Initial Notes on Plato’s Phaedrus

The dramatic narrative of Plato’s Phaedrus begins within the city limits of Athens, as Socrates is calling out to the young Phaedrus, whose name means “bright”. Phaedrus tells Socrates that he has been with Cephalus’s son, Lysias (not Polemarchus as in the Republic) 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 (recall the third speaker who replaces Aristophanes in the Symposium) has told Phaedrus that it is refreshing for the body to stroll out to the country.

Phaedrus, a simple-minded weak 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 a 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, ironically as he asks Phaedrus to lead the way, along the banks of the Ilissos, a river running along the defensive outer wall of Athens. It was shaded by Plane trees, and Socrates and Phaedrus sit beneath one, near where Boreas the North Wind took Orethueia, as the story went. 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 thyself” as the Delphic inscription says, and it seems laughable to worry about myths when he is ignorant of himself. As they arrive, Socrates paints an idyllic picture of a cool stream for their bare feet (as was common for Socrates), a a large tree, and a gentle breeze in the shade out of the hot sun. He 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 to be done by human beings, not trees and rivers, though he does acknowledge that it is a kind of a drug. They lie down and Phaedrus reads the aforementioned speech by Lysias.

Once he is complete and Phaedrus praises Lysias’s speech, a conflict between the form and the content of the speech arises, as Socrates is more interested in the content, while Phaedrus seems more interested in the arrangement of words, and their perfect syntax.

First Socrates accuses Lysias of repeating himself in his youthful swagger, to which Phaedrus demands that he justify this claim. Socrates tries to call upon the authority of the ancients, like Sappho, and then offers to deliver a different speech. Phaedrus persuades him to by threatening never to read another speech to Socrates. Socrates covers his head during the speech so it will be hidden in shame. He tells of a myth (story) of a boy who was a beloved, but first they 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, in allusion to Dionysus.

Next, he 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 stay and critique Lysias’s speech in order not to slander 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. He gives an account of the gods in heaven seeing the truth of being, and then of men who are 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, Phaedrus says he is astonished by the speech, Socrates asked that he 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. It concludes with a prayer from Socrates to the god Pan before they depart.

For this reading I used the Stephen Scully translation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s