CriticaLink | Plato: Phaedrus | Overview

Plato's Phaedrus is a rich and enigmatic text that treats a range of important philosophical issues, including metaphysics, the philosophy of love, and the relation of language to reality, especially in regard to the practices of rhetoric and writing.

Although he was an actual historical figure and Plato's teacher, the Socrates who appears in the Phaedrus is to some extent a character invented by Plato. By the time Plato composed the Phaedrus, he was using Socrates's dramatic encounters with other characters to stage a presention of his own philosophy. Socrates is hardly a mere mouthpiece for Plato, and for the sake of consistency, the Reading Guide to this text refers to the statements and ideas of "Socrates". Readers should be aware, however, that the positions outlined in the dialogue represent Plato's thought as much as that of his teacher and have become part of the philosophical tradition called Platonism.

If you compare the Phaedrus with a text like the Poetics by Plato's student Aristotle, Plato's dialogue may seem to wander from topic to topic, although the issues Socrates and Phaedrus discuss are connected conceptually, as the Guide will indicate. The difference is partially due to the genre of these works--Aristotle's treatise lays out its argument systematically, while the dramatic depiction of the give-and-take of a conversation in Plato's dialogue does not permit such a tight systematization of the ideas. Another difference, however, lies in the way these two thinkers "do" philosophy. Dialogue--in particular, the dialectical question-and-answer method known as elenchus is a form in keeping with Plato's understanding of truth as recollection (anamnesis in Greek) from within the soul. Aristotle tends to be a more empirical thinker, engaging on careful description and analysis of the phenomena he observes.

Classical scholarship generally places the composition of the Phaedrus between the years 375 and 365, during the same period in which Plato composed the Republic, another text in which he raises criticism of representional arts, including literature.

In the late nineteenth century, in texts such as The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche advanced a reinterpretation of Greek culture that cast Socrates as the champion of a rationalism embodied in a force he called the Apollinian. The Apollinian Socrates was pitted against the force of delusion, passion, and creativity--the Dionysian, which emerges in the genre of tragedy. Nietzsche's treatment of rhetoric in his university lectures as well as in the essay "Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense" follows out this initial characterization of Socrates. Dismissing the key concepts of idealism and metaphysics ("God", for example) as nothing more than a fiction, Nietzsche argues that all language is essentially rhetoric, a set of figures of speech that over time have accrued meaning for human societies, but whose meaning is contingent, not guaranteed by any transcendent, eternal truth or archetype.

in the mid-twentieth century, building on the work of Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, the philosopher Jacques Derrida took on Socrates's challenge to writing in a number of texts--most directly "Plato's Pharmacy"--which describe and exemplify the philosophical procedure of deconstruction. Derrida criticizes Plato's idealist insistance that our ideas have their origins in a transcendent realm of perfect Forms, available only to reason (logos in Greek) as logocentrism; he calls Socrates's assumption of an essential link between the meaning of a speaker's words and the speaker's physical voice (phonos in Greek) phonocentrism. Derrida's proposal of a "grammatology" (from grammata, the Greek word for "letters") seeks to understand how the very alienating power of writing that Socrates deplores--the "free-play" or "dissemination" of the verbal sign within a system of signification--calls into question any stable meaning that could serve philosophy as the foundation for metaphysics. The deconstruction of metaphysical grounds opens the way for an investigation of the unquestioned assumptions and binary oppositions that underpin cultural norms, legal categories, and the coherence of literary texts.