Phaedrus Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is the relationship between love (eros) and rhetoric in the Phaedrus? How does the dialogue formally link the two themes? Consider, for example, the transition that occurs after Socrates' second speech.

    Suggested Answer
    This is perhaps the most difficult of all questions concerning the Phaedrus. It is almost begging the question to say that philosophy serves as a bridge between eros and rhetoric. But since the philosopher's position with regards to oration remains ambiguous, it is not entirely clear why the topic of rhetoric should be treated so extensively. The transitional material between the treatments of eros and rhetoric discusses sophistry and appears almost arbitrary. Does this serve as indication of a disjunction between the two parts of the dialogue—or the two horses of the Platonic soul? If so, it seems unfair to associate one of the topics with reason and the other with passion. Instead, consider that eros and rhetoric have in common something about particulars rather than universals.

  2. 2

    What role do myths play in the Phaedrus? Do Socrates' views on myths differ between the beginning (229c-230a) and the end (275b-c)? Does his reliance on myths undermine his speculations on philosophy?

    Suggested Answer
    Whereas Socrates presents himself as skeptical of myths at the beginning, by the end he is willing to use any myth, so long as it contains truth. This does not necessarily undermine his philosophic speculations, insofar as philosophy sometimes involves a touch of madness or requires something other than pure reason. Mythmaking is a neutral art that can lead either to truth or falsehood depending on the degree to which a myth is taken literally or metaphorically.

  3. 3

    Socrates' criticism of Lysias's speech makes a rough distinction between style and content (234e-235b). Socrates suggests that Lysias was concerned more with style, since his arguments seem haphazard rather than presented in a logical succession. To what extent are Socrates' own speeches logical? Do his arguments ever seem contrived?

    Suggested Answer
    Consider that Socrates takes great care to construct his speech logically, but he proceeds to deny the content of that speech. Moreover, Socrates relies heavily on myth at one point in the Phaedrus--how can a myth be used in a logical argument?

  4. 4

    How wise is Socrates? Do you believe his claim that he really knows very little—that he is like an "empty jar" (235d)? Does he appear to hide greater wisdom anywhere in the Phaedrus?

    Suggested Answer
    This question can be explored in relation to any number of Plato's dialogues. His claim of ignorance is justly called the Socratic irony, given that Socrates seems to have a lot of valuable insight if one reads carefully.

  5. 5

    What is the reasoning behind Socrates' critique of writing? What might be an example of writing that Socrates would deem worthy of a good dialectician? What about the Phaedrus?

    Suggested Answer
    This question could be approached from a historical perspective (see "A Note on the Technology of Writing"). Other answers would require creativity but may be very rewarding. Unless one believes that Plato wrote the Socratic dialogues for amusement, following the argument that this is the only legitimate purpose of philosophic writing, the Phaedrus would not qualify as "good" writing. But is this argument valid? See the analysis section on writing in this ClassicNote.

  6. 6

    Socrates mentions four kinds of madness in the dialogue, those which derive from Apollo, Dionysus, the Muses, and Aphrodite. The fourth kind is discussed explicitly. Does the dialogue contain examples of the other kinds of madness? Can you think of other texts where Socrates' arguments about the importance of madness might hold true?

    Suggested Answer
    Prophetic madness seems to be absent from the Phaedrus. Socrates benefits, however, from the inspiration of the Muses and Nymphs that is also Dionysiac. Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Ajax, and Euripedes' The Bacchae all hinge on either prophecy or madness.

  7. 7

    In the discussion of rhetoric, Socrates downplays the utility of books on rhetoric. Merely knowing rhetorical devices, he suggests, have limited use. To what extent is this proven or disproven by the Phaedrus itself?

    Suggested Answer
    The Socratic argument is that such devices can be useful when one understands true rhetoric, or dialectic. But one must know this art in order to apply the devices properly.

  8. 8

    Consider the relationship of philosophy to eros and rhetoric. Does Socrates present philosophy as a guiding principle or as something that must be acquired? Does the approach to eros and rhetoric define philosophy, or vice versa?

    Suggested Answer
    Taking the correct approach to eros and rhetoric is a sign of a philosophic soul. But this is not the same as having wisdom, a central goal of philosophy. Answering such a question ultimately involves describing what the soul is and what it seeks.

  9. 9

    To what extent is the discussion of love in the Phaedrus restricted to pederastic relationships? Discuss how the arguments presented by Lysias or Socrates would fit other types of romantic relationships.

    Suggested Answer
    Lysias's speech as well as Socrates' first speech addresses the specific dynamics of pederastic relationships, though the principles seem applicable to some other relationships. Socrates' second speech works in a more universal framework, especially considering how any person might trigger a recollection of true Beauty.

  10. 10

    What is the relationship between rhetoric, dialectic, and philosophy?

    Suggested Answer
    Consider these things as arts or methods with different relationships to truth, opinion, certainties, and probabilities.