Socrates meets Phaedrus in Athens. Phaedrus has spent the morning listening to Lysias deliver a speech on love, and now he desires to take a walk outside the city. Since Socrates expresses a keen interest in hearing Lysias's speech, Phaedrus manages to lure him out to the countryside. Phaedrus has a copy of Lysias's speech at hand and will read it to Socrates.
Lysias's speech argues that in a pederastic relationship, a boy should give his favors to an old man who is not in love rather than one who is in love. The lover, Lysias claims, is mad, and as such is given to unhealthy tendencies that cannot benefit the boy. The non-lover, on the other hand, will offer the boy a stable and educational friendship.
Phaedrus believes this speech to be excellent, in the sense that it offers an extensive argument for the topic at hand. But Socrates does not share Phaedrus's admiration. He counters Phaedrus's point by suggesting that Lysias was more interested in style than content. Moreover, in terms of content, Socrates claims that he can make a better speech based on ideas borrowed from other writers.
Socrates’ first speech provides a counterpart to Lysias’s argument. Rather than presenting the benefits of the non-lover, Socrates addresses the negative influences of the lover. Love, or eros, is a form of madness in which the inborn desire for beauty overwhelms one’s sense of morality and control. Such madness destroys both the soul and body of the boy and will bring him no benefits. Socrates concludes his speech with this argument.
Phaedrus, however, remains unsatisfied: he had thought that Socrates was about to proceed and present the benefits of the lover. Socrates justifies his conclusion by saying that he was inspired by the Nymphs and did not want to be carried away. But as Socrates sets out to return to Athens, a divine sign appears and warns him against a premature return. Socrates interprets this as a sign that he has offended the gods. He thus sets out to remedy the situation with a second speech on eros.
Socrates' second speech, known as his Great Speech, establishes the overarching importance of eros in life. There are four types of divine madness, derived from Apollo, Dionysus, the Muses, and Aphrodite—the last being eros. In order to understand that love is a divine and beneficial madness, Socrates likens the soul to a chariot with two horses and a charioteer. The greatest good for the soul is to grow wings and fly through the heavens with the gods. If the soul is strong and controls its horses, it catches sight of such true Ideas as Beauty and Self-Knowledge beyond the heavens. The souls of men, however, all have a bad horse and will eventually fall back down to earth. Now, when the soul catches glimpse of a beautiful boy on earth, it is reminded of the vision of Beauty that it saw beyond the heavens. The resulting yearning is eros. The soul that can control such yearning will be granted the philosopher's boon--an early return to heaven after three thousand years instead of ten thousand years.
After Socrates concludes his Great Speech, the dialogue transitions to a discussion of rhetoric and writing. Phaedrus has been influenced by the sophistic view of rhetoric, which states that persuasion trumps truth in the art of rhetoric. Socrates challenges this argument by demonstrating the harmful influences of speaking without knowing the truth. Rhetoric, in fact, directs the soul. As such, the rhetorician must understand the souls of different audiences and speak accordingly. Such understanding cannot be gleaned from books on rhetoric. True rhetoric involves dialectic, which involves collecting and dividing knowledge of a subject in a natural way. This art of dialectic can can only be acquired by philosophizing systematically about the nature of life and of the soul. According to Socrates, then, the true art of speaking is reserved for philosophers.
The last topic of discussion between Socrates and Lysias addresses the technology of writing. Socrates tells the myth of the god Theuth, who discovered writing and transmitted it to the Egyptians. When Theuth presented writing to King Thamus of Egypt, he heralded it as a device that would increase wisdom and memory. But Thamus replied that writing would increase forgetfulness rather than memory. For instead of internalizing and understanding things, students would rely on writing to remind themselves of various matters. Moreover, students would be exposed to many ideas without their properly being thought. On a related note, Socrates criticizes writing essentially because it is not speech: it cannot discern between audiences and cannot respond to questions or criticism. The philosopher, then, would only use dialectic writing—and even then, only for his own amusement.
After reaffirming the importance of philosophy to both spoken and written discourse, Phaedrus and Socrates set out on the path back to the city.
