CriticaLink | Plato: Phaedrus | Guide to Sections 227 A - 234 C

Socrates: Phaedrus, my friend! Where are you going? And where have you been?

Socrates meets Phaedrus, who has just come from a performance by Lysias, a well-known orator, and Socrates agrees to accompany him on a walk outside the walls of Athens. Phaedrus then reads Lysias's speech to Socrates. The major themes of the Phaedrus are introduced in these opening scenes of the dialogue:

Lysias's speech deals with a particular kind of love relationship: the sexually charged affiliation of an older man and a younger man who is just entering public life. This homoerotic and homosocial form of male bonding was an important dimension of Athenian society; the older man served as a kind of mentor to the younger, assisting him in developing social skills and making political contacts.

Lysias's speech argues that a young man should choose as a lover a man who is not in love with him. This clever approach is typical of the kind of "exhibition" speechmaking of professional logographers and sophists, but Socrates takes this somewhat frivolous text as the foundation for an exploration of metaphysics and a elaboration of his idealist philosophy. Through his own clever use of language, Socrates will turn the practical, down-to-earth, and perhaps also cynical treatment of love in Lysias's text and his own first speech to an account of the love of philosophy--the love of knowledge and the pursuit of the truth.

As they settle into a comfortable spot along the Ilisus river, Phaedrus asks Socrates if he believes the legend of Boreas and Oreithuia, which was supposed to have taken place nearby. Socrates replies that he does not concern himself with the truth or falsehood of such legends, because he does not yet "know himself"--know thyself was a motto written on a stone in the sacred site of Delphi. Socrates's understanding of what is "true" is based on his theory of the ideal Forms on which all things in the phenomenal world are modeled. Knowledge of these "true" Forms lies within the human soul, which in metempsychosis has passed through the realm of the Forms. The process of anamnesis allows human beings to "recollect" their vision of these forms.

Socrates teases Phaedrus, insisting that he must have committed Lysias's speech to memory--an ironic statement In the context of the whole dialogue. Memorizing a speech is not the kind of memory-work Socrates approves, for such speeches and other rhetorical performances lure the mind away from contemplation of the Forms and interfere with anemnesis. Plato depicts Socrates's use of dialectic as an attempt to encourage the recollection of the truth from within the soul by way of question-and-answer.

As an orator and logographer, Lysias's goal is not only to persuade his audience of the validity of his immediate argument--that a boy should prefer a non-lover to a lover--but also to persuade them of the power of rhetoric itself. It is significant that his speech is essentially an attempt at seduction, for it is the seductive nature of rhetoric--the capacity of skillfully designed language to sway the desires of its audience--that Socrates ultimately criticizes. Socrates's treatment of rhetoric in the Phaedrus emphasizes ethical problems of the orator's manipulation of the listeners, but these ethical concerns are founded on a metaphysical problem: the techniques of rhetoric, as they are applied by sophists and orators like Lysias, fall short of representing reality and thus fail to convey the truth.

The problem Socrates sees with writing is that it is a "copy of a copy", twice removed from the true Form corresponding to whatever phenomena it attempts to represent. Additionally, because a piece of writing can travel far from its source (which for Plato appears to be the human voice of which it is a physical copy), it cannot be trusted to convey the message as faithfully as the speaker could in person. This attack on writing and emphasis on the voice and its supposed proximity to the source of truth earns Plato the charge of phonocentrism from the twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Derrida.

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