imperfection.

On top of everything else, now the FBI is part of the NSA/FBI/Fusion Center apparatus, a greater danger to human freedom than communist East Germany’s STASI ever was.

More:  Creating terrorists: The FBI’s dark history of provoking violent attacks.   AMERICAN GANGSTER.

Cleckley: The psychopath in history — Alcibiades

This is in response to a comment, https://pathwhisperer.info/2017/05/03/search-are-narcissists-and-psychopaths-more-primitive-less-evolved-humans/#comment-134527, on Alcibiades.

From Cleckley’s Mask of Sanity, via Fried Green Tomatoes:

Let us turn now to a much earlier historical figure, a military leader and statesman who is not likely to be forgotten while civilization as we know it remains on earth.  I first encountered him during a course in ancient history when I was in high school.  I had not at that time heard of a psychopath.  The teacher did not try to classify him medically or explain his paradoxical career in psychological terms.  I felt, however, that this gifted teacher shared my interest and some of my bewilderment as the brilliant, charming, capricious, and irresponsible figure of Alcibiades unfolded in the classroom against the background of Periclean Athens.  None of my immature concepts of classification (good man, bad man, wise man, foolish man) seemed to define Alcibiades adequately, or even to afford a reliable clue to his enigmatic image.

The more I read about him and wondered about him, the more he arrested my attention and challenged my imagination.  All reports agreed that he was one of the chief military and political leaders of Athens in her period of supreme greatness and classic splendor during the fifth century B.G.  This man led me to ponder at a very early age on many questions for which I have not yet found satisfactory answers.  According to my high school history book,26

He belonged to one of the noblest families of Athens, and was a near kinsman of Pericles.  Though still young, he was influential because of his high birth and his fascinating personality.  His talents were brilliant in all directions; but he was lawless and violent, and followed no motive but self-interest and self-indulgence.  Through his influence Athens allied herself with Argos, Elis, and Mantinea against the Lacedaemonians and their allies.  [p.  224]

The result of this alliance led Athens into defeat and disaster, but Alcibiades on many occasions showed outstanding talent and succeeded brilliantly in many important affairs.  Apparently he had great personal charm and easily aroused strong feelings of admiration and affection in others.

Though usually able to accomplish with ease any aim he might choose, he seemed capriciously to court disaster and, perhaps at the behest of some trivial impulse, to go out of his way to bring down defeat upon his own projects.  Plutarch refers to him thus:242

It has been said not untruly that the friendship which Socrates felt for him has much contributed to his fame, and certain it is, that, though we have no account from any writer concerning the mother of Nicias or Demosthenes, of Lamachus or Phormion, of Thrasybulus or Theratnenes, notwithstanding these were all illustrious men of the same period, yet we know even the nurse of Alcibiades, that her country was Lacedaemon, and her name Amycla; and that Zopyrus was his teacher and attendant; the one being recorded by Antistheries, and the othei by Plato.  (p.  149)

In the Symposium,241 one of his most celebrated dialogues, Plato introduces Alcibiades by having him appear with a group of intoxicated revelers and burst in upon those at the banquet who are engaged in philosophical discussion.  Alcibiades, as presented here by Plato, appears at times to advocate as well as symbolize external beauty and ephemeral satisfactions as opposed to the eternal verities.  Nevertheless, Plato gives Alcibiades the role of recognizing and expounding upon the inner virtue and spiritual worth of Socrates and of acclaiming this as far surpassing the readily discerned attainments of more obviously attractive and superficially impressive men.  Plato devotes almost all of the last quarter of the Symposium to Alcibiades and his conversation with Socrates.  His great charm and physical beauty are emphasized repeatedly here.

The personal attractiveness of Alcibiades is also dwelt upon by Plutarch:242

It is not, perhaps, material to say anything of the beauty of Alcibiades, only that it bloomed with him at all stages of his life, in his infancy, in his youth, and in his manhood; and, in the peculiar character belonging to each of these periods, gave him in everyone of them, a grace and charm.  What Euripides says: “of all fair things the autumn, too, is fair” … is by no means universally true.  But it happened so with Alcibiades amongst few others. …[pp149-150]

Early in his career he played a crucial role in gaining important victories for Athens.  Later, after fighting against his native city and contributing substantially to her final disaster, he returned to favor, won important victories again for her and was honored with her highest offices.  In the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1949) I read:

Alcibiades possessed great charm and brilliant abilities but was absolutely unprincipled.  His advice whether to Athens or to Sparta, oligarchs or democrats, was dictated by selfish motives, and the Athenians could never trust him sufficiently to take advantage of his talents.

