An Analysis of the Soul in the Phaedrus

Socrates begins his famous account of the tripartite soul in the Phaedrus at line 244a, not unlike the account given in The Republic. The whole dialogue begins outside the city walls of Athens. Socrates and Phaedrus are barefooted and walking through a stream. Phaedrus has just ended an evening with Lysias, the rhetorician and son of Cephalus, at the house of Epikrates’s, a house that used to belong to Morukhos -a very lavish home indeed.

Socrates notices a copy of Lysias’s speech protrudring from beneath Phaedrus’s cloak. Socrates beckons Phaedrus to read the speech aloud under the shade of a plane tree. The central point of the speech is to persuade lovers to pursue non-lovers so that they will maximize sexual favors granted in return, devoid of the madness experienced by lovers for beloveds. Much to Phaedrus’s dismay, Socrates does not find the speech to be persuasive or beautiful. Phaedrus then compels Socrates to give a superior speech, first by offering a golden statue in both his and Socrates’s likeness, not unlike the Athenian Archons. However, Socrates is compelled by Phaedrus’s oath, swearing upon the plane tree under which they are sitting, that he will never give another speech again if Socrates does not respond. Socrates is addicted to speeches not prizes. Unlike other dialogues, the Phaedrus is an intimate exchange between Phaedrus and Socrates only (there are no other participants).

Socrates gives his first speech in direct address to an imaginary boy, and in it he delineates two forces in humans -one an inborn desire for pleasure, and the other, an opinion of the pursuit of the best. Love is a form of desire, when passion rules over reason and is moved toward the beauty of the body. This is called love. Next he tackles the question of good or ill-will in love, concluding with a warning to the boy that the lover is like a wolf and his love is of a physical interest to satiate his pleasures. Socrates warns that he was possessed by the nymphs on the spot where they lie beneath the plane tree.

Socrates then tries to escape the area by crossing the river but Phaedrus compels him to stay when he says they should wait for the noontime heat of the day to pass. Socrates then claims to experience his daimonic sign compelling him to stay and speak more. He claims he has made offense against the gods to earn favor among men -he has slandered Eros and in order to purify himself he will speak a palinode, in the manner of Homer and Stesichorus (in his first speech, he had proceeded from speaking in dithyrambs to speaking in epic hexameter as he criticized the lover).

2nd Speech: Again, Socrates addresses his speech to the imaginary boy. He blames the former speech on Phaedrus, but gives credit for the new speech to Stesichorus, the first great heroic lyric poet in ancient Western literature. Socrates claims Stesichorus was able to cure himself of blindness by purifying himself against a slander of Eros.

He begins with a praise of madness as bringing “the greatest of all good things.” As evidence he notes the mania of the prophets and priestesses, like the oracle of delphi; madness in purification and prayers to the gods to cure old family ills (perhaps the activity that Socrates is currently undertaking); and possession by the muses to compose beautiful works. These are three examples of madness, but Socrates proceeds to give an account of a fourth kind of madness.

Next, it is necessary to consider the truth of what the soul experiences, in its human and divine forms.

Every soul is immortal as it is the origin of its own unmoved motion (recall Aristotle’s unmoved mover). Next it is imperative to examine the soul’s form. However, this can be a lengthy process expounded upon by a god, so therefore we humans, whose lives are short, must choose a different path. Socrates likens the soul to a winged  pair of horses and a charioteer. The horses of the gods are good, but all others are questionable. For men, the charioteer commands a pair of horses, one noble and the other ignoble. The task of the charioteer is irksome. All souls when they are good traverse the whole of the cosmos, but when shame and vice enter, a soul loses its feathers and floats downward finding an earthly body to become ensouled. The gods go their ways to the feast and the banquet, led by Zeus, and when they reach the vault of heaven they go to the edge of the rim and look upon things outside the heavens through the revolving motion. Here is where the soul experiences true knowledge and looks upon Being for quite some time until the revolving motion carries her (the soul) back to her original spot. This gives her adoration and joy.

However, mortal souls can merely try to imitate (mimesis) the life of the gods. One soul gets carried around with the gods to look upon the things that are (i.e. the things that have true being), but this soul may become confused by other horses. Another soul is harassed by the horses and sees some things but not others. All the remaining souls attempt to move upward but they are in competition with one another and there is much confusion as souls trample one another, and they must leave the place of Being and feed on the food of conjecture. When the soul who has seen the nature of Being falls to an earthly body, first she falls into a lover of wisdom or beauty, second a king or military man or ruler, third into a political man or estate manager or money maker, fourth into the lover of toil or a gymnast or doctor, fifth into a prophet or mystic, sixth a poet, seventh a craftsman or farmer, eighth a sophist or demagogue, ninth a a tyrant.

It takes a soul 10,000 years to return to the same spot, unless it is the soul of a lover of wisdom without deceit. If in the third 1,000 year the souls remain in the same station, they sprout wings and leave. At the end of their life they are judged -punished by going under the earth or rewarded with a life of Justice in the heavens. Only a soul which has seen the truth may go into the body of a human because the humans must try to know the forms. The process occurs by recollecting the things that the soul once saw in the company of a god. This occurs through a philosopher whose soul sprouts wings, and is harangued by the many as appearing foolish though they know he has a god within. This philosophic madness is the fourth kind of madness.

It is difficult on the senses to perceive things as they are. However, it is important to gaze upon beauty itself, rather than pursue simple, transient pleasures. Whenever the soul feels desire, it is like a child teething. It is uncomfortable and achey as new wings are sprouted and she feels a release from pain and joy. But when she is apart from her love she feels anguish like she is stung all over. However, when the two feelings are mixed, she is at odds and confused by the mixture of experience. She is driven mad and unable to sleep at night or stay in one place during the day. She longs to see love again and to be filled with desire. Nothing is more valuable to her than this love -not family, nor property. She is ready to sleep wherever so long as it is close to this love (boy). The love is the only doctor for her great pains. This passion is what human beings call Love.

Each lover follows in the entourage of their god, like Zeus or Ares -who causes lovers who feel wronged by their beloved to become homicidal. Followers of Zeus look for wisdom and rulers, and followers of Hera look for a regal beloved, and followers of Apollo are in his manner.

Returning to the image of the charioteer -the horse on the right is beautiful, high-necked, erect, and responds to commands, with white and black eyes, and is a lover of honor. The other is crooked, stiff-necked, snub-nosed, black, not obedient, and overcome with insolence and wantonness. This horse’s vices must be physically reigned in. Socrates then describes the moderate path toward the love of a beloved. This is how a mortal masters himself -the true Olympic Games. When he dies, his soul has passed its test.

With this palinode, Socrates dedicates it to Eros in a prayer not to pursue earthly pleasures, but instead to focus on the love of wisdom.

For this reading I used the Stephen Scully translation.

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