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Topic #D34

Plato, Phaedrus


28 November 2001
Scribe: Atis Reisenauer


These minutes were spoken on 30 November; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



                  Phaedrus can be seen as a sequel to Symposium, not in the sense that the same characters are brought together for a rehashing of the original but rather in that it revisits some of the same themes seen in Symposium this time in a different context with a different literary structure.  Phaedrus is also a marriage of the Symposium and a philosophical teaching Plato approves of.  Phaedrus is a return to the theme of erotic desire and why we should consider love a blessing, and the theme of rhetoric and why we should use rhetoric to fulfill a philosophical mission and under what conditions rhetoric should be developed for philosophy’s sake.  This makes Phaedrus a reflection on the competing conditions for the proper use of rhetoric between Isocrates and Plato.  Plato has in mind the college of Isocrates which he competed for students with, where how to manuals were composed for giving speeches, some of which still exist.  The later sections 274-277 are to be read in the context of the manual-method of speech-making used by Isocrates and the effort to teach practical skills with books.  Plato commenting here on texts and their inability to communicate should be seen as a response to the dispute with Isocrates arising due to Plato’s belief that rhetoric should be based on a knowledge of your audience’s soul, something only obtained through philosophy. 


                  In the Phaedrus, Socrates is depicted for the first time outside the city of Athens’ walls.  Also unusual is Socrates being alone with Phaedrus, for he is usually shown with a group.  The reason for this isolation is to bring the theme of sexual desire to the fore.  This intimacy allows for heavy duty flirting between the two, and comparisons abound between the act of delivering a penetrating speech and the sex act. 


                  The dialogue opens with an excited Phaedrus having come from hearing Lysias give a speech, getting Socrates in turn excited about speech-writing.  Phaedrus persuades Socrates to listen to his account of Lysias’ argument, which runs as follows: (it is directed to an attractive young person who constantly receives advances for friendship) who should you favour?  Those who are in genuinely in love with you or those who are not?  In the final analysis, it is better to separate love and sex, favour the non-lover.  This would seem absurd to many today, but this thesis was seriously taken up by the Epicureans.  The main issue at hand in the speech by Lysias is the disastrous consequence of feeding the fire of love with the fuel of sexual pleasure. 


                  At this point in the lecture, Professor Hutchinson proceeded to give a guided tour of the various flirtatious signals that arise between Phaedrus and Socrates throughout the text.  We are made to see Socrates’ words “only if you first show me what you are holding in your left hand under your cloak” as being similar to the line coined by Mae West  “is that a gun in your pocket ar are just happy to see me”.  We are told that books in the ancient world were about 6 to 8 inches long and cylindrical in form when not unravelled and being read from.  Similarly, Socrates’ words “I’ll never allow you to practice your own ‘speech-making’ on me” and Phaedrus’ rejoinder “you’ve dashed my hopes of using you as my ‘training partner’,” are to be read with a double entendre in mind. 


                  Everything that follows has sexual undertones.  There is the reference to Socrates never going beyond the  city walls which were notorious for being one of two places in Ancient Athens where prostitutes would turn tricks.  Phaedrus’ reading of the opening lines of Lysias’ speech are written in euphemistic seduction language:


                                                “you understand my situation: I’ve told you how good it 

                                                would be for us, in my opinion, if this worked out.  In any

                                                case, I don’t think I should lose the chance to get what I

                                                am asking for, merely because I don’t happen to be in

                                                love with you.” (231a) 


The speech by Lysias picks up on the intimacy between Phaedrus and Socrates.  The speech itself is banal, organized according to the classic high-school essay style, being as if written from a manual.  When the speech is over Socrates gushes,

                                                “I’m in ecstasy!  And it’s all your doing Phaedrus: I was looking at

                                                you while you were reading and it seemed to me the speech

                                                had made you radiant with delight; and since I believe you under-

                                                stand these matters better than I do, I  followed your lead, and

                                                following you I shared your Bacchic frenzy.” (234d) 


The Bacchic reference is used to signify religious transportation or orgiastic sexuality. 


Socrates is evidently displeased with the arguments put forward by Lysias when he says to Phaedrus “is that really how you cover all the points?”  We should interpret Plato as responding through Socrates to the paint-by-numbers method of speech-writing utilized in Isocrates’ school. 


Socrates becomes stimulated by Phaedrus to return the favour by giving him a speech.  Socrates resists and a quarrel ensues:

                                                “do you understand the situation? Stop playing hard to get! I know

                                                what I can say to make you give your speech...  I swear in all truth

                                                that, if you don’t make your speech right next to this tree here, I shall

                                                never, never again recite another speech for you- I shall never utter

                                                another word about speeches to you!” (236e)


At 237 Socrates gives in when he says “I’ll cover my  head while I’m speaking” (the modern equivalent being “okay, as long as the lights are out”), thus evoking the sex act yet again. 


