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.