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37 pages 1 hour read

Plato

Phaedrus

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Phaedrus is a dialogue written by Plato around 370 BC. It details a conversation between two characters, Phaedrus and Socrates. As with other dialogues by Plato, the characters are historical, but the conversation is not. The two encounter each other the morning after Phaedrus has heard Lysias, a prominent Athenian and famous orator, give a speech arguing against love. A man not in love, Lysias argues, is to be favored over one who is in love, since love is madness and distorts the lover’s reason. Such a man, Lysias contends, will act neither in his own best interest nor that of his beloved, and a relationship with such a person can only lead to harm and regret. Phaedrus reads Lysias’s speech to Socrates, who critiques its structure and offers his own ideas on the same theme.

As Socrates is about to leave the conversation, he receives a “supernatural sign” telling him to return. Sensing that he has sinned against the god of Love by arguing against lovers on Lysias’s terms, Socrates is compelled to give a counterargument. This second speech constitutes the heart of the dialogue. After asking for inspiration from the god of Love and the Muses, he argues that love is actually a form of divine inspiration or visionary madness. Socrates offers an elaborate allegory of the soul as a charioteer with two horses, taking part in a heavenly procession behind the Olympian gods. One horse represents the positive impulse of the soul towards spiritual and intellectual perfection, while the other horse represents earthly desires tied to physical beauty and pleasure. Once the soul has fallen to earth from its plane of higher reality, what we think of as “love” is actually a memory of the beauty the soul witnessed on that higher plane. The pains and discomfort of love can be explained as the regrowth of the wings of the soul. Through the study of philosophy, Socrates goes on to explain, one can turn his yearning after a lover into a quest for real truth—a higher purpose than simple physical gratification.

A brief transition leads into the second part of the dialogue, in which Socrates and Phaedrus discuss writing, speaking, and rhetoric. Using Lysias’s speech as a case study, Socrates critiques Lysias’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. The primary fault with Lysias’s speech, Socrates finds, is his failure to define terms crucial to his point, including “love,” “madness,” and “soul.” In Socrates’s judgment, one must begin at the very beginning, defining one’s terms from their very foundations, before an argument can be considered effective. Such a technique also prevents words from being misinterpreted, manipulated, or left ambiguous.

Socrates ultimately declares that writing is far inferior to speaking. Writing, he argues, should be used a memory aid but not as a preferred method of communication. A written document, he argues, cannot respond to questions or engage in dialogue with its reader. Once wordsare put on the page, they cannot be clarified, if unclear, or if they need to be improved; no matter what happens or who reads it, the document will continue to say the same thing forever. The conversation Socrates and Phaedrus have just had, they agree, demonstrates the superiority of a dialogue over a one-sided monologue from a self-assured speaker. The two briefly discuss Isocrates, a student of Socrates who seems to embody the principles of good speaking and rhetoric that they have discussed, before concluding their discussion and returning to Athens.

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