Socrates is a man of the city, or the polis, whether or not he agrees with its regime. Because he derives great pleasure from conversing with the citizens of Athens, he has no reason to set foot beyond the city walls. In the Phaedrus, however, Phaedrus manages to lure Socrates out to the countryside, where Socrates appears entirely out of place. Outside of the polis, nymphs and gods possess Socrates and inspire him to deliver two speeches. The setting thus plays an important role in the dialogue and may serve to demonstrate the characteristics of a particular type of madness (see “Madness” below).
At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates evokes the possibility of demythologizing the myth of Boreas and Oreithuia. Given enough time, he claims, one presumably could retell the events covered in the myth with natural and logical explanations. Nevertheles, myths in their metaphoric aspects prove useful to Socrates. Throughout the Phaedrus, Socrates refers to—and even invents—various myths for the sake of his argument. Perhaps Socrates’ uncharacteristic respect for myths and traditional theology can be attributed to the setting outside the polis. Beyond noting the narrative influence of the gods and the nymphs, however, we should ponder the role that myths play in the dialogue. Does Socrates’ reliance on myths undermine or support his philosophic speculations?
The Platonic Soul
Socrates likens the souls of men and gods to chariots led by two winged horses. The gods possess horses of entirely good breed and are thus able to fly in heaven eternally. The souls of men, however, are all burdened by the combination of a good and a bad horse: inevitably, they are dragged down to earth. Once on earth, all souls must wait ten thousand years before growing back their wings—except for the philosophers, who can sprout wings and return to heaven in three thousand years. The human soul plays a crucial role in the Phaedrus because it is linked to both eros and rhetoric; can these things keep both horses, or at least one or the other, under control? Taking a correct approach to eros and rhetoric qualifies a soul as philosophic, and such a soul is consequently granted the summum bonum of an early return to heaven.
Analysis of Socrates' First Speech: 237b-241d
Socrates invokes the Muses at the beginning of his speech. The speech tells the story of a boy or youth who had many male lovers. One of these men persuaded the boy that “he was not in love, though he loved the lad no less than others” (237b). The man made a speech to convince the boy to give his favors to the non-lover rather than the lover.
The speaker begins by noting the importance of understanding the “true nature of a particular subject"—for otherwise the inquiry will end up in conflict and confusion (237c). In the case of the boy and the non-lover, the speaker asserts that they must first define love and its effects. Love is a kind of desire. Yet men who are not in love also desire the beautiful. To distinguish a man who is in love from a man who is not, then, one must realize the two principles that rule men: the “inborn desire for pleasures” and the “acquired judgment that pursues what is best” (237d). When the former is in control, the state is called “outrageousness” (hubris). When the latter takes command, the state is called “being in your right mind” (sophrosune) (237e-238a). “Outrageousness” has several names, among them the desire for food (gluttony) and the desire for drink. But the desire that is the most powerful—the one that has led to this very speech—is the desire to “take pleasure in beauty”: eros (238c).
At this point, Socrates breaks off his speech and notes that he is “in the grip of something divine” (238c). He attributes his peculiar flow of words to Socrates’ physical location:
There’s something really divine about this place, so don’t be surprised if I’m quite taken by the Nymphs’ madness as I go on with the speech. I’m on the edge of speaking in dithyrambs as it is. (238c-d)
Socrates resigns himself to the divine force and continues his speech.
The speaker next asks rhetorically, “What benefit or harm is likely to come from the lover or the non-lover to the boy who gives him favors?” (238e). Since the lover is driven by outrageous desire, he will surely seek what is most pleasurable in his boyfriend. Such a “sick man” takes pleasure in the weaker rather than the stronger, so the boy will necessarily be weaker—or the man will try to make him weaker. By the same token, the man will delight in the boy’s mental defects rather than his strengths, and the man’s jealousy will steer the boy away from positive influences. Such a man will serve no use as mentor or friend, since he will retard rather than develop the boy’s intellectual development. As for the boy’s physical development, the same can be said: the man will prefer a soft, unmanly boy to one over whom he can wield total control. Furthermore, the man will also prefer a boy lacking family and possessions, so that he can continue to “pluc[k] the sweet fruit” from the powerless and dependent boy (240a).
