Phaedrus Summary and Analysis of Discussion of Rhetoric, Part I: 259e-266c

Socrates wonders whether a good and noble speech must address the truth of the issue at hand. Phaedrus has heard that a good speech is merely a matter of seeming good—and that persuasion is more important than truth. Socrates proposes that they investigate this last notion.

Say, for example, that Socrates were trying to convince someone to fight on horseback. And say that Socrates knew nothing about horses except that Phaedrus believes they are tame and have long ears. If Socrates were to make a speech praising donkeys—calling them horses—and advised Phaedrus to employ donkeys at home and at war, that would be evidently ridiculous. Socrates and Phaedrus thus decide that it would better to be “ridiculous and a friend” than “clever and an enemy” (260c). But when a rhetorician who cannot distinguish between good and bad advises a city that also knows no better, he is clearly sowing rhetorical seeds for a “crop of really poor harvest” (260d).

Socrates notes that some may defend the art of speaking in the following manner: the speaker does not force anyone to learn speechmaking without knowing the truth; on the contrary, he advises others to come to him only after they have mastered the truth—for only then will they be able to convince others of the truth. Phaedrus wonders whether this is a fair defense. Socrates replies by evoking yet another argument: such a defense testifies to “not an art but an artless practice.” For “as the Spartan said, there is no genuine art of speaking without a grasp of truth, and there never will be” (260e). Socrates invokes “noble creatures” to convince Phaedrus that “unless he pursues philosophy properly he will never be able to make a proper speech on any subject” (261a).

Through a series of questions and answers, Socrates leads Phaedrus to deduce several points. (1) Rhetorical art in general is a way of “directing the soul by means of speech” (261a). (2) Rhetoric involves the same art of speaking, be the subject important or trivial, public or private. (3) Artful speakers can take both sides of an argument by making things seem similar or dissimilar. (4) To know the similar and dissimilar, one must know the truth about each thing one discusses. (5) “Therefore,” Socrates concludes, “the art of a speaker who doesn’t know the truth and chases opinions instead is likely to be a ridiculous thing—not an art at all” (262c).

The two men now turn to Lysias’s speech for examples of the “artful and the artless” (262c). But first, Socrates remarks that he himself does not possess any art of speaking, for his speeches contain an example of deception notwithstanding knowledge of truth. That said, the two proceed to examine how Lysias writes artlessly. Socrates begins by establishing two points. (1) Some words like “iron” are clear; others like “just” are more ambiguous. Audiences are more likely deceived—and rhetoric has greater power—with the ambiguous words or subjects. (2) The artful speaker must know the “class to which whatever he is about to discuss belongs” (263c).

Thus, Socrates asks to which class love belongs—the clear or the ambiguous? Phaedrus claims that love belongs to the latter, since Socrates was able to speak of love first as harmful and then as the greatest good. Socrates proceeds to point out that he defined love clearly at the beginning of his speech. He then asks:

Did Lysias, too, at the start of his love-speech, compel us to assume that love is the single thing that he himself wanted it to be? Did he then complete his speech by arranging everything in relation to that? (236d-e)

Socrates suggests that Lysias began with his conclusion and put together the rest of the speech haphazardly. In this sense, Lysias’s speech does not fit the essential model of a “living creature” with head, body, and legs in the proper places (246c). The speech is like the epigram on Midas’s tomb, in which any line can be read as the first line. But this argument has confused and upset Phaedrus, so Socrates turns to his own speeches.

Socrates points out that one speech advocated in favor of the lover, while the other was in favor of the non-lover. He then paraphrases what was said previously: there are two types of madness, one human and one divine, and of divine madness, there are four kinds, inspired by the prophetic Apollo, the mystic Dionysus, the poetic Muses, and the lovely Aphrodite—the fourth being the best. Treating his two speeches together, Socrates wonders: “How was the speech able to progress from censure to praise?” (265c). Given that “Fortune’s guidance” was involved, Socrates remarks that the answer holds two devices whose nature would be “quite wonderful to grasp by means of a systematic art” (265c-d).

