Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Plato's Phaedrus: A Brief Summary

Socrates meets Phaedrus outside the city gates—an anomaly for Socrates, who’s often found inside the city. But Plato's Phaedrus is full of the unusual.

Phaedrus tells Socrates he was just listening to one of Lysias’ speeches, and Socrates asks him to recite it. They find a shady chaste-tree, in full bloom and filled with fragrance, and lie down, resting their heads on the cool grass. Phaedrus then reads a speech which, when it is finished, Socrates criticizes and says he can make a better one. So he invokes the muses and gives what seems to be a parody of overblown speech. And while his speech to some degree alludes to what will come in a minute, Socrates cuts himself off in medias res saying that his divine sign, his daimon, requires him to give a different speech, one that gives respect and reverence to Love.

So Socrates begins again, saying that the best things we have come from divine madness. Madness which is possession by the gods awakens the soul to songs and poetry which both glorify past achievements and teaches them to future generations (245a).1 Living beings have in them the mortal and the immortal, and every soul is immortal. The soul is like a charioteer with 2 horses: one horse is beautiful and good, and the other is the opposite. Souls with wings fly high to where the gods dwell. Souls who fly high enough are nourished by Beauty, Wisdom, and Goodness, which let them fly even higher, but “foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear” (Woodruff 32, 246e). 

The gods dwell in heaven, where they have a view of Justice, Self-control, Knowledge, and Truth—things as they really are. Souls want to catch sight of these things, but only get a tiny glimpse because they are distracted by the horses. When a soul loses its wings, it is born into a certain kind of human being, which kind is determined by how much Reality and Truth the soul saw before it shed its wings. If the soul lives rightly, it eventually grows its wings again. Philosophers, as lovers of truth, grow their wings back faster than others. Love is a type of madness because when a charioteer sees the beautiful face of the beloved, he is reminded of that Beauty of which he caught a glimpse in a previous life before mortality. Love must be coupled with self-control.

When Phaedrus admits Socrates’ speech was better than Lysias’, Socrates asks what the difference is between good writing and bad (258e), thus getting Phaedrus to philosophize with him—the whole point in Socrates’ speech: hence rhetoric is a way of directing the soul by means of speech, in the law courts, in public, and in private. The good speaker must know all of the different types of souls, as well as the nature of the world as a whole—a difficult task, Phaedrus remarks. But there is beauty, Socrates responds, in attempting to do the beautiful, so one should not despair at the challenging task. Writing can be more problematic than speech because writing only says one thing forever and can’t respond to direct questions. Those who come upon it can read it, but they don’t know for whom it was written or why it exists. It can’t defend itself. But there is another kind of writing: a living, breathing person, who can respond to questions and can speak for some and remain silent for others.

Ultimately, to speak or to write well, one must know the truth of everything, define each thing in itself, and then divide it until it is indivisible. One must understand the nature of the soul and determine what kind of speech is appropriate to what kind of soul. That is truly artful speech. It is real techne. And, naturally, it would be spoken by a lover of truth—a Philosopher.

(Socrates has done with Phaedrus, just as Plato has just done in this dialogue with us, exactly what he says ought to be done.)

So the heat has died down. Socrates prays to the god, asking to be beautiful on the inside and to have only enough money that a moderate man would carry and use. Then both Socrates and Phaedrus depart.

The Codex Clarkianus 39, a manuscript of the Phaedrus in the Bodleian Library. From Wikipedia Commons.

End Notes
1.   I wonder if Emily Dickinson was alluding to this section of Plato’s Phaedrus when she wrote,

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense – the starkest Madness -
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent – and you are sane -
Demur – and you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain -


1 comment:

  1. "hence rhetoric is a way of directing the soul by means of speech...But there is another kind of writing: a living, breathing person, who can respond to questions and can speak for some and remain silent for others."

    This is beautiful - and true. I think rhetoric in many ways is increased consciousness and understanding of thoughts and emotions on a deeper level. Writing and speech is our way of articulating the soul out loud, but that's just the part of the iceburg that is visible. The greater challenge of rhetoric is comprehending the 90% that is beneath the surface, and working to make that visible 10% as representative of the 90% as possible.

    [Or - I suppose, "selecting" our 10% projection, since often we don't really WANT the world to see the true 90% :) ]


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