And Thucydides Says:280

They feared the extremes to which he carried his lawless self-indulgence, and … though his talents as a military commander were unrivalled, they entrusted the administration of the war to Others; and so they speedily shipwrecked the state.

Plutarch repeatedly emphasizes the positive and impressive qualities of Alcibiades:242

It was manifest that the many wellborn persons who were continually seeking his company, and making their court to him, were attracted and captivated by his brilliant and extraordinary beauty only.  But the affection which Socrates entertained for him is a great evidence of the natural noble qualities and good disposition of the boy, which Socrates, indeed, detected both in and under his personal beauty; and, fearing that his wealth and station, and the great number both of strangers and Athenians who flattered and caressed him, might at last corrupt him, resolved, if possible, to interpose, and preserve so hopeful a plant from perishing in the flower, before its fruit came to perfection.  [p.  151]

The same writer also cites many examples of unattractive behavior, in which Alcibiades is shown responding with unprovoked and arbitrary insolence to those who sought to do him honor.  Let us note one of these incidents:242

As in particular to Anitas, the son of Anthernion, who was very fond of him and invited him to an entertainment which he had prepared for some strangers.  Alcibiades refused the invitation, but having drunk to excess in his own house with some of his companions, went thither with them to play some frolic, and standing at the door of the room where the guests were enjoying themselves and seeing the tables covered with gold and silver cups, he commanded his servants to take away the one-half of them and carry them to his own house.  And, then, disdaining so much as to enter into the room himself, as soon as he had done this, went away.  The company was indignant, and exclaimed at this rude and insulting conduct; Anitas, however, said, on the contrary, that Alcibiades had shown great consideration and tenderness in taking only a part when he might have taken all.  [p.  152]

Despite his talents and many attractive features some incidents appear even in his very early life that suggest instability, a disregard for accepted rules or commitments and a reckless tendency to seize arbitrarily what may appeal to him at the moment.  Plutarch tells us:242

Once being hard pressed in wrestling, and fearing to be thrown, he got the hand of his antagonist to his mouth, and bit it with all his force; when the other loosed his hold presently, and said, “You bite, Alcibiades, like a woman “No,” replied be, “like a lion.” [p.  150]

On another occasion it is reported that Alcibiades with other boys was playing with dice in the street.  A loaded cart which had been approaching drew near just as it was his turn to throw.  To quote again from Plutarch:242

At first he called to the driver to stop, because he was to throw in the way over which the cart was to pass; but the man giving him no attention and driving on, when the rest of the boys divided and gave way, Alcibiades threw himself on his face before the cart and, stretching himself out, bade the carter pass on now if he would; which so startled the man, that he put back his horses, while all that saw it were terrified, and, crying out, ran to assist Alcibiades.  [p.  150]

Alcibiades, one of the most prominent figures in Athens, an extremely influential leader with important successes to his credit, became the chief advocate for the memorable expedition against Sicily.  He entered enthusiastically into this venture urging it upon the Athenians partly from policy, it seems, and partly from his private ambition.  Though this expedition resulted in catastrophe and played a major role in the end of Athenian power and glory, many have felt that if Alcibiades had been left in Sicily in his position of command he might have led the great armada to victory.  If so, this might well have insured for Athens indefinitely the supreme power of the ancient world.  The brilliant ability often demonstrated by Alcibiades lends credence to such an opinion.  On the other hand, his inconsistency and capriciousness make it difficult, indeed, to feel confident that his presence would necessarily have brought success to the Athenian cause.  The magnitude of its failure has recently drawn this comment from Peter Green in Armada From Athens:100

