CriticaLink | Plato: Phaedrus | Guide to Sections 237 B - 238 C

Socrates: There was once a boy. . .

Although in some respects a parody of Lysias's speech, Socrate's speech introduces a number of issues that will be developed later in the dialogue, and it opens with an account of careful philosophical procedures: one must clarify the question one is posing and define one's terms. In the case of the lover vs. non-lover debate, the central term is love--eros in Greek.

Socrates asserts that most people understand love to be a desire, a kind of basic physical urge for what is beautiful and pleasurable (our word "hedonism" comes from the Greek term Socrates uses for "pleasure"). In Socrates's theory, this desire for pleasure is coupled in the human mind with a drive for excellence and propriety, an impulse which is reinforced by the conventions and ideals of human society--what Socrates calls opinion (the Greek word for this "opinion" is doxa).

These two forces are frequently at odds in the human mind. When the mind manages to maintain control of the forces of eros, the condition of balance and harmony is called sophrosyne; when eros wins out and compels the person to satisfy his or her desires regardless of the cost, the condition is called hubris.

Socrates's etymological derivation of the word "eros" from the Greek word for "force" has been shown to be false--it doesn't correspond to the actual historical linguistics--but the strategy of using the etymology of key terms to support an argument is worth noting, as a number of philosophers use it, in different ways, to advance their theories. Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, for example, employ elaborate etymologies in their philosophical writing.

Socrates's approach to the definition of "love" in some ways anticipates the psychology of Sigmund Freud. Freud names the fundamental libidinal instinct eros, and his concepts of the id and the superego correspond roughly with Socrates's two internal forces: the desire for pleasure and the desire to conform to opinion.

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