Phaedrus

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The Phaedrus is a dialogue written by Plato that recounts a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus outside the city walls[1].

There is disagreement regarding whether the Phaedrus dialogue is a middle or late dialogue. In Greek, Φαῖδρος means radiant or shining one. Truth, in the Phaedrus, will have to do with making the true 'shine' forth. As in the Symposium dialogue, Phaedrus the character appears as beautiful. The dialogue problematizes the relationship between what appears as beautiful and what is truly the beautiful. The link with the beautiful and the true is investigated insofar as the philosopher needs to distinguish the making of true and false resemblances. In the Phaedrus dialogue, knowing how to live centers on this art of the making resemblances, in speech and writing, such that by making a proper λόγος the philosopher may lead hearers to the uncovering of the ἀρχή of the being of the beautiful. Although the dialogue begins on the topic of love, the central problem is how the philosopher is to distinguish the true in the shining forth of the beautiful insofar as it turns out that when the lover forms a friendship with a beloved the question of how he carries out his responsibilities to the beloved mirrors a problem encountered in discourse. The problem of the beautiful, it turns out, centers on the approach, that is, the pathway of logos to beauty itself.

Plot Summary

After spending the morning listening to Lysias give a speech about love, on the advice of a doctor, Phaedrus finds himself outside the walls of the city and happens to run into the Socrates. Discovering that Phaedrus has just come from listening to speeches and that he has a copy of Lysias’ speech on love under his cloak, Socrates encourages Phaedrus to read the speech. After finding a place to sit under the shade of a plane tree near the banks of the river Ilissus, Phaedrus gives the speech about the non-lover. (See Phaedrus' speech in Plato's Symposium.) Upon hearing it, Socrates has some objections to the arrangement of the speech. Accordingly, Phaedrus persuades Socrates to give a speech of his own in reply. Socrates does so but with his head wrapped so he cannot see Phaedrus while speaking. In this speech, the non-lover of the first speech resembles a lover more than a non-lover. Although Phaedrus notices that Socrates has switched the non-lover for a lover and spoken mainly about the traits of a lover he does not notice the possible irony involved in this switch. When he is finished with the speech, it seems that Socrates will cross the river but receiving warning from his sign, he decides to stay and continue conversing with his friend. The sign has made him realize the error of his speech. Now it seems obvious that the lover is to be preferred to the non-lover. Socrates decides to give another speech in order to purify himself from this misdeed and advises that Lysias likewise purify himself by writing a new speech that corrects the same error and places the lover in his proper place. In recantation Socrates now proceeds to give a second speech, this time with his head uncovered.

Socrates credits the speech to Stesichorus and opens with an explanation of why the lover’s madness is to be preferred to the non-lover’s composed attitude. Socrates says that the greatest blessings come in madness and rarely to those in their right minds. In this third speech, Socrates now moves to a discussion the soul. Divine inspiration or madness is a way in which the soul is moved by the gods. The quality of movement determines its nature. That which is always in motion is eternal, those things that can be moved and move other things but have no self-motion cease to live. The soul, because it is self-moving, is the source of movement in other things and never ceases to be in motion. For this reason it is eternal, indestructible, and without beginning. Having determined the nature of soul, Socrates now recounts the second myth to appear in the Phaedrus (the first being that of Boreas and Oreithyia), the myth of the charioteer. In some ways the myth of the charioteer resembles a less vicious form of the Myth of Er but one that emphasizes different details. Socrates explains the fate of the soul after death, reincarnation, the divine feast of the gods, the types of souls and their affiliation with the gods, the hierarchy of the gods, the ascent of the soul to the beautiful, its glimpse of the beautiful, and the nature of the beautiful. The soul is visualized through images of a charioteer with winged horses, one of which is good and one is unruly. The mastering of the horses determines the ascent of the charioteer. Even the soul that manages to ascend to the feast barely catches a glimpse of the gods [eide]. Eventually souls fall back to earth and incarnate once again.

After the descent from the heavens, a connection appears between finite beauty and the beauty of heaven. This explains why the speech of the non-lover is unsatisfactory. The beloved, too, must experience something of the ultimate beauty of the divine feast but the non-lover has spoken against eros, the very pathway to the Beautiful through which the charioteer caught a glimpse of love. For Socrates, the lover is an image of the Beautiful, a copy that retains a connection to it. In love, lovers are reminded of the Beautiful but the non-lover disavows the mad and frantic appearing lover, failing to understanding the further significance of what it means to be a lover. For this reason, the non-lover does not do true service to the beloved when he denies the madness of love.