It was more than a defeat; it was a defilement.  There, mindless, brutish, and terrified, dying like animals, without dignity or pride, were Pericles’ countrymen, citizens of the greatest imperial power Greece had ever known.  In that … destruction … Athens lost her imperial pride forever.  The shell of splendid self-confidence was shattered: something more than an army died in Sicily.  [p.  336]  Athens’ imperial pride had been destroyed and her easy self-assertion with it.  Aegospotami merely confirmed the ineluctable sentence imposed on the banks of the Assinarus.  Pindar’s violet-crowned city had been cut down to size and an ugly tarnish now dulled the bright Periclean charisma.  The great experiment in democratic imperialism that strangest of all paradoxes-was finally discredited.  [p.  353]

If Athens had succeeded in the expedition against Syracuse the history of Greece and perhaps even the history of all Europe might have been substantially different.

Shortly before the great Athenian fleet and army sailed on the Sicilian expedition an incident occurred that has never been satisfactorily explained.  Now when Athens was staking her future on a monumental and dangerous venture there was imperative need for solidarity of opinion and for confidence in the three leaders to whom so much had been entrusted.  At this tense and exquisitely inopportune time the sacred statues of Hermes throughout the city were mutilated in a wholesale desecration.

This unprovoked act of folly and outrage disturbed the entire populace and aroused superstitious qualms and fears that support of the gods would be withdrawn at a time of crucial need.  Alcibiades was strongly suspected of the senseless sacrilege.  Though proof was not established that he had committed this deed which demoralized the Athenians, the possibility that Alcibiades, their brilliant leader, might be guilty of such an idle and irresponsible outrage shook profoundly the confidence of the expeditionary force and of the government.  Many who knew him apparently felt that such an act might have been carried out by Alcibiades impulsively and without any adequate reason but merely as an idle gesture of bravado, a prank that might demonstrate what he could get away with if it should suit his fancy.  Definite evidence emerged at this time to show that he had been profaning the Eleusinian mysteries by imitating them or caricaturing them for the amusement of his friends.  This no doubt strengthened suspicion against him as having played a part in mutilating the sacred statues.

On a number of other occasions his bad judgment and his self-centered whims played a major role in bringing disasters upon Athens and upon himself.  Though this brilliant leader often appeared as a zealous and incorruptible patriot, numerous incidents strongly indicate that at other times he put self-interest first and that sometimes even the feeble lure of some minor objective or the mere prompting of caprice caused him to ignore the welfare and safety of his native land and to abandon lightly all standards of loyalty and honor.

No substantial evidence has ever emerged to indicate that Alcibiades was guilty of the sacrilegious mutilation of the statues.  He asked for an immediate trial, but it was decided not to delay the sailing of the fleet for this.  After he reached Syracuse, Alcibiades was summoned to return to Athens to face these charges.  On the way back he deserted the Athenian cause, escaped to Sparta, and joined the enemy to fight against his native city.

It has been argued that Alcibiades could not have been guilty of the mutilation since, as a leader of the expedition and its chief advocate, he would have so much to lose by a senseless and impious act that might jeopardize its success.  On the other hand his career shows many incidents of unprovoked and, potentially, self-damaging folly carried out more or less as a whim, perhaps in defiance of authority, or as an arrogant gesture to show his immunity to ordinary rules or restrictions.  It sometimes looked as though the very danger of a useless and uninviting deed might, in itself, tempt him to flaunt a cavalier defiance of rules that bind other men.   If Alcibiades did play a part in this piece of egregious folly it greatly augments his resemblance to the patients described in this book.  Indeed it is difficult to see how anyone but a psychopath might, in his position, participate in such an act.

In Sparta Alcibiades made many changes to identify himself with the ways and styles of the enemy.  In Athens he had been notable for his fine raiment and for worldly  splendor and extravagance.  On these characteristics Plutarch comments thus:242

But with all these words and deeds and with all this sagacity and eloquence, he mingled the exorbitant luxury and wantonness in his eating and drinking and dissolute living; owre long, purple robes like a woman, which dragged after him as he went through the marketplace, caused the planks of his galley to be cut away, that he might lie the softer, his bed not being placed on the boards but hanging upon girths.  His shield, again, which was richly gilded had not the usual ensigns of the Athenians, but a Cupid holding a thunderbolt in his hand, was painted upon it.  The sight of all this made the people of good repute in the city feel disgust and abhorrence and apprehension also, at his free living and his contempt of law as things monstrous in themselves and indicating designs of usurpation.[pp. 161-162]

