Phaedrus Summary

Plato

Phaedrus

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Phaedrus Summary

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Phaedrus is a dialogue written by Plato that depicts a conversation between Socrates, Plato’s famous teacher, and Phaedrus, an Athenian aristocrat. In the dialogue, the two men cross paths as Phaedrus returns from hearing a speech by Lysias on the subject of love. Socrates asks Phaedrus to repeat the speech, which he does, thanks in part to a paper copy he’s carried with him.

Lysias’s speech claims that it’s better to give your favor to a non-lover than it is to give your favor to a true lover. Friendship between non-lovers creates no gossip when the two are seen together, demonstrates common sense, and leaves a larger pool of potential lovers. Non-lovers offer stable relationships, while lovers can be subject to great swings of emotions. It’s best, the speech argues, to give your favor to someone who can best return it, not to someone who is sick in the head with love.

Socrates flatters Phaedrus, saying that the speech has left him in ecstasy, and has made Phaedrus seem brilliant. Phaedrus believes the speech is excellent. Socrates, however, disagrees, saying that the speech excels in matters of style, but is lacking in substance. Socrates claims he can make a better speech on the same subject, and Phaedrus begs to hear it. Socrates resists, but when Phaedrus threatens to never recite another speech for him again, Socrates relents.

Socrates begins by claiming that, while all men desire beauty, some are in love, and some are not. We are all ruled by two principles: our desire for pleasure and our judgment that asks us to do what is best. Following desires leads to different things (such as eating too much turns into gluttony). The desire to take pleasure in beauty, especially in the beauty of bodies, is called Eros. Socrates explains that love will make the person try to turn the object of their love into something good for their own self, not what is good for the object of their love. In return, the love object will not want to scandalize or disappoint their lover.

Phaedrus disagrees, believing the desire to impress a lover will encourage good behavior. Phaedrus is disappointed in Socrates’s speech, and Socrates blames his performance on the Nymphs. Socrates sees a sign that makes him think he has offended the gods, and so decides to make a second speech on Eros. His second speech begins with a discussion about madness. There are four types of Divine Madness that are quite favorable: prophecy from Apollo; mystic rites and relief from present hardship from Dionysus; poetry from the Muses; and love from Aphrodite.

Socrates then moves to prove the divine origin of love. He starts by discussing the immortality of the soul. The soul, he says, is like a chariot with two horses, and the greatest good is for it to fly through the heavens with the gods. If the soul is strong, it will control the horses. But men always have a bad horse and fall back to the Earth. When the soul on Earth sees something beautiful, it’s reminded of the beauty it saw as it soared with the gods. It creates a yearning. This yearning is Eros. Any soul that sees one true thing is allowed another chance to visit the heavens. And this begins the process of reincarnation that, for most, takes 10,000 years. Philosophers, because they more often see true things, reincarnate after 3,000 years.

The dialogue then shifts to a discussion of rhetoric and writing. Phaedrus believes the purpose of rhetoric is to persuade, a view also maintained by the Sophists. Socrates counters this claim by remarking on the dangers of speaking without knowing the truth. True rhetoric involves dialectic, or dividing and presenting knowledge in a natural way. Lysias’s speech did not show craft, its organization was poor, Socrates says. Rhetoric, says Socrates, should direct the soul, and as such, the speechmaker must take into consideration the souls of his audience and tailor a message that suits that audience. In this way, speaking is better than writing, because written words never change to suit their audience.

The pair then begins discussing the technology of writing, with Socrates telling Phaedrus the story of the god Theuth, who discovered and gave writing to the Egyptians. The Egyptian king worried that writing would ruin memory, and students would rely on their notes instead of their intellect. Socrates favors speaking over writing. Writing cannot ask questions, cannot answer questions, and cannot defend itself when the need arises. Socrates says that philosophers should use dialectic writing only for their personal use. The two men reaffirm their belief in the importance of philosophy for both speaking and writing, and head back to the city.

The wide range of topics has made Phaedrus an important text for a number of fields. The dialogue defends philosophy as a field that seeks the truth, a result of divine inspiration, and a gift from the gods. Eros is an important element of everyone’s soul, especially the philosopher’s, and it pushes us to seek beauty and, in turn, truth.

The dialogue discusses rhetoric in a way that makes it a foundational text for the field. Socrates defends rhetoric as a pursuit of truth, while also acknowledging the strategies it employs to persuade an audience. Socrates’s methods for rhetoric are still studied and used today.

The sexual content of the dialogue cannot be ignored. Socrates and Phaedrus speak openly about pederasty and relationships—both sexual and not—between men and boys. While these relationships were common during the text’s times, they may be shocking or inappropriate for modern audiences.

Finally, Socrates’s discussion of writing as technology has influenced our modern conception of how we use and transmit texts. The criticism of writing’s negative influence on memory, for example, is especially timely in today’s modern culture where so much of what we used to memorize has been off-loaded to technological devices. For example, rarely do we need to memorize phone numbers, because they are easily stored in cellphones. We no longer need to memorize facts, when Wikipedia is a few short clicks away. That is prescience for a text written around 370 BC.