The first consists of “seeing together things that are scattered . . . and collecting them into one kind” (265d). This allows one to establish a clear framework of the subject. The second, in turn, consists of “cut[ing] up each kind according to its species along its natural joints” (265e). So long as the divisions are made naturally and appropriately, they serve as analytical tools. In effect, Socrates’ speech was cut into two parts. The first one cut the left-hand part, which led to the discovery of the left-hand part of madness (the dark side). And the second one, correspondingly, cut the right-hand part, which led to the right-hand part of madness (the divine side). Socrates praises this ability to “discer[n] a single thing that is also by nature capable of encompassing many” and names it “dialectic” (266b-c). Phaedrus agrees with Socrates on the point that rhetoricians like Thrasymachus do not possess the skill of dialectic.


Phaedrus has been influenced by the sophistic view of rhetoric, in which persuasion is valued over truth. Socrates challenges this sophistic argument with a social argument that expresses the importance of philosophic reasoning. If an orator speaks falsely but convincingly, his speech could lead people or a whole city down a dangerous path. Even if the orator harbors no negative intentions, it is dangerous to practice rhetoric without knowing the truth. Socrates claims, therefore, that sophistic rhetoric is “not an art but an artless practice.”

True rhetoric, from a philosophic point of view, directs the soul of both speaker and listener. Insofar as the speaker bears social responsibility for his speech, the true art of rhetoric must be grounded in philosophy—ideally by knowledge, but at minimum with respect for the differences among truth, opinion, and falsehood. A speech must aim to guide souls truthfully, and only a philosopher knows the art of grasping truth in a systematic way. This art can be understood as collecting and dividing—or a particular kind of synthesis, summary, and analysis. For any given subject, a full rhetoric of the subject must first sum up all the different possible meanings, observations, and arguments pertaining to the subject; then, these must be organized or divided along reasonable and natural lines, prioritizing some elements and subordinating others.

How does the philosopher’s rhetoric compare to the speeches of Lysias and Socrates so far? In the hustle and bustle of life, does a lover or a beloved have time to engage in a philosophic rhetoric? At what point must someone give up on philosophical completeness and simply make the best choice among the available alternatives, perceived incompletely and perhaps incorrectly?

Socrates finds fault in the haphazard construction of Lysias’s argument. Like the epigram on Midas’s tomb, various points of Lysias’s speech could be rearranged without really changing the argument as a whole. Perhaps this serves to illustrate how Lysias’s analysis fails to follow the “natural” lines that divide a well-structured argument. On the contrary, Lysias defined love at the beginning and arranged his speech in a sophistic manner. Again, a concern for style without much regard for content cannot characterize the art of speaking well.

Although Socrates notes that he also defined love at the beginning of his speech, he divided his arguments into two parts. And by referring to his two speeches as one, Socrates suggests that his arguments did not contradict themselves but followed a dialectic progression. In a mirror image of the Platonic soul, Socrates’ first speech addressed the dark side of madness, while his second speech addressed the divine side. His discussion on eros thus encompasses not only both sides of the argument but also both sides of the soul. As such, it reflects the truth of the subject as a whole and guides the soul in a philosophic manner. Other rhetoricians, such as Thrasymachus (who appears in the Republic), as Socrates and Phaedrus agree, do not possess such a skill of dialectic.

But does this mean that Socrates, who so often claims not to have knowledge, knows enough about love and the soul to feel confident in his speeches? Socrates is not himself on this day, being apolis. In fact, he has been able to articulate his speeches only with “Fortune’s guidance” (265c) and with the nagging of his daemon.

Has eros now been forgotten? Earlier in the dialogue, Socrates made a rudimentary distinction between style and content (234e-235a). Whereas his speeches responded to the content of Lysias’s speech, the discussion of the dialogue has now turned to style. The relationship between content and style is a question that Socrates continues to develop in the ensuing discussion of rhetoric. Was the earlier material on eros just a warm-up for this philosophical material, or is eros central to both rhetoric and philosophy in such a way that eros was the perfect prelude to the second half of the dialogue?