Plato’s Phaedrus

Plato Phaedrus cover image

The Phaedrus has long been one of Plato’s most popular dialogs–perhaps because, like the closely associated Symposium, it ostensibly deals with the topic of Love. The dialog opens when Phaedrus, who has obtained a copy of a new speech and has been studying it, encounters Socrates outside the walls of Athens and reads the speech to him. The speech, purportedly written by the rhetorician Lysias, is intended to convince a hypothetical boy that he is better off sexually gratifying a man who is not in love with him than one who is. It is not a particularly well written speech; after Socrates points out some of its defects Phaedrus challenges him to do better. Naturally, Socrates’ speech on the same subject is considerably superior in both structure and logic. Beginning with an elaborate psychological definition of love as a form of madness, Socrates points out all the ways the boy might suffer from an affair with a mad man.

Almost as soon as he finishes the second speech, Socrates’ daemon prompts him to make a third speech (often referred to as the palinode), arguing the opposite position. This speech contains a lengthy Platonic myth about the soul, touching on such concepts as the theory of forms, the tripartite soul, and reincarnation. Basically, before being incarnated as humans, some souls have had the opportunity to witness true divine beauty. As men, these souls see a reflection of this beauty in the forms of pretty boys and attempt to experience it more closely. Those with less developed souls, once they achieve sexual gratification, will go no further. The true philosophers, however, will gratify themselves instead by educating the boy and forming a deep relationship that may even last beyond the current lifetime. To Plato this represented the ultimate and ideal scenario for erotic love.

The three speeches are about love, but they are really just examples of rhetoric. Socrates is now able to make the point that rhetoric is only valuable if the speaker truly understands both the topic and the audience and that speeches designed merely to entertain or to convince without reference to the truth are to be despised. We are reminded at this point of the passages in Gorgias that characterize all rhetoric as a form of “pandering” and contract it with true education. In fact, Plato is on his way towards the true thesis of the dialog which is that dialectic–the so called “Socratic Method” is superior to other forms of education, including lectures and books. I find I must agree. While I tend to use all three (dialectic, lecture, and written materials) in my own teaching, I can say from experience that the majority of students learn the most through dialectic.

While the speeches on love, especially the first two, are only introduced as examples, their content provokes thought on gender and sexuality in Classical Greece, particularly among the hopelite and aristocrat classes to which Socrates and his friends belonged. In these two upper classes at least three sexually active genders were implicitly acknowledged: men, boys, and women. By far the most common romantic or erotic love situation was between men and boys (typically teenagers who had not yet begun shaving). Women were objectified and mainly considered useful to making babies. They were normally restricted to the women’s section of the house and took no part in the intellectual life of the society. Of the three genders, only men were allowed to take an active sexual role, and only men were expected to enjoy sex much. Boys could benefit from a relationship with an older lover, however, through mentorship and access to the older man’s political connections. While they accepted homoeroticism, Greek society was actually much more gender-restrictive than ours, since there was no freedom for someone to move beyond their gender. The few Greek women we know who of who were educated and enjoyed a public life, such as Pericles’ companion Aspasia of Miletus, were clearly exceptional in every way and often endured high levels of scathing criticism. Likewise, a post-pubescent man who continued to behave effeminately or have sexual relationships with other grown men was greatly looked down on. Nor could teenage boy take on an active sexual role or easily avoid the attentions of grown men. And then there were female slaves, who were called “girls” regardless of age and expected to be sexually available at all times. Fourth century Greece was not a place where you could choose your gender.

It’s true that certain scholars, such as Donald Kagan, have pointed out that we may not have a complete picture of gender roles in Greek society. For one thing, gender traits and sexual mores might have been radically different among the priests and priestesses of the various gods. In face, “priestess” may have essentially been a different gender than “woman” for upper class Greeks–we don’t know enough to say. There are also, as I have mentioned in the past, a number of female mythical and historical figures who seem to have been very powerful, including at least one queen who led triremes into battle as late as the Persian wars. But all of these would have represented rare exceptions in what was, overall, a fairly gender-repressive environment.

Finally, I should mention that the Phaedrus itself is seen by some scholars as a commentary on Greek sexuality and gender repression. There are several double entendres in the dialog between Socrates and Phaedrus which can be taken either as Socratic irony, active flirtation, or both. It is generally considered that Phaedrus, at the time the dialog was set, would have been too old to be a socially acceptable sexual partner for Socrates, but that doesn’t mean that the sexual tension wasn’t there. In an often-cited article, Zelia Gregoriou argues that Phaedrus contains textual and extra-textual elements which take it to a “liminal space” which is effectively “beyond gender”. Objectively, this is probably a bit much to expect from the rather conservative Plato. Subjectively, the dialog may very well have this effect on modern readers.

