Socrates and Phaedrus on Love

In our inquiry concerning the nature of love, we turn our attention to two Platonic dialogues, Phaedrus and the Symposium. Both dialogues share some key components in common, perhaps none more apparent than the prominence of Phaedrus, a young and attractive man, according to Plato, who is a student of physics and rhetoric. First we consider Phaedrus in both dialogues.

In the Symposium, a drinking party in celebration of Agathon’s recent poetic victory in Athens, Phaedrus is the “father of the speeches” as he claims the god Eros has not been appropriately praised. The attendees proceed in order giving their praises of Eros. According to Strauss, this dialogue takes place dramatically prior to the Phaedrus. In the Symposium, Phaedrus speaks first and gives an account of Eros as the oldest god, and therefore the best for utilitarian reasons. Chiefly, Eros is good because love compels men to conduct great deeds for reasons of state (i.e. patriotism on the battlefield), and also love is good because it is viewed favorably by the gods (recall the case of Orpheus versus Achilles, among others). Later in the dialogue, with Aristophanes and Agathon and Socrates, the goal will be to give an accurate account of Eros, rather than merely praising him for the benefits he confers.

Next consider Phaedrus in his eponymously named dialogue, Phaedrus (sometimes given the subtitle “On Love”). Here we find him in a hurry to get out of the city and walk outside Athens, before Socrates spots him and goes with him outside the city. Phaedrus was going out of the city to memorize the words of a speech delivered by Lysias, the rhetorician and son of Cephalus, the metic whose house is the setting of The Republic. Socrates spots this speech from under Phaedrus’s cloak and asks him to read it in the Arcadian shade of a plane tree. The crux of the speech, as read by the disenchanted and ungodly Phaedrus, is a utilitarian argument for lovers to pursue sexual favors from non-lovers, and thereby get the most in return. Socrates criticizes Lysias’s speech on two accounts -he critiques the economical utilitarian demands of love, and also he praises certain kinds of madness as part of the experience of the soul.

Thus we have considered the person of Phaedrus, as Plato beckons us to do in each dialogue. Phaedrus is an economical man, not a lover, but a beloved, and a small-minded simpleton. He is a young and physically attractive man, incapable of thinking for himself, as Socrates desperately tries to force upon him in the Phaedrus (one recalls Theaetetus, though Theaetetus is a far more reputable figure, as evidenced by his patriotism detailed at the outset of his eponymous dialogue).

Next, let us contrast what Socrates says about love in the two dialogues. First the Symposium. Socrates, rather than falling in line with the poets, and following upon Agathon’s vague speech in praise of love, recalls an exchange he had with Diotima. He was looking for teachers to help him, and she engaged in a dialectical inquiry with him that led to an account of Eros as an interim daimon between men and gods. Eros, says Socrates, is a philosopher. It is a desire for the whole good and being happy (205d). Because the mortal nature seeks immortality, a human will take place in new birth and generation. Procreation is a taking part in immortality. In this way he also praises Eros, like Phaedrus, for men fighting to gain immortal virtue (a la Achilles and others), these are appropriate in terms of bodies, but in terms of souls, he is concerned with moderation and justice for arranging of households and cities. Lovers lead their beloveds to find the single unchanging form of beauty -from beautiful bodies up to pursuits and lessons until the single eidos is conceived. This is the only way the life of the mortal is worth living. Eros is a co-worker, helping humans in this ascent to the being of the beautiful in its one true form.

During the second speech Socrates gives in the Phaedrus, the most important speech he gives, Socrates rebuts and disowns his first speech. He praises madness as it is divinely inspired by the gods, like love, when it is sent to men from the gods. It is necessary to consider the truth of the experience of the soul, primarily. He gives an argument for why the soul is immortal and ungenerated (the causal argument given by Aristotle for the prime unmoved mover in the Physics). Though a god could give a better account, for the sake of time, he likens the soul to a winged team of horses and a charioteer. The charioteer rules over the horses, one noble and the other the opposite. The soul rules the cosmos and travels the stars. Once they have lost their feathers, due to shame and vice, they find a solid body in which to dwell. We can never see nor conceive of a god properly, we fashion him in a likeness. When souls of gods reach the end of the heavens, there they gaze on the vision of the forms, the place of Being. The souls of everyone else try to imitate the gods in this pursuit of the Truth, but there is great clamor and confusion, and they fall back to earth filling nine types of souls in bodies -the first and best is the lover of wisdom or beauty or musical or erotic, second is the king or statesman or military man, third is the political man or money maker or estates man, fourth is the lover of toil like the gymnast or doctor, fifth is the prophet or mystic, sixth is a poet, seventh is the craftsman or farmer, eighth is the sophist or demagogue, and ninth is the tyrant. The process of bettering ones lot occurs through recollection what was seen by the soul in the company of a god (Meno). However, this only happens through the thought of a philosopher, namely growing wings for the soul, and the many disparage this type of man as he does not participate in the lot of the many. This is the fourth kind of madness -when the philosophic man looks upward in recollection of the being of the Truth and takes little care for the affairs of daily life. Our human senses are not accustomed to when we gain a small glimpse of our soul’s former life, in chorus dance with Zeus in his entourage, and we are stunned in our imprisoned body like an oyster shell (perhaps like Meno was as a torpedo-fish). Thus when we have desire, it is a very painful experience, but yields joy and a freedom from pain if it is toward the beautiful. When the soul is driven mad through recollection for the beloved (the “boy”), such that she cannot sleep at night and longs to go to the place the beloved sleeps because she is not willing to be deprived of this pleasure and she has forgotten her bother, father, brothers, and companions. She is ready to be a slave and gives little care for her private property because she reveres her beloved and finds in him or her the only doctor for her greatest labors and pains. Human beings call this passion love. If a man was once among Zeus’s entourage, he is able to bear these burdens respectfully, but for those who traveled the circuit of the heavens with Ares, they are homicidal and willing to sacrifice themselves and their lovers if they are wronged by their beloved. Followers of Zeus search for a beloved who is noble and ask whether he or she is a lover of wisdom and a ruler, and when they fall in love they him the beloved become such a person. Followers of Hera seek a beloved who is regal and seek to lead him toward the imitation of their god and behave like worshippers fashioning their lovers like statues and adorning them with secret rites. If they are truly in love, both become beautiful and blessed as a result. In critique of Lysias, Socrates says the meager economizing and the merely mortal benefits conferred are insufficient to the great souls.

Thus, Phaedrus is given a far more beautiful and enduring account of love and the soul, though being a simple minded man, his response is feeble and the message is lost on him. The remainder of the dialogue concerns a detailed examination of rhetoric, as he is far more concerned with the crafting of a pleasant or a persuasive speech, than with any enduring questions into the nature of being. It is important to note that this account of love by Socrates occurs after Socrates receives a divine sign (daimon) -an example of a divine form of madness.

For this reading I used the Stephen Scully translation.

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