The lover thus becomes basically an obsessive and controlling lecher whose company is entirely vile and distasteful. In this sense, the lover is worse than a flatterer or mistress—who at least bring some immediate pleasure. And while the lover’s love itself is “harmful and disgusting,” the love will also eventually fade (240e). Afterwards, the boy will be forced to chase after his undelivered rewards, angry that he has given favors to a lover rather than a non-lover. The lover has been “harmful to his property, harmful to his physical fitness, and absolutely devastating to the cultivation of his soul, which truly is ... the most valuable thing to gods and men” (241c). The speaker concludes: “Do wolves love lambs? That’s how lovers befriend a boy!” (241d). Socrates thus concludes his first speech, stating that Phaedrus will have to “accept this as the end of the speech” (241d).
Socrates’ first speech provides a counterpart to Lysias’s argument. Rather than presenting the benefits of the non-lover, Socrates addresses the negative influences of the lover. Eros can be a form of madness in which the inborn desire for beauty overwhelms one’s sense of morality and control in pursuing what is best (i.e., hubris overwhelms sophrosune). Such madness destroys both the soul and body of the boy and will bring him no benefits. Note that in general, hubris could overwhelm sophrosune with regard to anything that a person desires as beautiful.
Socrates does not go on to argue the merits of the non-lover, since such an argument would put him in Lysias’s position as seducer. Readers at this point should want to know more about how the desire for the good, or even the desire for the beautiful, differs from the outrageous eros of the lover. But Socrates has engaged in competition with Lysias as an orator rather than as a philosopher. As Nehamas and Woodruff note, Socrates “produces a counter-epideictic speech and makes an implicit claim to have beaten the orator at his own game.” This makes for a “peculiar situation, since Lysias is one of the great orators of the time, while Socrates officially disavows any knowledge of rhetoric” (xviii).
To justify the quality of his speech, Socrates evokes the divine forces of the Nymphs, saying that they have possessed him with speech. As he breaks off mid-speech, he claims to be “on the edge of speaking in dithyrambs” (238d). A dithyramb was originally a choral poem sung in the worship of Dionysus or Bacchus—the god of fertility and wine, who often inspires madness. In The Birth of Tragedy, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described Dionysian forces of madness as antithetical to the Socratic or Apollonian embodiment of reason. In what light, then, should we see or trust Socrates’ putatively divinely-inspired speech?
The question has inspired much debate in Phaedrus scholarship. As Graeme Nicholson notes, some have seen in Socrates’ speech a “real concern for the welfare, especially the moral welfare, of the boy,” whereas others have seen Socrates as “repressing his own eros, and, owing to self-hate, painting eros in ugly colors” (120-1). It is also important to remember that we owe this depiction of Socrates to Plato. At this point, as at so many other points throughout the Phaedrus, the reader is invited to consider why Plato introduces such ambiguities and thematic layers in the dialogue.
Analysis of Socrates' Recantation: 241d-243e
Phaedrus objects to the abrupt conclusion of Socrates’ speech, having thought that Socrates was about to explore the merits of the non-lover. Socrates explains, however, that he stopped in order to prevent himself from getting too carried away. He says to Phaedrus: “Don’t you realize that the Nymphs to whom you so cleverly exposed me will take complete possession of me?” (241e). It should suffice to say that every disadvantage of the lover has its corresponding advantage in the non-lover. Socrates fears that his speech may become excessively “epic,” so he sets out to cross the river on the path back to Athens.
Phaedrus holds Socrates back, suggesting that it would be better to wait for the noontime heat to pass. Abruptly, Socrates praises Phaedrus’s speechmaking abilities and declares that Phaedrus has inspired to him to produce a second speech after all. As he was about to cross the river, Socrates explains, he saw a “familiar divine sign” (his daimonion): “whenever it occurs, [it] holds me back from something I was about to do” (242c). The sign has made Socrates understand that he has committed an offense against the gods. Both his own speech and Lysias’s speech were “foolish, and close to being impious” (242d).
