CriticaLink | Plato: Phaedrus | Guide to Sections 250 D - 257 B

Socrates: Well, all that was for love of a memory. . .

The blend of idealism and eroticism in Socrates's account of how beauty--especially a beautiful body--functions as the principal means by which human souls are "reminded" of ideal perfection is both striking and funny. Building on Lysias's speech and his own first performance, Socrates uses the example of man in love with a boy to "defend" the madness of love, an example that allows Plato to illustrate his idealist ontology based on the Forms and his epistemology, which is founded on the concept of recollection or anamnesis. (These passages from the Phaedrus are one of the sources of our concept of "Platonic love".)

A man whose soul has recently communed with the eternal Forms responds to the boy's beauty with excitement and passion, but these emotions stem from the memory of the perfect Forms to which is the origin (arche) of this earthly, physical beauty; his love for the boy can transcends the body. A man whose soul has not achieved such a close look at the Forms in their passage through heaven will respond in a more bluntly sexual way, focusing exclusively on the material reality "at hand".

Plato also returns to his psychology with Socrates's detailed description of the behavior of the charioteer's two horses when they encounter the beautiful boy. The good horse obeys the commands of the charioteer and holds back, while the bad horse, eager for gratification, surges forward to proposition the boy. Socrates attributes the pain and joy of love to the back-and-forth struggle of opposing impulses figured by the soul's mismatched horses. These conflicting impulses have some parallels with the id and the superego in Sigmund Freud's model of the psyche.

The attentions of the lover eventually have an effect on the beloved. The boy sees himself reflected in the lover's eyes as if in a mirror, and his desire for the lover is aroused. Although Plato is not fully opposed to sexual gratification--in the conclusion to Socrates's speech the lovers enjoy an interlude of physical intimacy--the emphasis is placed on the transcendence of the physical body and the pursuit of an enduring friendship based on the love of the Forms--on philosophy. This conclusion reverses the argument of Socrates's initial speech, which followed Lysias in asserting that the boy should submit to the attentions of the non-lover. Socrates prays to Eros to ask forgiveness for any insult his first speech might have contained.

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