History of Rhetoric, Week 4: Plato’s “Phaedrus”

Hello! It has been quite a while since I last updated, so I have a major backlog of rhetorical history to catch up on and blog about. Today we resume with an examination of Plato’s Phaedrus.

The first time I read this dialogue was as an undergrad, in a course studying the relationship between literature and philosophy in Plato’s dialogues. On that occasion, we paired Phaedrus with Ion on one hand, to follow up on the mindset of the speech-maker and storyteller, and Symposium on the other hand, for continuity with Phaedrus’s character as well as to continue tracking love and friendship in the dialogues. This time around, of course, I’m reading Phaedrus with an eye for its contributions to and comments on the study of rhetoric and there is plenty to think with.

First and most obviously, there is the trio of speeches that are presented to the reader. Each one deals directly with the topic of love – who to love and how to love ethically. The first speech is originally written by the sophist Lysias and was heard by Phaedrus, who now reads the speech to Socrates; in it, the speech-giver claims that it is best to “bestow favors” upon those who are not in love with you, since there are fewer messy entanglements to worry about, should anything go wrong. Socrates speaks next, with his head covered so that he “may get through [his] discourse as quickly as possible and that [he] may not look at [Phaedrus] and become embarrassed.” In this second speech, he tells the story of a young boy who was told the same arguments that Lysias puts forward – following this logic, the lover would try to make the beloved inferior and speaker, so that he will continue to depend upon the lover; the lover seeks pleasure rather than the good, which is what prevents him from acting with his beloved’s best interests in mind. Finally, in the third speech, Socrates outlines his famous model for the soul as a chariot with two winged horses – one horse represents the pursuit of pleasure while the other horse represents the pursuit of the good, and it is up to the charioteer to keep these horses reined in and in balance.

The final portion of the dialogue returns us to a more direct exchange of ideas between Socrates and Phaedrus in which the character of the orator and the art of rhetoric are called into question. For Phaedrus, knowledge of the truth is not a relevant prerequisite, merely the ability to speak persuasively; in typical Platonic fashion, Socrates pushes back, arguing that persuasion without an orientation to the ethical and the good is irresponsible. Further, in their later discussion of writing, Socrates charges that writing replaces memory with reminder, giving the appearance but not the true quality of wisdom. Writing cannot be questioned or engaged directly with, and so only dialectic affords the opportunity to gain wisdom.

It is interesting to note that in this final section, Socrates does not fully refute the value of speech-making, and indeed, the traditional paradox of Socrates’ method comes out in this dialogue – while he speaks against sophistry and empty speeches, he is willing and able to deliver a persuasive speech himself. My take on this, however, is to note that oration begins for Socrates when dialectic breaks down; we saw this in Gorgias, after attempting and failing to engage the titular Gorgias and his disciplines in conversation, Socrates resorts to the form they will understand – speeches – to make his final arguments. In Phaedrus, the arrangement is a bit different – while the speeches make up the bulk of the dialogue, the dialectic portion at the end would seem to have the most obvious significance for scholars of rhetoric, but even this section is punctuated with the myth of the invention of writing.

There is much more within this dialogue that deserves closer examination and commentary. However, in the interests of catching up in reasonable time, we’ll end this post on Phaedrus here with a few  observations and questions that I want to keep thinking about for the next time I’m able to read this dialogue:

  • What are the key elements of the first speech that are not adequately addressed by either of Socrates’ latter speeches? In other words, are there points that are advanced in Lysias’ speech that are granted or allowed to stand?
  • Both of Socrates’ speeches deal with the balance of pleasure and the good; the second speech places more emphasis on why pursuits of pleasure are insufficient, whereas the third speech pushes us more to think about why the pursuit of the good is a worthy one. Given this resonance between the two speeches, what is being said in the third one that could not have been permitted in the second?
  • This dialogue, more than some of the others concerning rhetoric and education, push us into the metaphysical side of Platonic thought. However, as Dr. Arthos has cautioned, it’s very important for us to distinguish between Platonic thought and Plato’s actual writing.
  • The metaphysical aspects seem to also push us more towards universal and totalizing theories of knowledge and being, which rhetoric as a discipline would generally want to resist, given its own commitment to situation, context, and contingency. What opportunities exist in Phaedrus (as well as Plato’s other dialogues) for contingency to break through?

Author: Phil Choong

PhD student in the Department of English at Indiana University. Working between critical and literary theory, rhetoric, and pedagogy.

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