Analysis of “Phaedrus”
As translators Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff explain it, “The Phaedrus is a dialogue in the most literal sense. Unlike a number of others of Plato’s works, it is a conversation between two and only two people. ” This dialogue by Plato features only two speakers—Socrates and Phaedrus. Socrates is a learned man who has never set foot beyond the city walls; as a scholar, all he has ever needed could be found right in Athens. Phaedrus is a grown man with remarkable admiration for rhetoric and speech-making, but little understanding of Socrates’ philosophical approaches.
Their ongoing dialogue—originally about the practicality of love and its subsequent madness—serves as a metaphorical basis for the proper use of rhetoric, which Socrates voraciously argues is not just a means of entertainment, but rather a foundation of views to which one’s life can be lived. His attitude toward both philosophy and rhetoric is that life would be miserable without such deep matters of conversation, and that neither can exist solely without the other.
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Throughout Phaedrus, the reader is presented with various arguments using both verities, and how they relate to such grandiose topics like love, madness, and the soul. These issues are presented to the reader through a series of dialogues solely between Socrates and Phaedrus. Although assumed by most experts to be a purely fictitious discussion, the beliefs Plato presents in Phaedrus essentially mirror that which his mentor Socrates held in reality; rhetoric must be used with the true knowledge of what one is talking about, but is simultaneously crucial to the endorsement of an argument.
I am going to analyze the uses of this rhetoric in Phaedrus and how it affects the transmission of such ideas between the two interlocutors, as well as the intertwining of both rhetoric and concept and how they affect each character’s ethos. Socrates’ use of rhetoric is initially employed through a series of three speeches on love. However, the “love” addressed in these dialogues primarily concerned men, as paederastic relationships between older male scholars and adolescent boys were not uncommon in Athenian culture.
Older men sought to win young boys to receive sexual pleasure in exchange for philosophical instruction, creating a symbiotic relationship of both socialization and ethical enlightenment. The first speech presented in Phaedrus is actually that of Lysias, an in absentia character of which Phaedrus is a strong advocate. Lysias asserts that in these paederastic relationships, it’s better for a man to not actually love his adolescent apprentice.
Romantic feelings do make the men more passionate, but they subsequently create a sense of indifference—or even hatred—to their former lovers once the feelings are gone. Lysias further corroborates this by saying that non-lovers, on the other hand, are much more likely to remain friends once the adolescents get older, and are able to better control themselves without the “madness” that stems from love affairs. Upon Phaedrus’ recitation to Socrates, he criticizes the content of the speech and exclaims that he has heard better arguments proposed elsewhere on the same issue.
Feeling inspired, Socrates goes so far as to say that he himself could give a better speech using the same argument as Lysias. He initially refuses to act upon it until Phaedrus threatens to never again recite another speech, and Socrates eventually concedes. He begins his first challenge by explaining that while men desire beauty, not all are in love. Socrates believes that men are governed by one of two principal desires—the desire to pursue that which is best for oneself (often referred to as “rightness of mind”) or the desire to take pleasure in beauty (“eros”).
He argues that lovers—as opposed to non-lovers—implicate the latter, and through their madness try to deviate the boy’s path to what is best for them rather than what is best for the boy. Socrates concludes that non-lovers are more inclined to correct judgment rather than self-pleasure, and will not impede the boy’s physical and intellectual maturation. Although both characters are speaking on the same subject, they use very different forms of rhetoric to convey their argument. Lysias’ speech, for example, would be classified as “epideictic” by modern linguists—essentially meaning it was just an exhibition work.
Epideictic speeches at this time were often used to seek a judgment of quality from the audience, so speechwriters that could create convincing arguments—especially concerning outlandish positions—often were better “advertised. ” This foreknowledge then makes it clear to the reader that Lysias’ main intention behind the speech was to showboat his talent and capability as a writer, not to persuade the masses that love truly is catalytic in relationships. His approach to presenting this view is very systematic—he gives a list of reasons and explanations why on-lovers are more favorable than lovers. Socrates acknowledges that Lysias’ presentation is well-arranged, but quickly calls out his emphasis on style rather than content. He talks about love as if it were a “black and white” affair, redundantly stating only the utilitarian flaws of being in love and failing to provide a more creative take to his argument. Socrates immediately pronounces these breaches in Lysias’ argument, and employs a different rhetorical approach to serve as his counterpart.
Socrates is not nearly as redundant in his speech, leaving out the list of benefits from the non-lover and instead focusing on the disadvantages of the lover. Essentially, Socrates stops before assuming Lysias’ role as a seducer. As Nehamas and Woodruff explain it, this approach “produces a counter-epideictic speech and makes an implicit claim to have beaten the orator at his own game. 1” The foreknowledge that Lysias was an epideictic speaker immediately personifies his ethos as stylish but fabricated, whereas Socrates’ ethos as a philosopher establishes his argument as much more credible.
