Phaedrus Summary and Analysis of Socrates' Challenge of Lysias: 234d-237b

Socrates declares that he has shared Phaedrus’s “Bacchic frenzy” and is now “in ecstasy” after the delivery of Lysias’s speech (234d). Phaedrus is skeptical about Socrates’ sincerity, but for Phaedrus, the speech is a serious matter. He asks Socrates: “Do you think that any other Greek could say anything more impressive or more complete on this same subject?” (234e). But Socrates answers the challenge and critiques the speech.

Socrates wonders whether the speech should be praised for its content rather than its style (such as its turns of phrase, clarity, and so on—its rhetorical elements). Praise of content fuels Phaedrus’s argument in favor of the speech; he believes that Lysias has omitted “nothing worth mentioning about the subject” (235b). But Socrates disagrees, suggesting that Lysias himself views style as more important than content. To support this point, Socrates points out the redundancy of the speech: it is as if “to demonstrate that [Lysias] could say the same thing in two different ways, and say it just as well both times” (235a). Socrates also refutes Phaedrus by claiming that Socrates can make a better speech himself—not with original ideas but with ideas borrowed from Sappho, or Anacreon, or some other prose writer.

When Phaedrus presses Socrates to give such a speech, however, Socrates beats a hasty retreat in several ways. First, he states that it is very difficult to make a speech that differs so much from the previous speech. He concedes, however, that Lysias makes an irrefutable argument in praising the non-lover for remaining more rational than the lover. Socrates now praises Lysias’s speech for its “skillful arrangement” as well as its more original, tangential points (236a). At this point, Phaedrus allows Socrates to “presuppose that the lover is less sane than the non-lover” in his own speech (236b). When Socrates continues to resist, Phaedrus declares that he will make Socrates speak by force if necessary. Finally, Phaedrus convinces Socrates to speak by threatening to withhold all future speeches.


This section is all about maneuvering and about speeches, though the content of the contested issues is never far from hand. Phaedrus expects Socrates to praise the content of Lysias’s speech, but Socrates’ first reaction is to marvel at the speech’s ecstatic effect on Phaedrus—and consequently on himself. One way to understand Socrates’ reaction involves the opposition between style and content. What struck Socrates about the speech was not its argument but how the argument was delivered. More precisely, Socrates was struck by how Phaedrus delivered the argument that had been written down. Alfred Geier reads, in this passage, a ravishment on Socrates’s part by Phaedrus (160-1).

As for Lysias’s speech itself, Socrates raises two points of criticism in response to Phaedrus: first, that Lysias also is more concerned with style than content; second, better arguments about love have been made elsewhere, perhaps by the poets Sappho and Anacreon, or even by prose writers. In order to corroborate this second point, Socrates claims that he can make a better speech. This speech will contain no original ideas—for the Socratic philosopher is like an “empty jar”—but derives his speech from words that he has heard from others (235d) and which have stood up to scrutiny.

In relation to this idea of the empty jar, it is interesting to recall that Socrates was willing to reject the myth of Boreas and Oreithuia by a process of demythologization. Are the words and ideas that fill his empty jar not all sorts of myths? After all, do poetry or hearsay stories contain any more truth than the myth of Boreas and Oreithuia? Indeed, even as Socrates readies to deliver his own speeches with careful logical reasoning, he will himself be forced to rely on myths to illustrate his arguments. This section leads us to think about the relationships between poetry and prose, myth and argument, and oral and written delivery of arguments.

What finally motivates Socrates to give a speech is the threat that he will no longer be allowed to hear speeches by Phaedrus. (Compare Lysistrata.) The maneuvering in this section yields insight into what motivates Socrates—or, at least, what Socrates wants Phaedrus to think about what motivates the philosopher.