Initial Notes on Plato’s Phaedrus

The dramatic narrative of Plato’s Phaedrus begins within the city limits of Athens. Socrates calls out to the young Phaedrus, whose name means “bright.” Phaedrus tells Socrates that he has been with Cephalus’s son, Lysias (not Cephalus’s other son Polemarchus who we encounter in Plato’s Republic). Phaedrus has been with Lysias since dawn and Socrates correctly guesses that Lysias has been “feeding” Phaedrus with speeches.

Phaedrus is on his way out to the country, outside the city of Athens, because Akoumenous, a physician and father of Erixymachus (the same Erixymachus who is the third speaker, instead of Aristophanes, in Plato’s Symposium) has told Phaedrus that it is refreshing for the body to stroll out to the country.

Phaedrus, a simple-minded man, is on his way to memorize the words of a speech delivered by Lysias on love. Here we recall the recantations of Euclides and Terpsion at the outset of the Theaetetus. Lysias’s speech, which Socrates beckons Phaedrus to read aloud from the parchment sticking out from under his garment, is an argument for lovers to grant sexual favors to people who are neither lovers nor beloveds in return. Favors should be granted to non-lovers. Lysias’s understanding of love is economical, or what we moderns might call ‘utilitarian.’ For him, love is a kind of erotic exchange toward a greater equilibrium. At any rate, Socrates guides Phaedrus through the philosophical problems of love, ironically at the same time that he asks Phaedrus to lead the way along the banks of the Ilissos (a river running along the defensive outer wall of Athens). The river is shaded by Plane trees, and Socrates and Phaedrus sit beneath one, near where Boreas the North Wind took Orethueia, as the story goes. Phaedrus asks Socrates if he believes the old myths, to which Socrates mocks mocks ‘boorish sophistication of unbelievers’ and says he is too busy trying to ‘know himself’ according the Delphic inscription. It seems laughable to worry about myths when Socrates is ignorant of himself. As they arrive at shady spot, Socrates verbally paints an idyllic picture of a cool stream for their bare feet, a large tree, and a gentle breeze in the shade out of the hot sun. Socrates likens the place to the nymphs and river god, Achelous, as well as the chorus of cicadas. Phaedrus notes that Socrates seems out of place, and Socrates says he is in love with learning, something only done by human beings, not trees and rivers, though he does acknowledge that learning is a kind of a drug. Socrates and Phaedrus lie down and Phaedrus reads the aforementioned speech by Lysias.

Once Phaedrus completes the speech, a conflict arises between the form and the content of the speech. Socrates is more interested in the content, while Phaedrus seems more interested in the arrangement of words, and their perfectly organized syntax.

First, Socrates accuses Lysias of repeating himself in his youthful swagger, to which Phaedrus demands that Socrates justify this claim. Socrates tries to call upon the authority of the ancients, like Sappho, and then he offers to deliver a new speech rivaling Lysias’s. Phaedrus persuades Socrates by threatening never to read another speech again to Socrates. Socrates covers his head during the speech so it will be hidden in shame. He starts telling a myth of a boy who is beloved, but Socrates interrupts himself and suggests he and Phaedrus should agree upon a definition of love before proceeding much further. In this initial account, Socrates says “everyone knows love is a form of desire” and he identifies two forces in us: desire for pleasure and acquired opinion in pursuit of the best. Each force must be reigned in to avoid excess. However when passion rules over reason and is driven toward pleasure of beauty and is violently moved toward pleasure of the body, it is called love.

Socrates tells Phaedrus not to be “astonished” if he suddenly becomes nymph-possessed and starts speaking in dithyrambs (an allusion to Dionysus).

Next, Socrates continues by discussing whether love is good or ill for lovers or beloveds, now that he has defined it. He concludes with a warning to boys that a lover’s desire for satiety is like a wolf hunting a lamb. In conclusion, Socrates tries to leave but Phaedrus, the listener, beckons him to stay since it is noon and the country is hot. Therefore, Socrates decides to stay and he is struck by his “daimonic sign” (242c) so he decides to critique Lysias’s speech in order not to slander eros (thus, revealing Socrates’s true purpose: to praise eros).

Here, Socrates makes a new beginning, blaming the former speech on Phaedrus, and attributing this new speech to Stesichorus (“Chorus-Master”) from Himera (“Land of Desire”). Socrates proceeds to give a defense of madness: it can be the greatest of all goods provided that it is divinely given. He cites the oracles in the manic art, purification to the gods for diseases, the muse and poetic madness, and there are others but we must not fear madness, for the gods send eros to men not for their own benefit, but rather for our greatest good (245c). In order for this we must understand and legitimate the experience of the soul. Its immortality and the source of its motion -the soul is likened to “the innate power of a winged team of horses and a charioteer” (246b). For men there is the charioteer who rules over the horses, and then the good and noble horse, followed by the opposite. Socrates offers an account of the gods in heaven seeing the truth of being, and of men who are an imitation of the gods, as well as a hierarchy of souls beginning first with a lover of wisdom and beauty, and ending with a tyrant. He gives another account of the soul in recollection (recall in the Meno). He gives a fourth kind of madness -a lover of beauty, as well as a good kind of desire. This speech is offered in atonement to eros.

After the conclusion of Socrates’s speech, Phaedrus says he is astonished by the speech. Socrates asks that Phaedrus not be astonished at the outset. The remainder of the dialogue is devoted to an analysis of good speech making versus shameful speech making. The central question of the second half of the dialogue is rhetoric and persuasion. The dialogue concludes with a prayer from Socrates to the god Pan before they depart.

For this reading I used the Stephen Scully translation.

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