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The Phaedrus [Φαῖδρος] recounts a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus outside of the city walls. There is disagreement concerning whether the Phaedrus dialogue is a middle or late dialogue. Φαῖδρος means radiant or shining one in the Greek. Truth, in the Phaedrus, will have to do with such making Truth shine forth. In Phaedrus, knowing how to live centers on the art of the making resemblances, in speech and writing, that leads hearers, by λόγος, to the uncovering of the ἀρχή of the being of the beautiful. Although the dialogue begins on the topic of love, it centers on the shining forth of the Beautiful. The problem of the Beautiful revolves the approach to Beauty. It turns out that when the lover forms a friendship with a beloved, the question of how he carries out his responsibilities to the beloved mirror the problems encountered in discourse.


Some of the themes appearing in the Phaedrus include rhetoric, writing, love, anamnesis, myth, logos, doxa, truth, discourse, dialetic, the One and the many, beauty, and friendship.

Plot summary

After spending the morning listening to Lysias give a speech about love, on the advice of a doctor, Phaedrus finds himself outside the walls of the city and happens to run into the Socrates. Discovering that Phaedrus has just come from listening to speeches and that he has a copy of Lysias’ speech on love under his cloak, Socrates encourages Phaedrus to read the speech. After finding a place to sit under the shade of a plane tree near the banks of the river Ilissus, Phaedrus gives the speech about the non-lover. Upon hearing it, Socrates has some objections to the arrangement of the speech. Accordingly, Phaedrus persuades Socrates to give a speech of his own in reply. Socrates does so but with his head wrapped so he cannot see Phaedrus while speaking. In this speech, the non-lover of the first speech resembles a lover more than a non-lover. Phaedrus notices Socrates has switched the non-lover for a lover and spoken mainly about the lover but does not notice the possible irony in Socrates’ decision to do so. When he is finished with the speech, it seems that Socrates will cross the river but receiving warning from his sign, he decides to stay and continue conversing with his friend. The sign has made him realize the error of his speech. Now it seems obvious that the lover is to be preferred to the non-lover. Socrates decides to give another speech in order to purify himself from this misdeed and advises that Lysias likewise purify himself by writing a new speech that corrects the same error and places the lover in his proper place. In recantation Socrates now proceeds to give a second speech, this time with his head uncovered.

Socrates credits the speech to Stesichorus and opens with an explanation of why the lover’s madness is to be preferred to the non-lover’s composed attitude. Socrates says that the greatest blessings come in madness and rarely to those in their right minds. In this third speech, Socrates now moves to a discussion the soul. Divine inspiration or madness is a way in which the soul is moved by the gods. The quality of movement determines its nature. That which is always in motion is eternal, those things that can be moved and move other things but have no self-motion cease to live. The soul, because it is self-moving, is the source of movement in other things and never ceases to be in motion. For this reason it is eternal, indestructible, and without beginning. Having determined the nature of soul, Socrates now recounts the second myth to appear in the Phaedrus, the first being that of Boreas and Oreithyia. Socrates recounts the myth of the charioteer. In some ways the myth of the charioteer resembles a less vicious form of the Myth of Er but one that emphasizes different details. Socrates explains the fate of the soul after death, reincarnation, the divine feast of the gods, the types of souls and their affiliation with the gods, the hierarchy of the gods, the ascent of the soul to the beautiful, its glimpse of the beautiful, and the nature of the beautiful. The soul is evoked through images of a charioteer with winged horses, one of which is good and one is unruly. The mastering of the horses determines the ascent of the charioteer. Even the soul that manages to ascend to the feast barely catches a glimpse of the gods [eide]. Eventually souls fall back to earth and incarnate once again.

After the descent from the heavens, a connection appears between finite beauty and the beauty of heaven. This explains why the speech of the non-lover is unsatisfactory. The beloved, too, must experience something of the ultimate beauty of the divine feast but the non-lover has spoken against eros, the very pathway to the Beautiful through which the charioteer caught a glimpse of love. For Socrates, the lover is an image of the Beautiful, a copy that retains a connection to it. In love, the lovers are reminded of the Beautiful. The non-lover does not do true service to the beloved when he denies the madness of love.

After the myth of the charioteer, Socrates moves to a discussion of rhetoric. Some scholars see this part as poorly connected to the previous part of the dialogue but, for our purposes the problem of rhetoric, since in its genuine form it would grasp the truth, is the problem of how to recall the beauty one has recalled at the high point of the charioteer’s ascent. The philosopher’s job is to make hearers pass through resemblances but to do so he must understand the true nature of reality. Therefore, he will understand how the images made [resemblances] are connected to the truth [the original]. Socrates now discusses the proper way of making cuts [divisions] and a discussion of good and bad writing. The problem of writing, as shown in the last myth to be introduced in the dialogue, is that writing cannot too seriously since it is not the reality but only its appearance. This last myth is the myth of Theuth. In the myth, Theuth offers King Thamus his invention of writing. Thamus is not pleased with the gift, claiming it will induce forgetfulness. Socrates concludes that written texts can, at most, serve as reminders [images] of the truth and as long as they are understood this way, may escape condemnation.