Love, after all, is Aphrodite’s son—one of the gods. And “if Love is a god or something divine ... he can’t be bad in any way” (242e). Socrates must therefore correct his previous speech, in which he vilified love. He explains that he will use an “ancient rite of purification”: when Stesichorus was blinded for speaking ill of Helen, he composed a poem to retract his earlier statement (i.e., a Palinode). So too will Socrates compose a Palinode to Love. He will wash out the bitterness of the previous speech (for if it were to be heard by a noble man in love, it would make Socrates seem vulgar and ignorant). All of this is music to the ears of Phaedrus, who is eager to hear a second speech and promises to make Lysias compose a speech on the same subject.
Socrates, it turns out, has proved to be a skillful rhetorician. Having completed a speech favoring the non-lover, Socrates now will retract his earlier statement and turn to argue the exact opposite. The nymphs and their divine madness play not only a vital but a deeply ambiguous role in Socrates’ speeches: at first, they inspire Socrates to argue skillfully against the lover; now, they will help him deliver his second speech on the importance of eros, which seems to favor the lover.
The reader might have expected that Socrates was going to give his second speech on the merits of the non-lover, but he is going to correct his first speech instead. This leads us to think about whether the initial division between lover and non-lover was fair after all. Would not it be best for someone to desire and pursue the good—and also to be in love with it? Something seems inadequate in the non-lover who holds himself back. Maybe there are two kinds of lovers: one for which eros is outrageous and damaging, and one for which eros is not outrageous but suited to its object.
While the appearance of Socrates’ daemon is fitting to the setting of the countryside—where Socrates finds himself apolis and entirely out of place—the dialogue offers no particular reason for its mysterious warning. Maybe Phaedrus is the kind of person who would draw damaging conclusions from a speech against love, so love must be re-mythologized in a way that will help Phaedrus make good decisions. Perhaps this is why Socrates draws on the story of Stesichorus in order to “purify” himself in the correct manner. Myths are useful, and while one may find it best to reject a particular myth as untrue on its face, for various reasons it may not be worth one’s time to do.
Analysis of Socrates’ Second Speech: 244a-257b
The second speech begins by denying that there was any truth in the preceding speeches. The only reason a boy should prefer the non-lover over the lover is if madness were “bad, pure and simple”; “but in fact the best of things have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god” (244a). There are several kinds of such divine madness:
(1) The madness that accompanies the work of the prophetesses of Delphi and the priestesses of Dodona, or prophets in general. (The speaker conflates the two similar but unrelated words for "madness" and "prophecy"—manike and mantike.) This madness guides entire cities as well as individuals.
(2) The madness that consoles or provides relief to those in hardship, which can occur in the form of prophecies, prayers, mystic rites, and consequent purification.
(3) The madness from the Muses, which awakens the soul to “a Bacchic frenzy of songs and poetry” (245a).
(4) Love is the fourth kind of madness, which will be discussed at length.
The speaker sets out to prove that love is a beneficial and divine madness. This proof requires an understanding of the soul, both human and divine. “Every soul is immortal”: the soul is a “self-mover” and thus is incapable of being destroyed or started-up; it has neither birth nor death (245c). As for the structure of the soul, to describe what it actually is would be a divine task—but it is possible to describe what it is like. The soul is like “the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer” (246a). While the horses and charioteers of the gods are all of good breed, men possess a mixture: if goodness graces one horse, than the opposite will plague the other, making it painful to drive the chariot.
So long as the soul’s wings are in good condition, it will be able to fly through heaven. But a soul without wings will come down to earth and acquire an earthly body, thus forming together a “living thing, or animal, and has the designation ‘mortal’” (246c). (The speaker thus rejects the view that gods are immortal beings made of body and soul.) The soul’s wings are nourished by “beauty, wisdom, goodness, and everything of that sort,” which lift it high up in heaven; “but foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear” (246e).
A great procession of chariots flies through heaven, led by Zeus and followed by other gods and spirits. There are many wonderful sights and places in heaven. The banquet in heaven, however, takes place on a steep hill. While the gods’ chariots can climb the hill easily, the other chariots struggle with the weight of the bad horse. Once at the top, the gods stand on the ridge and gaze at what lies beyond heaven. Of this “place beyond heaven,” the speaker will attempt to “speak the truth”:
What is in this place is without color and without shape and without solidity, a being that really is what it is, the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to intelligence, the soul’s steersman. (247c-d)
Beyond heaven, in other words, lies the Reality of such transcendent forms as Justice, Self-control, Knowledge, and Beauty.
