CriticaLink | Plato: Phaedrus | Guide to Sections 257 C - 264 E

Phaedrus: I join you in your prayer, Socrates. . .

A comment from Phaedrus on the supposed shamefulness of speechwriting--the art of the logographer--spurs Socrates's transition to a discussion of rhetoric and writing. Asserting that what is shameful is not speechwriting itself, but bad speechwriting, Socrates raises the question of how we determine when speaking or writing is good or bad.

The common assumption about rhetoric, Phaedrus tells Socrates, is that orators do not need to know the truth about the case they are pleading, but aim only to persuade their listeners. To compose a good speech, Socrates counters, the writer must know the truth about the subject of the speech, but he complicates his position by personifying rhetoric, who argues that even those who know the truth need the art of rhetoric to persuade others to accept the truth. Socrates then asks whether or not rhetoric should be classified as an art (techne in Greek).

Socrates extends the scope of rhetoric beyond the formal speeches of the courts and legislature to include all speech that aims at persuasion by suggesting similarities between different things--the speech of liars, for example, who attempt to make their lies resemble the truth. Since rhetoric can succeed in convincing people of lies as well as of the truth, Socrates argues, it cannot be classified as an art (techne), but as a kind of artless "trick" (atechnos tribe in Greek).

When Socrates asks Phaedrus to read the opening of Lysias's speech so that he can "listen to the man himself", he ironically previews his later criticism of the way writing alienates the speaker's words from the speaker's voice. Lysias's opening lines serve as an example of a speaker's failure to establish a clear definition of terms, a fundamental philosophical procedure, as Socrates has already discussed in section 237 B. Unlike "iron" or "silver," "love" is one of many phenomena for which no single generally agreed-upon definition exists. Socrates is accusing Lysias of "begging the question"--basing an argument on terms that have not been sufficiently defined.

Socrates goes on to fault the organization of Lysias's speech, claiming that speeches must be ordered like living organisms, with all the individual parts fitting together to make a coherent whole. In this assertion, Socrates seems to move his argument in a formalist direction that anticipates the more empirical treatment of writing and rhetoric that Aristotle presents in the Poetics and the Rhetoric. Socrates's emphasis on the formal integrity of a speech is associated with his idealist philosophy of literature. Although any representational work--a speech about justice, for example--must necessarily fall far short of the Form of Justice, a badly organized speech falls even farther from the perfection of the archetype.

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