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Phaedrus was probably composed around 370 b.c.e., but the dramatic date of the dialogue is about 410 b.c.e., about ten years before the trial and death of Socrates. Phaedrus is a direct dialogue; that is, Plato does not use in this dialogue a narrator who retells a conversation of Socrates. The scene, a walk outside the walls of Athens to a shady spot along the banks of the river Ilissus, is an unusual setting for Socrates. There are only two characters, Socrates and Phaedrus; Phaedrus also participates in two earlier dialogues, Prtagoras (early period, 399-390 b.c.e.; Protagoras, 1804) and Symposion (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Symposium, 1701).
There are several possible answers to the question, “What is Phaedrus about?” Love, rhetoric, and philosophy are all possible answers because all three subjects are significantly involved in the dialogue. Love is the subject of all three of the set speeches included in Phaedrus; this does not, however, necessarily make love the subject of the dialogue. Rhetoric is examined and criticized, and proposals are made for a reformed rhetoric capable of serving philosophy. Perhaps the most significant feature of this dialogue is Plato’s continuation of his effort to justify philosophy as the most worthy life of the soul against the opposing claims of the Sophists. The dialogue also presents a special method of philosophy, dialectic, which involves collection and division.
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Phaedrus opens with a meeting between Socrates and Phaedrus. Phaedrus has spent the morning listening to a speech of Lysias on the subject of love. Socrates accompanies Phaedrus to a shady spot along the river Ilissus where Phaedrus reads a copy of Lysias’s speech.
Scholars disagree on the genuineness of this long speech attributed in the dialogue to Lysias. Whether this speech was actually written by Lysias, or whether it is a clever caricature by Plato, it illustrates the reasons for Plato’s criticism of the rhetoric of the Sophists. The speech argues on the basis of self-interest the advantage of yielding to someone who does not love rather than to someone who does love. The basic reason offered for yielding to someone who does not love rather than to a genuine lover is that a lover is prevented by his passion from making careful calculations and is therefore likely to injure his beloved.
When Socrates criticizes this speech of Lysias as repetitious and inferior to what he has heard from others on the same subject, Phaedrus challenges Socrates to construct a better speech. Socrates reluctantly agrees. Because Socrates insists that successful deliberation must follow definition, he begins his speech with a definition of love as irrational desire directed toward physical beauty, analogous to gluttony, which is irrational desire directed toward food. From this definition, which is the basis for Lysias’s speech but is not the definition Socrates develops in his second speech, Socrates concludes that the lover is more likely than the nonlover to harm the beloved. After this first speech, Socrates declares his remarks to be, along with Lysias’s speech, foolish, irreverent, and blasphemous. Socrates then proposes to atone for his offence in treating love as evil by delivering a second speech.
Socrates begins his second speech by denying the assumption of the first two speeches that all madness is evil. He asserts that madness is divine rather than evil when it inspires prophets to foretell the future, when it heals the sick by ritual purification, and when it stimulates the poet to the frenzy of composition. Socrates then declares that he will prove love to be a fourth type of divine madness. The first step in this proof is the argument for the immortality of the soul. This argument, which rests on the nature of the soul as the self-moving principle of motion, recurs in book 10 of Nomoi (last period, 360-347 b.c.e.; Laws, 1804); but is not present in considerations of immortality in two other middle period (388-368 b.c.e.) dialogues, Phaedn (Phaedo, 1675) and Politeia (Republic, 1701).
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Although the immortality of the soul is demonstrated by argument, the nature of the soul is described indirectly by one of the most famous of Plato’s myths. The soul is compared to a winged charioteer driving a team of winged horses. All the horses and charioteers corresponding to the souls of the gods are good, but the pair of horses corresponding to the human soul has one good horse and one evil horse. The souls travel through the heavens, but human souls lose their wings, fall to earth, and join bodies to form living beings. The three parts of the human soul are the same as those mentioned in the Republic: the winged charioteer corresponds to reason, the good horse to will or spirit, and the bad horse to the passions.
