Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Phaedrus (Part I: Under the Chaste Tree)

Phaedrus is one of Plato's greatest dialogues, both philosophical and literarily. Like all of Plato's greatest dialogues, it has also had an almost immeasurable influence on the history of thought. It was sometimes given the subtitle, "On the Beautiful" or "On Love and the Mind", but as Schleiermacher notes, these hardly even begin to exhaust the content of the dialogue.

Each Platonic dialogue has something unique. There are dialogues that have a clear, clean construction, unfolding things in an orderly way, like Gorgias; but Phaedrus is somewhat different. It is perhaps best described as a torrential flood of images. It has intricate scenery, elaborate symbolisms, carefully drawn myths, and it rushes from one to another in a way suggestive of the madness of love about which it speaks. Because of this, there is no way to have an easy summary of the dialogue, whose content lies as much in its tendencies, allusions, intimations, and suggestions as it does in anything more straightforward. I will therefore break up this post into several sections, and only focus on highlights.

You can read Phaedrus in English at the Perseus Project or in French at Wikisource.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)


  Phaedrus, son of Pythocles
Phaedrus was cousin to Plato's stepbrother Demos. He is also found in Protagoras and the Symposium. From what we learn of him in the dialogues, he seems to have been one of the more intellectual members of Socrates' inner circle.

  Lysias, son of Cephalus
Lysias is not actually present, but Phaedrus reads his speech. He was a major speechwriter in Athens. His father Cephalus and brother Polemarchus are characters in the Republic. A number of the speeches he wrote have survived, and are very valuable sources for understanding ancient Athenian legal practice; his most famous is probably On the Murder of Eratosthenes. Lysias's brother Polemarchus would be killed by the Thirty Tyrants; he wrote a vehement denunciation of the Thirty Tyrants for their trial after they were deposed. He was not, however, an Athenian -- his family was from Syracuse -- and therefore would not have ever been the one actually delivering his legal speeches.

The Opening Scene

Socrates opens the dialogue by asking whence Phaedrus has come and whither he is going. Phaedrus responds that he has come from speaking with Lysias and that he is now going out for a walk on the country roads. Socrates asks what the topic of conversation was, noting that it probably had something to do with speeched, and Phaedrus invites Socrates on the walk. As they walk along, Phaedrus describes Lysias's speech. It was an erotic speech, of sorts, but instead of the usual kind of love-speech, it was a seduction-speech trying to convince a beautiful youth that he should give his favors to someone who would not be an erastes, i.e., a lover-mentor. Socrates says that he will certainly hear this speech if he has to walk all the way to Megara and back again; Phaedrus responds by asking if Socrates really thinks his memory is so good that he can recite the speech from memory the way Lysias can. Socrates responds that he knows Phaedrus well enough that Phaedrus certainly did not hear the speech only once, and besides almost certainly he borrowed the written script for it so that he could learn it by heart. Which is true, of course. Phaedrus offers to paraphrase Lysias's points, and Socrates points out that this seems unnecessary given that he is hiding the speech in his left hand under his cloak, and that, much as he likes Phaedrus, he is not interested in being Phaedrus's practice-audience while Phaedrus learns how to speak like Lysias. This good-natured teasing on both sides will continue throughout the dialogue.

They decide to walk along the Ilissus river, where Boreas is said to have carried off Oreithyia, and in which they can cool their feet as they walk, until they find a good place to sit. Phaedrus asks if Socrates believes the story of Boreas, and he replies that he would be in good company if he didn't, since the Sophists come up with naturalistic explanations of the myths, but that he finds such explanations to be somewhat artificial and arbitrary, however ingenious, and there are a great many myths. He doesn't have the leisure for such things, since he is still trying to follow the Delphic inscription, Know Thyself, and if he doesn't even know himself it seems absurd to go around claiming to know other things. They come to a plane tree that provides good shade; there is also a chaste tree in full flower. The grass is thick and green, there's a good breeze, and the water to cool their feet off in, and the cicadas are singing in the trees. So Socrates lies down and Phaedrus reads Lysias's speech.

The speech, about how lovers are unsafe because they are, by their own admission, insane, does not impress Socrates, who thinks it repetitious and implies that he could do a better one. Phaedrus is delighted by this idea and insists that Socrates gives his own speech. Socrates does so with his head wrapped in his cloak, ostensibly because he doesn't want to be embarrassed by seeing Phaedrus looking at him. The speech, concise and closely reasoned, focuses on the madness aspect of love, how it overwhelms people so that they are no longer ruled by reason. Socrates prepares to leave, but Phaedrus begs him to stay, and Socrates notes that his divine sign forbade him to leave as well. He has committed sacrilege against the god Eros, and cannot leave until he has atoned for it. He must purify himself with a palinode.


* The river Ilisos ran just outside the walls of Athens; it shows up directly or indirectly as the location for a number of dialogues. Boreas, the god of the North Wind, is said to have carried off Oreithyia, an Athenian princess, after she refused him; he fathered several children on her, and the Athenians took the legend as a sign that they were related to the North Wind by marriage, thus leading them to pray to him regularly when they needed a favor done. The legend was very popular in Athens, and it was a common theme for painters. Here it provides an initial mythological picture of the madness, or mania, of love, which is a major theme of the dialogue.

* The chaste tree, as its name implies, was used at times as an anaphrodesiac, to cool the passions of love, and thus fits with the general theme in the opening of the dialogue of cooling oneself in the heat. The Greek word for it is the agnos, purportedly because it made men chaste as a lamb. However, it also was sometimes used as an aphrodesiac, so paradoxically it also stirs up sexual desire. If you think about it, though, the paradox is less severe than it might seem: the desire of those with self-restraint can grow much greater than the desire of those without it. In any case, both aspects of the tree's reputation in herbal folklore are certainly in view here.

* The basic thrust of Lysias's speech, stripped of pretty rhetoric, is that beautiful boys should give up sexual favors to people who are interested only in sex, because those who are interested in love will take over a significant portion of their lives, being inclined to jealousy, extensive demands, and excessive emotional attachments; i.e., that friendship with benefits is better for them as persons. It also takes a very naturalistic approach to the subject -- as Socrates notes, both Lysias's speech and his own speech improving on it fail to give credit to the idea that love is a movement by the god, that eros is an act of Eros, and thus are impious.

to be continued

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