Apology of Plato

Two posts ago I wrote about the difficulty we encounter, when reading Plato’s dialogs, distinguishing his teachings from those of Socrates. Because the Apology is an early dialog and the subject matter is Socrates himself, it may give the most accurate portrait of him of all the dialogs. The apology is a “transcript” of Socrates’ defense while on trial for his life. In the decade following his execution (in 399 BCE) a number of authors wrote their own accounts of the trial, and Plato probably wanted to create a definitive version to defend the memory of his teacher. Of course no record of the trial is completely accurate, if only because the Greeks had not yet invented the concept of a court reporter and thus had to rely on their memories of what was said.

Socrates Dictates his Will, Josef Abel, 1800 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Socrates Dictates his Will, Josef Abel, 1800 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

One of the most important things to remember when reading the Apology, is that Socrates really didn’t care whether he won or lost the trial. He was 70 years old and had already reached a place in his philosophy in which he no longer feared death,

For let me tell you, gentlemen, that to be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows when one does not know. No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to a man; but people dread it as though they are certain that it is the greatest evil; and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable. (29a-b)

Transcending fear, particularly the fear of death, is one of the great benefits of studying philosophy. Unmotivated by fear, Socrates was free to follow his own convictions–and possibly the urgings of his daemon–and seize on the trial as one more chance to educate the Athenians and set an example for his students by demonstrating his dialectic.

Thus Socrates, whose disclaimer that he doesn’t know how to speak in court sounds weak from a man who has already put the greatest sophists of the day in their place, spends most of the trial bringing up edgy theological ideas, such as when he calls on the god Apollo as a witness or when, in passing, he asserts that the Gods cannot lie. Both of these points required a number of unorthodox assumptions and would have made most of the jurors uncomfortable. Socrates then goes on to demonstrate his teaching method by cross examining Meletus which, to most of the jurors, would have been more a demonstration of how annoying he could be. Towards the end of his defense he declines to beg for the court’s mercy (a standard section in Athenian court practice) and explains away his lack of political service by saying that he just would have been gotten himself killed by the other Athenians had he involved himself,

The true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone. (32a)

No one, least of all Socrates, is surprised when the court returns a “guilty” verdict. The prosecution recommends the death penalty. Athenian law allows the defendant to propose his own penalty, and everyone expects him to suggest exile, which the jury will probably accept. Instead, he proposes a trivially small fine, saying its the most he can afford. He then raises the number, after Crito and others offer to pay. Obviously, though, if Socrates’ friends are paying it won’t really be a punishment.

Socrates is sentenced to die and soon becomes the most famous martyr to philosophy in Western history (or perhaps the second most famous, depending how one classifies Jesus).

Socrates and Plato [public domain via Internet Archive]

Socrates and Plato [public domain via Internet Archive]

At this point, let’s pause to contrast the careers of Socrates and Plato. Socrates “The Gadfly” was an outsider who was always as odds with, and ultimately executed by, the system. Plato was a respected citizen who died in his sleep at a party. Socrates’ teachings were primarily dialectical–dealing with ways to change and improve society. Plato’s were primarily metaphysical and idealistic and implied that one might as well accept society because the physical world wasn’t the real world anyway as well as advocating a world view that was ultimately static. Socrates discarded his (probably lower-middle) social class and became something else. Plato remained close to his aristocratic roots. Socrates conversed in the streets and at dinner parties. Plato taught at an a academy.

If we think of “philosopher” as a role in society then, in many ways, these two men are the original archetypes of the two kinds of philosopher that have historically been found in Western Civilization. For want of better terminology, I call them Outsiders and Academics, and I am currently writing a book about the Outsiders. While I would of course love it if you were to buy my book, when it comes out, everything you really need to know about the two can be found by studying Socrates and Plato. Outsiders like Socrates are the initiators: they force society to examine new ideas. Since societies don’t really like new ideas, the Outsiders usually suffer for it, financially and/or physically. The Academics, on the other hand, safe within legitimized social organizations such as universities, are the developers and guardians of the new ideas which were first introduced by outsiders. Occasionally, an academic is able to conceive and promulgate a truly original idea, but this is rare because the process they go through to earn their positions selects against innovators and because they have too much to loose to buck the system. Our civilization seems to need both types of philosopher to function.