Phaedrus Summary and Analysis of Socrates' Recantation: 241d-243e

Phaedrus objects to the abrupt conclusion of Socrates’ speech, having thought that Socrates was about to explore the merits of the non-lover. Socrates explains, however, that he stopped in order to prevent himself from getting too carried away. He says to Phaedrus: “Don’t you realize that the Nymphs to whom you so cleverly exposed me will take complete possession of me?” (241e). It should suffice to say that every disadvantage of the lover has its corresponding advantage in the non-lover. Socrates fears that his speech may become excessively “epic,” so he sets out to cross the river on the path back to Athens.

Phaedrus holds Socrates back, suggesting that it would be better to wait for the noontime heat to pass. Abruptly, Socrates praises Phaedrus’s speechmaking abilities and declares that Phaedrus has inspired to him to produce a second speech after all. As he was about to cross the river, Socrates explains, he saw a “familiar divine sign” (his daimonion): “whenever it occurs, [it] holds me back from something I was about to do” (242c). The sign has made Socrates understand that he has committed an offense against the gods. Both his own speech and Lysias’s speech were “foolish, and close to being impious” (242d).

Love, after all, is Aphrodite’s son—one of the gods. And “if Love is a god or something divine ... he can’t be bad in any way” (242e). Socrates must therefore correct his previous speech, in which he vilified love. He explains that he will use an “ancient rite of purification”: when Stesichorus was blinded for speaking ill of Helen, he composed a poem to retract his earlier statement (i.e., a Palinode). So too will Socrates compose a Palinode to Love. He will wash out the bitterness of the previous speech (for if it were to be heard by a noble man in love, it would make Socrates seem vulgar and ignorant). All of this is music to the ears of Phaedrus, who is eager to hear a second speech and promises to make Lysias compose a speech on the same subject.


Socrates, it turns out, has proved to be a skillful rhetorician. Having completed a speech favoring the non-lover, Socrates now will retract his earlier statement and turn to argue the exact opposite. The nymphs and their divine madness play not only a vital but a deeply ambiguous role in Socrates’ speeches: at first, they inspire Socrates to argue skillfully against the lover; now, they will help him deliver his second speech on the importance of eros, which seems to favor the lover.

The reader might have expected that Socrates was going to give his second speech on the merits of the non-lover, but he is going to correct his first speech instead. This leads us to think about whether the initial division between lover and non-lover was fair after all. Would not it be best for someone to desire and pursue the good—and also to be in love with it? Something seems inadequate in the non-lover who holds himself back. Maybe there are two kinds of lovers: one for which eros is outrageous and damaging, and one for which eros is not outrageous but suited to its object.

While the appearance of Socrates’ daemon is fitting to the setting of the countryside—where Socrates finds himself apolis and entirely out of place—the dialogue offers no particular reason for its mysterious warning. Maybe Phaedrus is the kind of person who would draw damaging conclusions from a speech against love, so love must be re-mythologized in a way that will help Phaedrus make good decisions. Perhaps this is why Socrates draws on the story of Stesichorus in order to “purify” himself in the correct manner. Myths are useful, and while one may find it best to reject a particular myth as untrue on its face, for various reasons it may not be worth one’s time to do so.