In contrast to his appearance and his habits in the old environment we find this comment by Plutarch on Alcibiades after he had deserted the Athenian cause and come to live in Sparta and throw all his brilliant talents into the war against his native land: 242

The renown which he earned by these public services, not to Athens, but to Sparta, was equaled by the admiraton he attracted to his private life.  He captivated and won over everybody by his conformity to Spartan habits.   People who saw him wearing his hair cut close and bathing in cold water, eating coarse meal and dining on black broth, doubted, or rather could not believe that he had ever had a cook in his house or had ever seen a perfumer or had ever worn a mantle of Milesian purple.  For he had, as it was observed, this peculiar talent and artifice of gaining men’s affection, that he could at once comply with and really embrace and enter into the habits and ways of life, and change faster than the chameleon; one color, indeed, they say, the chameleon cannot assume; he cannot himself appear white.  But, Alcibiades, whether with good men or with bad, could adapt himself to his company and equally wear the appearances of virtue or vice.  At Sparta, he was devoted to athletic exercises, was frugal and reserved: in Ionia, luxurious, gay and indolent; in Thrace, always drinking; in Thessaly, ever on horseback; and when he lived with Tisaphernes, the king of Persia’s satrap he exceeded the Persians themselves in magnificence and pomp.  Not that his natural disposition changed so easily, nor that his real character was so variable, but whether he was sensible that by pursuing his own inclinations he might give offense to those with whom he had occasion to converse, he transformed himself into any shape and adopted any fashion that he observed to be agreeable to them.  [pp.  169-170]

At Sparta Alcibiades seemed to strive in every way to help the enemy defeat and destroy Athens.  He induced them to send military aid promptly to the Syracusans and also aroused them to renew the war directly against Athens.  He made them aware of the great importance of fortifying Decelea, a place very near Athens, from which she was extremely vulnerable to attack.  The Spartans followed his counsel in these matters and, by taking the steps he advised, wrought serious damage to the Athenian cause.  The vindictive and persistent efforts of this brilliant traitor may have played a substantial part in the eventual downfall of Athens.  Even before he left Sicily for Sparta Alcibiades had begun to work against his native land in taking steps to prevent Messina from falling into the hands of the Athenians.
Eventually a good many of the Spartans began to distrust Alcibiades.  Among this group was the king, Agis.  According to Plutarch:242

… While Agis was absent and abroad with the army, [Alcibiades] corrupted his wife, Timea, and had a child born by her.  Nor did she even deny it, but when she was brought to bed of a son, called him in public, Leotychides, but amongst her confidants and attendants, would whisper that his name was Alcibiades, to such a degree was she transported by her passion for him.  He, on the other side, would say in his valiant way, he had not done this thing out of mere wantonness of insult, nor to gratify a passion, but that his race might one day be kings over the Lacedaemonians.  [p.  170]

It became increasingly unpleasant for Alcibiades in Sparta despite his great successes and the admiration he still evoked in many.  Plutarch say:242

But Agis was his enemy, hating him for having dishonored his wife, but also impatient of his glory, as almost every success was ascribed to Alcibiades.  Others, also, of the more powerful and ambitious among the Spartans were possessed with jealousy of him and prevailed with the magistrates in the city to send orders …  that he should be killed.  [p.  171]

Alcibiades, however, learned of this, and fled to Asia Minor for security with the satrap of the king of Persia, Tisaphernes.  Here he found security and again displayed his great abilities and his extraordinary charm.  According to Plutarch:242

[He] immediately became the most influential person about him; for this barbarian [Tisaphernes], not being himself sincere, but a lover of guile and wickedness, admired his address and wonderful subtlety.  And, indeed, the charm of daily intercourse with him was more than any character could resist or any disposition escape.  Even those who feared and envied him, could not but take delight and have a sort of kindness for him when they saw him and were in his company, so that Tisaphernes, otherwise a cruel character, and above all other Persians, a hater of the Greeks, was yet so won by the flatteries of Alcibiades that he set himself even to exceed him in responding to them.  The most beautiful of his parks containing salubrious streams and meadows where he had built pavilions and places of retirement, royally and exquisitely adorned, received by his direction the name of Alcibiades and was always so called and so spoken of.

