Phaedrus Themes

The Polis

Socrates is a man of the city, or the polis, whether or not he agrees with its regime. Because he derives great pleasure from conversing with the citizens of Athens, he has no reason to set foot beyond the city walls. In the Phaedrus, however, Phaedrus manages to lure Socrates out to the countryside, where Socrates appears entirely out of place. Outside of the polis, nymphs and gods possess Socrates and inspire him to deliver two speeches. The setting thus plays an important role in the dialogue and may serve to demonstrate the characteristics of a particular type of madness (see “Madness” below).


At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates evokes the possibility of demythologizing the myth of Boreas and Oreithuia. Given enough time, he claims, one presumably could retell the events covered in the myth with natural and logical explanations. Nevertheles, myths in their metaphoric aspects prove useful to Socrates. Throughout the Phaedrus, Socrates refers to—and even invents—various myths for the sake of his argument. Perhaps Socrates’ uncharacteristic respect for myths and traditional theology can be attributed to the setting outside the polis. Beyond noting the narrative influence of the gods and the nymphs, however, we should ponder the role that myths play in the dialogue. Does Socrates’ reliance on myths undermine or support his philosophic speculations?

The Platonic Soul

Socrates likens the souls of men and gods to chariots led by two winged horses. The gods possess horses of entirely good breed and are thus able to fly in heaven eternally. The souls of men, however, are all burdened by the combination of a good and a bad horse: inevitably, they are dragged down to earth. Once on earth, all souls must wait ten thousand years before growing back their wings—except for the philosophers, who can sprout wings and return to heaven in three thousand years. The human soul plays a crucial role in the Phaedrus because it is linked to both eros and rhetoric; can these things keep both horses, or at least one or the other, under control? Taking a correct approach to eros and rhetoric qualifies a soul as philosophic, and such a soul is consequently granted the summum bonum of an early return to heaven.


Madness is at first criticized for its negative influence on a pederastic relationship. It makes the older man irrational and excessive and as such deprives the boy of a reliable, friendly mentor. In Socrates’ second speech, however, madness also is shown to be of utmost importance in life. There are four kinds of divine madness—deriving from Apollo, Dionysus, the Muses, and Aphrodite—which provide the soul with great benefits. The Phaedrus discusses in particular the fourth kind of madness, which is the madness of love, or eros.


Plato’s Republic treats eros as a dangerous but important part of the philosopher’s soul. Similarly in the Phaedrus, Socrates shows eros to be a divine madness that a philosopher’s soul must be able to control. In a pederastic relationship, eros arises in those who have managed to glimpse true Beauty while traveling through heaven. A boy’s beauty triggers the memory of this ideal Beauty. The soul consequently yearns to approach the boy. When this yearning is controlled modestly, the man will have fulfilled his part of the Platonic relationship and contributed to the well-being of his soul. Such is the condition of any beholder of beauty who controls his desires for the sake of his soul.


The second half of the Phaedrus explores the nature of rhetoric. Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the good and bad of rhetoric, its relationship to philosophy, its composition and structure, and finally the difference between the rhetoric of writing and that of speech. The discussion also serves as a critique of previous speeches. The topic of eros, however, for the most part is not explicitly mentioned--yet the persuasive power of rhetoric often makes use of eros. Although the discussions of rhetoric and eros converge in their implications for understanding the nature of philosophy, the apparent disjunction between the two parts of the dialogue remains a popular topic of debate.


At the end of a discussion about rhetoric, Socrates invokes the myth of Theuth to criticize writing. The problem of writing, in essence, is that it lacks a speaker, or “father.” Unlike speech, writing is made of permanent marks and cannot be changed: it can neither defend itself nor distinguish between audiences to modify its argument. As such, Socrates claims, most writing is inferior to speech. A great deal of discussion has targeted this trenchant critique of writing—for one, because it appears to undermine the very writing of the Phaedrus. For this reason, a reader might intentionally look for signs that Plato is trying to "speak" to readers through the ins and outs of the dialogue--and might discover something that Plato has left for the deepest readers to find.