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Plato – Phaedrus[1]

First, I’ll give a recap of the speech:

A. Phaedrus begins the speech, which starts with the notion that the lover is a mad man, that is, insane with desire. This insanity is damaging to the lover and the beloved.

1. This speech of Lysias is cynical at this point, describing a physical, selfish love.

2. The speech itself is badly written, a parody actually, which shows the weakness and corruption of the thought behind it. Plato has a reason for writing it in this way. Socrates fears that this speech will corrupt Phaedrus, who is quite taken by it, and, in turn, Socrates makes derogatory and ironic comments about the speech of Lysias.

B. Socrates refutes the speech with a speech of his own.

1. He puts a cloak over his head and delivers an improved version of the Lysias speech. It is better, but still not as good as his final speech at the end of the dialogue.

2. Socrates starts out by defining love, and he organizes the speech much better than Lysias did.

3. At this point, what Socrates says about love is in the realm of right opinion as opposed to true knowledge.

4. He appears, in part to agree with Lysias’ idea of love (an irrational desire for the object of the desire). But he then breaks off when he realizes that he has praised what to him is a non-lover.

5. At this point, Plato works in mention of the ancient Greek lyric poets Ibycus and Stesichorus.

6. Socrates is becoming dithyrambic, and wants to leave. Phaedrus asks him to stay; it is “scorching noon”

7. Socrates’ daimon orders him to stay and make up for his impiety 9in talking about love in the way he has; the gods have overheard him and are unhappy.

8. Stesichorus was blinded for his impiety in writing an unflattering poem about Helen of Troy. The real target of Plato is Homer (who was said to have been blind), whom Plato believes has miseducated everyone, including the lyric poets. Stesichorus atoned by writing an encomium to Helen and his sight is restored.

9. Maybe this is related to the symbolism of the cloak over Socrates’ head. He has been, in effect, blind and therefore his speech about love has not been one of true knowledge. But by removing his cloak (having his vision restored, like Stesichorus) he is now ready to give us this true knowledge. Lovely metaphors Plato ole’ buddy!

C. Socrates decides to start again: “The essence of good speech is telling the truth.” That is why his first speech failed, because it accepted some of Lysias’ values and assumptions, and therefore was not true.

1. Socrates admits that love is madness or a type of insanity. But not all insanity is evil.

2. There are four kinds of “insanity” that are good, endowed by the gods: prophecy, purgation or atonement for sins, lyric poetry, and love.

3. Socrates third speech is actually all of these things, the “great instantiation” of love in a kind of divine or superhuman sense.

4. If we want to characterize these speeches metallurgically, Lysias’ speech as a “bronze” speech; Socrates’ first speech as a “silver” speech; and his third and final encomium is a “gold” speech.

D. Socrates give us an image of the soul in love. He uses the metaphor of a winged chariot, driven by charioteer and pulled by two horses. This chariot takes us up out of the realm of space and time to the home of the gods and the realm of the forms.

1. Most humans have a white horse (docile and good) and a black one (hard to handle, bad). The problem is to get the black horse of the soul under control.

2. Only in this way can we “stand on the back of the universe” to see reality and live with the gods for the 10,000 year cycle of the cosmos.

3. If we do not control the “black” horse, we suffer the human condition of living in the world of substance, longing for the beautiful realm of the forms.

4. Love reminds us of the beauty of what our souls once knew in an earlier existence – if you’re familiar with Plato’s conception of the “Transmigration of the Soul” (described here), then you’re on the right track. – maybe. . .

5. Real love is thus an attempt to improve the other by improving their soul. This is what Socrates is trying to do for Phaedrus.

6. Plato believed in a cycle of life, judgment and rebirth in one thousand year cycles (within the larger 10,000 year cosmic cycle). If, after 10,000 years, you are virtuous, you “get your wings” and live with the gods. However, if you are like Socrates, practicing this kind of (“Platonic”) love, you need only go around three times. Convenient!

E. Socrates lets us know that sex is to the body what good, improving speech is to the soul. This is unselfish, divine

love. This is the true speech about love, which Socrates is delivering with the cloak off his head, symbolizing light

in truth.

1. At this point, after a religious speech about love, Socrates begins to talk about rhetoric, and a definition of the “good” speech. In this case, he accuses the Sophists as the seducers of the demos/polis.  Their motives are suspect because they want to gratify themselves, not improve the demos.

2. Socrates wants to persuade people and society for their own benefit. Knowledge is the essence of a good speech.

3. A speech must move towards dialectic. Some rhetoric is acceptable, but Socrates’ rhetoric is different (more orderly) than that of the Sophists.

4. Socrates then gives a whole catalogue of opposites, which express what the soul is, and what our identity is. We are seen and known in our speech.