After giving this improved version of Lysias’ speech, Socrates immediately feels the need to make atonement to the gods. He proclaims that there was no truth in his previous statements and that eros (love) cannot be as bad as he claimed since it was considered a divine entity. In an attempt to remit his blasphemy, Socrates resolves to give another speech—this time praising the lover. He begins by saying that the only reason a boy should shun the lover is if the accompanying madness was malicious—which was rarely the case.
In fact, Socrates argues, many great things were derived from madness: prophecy, poetry, love, and many other divine gifts from the gods. He emphasizes that those who devote their existence solely to logic and reason often miss the greatest joys of life, as love (and its subsequent “madness”) is not necessarily a bad thing. To truly understand this madness, Socrates states that one must first understand the inner workings of the soul. He illustrates his explanation by likening the souls of both gods and men to a chariot, each with two horses.
The gods have two perfect white horses, while men have one white horse and a wild, insubordinate dark horse. The true “danger” of being in love resides in the dark horse, which represents the careless and reckless side to man’s soul. Socrates determines that love can be very beneficial in a number of ways, as long as the dark horse is kept in check. This does not mean totally voiding oneself from sexual desires; rather, instilling principles like respect and thoughtfulness while moderating sexual impulses are key to having what Socrates deemed as a “successful” relationship.
Careful analysis of Socrates’ second speech reveals several interesting points about his use of rhetoric. Predominantly in this particular argument, Socrates uses a non-syllogistic approach to convey his stances; he unambiguously defines “love” by breaking it down into subtopics (madness, the soul, and the benefits of the lover) and explaining each conception individually. This approach is not only more organized than Lysias’ but more variedly compelling as well, in that Socrates directly appeals to Phaedrus’ personality.
This tactic is also present in Socrates’ first speech as well, as his framing and style are used to appeal directly to Phaedrus rather than just build upon Lysias’ speech. This allows the reader to better understand the basis for Socrates’ use of rhetoric in his combining of both theory and practice. Many argue that Plato himself holds the same view; rhetoric and concept are two different entities, but must be used together to wield a valid argument. Socrates elaborates even more on the subject, stating that a “good speech” must address the actual truth of the matter at hand.
Phaedrus tends to believe that persuasion should be valued over truth, which causes Socrates to propose a third speech over the proper use of rhetoric and writing. Trying to refute Phaedrus’ misconception, Socrates imagines that he is arguing for the employment of donkeys at home and in war. Even though he refers to the donkeys as horses, the notion of using donkeys in combat is absolutely absurd. Socrates uses this example to assert that the practice of rhetoric without knowledge of the truth—even if the speaker truly has no negative intentions—can lead one down a very dangerous path.
Socrates then takes this perception in relation to Lysias’ speech, which he critiques as haphazard and poorly-structured. He once again condemns Lysias’ emphasis on style rather than content, likening him to a man full of medical intelligence but lacking practical knowledge. Such a man can teach anyone the art of medicine—just as Lysias can present a stylish and convincing argument—but would assuredly fail in the actual practice thereof. An analysis of this final speech again brings up Plato’s technique of combining theory and practice to accurately convey an argument.
This method lies at the core of Phaedrus, and establishes a prototype in which to critique the four speeches presented. Phaedrus and Socrates discuss utilizing this manner through writing, but ultimately agree that writing fosters interaction with many ideas but dissuades the “actual learning” thereof. Through this dialogue between the two interlocutors, Plato establishes his idea of the perfect discourse—a spoken address that deals with true knowledge and “writes itself” in each listener’s soul, thereby defending itself as well.
Plato essentially uses these series of dialogues to support how this discourse is made, and how rhetoric is properly used with philosophical truth to create a tactful yet convincing argument. Two main points are made clear: a speaker must know and make clear the truth behind his argument, and should always strive to understand the audience’s “souls” and write his speech accordingly. It is for these two reasons that Lysias’ argument is portrayed as fallible, while Socrates is viewed as having the more knowledgeable, credible ethos.
Plato makes it clear in this dialogue that rhetoric is a powerful too, and can be either very helpful or very harmful to the audience in which it is being conveyed. Plato’s foremost principle in Phaedrus is the intertwinement of both rhetoric and reason—for philosophy is the basis on which rhetoric is able to exist at all. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Plato. Translated by Nehamas, Alexander, and Paul Woodruff. Phaedrus. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. , Print.