Socrates invokes the Muses at the beginning of his speech. The speech tells the story of a boy or youth who had many male lovers. One of these men persuaded the boy that “he was not in love, though he loved the lad no less than others” (237b). The man made a speech to convince the boy to give his favors to the non-lover rather than the lover.
The speaker begins by noting the importance of understanding the “true nature of a particular subject"—for otherwise the inquiry will end up in conflict and confusion (237c). In the case of the boy and the non-lover, the speaker asserts that they must first define love and its effects. Love is a kind of desire. Yet men who are not in love also desire the beautiful. To distinguish a man who is in love from a man who is not, then, one must realize the two principles that rule men: the “inborn desire for pleasures” and the “acquired judgment that pursues what is best” (237d). When the former is in control, the state is called “outrageousness” (hubris). When the latter takes command, the state is called “being in your right mind” (sophrosune) (237e-238a). “Outrageousness” has several names, among them the desire for food (gluttony) and the desire for drink. But the desire that is the most powerful—the one that has led to this very speech—is the desire to “take pleasure in beauty”: eros (238c).
At this point, Socrates breaks off his speech and notes that he is “in the grip of something divine” (238c). He attributes his peculiar flow of words to Socrates’ physical location:
There’s something really divine about this place, so don’t be surprised if I’m quite taken by the Nymphs’ madness as I go on with the speech. I’m on the edge of speaking in dithyrambs as it is. (238c-d)
Socrates resigns himself to the divine force and continues his speech.
The speaker next asks rhetorically, “What benefit or harm is likely to come from the lover or the non-lover to the boy who gives him favors?” (238e). Since the lover is driven by outrageous desire, he will surely seek what is most pleasurable in his boyfriend. Such a “sick man” takes pleasure in the weaker rather than the stronger, so the boy will necessarily be weaker—or the man will try to make him weaker. By the same token, the man will delight in the boy’s mental defects rather than his strengths, and the man’s jealousy will steer the boy away from positive influences. Such a man will serve no use as mentor or friend, since he will retard rather than develop the boy’s intellectual development. As for the boy’s physical development, the same can be said: the man will prefer a soft, unmanly boy to one over whom he can wield total control. Furthermore, the man will also prefer a boy lacking family and possessions, so that he can continue to “pluc[k] the sweet fruit” from the powerless and dependent boy (240a).
The lover thus becomes basically an obsessive and controlling lecher whose company is entirely vile and distasteful. In this sense, the lover is worse than a flatterer or mistress—who at least bring some immediate pleasure. And while the lover’s love itself is “harmful and disgusting,” the love will also eventually fade (240e). Afterwards, the boy will be forced to chase after his undelivered rewards, angry that he has given favors to a lover rather than a non-lover. The lover has been “harmful to his property, harmful to his physical fitness, and absolutely devastating to the cultivation of his soul, which truly is ... the most valuable thing to gods and men” (241c). The speaker concludes: “Do wolves love lambs? That’s how lovers befriend a boy!” (241d). Socrates thus concludes his first speech, stating that Phaedrus will have to “accept this as the end of the speech” (241d).
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. Eros can be a form of madness in which the inborn desire for beauty overwhelms one’s sense of morality and control in pursuing what is best (i.e., hubris overwhelms sophrosune). Such madness destroys both the soul and body of the boy and will bring him no benefits. Note that in general, hubris could overwhelm sophrosune with regard to anything that a person desires as beautiful.
Socrates does not go on to argue the merits of the non-lover, since such an argument would put him in Lysias’s position as seducer. Readers at this point should want to know more about how the desire for the good, or even the desire for the beautiful, differs from the outrageous eros of the lover. But Socrates has engaged in competition with Lysias as an orator rather than as a philosopher. As Nehamas and Woodruff note, Socrates “produces a counter-epideictic speech and makes an implicit claim to have beaten the orator at his own game.” This makes for a “peculiar situation, since Lysias is one of the great orators of the time, while Socrates officially disavows any knowledge of rhetoric” (xviii).
To justify the quality of his speech, Socrates evokes the divine forces of the Nymphs, saying that they have possessed him with speech. As he breaks off mid-speech, he claims to be “on the edge of speaking in dithyrambs” (238d). A dithyramb was originally a choral poem sung in the worship of Dionysus or Bacchus—the god of fertility and wine, who often inspires madness. In The Birth of Tragedy, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described Dionysian forces of madness as antithetical to the Socratic or Apollonian embodiment of reason. In what light, then, should we see or trust Socrates’ putatively divinely-inspired speech?
The question has inspired much debate in Phaedrus scholarship. As Graeme Nicholson notes, some have seen in Socrates’ speech a “real concern for the welfare, especially the moral welfare, of the boy,” whereas others have seen Socrates as “repressing his own eros, and, owing to self-hate, painting eros in ugly colors” (120-1). It is also important to remember that we owe this depiction of Socrates to Plato. At this point, as at so many other points throughout the Phaedrus, the reader is invited to consider why Plato introduces such ambiguities and thematic layers in the dialogue.