                  Socrates gives a better speech, in that every argument is a good one, unlike with the speech of Lysias.  Socrates argues the same position as Lysias that the lover is unstable.  However, Phaedrus is not satisfied by this sex/speech act of Socrates; it feels to him like a case of ‘textus interruptus’:

“But I thought you were right in the middle -- I thought you were about to speak at the same length about the non-lover, to list his good points and argue that it’s better to give one’s favors to him.  So why are you stopping now, Socrates?” (241d)


There exists a pointless technical fault in the first speech in that when you say this better than that but this worse than that you effectiively cross both boxes.  However, according to Plato this fault is only minor, the greater being that it is false; love should not be despised.  What is true is that love is a blessing which can transferred to the one who is being approached.  It is important to see Plato as a religious thinker who genuinely believed in the immortality of the soul when reading this passage.  Plato believes that there exists modes of contact between the human and divine realm and that these rest on the reasoning part of the soul.  The affinity between the two realms stems from our divine make-up, and our blood-relationship to that entity.  This affinity is revealed to us in the third speech by Plato, the second by Socrates.  Before proceeding further Professor Hutchinson could not hold back on pointing out another double entendre at 243e which other scholars have found to be a tender moment:


Socrates: Where, then is the boy to whom I was speaking?  Let him hear this speech, too.  Otherwise he may be too quick to give his favors to the non-lover.

Phaedrus: He is here, always by your side, whenever you want him.


Professor Hutchinson sees this as a mark of total submissiveness on Phaedrus’ part, which shows that Socrates’ could have had his way with Phaedrus but did not because of the conviction that the higher aspect of love is of more value. 


                  Socrates’ second speech starts with the etymology of madness.  Since the main attack against love is its penchant for instilling madness in whoever is possessed by it, Socrates pursues the line that this is in no way a bad thing.  Madness is beneficial being involved in prophecy, the expiation of sin, and creative endowment.  Professor Hutchinson gave the illustration of a myth of matricide whereby the guilty son  after having killed his mother becomes troubled and is driven to madness, subsequently seeks expiation which proves successful.  Plato’s demonstration of madness in the family shows the path to redemption from sin: “madness can provide relief from the greatest plagues of trouble that beset certain families because of their guilt for ancient crimes” (243e).  The presence of sin is an important theme for Plato since it motivates philosophers to philosophize.  The third kind of madness, that of possession by the Muses, accounts for a poet being divinely inspired or not; the inspiration of the Muses is a force:

                                                which takes a tender virgin soul and awakens it to a Bacchic frenzy

                                                of songs and poetry that glorifies the achievements of the past

                                                and teaches them to future generations.  If anyone comes to the

                                                gates of poetry and expects to become an adequate poet by

                                                acquiring expert knowledge of the subject without the Muses’

                                                madness, he will be eclipsed by the poetry of men who have

                                                been driven out of their minds.” (245a)


This is an influential thesis taken for granted by students who gravitate towards writers such as Jack Kerouac, though many influential writers do not have to be crazy.  It is true though that creative people become possessed.  The peak periods of creativity occur when we are are most oblivious to the outside world.  Another view is seen in the dialogue Ion.  Here Plato argues that the poetry recitor Ion should be knowledgeable of warfare through his proximity with Homer’s works but is not since Ion is  only an expert at getting into Homer’s work and not knowledge from it.  Plato suggests that the power of poetry comes from the divine realm, that the poet is inspired by the gods, who inturn inspires the performer who inturn inspires the audience.  Thus, Plato does not want us to reject poetry as useless but rather as an important irrational outlet for humans.


                  The main point of the third speech is “every soul is immortal” (245c-e).  Plato thinks that every soul is animated and that its operation is to make the body move.  Plato stitches on  to this an elaborate myth of chariots and the like.  Professor Hutchinson says we are to imagine a festival of knowledge in a Greek theatre.  Zeus goes up the aisles to the rim which is spinning from where you look down on the world as a stage.  Plato describes a competitive struggle where the gods get a better view and humans only a partial view thus explaining our partial knowledge of the eternal forms.  Plato sticks in another erotic theme with the depiction of the soul as a pair of wings which allow us to rise, not unlike other swelling, throbbing members which allow us to love.  Thus, Phaedrus’ speech is replaced with a profound speech of philosophy where Plato makes us see that when in love if we control ourselves we could end up with the greatest blessing of all.  Plato carefully mentions that the second more well-traveled route involving less self-control in matters of love is still well worth travelling.