5. Again, we see that Socrates is divinely inspired (dithyrambic), undergoing a purgation, using lyric poetry, and expressing his love for Phaedrus.

F. At the end of this “hymn to love”, the sun is setting.  This spreading darkness is a return from passion to reason and logic.  Socrates now moves to philosophy to finish the “journey” of the dialogue as they return to the city.

1. Socrates suggests a prayer, demonstrating the importance of piety as a bridge to the gods.

2. The concluding idea is that the love reaches into the soul and makes it divine. This happens only in the presence of another soul, which we can love. Love is the gift of the gods.

OK, so there’s the general structure of Plato’s argument before the section on speech/rhetoric and writing.  Now let’s try to see how exactly Phaedrus engages the role of public and private life of the Athenian citizen and the relationship between individuality versus collectivity in this piece. . .

  • Early on in this piece we get a social/urban rural/individual divide – Socrates resides in the grove seeking truth and Lysias (the Sophist) is in the city, practicing his Gorgianic art.  Here also the binary between nature/society is already becoming apparent.  Nature=truth or inartistic proofs, society=artistic proofs.
  • You “learn” things in the city from people. . . which sounds noble; however, if we take Plato’s other writings into account, “learning” isn’t nearly as valuable as looking inward and discovering truth.  Pg. 115, 1st column.
  • Lysias’ speech seems to argue that it is better to give your affection to a non-lover because they are more likely to be able to return that affection in kind.  ‘
  • Socrates’ first speech makes the argument that the lover will do what he needs to do to turn the loved into something the lover wants, not what is best for the lover.  This too is a mistake because it is woefully self-indulgent and doesn’t exhibit a concern for the loved best interest.  If we extend this metaphor to rhetoric and the role of the rhetor in public life, it would appear that Socrates – in his first speech – is arguing that the rhetor can take his “lover” or audience for a ride without care of repercussion toward self interested motives; however, he recants this position after his daimon pays him a visit and lets him know that he has offended the gods by assigning “love” – a deity – an essentially negative quality.  In response, Socrates reconceptualizes his notion of “love” and how to deal with it.
  • On the immortality of the soul:  so, that which is moved from the outside is soulless.  Extending this line of reasoning to truth, that soul resides in truth. . . or actually the truth resides in the soul.  That truth, found inside the soul, should instantiate the Beginning of movement.  If moved from outside (through the artistic proofs that rhetoric provides), then the movement – the logos – is artificial and non-truthful, or at least not commensurate with the soul.
  • In his second speech, Socrates corrects both Lysias and his first speech by recognizing that the good lover will only care for his beloved – even to the point of losing all of those things that Lysias claimed he would cut off from his beloved in his speech.  Extending this further, the lover of discourse and speech would do well to heed Socrates’ call for the interest of the larger beloved – the polis/demos.  126
  • We get the indictment of sophistical rhetoric on 131, 1st column.
  • Socrates grounds rhetorical practice as an art that leads the soul with words both inside and outside of public life.  He notes, “Is not rhetoric in its entire nature an art which leads the soul by means of words, not only in law courts and the various other public assemblages, but in private companies as well?”  Further, Socractes notes that the “art of contention in speech is not confined to courts and political gatherings, but apparently, if it is an art at all, it would be one and the same in all kinds of speaking, the art by which man will be able to produce a resemblance between all things between which it can be produced, and to bring to light the resemblances produced and disguised by anyone else.” (132)  In both these sentences, Socrates is grounding rhetoric in a public and private context – or perhaps neither of these contexts exists and rhetoric simply is a state of being.
  • When epistemology, Socrates relies on dialectic to produce meaning (135).  As such, sophistical rhetoric is merely a precursor to the real work of dialectical reasoning because it relies on formulas and manipulation rather than a process of arriving at truth (137, 1st).
  • Socrates lays out the perfect rhetorician on 138, 2nd column.  He must know the class of speech, the kairotic moment, his audience (and the practical application of a class of speech to that audience) and the proper delivery.
  • For public deliberative speech, probability is king; therefore, sophism will reign because the need for truth is not as persuasive as the need for likelihood.
  • The need to speak – according to the Sophists – is a distinctly public activity; however, the need for reasoning and good speech is – according to Socrates – pleasing to the Gods and therefore necessary in all aspects of life (139).
  • The end of Phaedrus serves as an invective against writing because it serves as an artificial wisdom that stands in contradiction to dialectic – it also cannot speak for itself, another strike against being dialectical.  True to form, Socrates never wrote anything.
  • Much is made of Socrates’ negative perception of Athenian law courts at the end of Phaedrus.
  • Diverging from his pretty harsh treatment of the Sophists in Gorgias, Socrates treats rhetoric with a lot more respect in Phaedrus.  He concludes that rhetoric is a neutral art in this piece.  Ideally, he only wants it to be put to use by the philosopher.

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