Socrates meets Phaedrus while walking through the streets of Athens. Pheadrus says that he has been sitting all morning with Lysias, the son of Cephalus, and now desires to talk a walk outside the city walls. Socrates asks how Phaedrus spent his time with Lysias. Apparently, Phaedrus and other men listened to Lysias deliver a speech on love. Phaedrus recounts: “Lysias argues that it is better to give your favors to someone who does not love you than to someone who does” (227c).
Socrates expresses a keen interest in hearing Lysias’s speech. But Phaedrus claims that “a mere dilettante” like himself could never recite the speech in a manner worthy of Lysias—much less from memory (227d). Socrates retorts that he knows Phaedrus well enough to see through this pretense. According to Socrates’ conjecture, Phaedrus asked Lysias to repeat his speech many times and even read over Lysias’s text in order to commit it to memory. He then set out for the country, where he could practice reciting the speech. Along the way, he happened to meet Socrates. Although Phaedrus desperately wanted to recite the speech, he feigned reluctance coyly.
Without commenting directly on this conjecture, Phaedrus agrees to let Socrates hear the speech. He maintains, however, that he really did not memorize the speech verbatim. He thus proposes to summarize the “general sense,” listing all the arguments in “proper order” (228d). But once again, Socrates sees through Phaedrus’s deception. Noticing an object in Phaedrus’s left hand, Socrates surmises that Phaedrus has a copy of the original speech and merely wanted to practice his own speechmaking. The truth now revealed, the two set off to find a quiet spot to read.
As they approach a plane tree on the banks of the river Ilisus, Phaedrus asks Socrates whether he believes in the legend of Boreas and Oreithuia—which allegedly took place on the banks of the Ilisus. Socrates declares that “it would not be out of place for [him] to reject it, as [the] intellectuals do” (229c). But he consequently would have to find ingenious ways to explain the legend’s many fantastic aspects in a rational manner. Such demythologization would take a long time. And Socrates claims that he has no time to waste over such matters, since he is still unable to know himself—“and it seems ... ridiculous to look into other things before [he has] understood that” (230a).
In the meantime, the two have reached the plane tree. Socrates expresses a deep appreciation for the loveliness of their natural surroundings, to which Phaedrus responds that Socrates appears “totally out of place” (230c)—for Socrates habitually stays within the city, where he can learn from people. Only with the prospect of hearing Lysias’s speech has he been lured into stepping outside the city walls.
Socrates thrives in the culture of the city—in ancient Greek, the polis. As a philosopher, he devotes himself to talking to various people in Athens and learning from them (230d). He always stays in the city and thus appears “totally out of place” on the rare occasion that he sets foot outside it (230c). Apart from the Phaedrus, the only Platonic dialogue that features Socrates leaving the city is the Republic. But even in the Republic, Socrates would not have needed to step foot outside the city walls to visit the Athenian port Piraeus (Nehamas and Woodruff, x). The Phaedrus, then, features a unique and strange setting.
Equally strange is the fact that Socrates leaves the city for a speech. Plato portrays Socrates consistently as one who neither enjoys nor practices long speeches. Indeed, Socrates’ preferred mode of discourse—the “Socratic method”—involves a series of short questions and answers known as elenchus. Yet, in the Phaedrus, the prospect of hearing Lysias’s speech reduces Socrates to a sort of “hungry animal” who will follow Phaedrus’s copy of the speech anywhere (230e). As Alfred Geier notes, “there is a touch of madness in Socrates here” (145). What has come over him?
Socrates explains that Phaedrus has “found a potion to charm [him] into leaving” (230d). The word translated as “potion” is the ancient Greek pharmakon, which can refer either to a medicine or a poison. This pharmakon is none other than Lysias’s speech in writing. Taking this fact as starting point, the French critic and philosopher Jacques Derrida has expounded a reading of the Phaedrus in his influential essay “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Derrida and other historical readings aside, however, the Phaedrus does not make clear why a speech on love should represent such a powerful attraction for Socrates. Even so, once Socrates leaves the city, his touch of madness acquires a clear etiology.
We have seen that Socrates is a man of the city or polis. In ancient Greek culture, the culture of the polis is often associated thematically with rationality and order—particularly when opposed to madness outside the city (apolis). Euripides’s Bacchae represents one such example, and the Phaedrus follows in the tradition. Outside the city, Socrates will be inhabited by gods and nymphs to produce elaborate speeches of his own. Moreover, his daimonion, or small demon, which we see occasionally in other dialogues, will appear to counsel him against returning prematurely to the city (242c).
The final point of note in the introduction invokes the famous ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself.” When Socrates claims that he has no time to explain away the myth of Boreas and Oreithuia, he invokes the inscription on the stone at Delphi: on one side is written, “Know thyself”; the other side reads “Nothing in excess.” The two sides of the stone are very close to suggesting a duality between reason and madness, or polis and apolis. In addition to eros and rhetoric, the Phaedrus also treats the theme of madness and thus may reveal the benefits of some excess—notwithstanding the oxymoronic nature of the phrase.