No human souls are able to follow the chariots of the gods to the place where true Being dwells, where the souls of the gods see with the eye of reason such forms or ideas as justice, temperance, and knowledge. In no human soul are the horses so completely under the control of the charioteer that the fullest vision of true Being can be achieved. However, some souls rise higher and thus come closer and see more than the others before falling back and losing their wings. The type of life assigned to a human soul at birth depends on how close the soul has come to the full vision of Being. Souls that have seen the most enter into the bodies of philosophers. Then, in descending order, souls that have seen less of Being enter into the following types of persons: a law-abiding ruler, a statesman, an athlete or physician, a prophet, a poet, a farmer, and finally the two lowest types, a Sophist and a tyrant.
After each period of a thousand years, a soul enters another human form until it finally regains its wings. Between the end of one life and the beginning of the next is a period of reward or punishment as earned in the previous life. It is possible for a human soul after the first life to be born in an animal, and for a human soul that has been born in an animal to be again born in a person. However, all souls born into human beings must have had some vision of Being because only this vision of the forms can explain how human souls can pass to universal concepts of reason from the particular impressions of the senses. For most souls, it takes ten thousand years to regain wings and return to their heavenly home. A philosopher, however, who chooses the philosophic life three times regains wings in only three thousand years.
The love of beauty is called by Socrates the fourth and highest type of divine madness because one who pursues the beautiful things of this world is reminded of the vision of the form beauty and thus of the other proper objects of contemplation, justice, temperance, and the other forms. Through love, the soul begins to regain its wings. The struggle in the soul of the lover against the purely physical carnal desires is represented in the myth by the difficult struggle of the charioteer to subdue the behavior of the bad horse. The highest form of love results from the complete subjection of physical desires by both the lover and the beloved. The happiest lovers are those who achieve the philosophical life by the victory of the higher elements in their souls over the lower. Socrates concludes his second speech with a prayer to the god of Love by which he atones for the blasphemous attack on love of his earlier speeches.
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Phaedrus praises this speech of Socrates and then agrees with Socrates that there is nothing bad in writing a speech but only in writing a bad speech. Socrates then proposes to examine the nature of good and bad writing. According to Socrates, the first requirement of a good speech is knowledge. Phaedrus replies with the claim of the defenders of rhetoric that what is believed to be knowledge by the audience is required rather than genuine knowledge. Socrates points out that rhetoric as the skill of persuasion depends on misrepresenting things. In order to mislead successfully, the rhetorician must himself have knowledge. Socrates then turns again to Lysias’s speech, which reveals Lysias’s lack of knowledge and his inability to organize a speech properly. On the other hand, Socrates finds in his own two speeches an illustration of the philosophical method, dialectic. The method of dialectic, which also looms large in Sophists (later period, 365-361 b.c.e.; Sophist, 1804), Politikos (later period, 365-361 b.c.e.; Statesman, 1804), and Philbos (last period, 360-347 b.c.e.; Philebus, 1779), involves collection and division. Collection of similars under a single form and the division of generic forms into more specific forms (the form of living thing into the form of plant and the form of animal) are essential to the definition that must begin successful discussion.
Socrates reviews for Phaedrus the claims of the teachers of rhetoric and urges that allowances be made for their mistaken claims, since their ignorance of dialectic prevents them from properly defining rhetoric. As a positive example, Pericles’ superiority in rhetoric is explained by his study of the philosopher Anaxagoras.
The claim of the teachers of rhetoric that knowledge of the truth is not necessary because probability or likeness to truth is enough for success is again rejected. A successful orator must have knowledge of his subject, knowledge about his audience, and the ability to use the method of dialectic. Even then, competence will be achieved only by those who practice diligently. Wise people who become successful orators will not direct their skill toward other people but toward speaking what is pleasing to the gods. Speaking the truth rather than manipulating the audience is the goal of wise people. Writing on paper is inferior to writing in the soul of the learner because a written composition can easily fall into the hands of those who are unable to understand it. The dialogue ends appropriately with Socrates’ prayer to the gods, a prayer that the inward life may not be hampered by outward possessions.
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Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.
Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.
Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.
Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.
Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.
Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.
Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.
Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.
Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.
Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.
Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.
Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.
Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.
Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.