Dialogue of peculiar narrative structure. For many scholars, it marks the transition from the middle to the late period of Platonic philosophy.

Structure of the dialogue

The first part of the dialogue consists of three speeches on love: the first is attributed to the orator Lysias (though most likely it is actually composed by Plato), the second consists in Socrates’ attempt to reply to the first one using the style that is appropriate to an orator like Lysias, whereas the third one is introduced as a palinode, i.e. as a recantation of the previous speech, and is mostly based on the myth of the soul as a chariot of two horses guided by a charioteer. In the second part, the discussion turns to the criticism of logographers and is completed with the myth of the invention of writing by Theuth.

Scenery – introduction

A direct dialogue, without a narrative framework, between two persons: Phaedrus, with whom Plato’s audience has already been acquainted in the Symposium, now probably in mature age; and Socrates, who takes a walk outside the walls of Athens, in order to listen to Phaedrus reciting a speech by Lysias. The dramatic time of the dialogue is undefined. The author shows an unprecedented interest in the natural scenery in which it takes place.

Content

The dialogue can be divided into two parts. In the first part, Socrates listens to Phaedrus’ recitation of Lysias and tries to counter the speech of the famous orator. The central idea of this speech is that one should offer sexual favors not to a man who is governed by erotic lust, but rather to someone who feels no passion towards him. At first, Socrates’ criticism is confined to the form and the arrangement of the speech; the alternative composition proposed by the philosopher is not differentiated in terms of content by the one attributed to Lysias. Soon, however, Socrates’ attitude changes. Dominated by divine passion, he decides to recant his first speech and to proceed, along the lines of the model of the lyric poet Stesichorus, to his famous palinode. Love is now presented as a kind of divine madness, which is described by means of a myth. The soul is likened to the winged chariot that is composed of a charioteer driving two horses. Having encountered, in his non-incarnated form, the Forms (of which the  Form of beauty was the most radiant), the charioteer, symbol of reason, is able to coordinate the two horses (that correspond to the lower parts of the soul), and to transform erotic madness to the power that will ultimately make him recall the Idea of beauty itself, re-discovering it in its earthly incarnation. In a way that seems to mark the turn of Platonic philosophy toward an explanation of the natural world, the myth involves the first definition of the soul as a self-mover.

The second part of the dialogue appears to follow a completely different direction: it offers a critical assessment of the techniques and the aim or rhetoric, with special emphasis on the implementation of the technology of writing. Expressing his reservations toward the empiricism of his contemporary logographers (which includes their concentration in techniques producing plausibility, without any interest in the essential presupposition of every art, which is its connection to the truth), Socrates proposes a reformed rhetoric. The orator himself, even if he is willing to deceive his audience, must have knowledge both of the subject under consideration and of the soul of his addressee. A necessary instrument for this procedure is the new method of collection and division, which is introduced for the first time in the particular text and is turned on in late dialogues, such as the Politicus and the Sophist.

Toward the end of the dialogue, Socrates concludes his criticism of writing through a myth. The protagonist of the myth is Theuth, a divinity that invents and introduces in Egypt a series of arts, including writing. Answering the god’s arrogance, king Thamous draws attention to the dangers that may undermine writing, unless one is aware that it is no more than a reflection of the higher art of the living, oral speech, which is able to know and to take into account the interlocutor. Compared to the living dialogue which leads to an essential leading of the soul, written speech must be treated like a game.

The dialogue closes with a significant reference to Isocrates, an important rival of Plato in the field of education, who was distinguished for his elaborate ability in writing. This reference works as a reminder of one of the central antitheses that permeate the dialogue, that between (true) philosophy and rhetoric.

Interpretative remarks

The reconstruction of the structure is of critical importance for the interpretation of the dialogue. The myth of writing is connected to the mysterious invocation of Isocrates in the last page of the text, but also to the episode that triggers the discussion Phaedrus’ desire to recite Lysias’ speech. This invocation gives the key to the interpretation of the text. The text invites us to consider the contrast of an education that is based on writing to an education that is founded on Socratic method and dialogue. The speeches on love in the first part of the dialogue, which originally appeared somehow foreign to the discussion that followed, are used as cases of good and bad use of rhetoric. The dialogue itself has been considered as a case of transformation that the speaker undergoes after his real interaction (through oral speech) with an interlocutor who has knowledge of the soul.

Socrates’ insistence on the value of such knowledge is connected to the definition of rhetoric as a kind of leading of the soul through speeches as well as with the theme of self-knowledge, which permeates the dialogue, already from its very beginning.

Place of the dialogue in the Platonic Corpus – connection to other texts

The composition of the dialogue is dated between 375 and 365. Plato alludes to a series of earlier texts, such as the Symposium the Phaedo or the Gorgias, or the Apology (Lysias is said to have written an Apology which presumably would have allowed Socrates to win the case, but that Socrates refused to accept this offer), the Charmides, while it paves the way to subjects that are developed in late dialogues, such as the method of collection and division (Politicus, Sophist) or the notion of game in philosophy, which is turned on in the Timaeus.

Author: Chloe Balla
  • Ferrari, G.R.F. Listening to the Cicadas: A Study of Plato’s Phaedrus. Cambridge, 1987.
  • Werner, D.S. Myth and Philosophy in Plato’s Phaedrus. Cambridge, 2012.
  • Yunis, H. Plato. Phaedrus.. Cambridge, 2011.
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