Those souls who are closest to the gods will also have a view of reality, though made imperfect by the distraction of the horses. Many souls, however, will never make it to the top. After great pains, they will fall back down “without having seen reality, uninitiated,” leaving them only with their own opinions (248b).
All souls yearn to stand on the plain of reality and truth. The grass that grows there is the “right food for the best part of the soul”; it “nourishes soul’s wings” (248c). Moreover, the souls that manage to glimpse reality will remain unharmed until the next circuit, whereas other souls will fall down to earth.
The souls will take different forms in their first incarnations: (1) philosophers, or lovers of beauty, or cultivated men; (2) kings or commanders; (3) statesmen, household managers, or financiers; (4) trainers or doctors; (5) prophets or priests; (6) poets or other representational artists; (7) manual laborers or farmers; (8) sophists or demagogues; (9) tyrants. Leading one’s life with justice will improve one’s fate within this hierarchy. But a life of injustice will lead to punishment. Each soul must live out a ten-thousand-year cycle, except for those who practice philosophy, whose cycle is three thousand years. In addition, the soul lives through thousand-year cycles on earth, at the end of which the soul will be able to choose its new kind of life based on its experiences and recollections.
The reason the philosopher’s soul is able to grow wings in three thousand years is because it stays closest to the reality beyond heaven. The philosopher stands closer to the divine than other humans. This brings us to fourth kind of madness: “that which someone shows when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty” (249d). This is the best kind of madness—the madness of love that possess a man when he sees a beautiful boy. Of course, only a few souls remember reality well enough for such madness to be triggered by earthly things. To those souls, however, the radiance of beauty can be perceived vaguely, even on earth. By contrast, less radiant forms like justice, self-control, and wisdom do not shine out.
The vision of Beauty on earth evokes a fear for the divine, followed by a deep reverence. When a man perceives a truly beautiful boy, he feels a chill and then begins to sweat. The stream of beauty flows into his eyes, warming him up and feeding his soul’s wings. The soul experiences an “aching and itching” sensation akin to that which a child feels at the first growth of teeth—a sensation that is soothed by the flow of joyful beauty (251c). In the absence of the boy, the aching and itching return as a throbbing pain; but the memory of the boy allows the soul to recover its joy.
This mixture of pain and joy is love. Love enslaves the soul and makes it forget everything else because “in addition to its reverence for one who has such beauty, the soul has discovered that the boy is the only doctor for all that terrible pain” (252a-b).
The way the soul acts on earth—including its relation to the boy—depends entirely on the god with which it traveled in heaven. An attendant of Zeus, for example, will “be able to bear the burden of this feathered force [i.e., love] with dignity” (252c). But one of Ares, the god of war, might act more belligerently and mistreat the boy as well as others. The souls who will most likely be able to consummate their relations with boys are the followers of Zeus, Hera, or Apollo—those who “show no envy, no mean-spirited lack of generosity” and who “make every effort to draw [the boy] into being totally like themselves and the god to whom they are devoted” (253b). This path to capturing a boy relates back to the structure of the soul.
As previously noted, the soul is composed of thee parts: two horses and a charioteer. The horse on the right side is the better, nobler one, who is a “lover of honor with modesty and self-control” (253d). The horse on the left is uglier and wilder, “companion to wild boasts and indecency” (253e). At the sight of beauty, the right horse retains a sense of shame and does not move, while the left horse leaps forward in an attempt to jump on the boy. As for the charioteer, he yanks back the reins in fear when he recalls the reality of Beauty standing next to Self-control. A struggle thus arises between the three elements, at the end of which the bad horse is tamed and the lover’s soul finally “follows its boy in reverence” or awe (254e).
As for the boy, he may initially resist the lover. But he eventually allows the man to spend time with him since good naturally associates with good. And as he spends time with the man, the boy realizes that the friendship with a man inspired by a god exceeds all other friendships in his life. Eventually, the boy also begins to feel the effect of desire flowing through him. He thus “has a mirror image of love in him” and acts on the desires “to see, touch, kiss, and lie down with [the man]” (255e).
