Interpretations and themes

Madness and divine inspiration

In the Phaedrus, Socrates makes the rather bold claim that some of life's greatest blessings flow from madness; and he clarifies this later by noting that he is referring specifically to madness inspired by the gods. It should be noted that Phaedrus is Plato's only dialogue that shows Socrates outside the city of Athens, out in the country. It was believed that spirits and nymphs inhabited the country, and Socrates specifically points this out after the long palinode with his comment about listening to the cicadas. After originally remarking that "landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me, only people do",[Note 54] Socrates goes on to make constant remarks concerning the presence and action of the gods in general, nature gods such as Pan and the nymphs, and the Muses, in addition to the unusually explicit characterization of his own daemon. The importance of divine inspiration is demonstrated in its connection with and the importance of religion, poetry and art, and above all else, love. Eros, much like in the Symposium, is contrasted from mere desire of the pleasurable and given a higher, heavenly function. Unlike in the Ion, a dialogue dealing with madness and divine inspiration in poetry and literary criticism, madness here must go firmly hand in hand with reason, learning, and self-control in both love and art. This rather bold claim has puzzled readers and scholars of Plato's work for centuries because it clearly shows that Socrates saw genuine value in the irrational elements of human life, despite many other dialogues that show him arguing that one should pursue beauty and that wisdom is the most beautiful thing of all.

Derrida on 'pharmakon'

Jacques Derrida makes an extensive study on the untranslatable concept of what is at once a "'remedy, 'recipe,' 'drug,' 'philter,' etc.", namely, the pharmakon.[1] During this study, Derrida not only divulges the exact instances Socrates or his interlocutors make use of this concept, but also reveals the relationship between Plato and Socrates which scholars have kept in secret by questioning the validity of authorship in Plato's letters, where in the Second Letter Socrates writes: "Consider these facts and take care lest you sometimes come to repent of having now unwisely published your views. It is a very great safeguard to learn by heart instead of writing. It is impossible for what is written not to be disclosed (to me graphein all' ekmanthanein). That is the reason why I have never written anything about these things, and why there is not and will not be any written work of Plato's own (oud' estin sungramma Platonos ouden oud' estai). What are now called his are the work of a Socrates embellished and modernized (Sokratous estin kalou kai neou gegonotos). Farewell and believe. Read this letter now at once many times and burn it." (Letter II, 314)[2][3]


The pederastic relationships common to ancient Greek life are also at the fore of this dialogue. In addition to theme of love discussed in the speeches, seeming double entendres and sexual innuendo is abundant; we see the flirtation between Phaedrus and Socrates as Phaedrus encourages Socrates to make his first speech, Phaedrus makes a remark at noon-time that Socrates should not leave as the heat has not passed and it is "straight-up, as they say," Socrates wishes to know what Phaedrus is holding under his cloak, and so on. The relationships discussed in the speeches are explicitly pederastic. And yet, this is tempered in various ways; role reversals between lover and beloved are constant, as they are in the Symposium. Socrates, ostensibly the lover, exhorts Phaedrus to lead the way at various times, and the dialogue ends with Socrates and Phaedrus leaving as "friends"–equals, rather than partaking in the lover/beloved relationship inherent in Greek pederasty. In the beginning, they sit themselves under a chaste tree, which is precisely what its name suggests—often known as "monk's pepper", it was used by monks to decrease sexual urges and is believed to be an antaphrodisiac. Notably, Socrates sees the pederastic relationship as ideally devoid of sexual consummation; rather than being used for sexual pleasure, the relationship is a form of divine madness, helping both lover and beloved to grow and reach the divine.

Rhetoric, philosophy, and art

The Phaedrus also gives us much in the way of explaining how art should be practiced. The discussion of rhetoric, the proper practice of which is found to actually be philosophy, has many similarities with Socrates's role as a "midwife of the soul" in the Theaetetus; the dialectician, as described, is particularly resonant. To practice the art, one must have a grasp of the truth and a detailed understanding of the soul in order to properly persuade. Moreover, one must have an idea of what is good or bad for the soul and, as a result, know what the soul should be persuaded towards. To have mastered the tools of an art is not to have mastered the art itself, but only its preliminaries. This is much like the person who claims to have mastered harmony after learning the highest and lowest notes of the lyre. To practice an art, one must know what that art is for and what it can help one achieve.

The role of divine inspiration in philosophy must also be considered; the philosopher is struck with the fourth kind of madness, that of love, and it is this divine inspiration that leads him and his beloved towards the good—but only when tempered with self-control.

Writing, examined separately but ultimately equated with philosophy and rhetoric, is somewhat deprecated; it is stated that writing can do little but remind those who already know, somewhat reminiscent of the archetypical Zen master's admonishment that "those who know, know". Unlike dialectic and rhetoric, writing cannot be tailored to specific situations or students; the writer does not have the luxury of examining his reader's soul in order to determine the proper way to persuade. When attacked it cannot defend itself, and is unable to answer questions or refute criticism. As such, the philosopher uses writing "for the sake of amusing himself" and other similar things rather than for teaching others. A writer, then, is only a philosopher when he can himself argue that his writing is of little worth, among other requirements.

This final critique of writing with which the dialogue concludes seems to be one of the more interesting facets of the conversation for those who seek to interpret Plato in general; Plato, of course, comes down to us through his numerous written works, and philosophy today is concerned almost purely with the reading and writing of written texts. It seems proper to recall that Plato's ever-present protagonist and ideal man, Socrates, fits Plato's description of the dialectician perfectly, and never wrote a thing.

There is an echo of this point of view in Plato's Seventh Epistle (Letter), wherein Plato says not to write down things of importance. [Note 55]

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