After the myth of the charioteer, Socrates moves to a discussion of rhetoric. Some scholars see this part as poorly connected to the previous part of the dialogue but, for our purposes the problem of rhetoric, since in its genuine form it would grasp the truth, is the problem of how to recall the beauty one has recalled at the high point of the charioteer’s ascent. The philosopher’s job is to make hearers pass through resemblances but to do so he must understand the true nature of reality. Therefore, he will understand how the images made [resemblances] are connected to the truth [the original]. This leads us to understand that not all images are bad; some may truly resemble the Beautiful. It also reveals a problematic of thought and vision, for, if the philosopher deals in resemblances, it would appear that 'thoughts' are lesser things. One only needs to consider whether we would prefer to view the Beautiful or to think about it. Even when an image is not the original, it may still have the capacity to connect us with the Beautiful. It is not clear how thought has a similar power.

Socrates now discusses the proper way of making cuts [divisions] and a discussion of good and bad writing. (In this idea of cuts, what is referred to is diaeresis, the divisions made in order to establish the proper relationship between the Form and resemblance.) The problem of writing, as shown in the last myth to be introduced in the dialogue, is that writing cannot be taken too seriously since it is not the reality itself but only its appearance. This last myth is the myth of Theuth. In the myth, Theuth offers King Thamus his invention of writing. Thamus is not pleased with the gift, claiming it will induce forgetfulness. Socrates concludes that written texts can, at most, serve as reminders [images] of the truth and as long as they are understood this way, may escape condemnation.

It is important to recall Plato's argument of recollection (in the Phaedo) in this discussion of writing. Writing eliminates the necessity to recall, by representing the appearance of truth. To the contrary, recollection is the activity that directly connects with and turns to the Beautiful itself. The idea that we might 'learn' things is counter-intuitive to the Platonic schema. The philosopher's task when questioning others is to help them recollect the truth, not to teach them what he thinks they need to know.

Myths appearing in Phaedrus

Myth of Boreas and Oreithyia

Phaedrus asks Socrates if he believes in the story of Boreas and Oreithyia. According to the myth, Oreithyia was playing with pharmacea and the north wind (Boreas) pushed her off the rocks at a spot near the place where Socrates and Phaedrus are walking along the river Ilissus. Once Oreithyia died, the story goes, Boreas carried her away. In his analysis of Phaedrus in Dissemination, Derrida interprets the meaning of pharmacea using the Greek word pharmakon. Without completely rejecting the way the intellectuals do, Socrates defends his unwillingness to spend any time interpreting the meaning of the myth. He has still not entirely succeeded in obeying the oracle's command to 'know himself'. Until this is accomplished, it is "ridiculous to look into other things" (230a).

The Non-lover

In the speech of the non-lover, Phaedrus argues that it is to the advantage of the beloved to choose a non-lover rather than a lover. The argument for the non-lover takes as its strongest defense that the non-lover will not repent kindnesses once the lovers have parted. Since the non-lover is not in love, he will always act in the best interests of the beloved.


The Charioteer


The Myth of Theuth In Phaedrus, Plato recounts the myth of Theuth. By inventing writing, Theuth feels he is offering a valuable gift to King Cadmus, a pharmakon that functions as a kind of charm or recipe which will enhance wisdom. Cadmus,however, is not pleased with the gift because he sees in it potential to lead men into forgetfulness such that they forget the true source of reality, the Original truth behind the written word. Writing functions as a kind of supplement that masquerades as this original and seems to substitute for it. However, the written text cannot answer, being able only to repeat itself endlessly and to remain mute in the face of discourse. Therefore, it constitutes a far more dangerous kind of pharmakon, according to Jacques Derrida's interpretation of it in Dissemination, insofar as it represents the undecideability of language and truth and, in language, puts into motion an endless chain of signifiers.

Themes

Themes appearing in the Phaedrus include rhetoric, madness, writing, discourse, love, anamnesis, the nature and hierarchy of the gods, the Theory of Forms, myth, logos, doxa, truth, discourse, dialetic, the One and the many, beauty, and friendship.


References

  1. Phaedrus, Φαῖδρος; Phaedrus is the Latin form of the name, from the Greek transcribed Phaidros. This use follows a tradition, long customary in the West, of using Latin forms for classical Greek names.