Thus, Alcibiades, quitting the interest of the Spartans, whom he could no longer trust because he stood in fear of Agis, the king, endeavored to do them ill offices and render them odious to Tisaphernes, who, by his means, was hindered from assisting them vigorously and from finally ruining the Athenians.  For his advice was to furnish them but sparingly with money and so wear them out, and consume them insensibly; when they had wasted their strength upon one another, they would both become ready to submit to the king.  [p.  171]

It is not remarkable to learn that Alcibiades left the service of the Persians.  It does seem to me remarkable, however, after his long exile from Athens, his allegiance to her enemies and the grievous damage he had done her, that he was enthusiastically welcomed back to Athens, that he again led Athenian forces to brilliant victories, and that he was, indeed, given supreme command of the Athenian military and naval forces.  His welcome back to Athens was enthusiastic.  According to Plutarch, 242 “The people crowned him with crowns of gold, and created him general, both by land and by sea.”  He is described as “coming home from so long an exile, and such variety of misfortune, in the style of revelers breaking up from a drinking party.”  Despite this, many of the Athenians did not fully trust him, and apparently without due cause, this time, he was dismissed from his high position of command.  He later retired to Asia Minor where he was murdered at 46 years of age, according to some reports for “having debauched a young lady of a noble house.”

Despite the widespread admiration that Alcibiades could so easily arouse, skeptical comments were made about him even before his chief failures occurred.  According to Plutarch, “It was not said amiss by Archestratus, that Greece could not support a second Alcidiabes.”  Plutarch also quotes Tinton as saying, “Go on boldly, my son, and increase in credit with the people, for thou wilt one day bring them calamities enough.”  Of the Athenians attitude toward Alcibiades, Aristophanes wrote: “They love and hate and cannot do without him.”242

The character of Alcibiades looms in the early dawn of history as an enigmatic paradox.  He undoubtedly disconcerted and puzzled his contemporaries, and his conduct seems to have brought upon him widely differing judgments.  During the many centuries since his death historians have seemed fascinated by his career but never quite able to interpret his personality.  Brilliant and persuasive, he was able to succeed in anything he wished to accomplish.  After spectacular achievement he often seemed, carelessly or almost deliberately, to throw away all that he had gained, through foolish decisions or unworthy conduct for which adequate motivation cannot be demonstrated and, indeed, can scarcely be imagined.  Senseless pranks or mere nose-thumbing gestures of derision seemed at times to draw him from serious responsibilities and cause him to abandon major goals as well as the commitments of loyalty and honor.  Apparently his brilliance, charm, and promise captivated Socrates, generally held to be the greatest teacher and the wisest man of antiquity.  Though Alcibiades is reported to have been the favorite disciple and most cherished friend of the master it can hardly be said that Socrates succeeded in teaching him to apply even ordinary wisdom consistently in the conduct of his life or to avoid follies that would have been shunned even by the stupid.  According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1949), “He was an admirer of Socrates, who saved his life at Potidaea (432), a service which Alcibiades repaid at Delium; but he could not practice his master’s virtues, and there is no doubt that the example of Alcidiabes strengthened the charges brought against Socrates of corrupting the youth.”

When we look back upon what has been recorded of Alcibiades we are led to suspect that he had the gift of every talent except that of using them consistently to achieve any sensible aim or in behalf of any discernible cause.  Though it would hardly be convincing to claim that we can establish a medical diagnosis, or a full psychiatric explanation, of this public figure who lived almost two and a half thousand years ago, there are many points in the incomplete records of his life available to us that strongly suggest Alcibiades may have been a spectacular example of what during recent decades we have, in bewilderment and amazement, come to designate as the psychopath.

During this brief period Greece, and Athens especially, produced architecture, sculpture, drama, and poetry that have seldom if ever been surpassed.  Perhaps Greece also produced in Alcibiades the most impressive and brilliant, the most truly classic example of this still inexplicable pattern of human life.