Meanwhile, the bad horse begins to pull against the charioteer’s reins again. If the man and boy practice modesty and self-control, they will follow the path of philosophy and grow wings after death. And “there is no greater good than this that either human self-control or divine madness can offer a man” (256b). But if the man and boy let the bad horse slip out of control, they may consummate their relationship, albeit sparingly. In this case their souls will remain wingless after death—but nonetheless will not slip further down, since they will have begun the journey upwards by trying to sprout wings. In both cases, then, a lover’s friendship brings a boy divine benefits. A non-lover’s companionship, on the other hand, only brings a boy “cheap, human dividends” (256e). Thus Socrates concludes his speech and palinode.
Socrates’ second speech, also known as his Great Speech, overshadows the previous two speeches in style, length, and content. Although it is decidedly uncharacteristic of Socrates to speak so imaginatively at such great length, many of the most important Socratic (or Platonic) ideas derive from the Great Speech. As a paean to eros, the speech can be broken down roughly into three parts: (1) the importance of madness; (2) a picture of the immortal soul’s life and structure; (3) an exploration of platonic love.
(1) Both Lysias and Socrates thus far have posited the corruptive and evil nature of madness. In the Great Speech, however, Socrates paints a more complex picture of madness. To be sure, it has negative influences; “but in fact the best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god” (244c). The four types of madness are later classified as gifts from Apollo, Dionysus, the Muses, and finally Aphrodite. Socrates suggests, then, that logic and reason (logos) are not sufficient for the highest modes of human life. As Graeme Nicholson notes, for example, “the barren intellectualism of Lysias’s address, devoid of. . . all forms of eros, would signify the deviant situation in which the soul as a whole was overshadowed by, subordinated to, logos” (197). Socrates himself gives us a converse example: outside of his usual intellectual confines of Athens, the Nymphs and gods inspire him to deliver his Great Speech.
(2) The importance of madness reappears in the structure of the immortal soul as a primordial, nonrational drive. Here the deference to straight logic yields to a simile: the soul is like a chariot with two horses. All gods and men have the same structure of the soul. But whereas the gods possess perfect internal harmony, men must struggle to subordinate a wild, dark horse. This dark horse represents the nonrational and impulsive side of man, which is opposed diametrically to the rationality and self-control that the good horse represents. Both in heaven and on earth, man must constantly struggle to dominate his dark side. Note that the soul’s director, or charioteer, somehow must act both on and with rationality—and more. While this toil is eternal—since the soul is immortal—the reward is also great.
In the famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of the Republic, Plato evokes a world of perfect Ideas, or Forms, that reside in a realm higher than that of man. The Phaedrus paints a similar picture. When the soul grows wings and travels through heaven, its ultimate reward is to see what lies beyond it: true Knowledge, true Justice, true Self-Control, and so on. These are the perfect Forms that life on earth can only attempt to imitate. Souls that are lucky enough—or practice enough control over the dark horse—will be able to climb high enough in heaven to catch sight of such Forms. According to Socrates, this upward voyage brings the human soul its greatest reward.
(3) Eros, then, involves seeing beauty on earth and recalling the true Beauty seen in heaven. As such, the madness of eros itself represents an essentially positive force. The real danger of eros resides in the dark horse as it rushes impulsively towards the vision of beauty—specifically, a beautiful boy. Many souls will give in to such impulses and consummate their relationships with sexual pleasure. But the truly noble soul will be able to reign in such impulses with modesty and self-control. Such a soul belongs to a philosopher, who will be rewarded by a return to heaven after three thousand years instead of ten thousand. And “there is no greater good than this that either human self-control or divine madness can offer a man” (256b).
The popular notion of a “Platonic relationship” derives from the above discussion in the Phaedrus. The phrase is often used to indicate a romantic relationship devoid of sexual intimacy. Socrates’s definition of a good pederastic relationship, however, does not exclude such intimacy on an absolute basis. So long as the man and boy treat each other respectfully and thoughtfully, occasional, controlled sexual pleasures may well be acceptable to the soul. Both parties simply must know their own limits and keep the soul’s dark horse under tight harness. Again, this relationship is a symbol of all such loves. As the inscriptions on the stone at Delphi remind Socrates: “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess.”