Thursday, June 12, 2014

Phaedrus (Part III: Cicada-Song)

Phaedrus notes that some people have criticized Lysias for writing speeches, but Socrates points out that writing speeches is in itself not something disgraceful; even legislators are technically writing speeches when they write laws. The only question is whether one writes well or badly.

Socrates comments that they apparently have plenty of time, and in this context brings up the Myth of the Cicadas. This myth serves as a bridge-myth between the two major myths of the Chariot and of Theuth, but it is difficult to interpret and to place. Most people are lulled to sleep by the cicada-song, but Socrates suggests that if the cicadas see that he and Phaedrus continue on, unlulled by their Siren-like song, they may perhaps bring a gift from the gods. Phaedrus is surprised at this suggestion, never having heard of this before, to which Socrates replies:

It is quite improper for a lover of the Muses never to have heard of such things. The story goes that these locusts were once men, before the birth of the Muses, and when the Muses were born and song appeared, some of the men were so overcome with delight that they sang and sang, forgetting food and drink, until at last unconsciously they died. From them the locust tribe afterwards arose, and they have this gift from the Muses, that from the time of their birth they need no sustenance, but sing continually, without food or drink, until they die, when they go to the Muses and report who honors each of them on earth. They tell Terpsichore of those who have honored her in dances, and make them dearer to her; they gain the favor of Erato for the poets of love, and that of the other Muses for their votaries, according to their various ways of honoring them; and to Calliope, the eldest of the Muses, and to Urania who is next to her, they make report of those who pass their lives in philosophy and who worship these Muses who are most concerned with heaven and with thought divine and human and whose music is the sweetest. So for many reasons we ought to talk and not sleep in the noontime. (259b-d)

They agree, then, to continue their discussion. They begin by looking at the question of whether good speeches require that the speaker knows the truth about the things that make up the topic of his speech. Since the ancient Greeks thought of rhetoric or oratory primarily in the context of law courts and legislative assemblies, this is the primary point on which the discussion turns, and that one that begins to relate this topic to the rest of the dialogue's argument, because these contexts are contexts in which justice and injustice are important. Socrates argues that it is incoherent to think of oratory as an art allowing people to speak on things without bothering with what is true or not. They then re-examine Lysias's speech, which provides an opportunity for reviewing the argument up to this point.

There is then an argument that the rhetors err by teaching as rhetoric what in fact could only be the preliminaries of rhetoric (such as how to organize a discourse). This and the preceding argument, of course, raise the question of what the true rhetoric is. And this will bring us to the second major myth of the Phaedrus: the Myth of Theuth.


* The point of the Myth of the Cicadas is difficult to interpret; we are dealing here with the standing problem in reading Phaedrus: the dialogue fits an extraordinary amount of complex imagery into a very short space. But structurally it seems very important; Plato quite clearly has been setting up for it since the beginning of the dialogue when he goes out of his way to note the singing of the cicadas or locusts. The story appears to be wholly original to Plato. Neoplatonist commentators seem to have interpreted the cicadas as souls, which would relate it to the Myth of the Chariot. A number of ancient writers link the cicadas to themes of sex and love, not all of which seem to be influenced by this dialogue, so the connection of cicada-song to love is likely also in view.

On the linking of the cicadas to the Muses in the myth itself, it is worth remembering (although it seems often forgotten) that Plato's Academy was itself a religious institution officially devoted to the Muses. Here Plato indicates that the Muses that particularly look over philosophy are Calliope and Urania. Calliope is usually thought of as the Muse of epic poetry -- she would have been the inspirer of Homer. She was the wisest of the Muses, the mother of Orpheus, and (perhaps importantly for the dialogue) seems to have been associated with writing, although I don't know how far back the association goes. Urania is usually regarded as the Muse of astronomy; her reference here surely ties into the discussion of the circuits of heaven in the Myth of the Chariot.

* Socrates compares the mere orator with Zeno of Elea, and his paradoxes (SEP; IEP). Plato here lists them as paradoxes in which Zeno is able to get his listeners to agree that the same things are "alike and unlike, one and many, stationary and in motion" (261d). Plato himself discusses Zeno's one-and-many paradoxes in Parmenides, in which the discussion turns on the question of likeness and unlikeness. (Aristotle discusses Zeno's paradoxes of motion in the Physics.) Given the way the discussion goes after Socrates mentions him, Socrates is doing more than just mentioning him: Socrates is using Zeno as a reference point for what we would call sophistical reasoning, and generalizing his diagnosis of Zeno's paradoxes to oratory generally.

Socrates calls Zeno the 'Eleatic Palamedes'. Palamedes was a figure from the Trojan War (not mentioned, however, in the Iliad) who was something of a super-genius. After Helen had been spirited away by Paris, the treaties among the various Greek city-states kicked in; but Odysseus did not want to honor the treaty. Agamemnon sent Palamedes to Ithaca to convince Odysseus to join in the fight against Troy. Odysseus pretended to be mad, but Palamedes -- one of the few people who could outwit the cunning man -- uncovered the pretense. Odysseus fought in the Trojan War. He also held a grudge, and devised a scheme to frame Palamedes as a traitor, which succeeded. In the Apology Socrates mentions Palamedes as an instance of a Greek hero who died due to unjust judgment. The connection of Zeno to Palamedes is usually seen as skill in arguing, but I seriously suspect that something more is going on here. In antiquity Zeno was also said to have been killed unjustly, for instance, and raising the issue of unjust death in a discussion of justice and injustice does not seem to be out of place.

to be continued


  1. Itinérante3:47 AM

    This dialogue is remarkably beautiful! I have read it twice so far but I think I need to go a third time to totally understand it...
    I am reading it in parallel with The Four Love by Lewis.

    Brandon, merci encore une fois! J'ai totalement gagné une nouvelle façon de penser,grace a vous!! Tu es une inspiration! J'attend toujours vos billets =)

  2. branemrys11:36 AM

    The Four Loves is a good match to pair with Phaedrus! And it definitely is the kind of dialogue that requires multiple readings.



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