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.

Plato: Introduction

The man we know as Plato was born Aristocles son of Ariston but adopted his old wrestling nickname as a nom de plume (Platon means “wide” in Greek). As a young man he considered a poetic career and seems to have written a tragic trilogy and several lyric poems. In his early twenties he discovered an interest in philosophy when his brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus became members of Socrates‘ circle. After Plato himself became a disciple of Socrates he burned his poems and resolved to be a full time philosopher. After Socrates’ execution Plato gradually extended his teacher’s philosophy to create his own school. Platonism was probably the most important school of thought in the ancient and medieval periods, heavily influencing both pagan and Christian writers. Even today, some writers consider Platonism “the secret religion of the majority of intellectuals”.

Display of books by Plato

Plato was a prolific writer. Today we have 37 of his dialogs (26 of which are believed to be authentic) and 13 letters, the authorship of which is hotly disputed. Will Durant once jokingly wrote that Plato wrote dialogs because he was a frustrated dramatist. In fact, Plato and his contemporaries believed that the only way to really learn philosophy was to discuss it with other philosophers. If this wasn’t possible, a dialog was the next best thing. It is important to remember that a philosophic dialog–much more so than a play–is meant to teach rather than to entertain. Because of this, it may contain sections that seem boring, repetitive, or different to understand. The dialog is meant to be parsed as a unity, however, and these passages are there intentionally, to make some point to the reader. Allan Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of the Republic, criticizes translators who abridge the boring sections of the dialogs or simplify the wording of difficult passages. According to him, any translation of Plato should be as literal as possible, even at the expense of readability (although, actually, Bloom’s translation is quite readable).

The Socratic Problem

Socrates didn’t leave any writings of his own, as far as we know, but he is a main character in all of Plato’s dialogs. The great unanswerable question in Platonic studies is where Socrates’ philosophy leaves off and where Plato’s begins. There are a couple avenues we can go down to gather clues: We can compare Plato’s earlier dialogs to his later work, on the assumption that he began by summarizing his master’s teaching and developed his own viewpoint as time went on. This approach relies on our ability to date the texts, which requires further assumptions and guesswork. We can also try comparing Plato’s portrayal of Socrates to the writings of others who knew him when he was alive, such as Xenophon and Aristophanes. Unfortunately, Xenophon was a mercenary soldier who dabbled in historical fiction and Aristophanes was a comic playwright. Their descriptions of Socrates are neither as complete nor as credible as Plato’s. Finally, we can read the opinions of writers who lived closer to the time of Plato and Socrates and might have had access to sources and oral traditions that are now lost. Of course, there is no guarantee that their educated guesses are any better than our own. Ultimately, the best answer we can produce to the Socratic problem will be little better than an opinion.

Virtue

One subject that was apparently highly important to both Socrates and Plato was the cultivation of virtue and the question of whether or not it could be taught. Before we go on, though, lest we make the same mistake that Meno does in his eponymous dialog, we need to be sure we understand what virtue means. The word translated as “virtue” in most editions of Plato is actually the Greek arete. An equally valid translation would be “manly excellence”, which is not a common connotation of the modern English word virtue. Bloom puts it well when he writes,

It has been said that it is one of the great mysteries of Western thought “how a word which used to mean the manliness of men has come to mean the chastity of women.”

He goes on to imply that one can glean a summary of the entire history of political philosophy by comparing the changing usage of “virtue” in Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Rosseau.

Arete, according to the Greeks has five components: piety, justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom. One of the recurring themes in the dialogs is discussion of how these relate to each other and to virtue as a whole. As for the question of whether virtue can be taught–as opposed to being an innate quality with which some people are born–it seems that Socrates, the man who was wisest because he knew his own ignorance, was ultimately undecided. Plato’s answer, however, is based on his own theory of forms. Virtue, like every other idea, exists in an ideal form. Souls are exposed to the ideal forms of things before they become incarnate as humans. Thus teaching virtue is a process of leading the soul to remember the ideal which it has already encountered.

Reading Order

In general, I recommend reading all of the Great Books in the order in which they were written. For Plato, this order would be approximately:

Early Works Middle Works Late Works
Apology Cratylus Critias
Charmides Euthydemus Sophist
Crito Meno Statesman
Euthyphro Parmenides Timaeus
Gorgias Phaedo Philebus
Hippias Minor Phaedrus Laws
Hippias Major Republic
Ion Symposium
Laches Theaetetus
Lysis
Protagoras

Another popular organizational scheme is to group the dialogs into thematic tetrologies, in which they are grouped into a 7×4 matrix; The rows are labeled: “What is man?”, “The Sophists”, “Socrates’ Trial”, “Speech and Knowledge”, “The Soul”, “Dialectic”, and “Man in the World”. The columns are labeled: “Cause”, “Desire and Nature”, “Will, Judgment, and Behavior”, and “Reason and Order”. The idea is to read the works in each row from left to right to explore a particular topic.

Another semi-thematic grouping is that used by The Penguin Group, which publishes some of the most popular translations. Penguin’s grouping has a lot to do with creating paperback volumes of a manageable length,

I will be mostly following the Penguin scheme for the simple reason that I mostly own the Penguin translations. I will be beginning with the dialogs in The Last Days of Socrates as I have found many forum posts which suggest it as a starting point for the study of Plato.