The dialogue consists of a series of three speeches on the topic of love that serve as a metaphor for the discussion of the proper use of rhetoric. They encompass discussions of the soul, madness, divine inspiration, and the practice and mastery of an art.

As they walk out into the countryside, Socrates tries to convince Phaedrus to repeat the speech of Lysias which he has just heard. Phaedrus makes several excuses, but Socrates suspects strongly that Phaedrus has a copy of the speech with him. Saying that while Lysias is present, he would never allow himself to be used as a training partner for Phaedrus to practice his own speech-making on, he asks Phaedrus to expose what he is holding under his cloak. Phaedrus gives in and agrees to perform Lysias' speech.[Note 2]

Lysias' speech (230e–235e)

Phaedrus and Socrates walk through a stream and find a seat in the shade, and Phaedrus commences to repeat Lysias' speech. Beginning with "You understand, then, my situation: I've told you how good it would be for us in my opinion, if this worked out",[Note 3] the speech proceeds to explain all the reasons why it is better to give your favor to a non-lover rather than a true lover. Friendship with a non-lover, he says, demonstrates objectivity and prudence; it doesn't create gossip when you are seen together; it doesn't involve jealousy; and it allows for a much larger pool of possible partners. You will not be giving your favor to someone who is "more sick than sound in the head" and is not thinking straight, overcome by love. He explains that it is best to give your favor to one who can best return it, rather than one who needs it most. He concludes by stating that he thinks the speech is long enough, and the listener is welcome to ask any questions if something has been left out.

Socrates, attempting to flatter Phaedrus, responds that he is in ecstasy and that it is all Phaedrus' doing. Socrates comments that as the speech seemed to make Phaedrus radiant, he is sure that Phaedrus understands these things better than he does himself, and that he cannot help follow Phaedrus' lead into his Bacchic frenzy. Phaedrus picks up on Socrates' subtle sarcasm and asks Socrates not to joke.[Note 4]

Socrates retorts that he is still in awe, and claims to be able to make an even better speech than Lysias on the same subject.[Note 5]

Phaedrus and Socrates both note how anyone would consider Socrates a foreigner in the countryside, and Socrates attributes this fault to his love of learning which "trees and open country won't teach," while "men in the town" will. Socrates then proceeds to give Phaedrus credit for leading him out of his native land: "Yet you seem to have discovered a drug for getting me out (dokei moi tes emes exodou to pharmakon heurekenai). A hungry animal can be driven by dangling a carrot or a bit of greenstuff in front of it; similarly if you proffer me speeches bound in books (en bibliois) I don't doubt you can cart me all around Attica, and anywhere else you please."[Note 3]

First speech of Socrates (237a–241d)

When Phaedrus begs to hear it however, Socrates refuses to give the speech. Phaedrus warns him that he is younger and stronger, and Socrates should "take his meaning" and "stop playing hard to get".[Note 6] Finally, after Phaedrus swears on the plane tree that he will never recite another speech for Socrates if Socrates refuses, Socrates, covering his head, consents.[Note 7]

Socrates, rather than simply listing reasons as Lysias had done, begins by explaining that while all men desire beauty, some are in love and some are not. We are all ruled, he says, by two principles: one is our inborn desire for pleasure, and the other is our acquired judgment that pursues what is best (237d). Following your judgment is "being in your right mind", while following desire towards pleasure without reason is "outrage" (hubris).[Note 8]

Following different desires leads to different things; one who follows his desire for food is a glutton, and so on. The desire to take pleasure in beauty, reinforced by the kindred beauty in human bodies, is called Eros.[Note 9]

Remarking that he is in the grip of something divine, and may soon be overtaken by the madness of the nymphs in this place,[Note 10] he goes on.

The problem, he explains, is that one overcome with this desire will want to turn his boy into whatever is most pleasing to himself, rather than what is best for the boy.[Note 11] The boy's intellectual progress will be stifled, his physical condition will suffer,[Note 12] the lover will not wish the boy to mature and take a family,[Note 13] all because the lover is shaping him out of desire for pleasure rather than what is best. At some point, "right-minded reason" will take the place of "the madness of love",[Note 14] and the lover's oaths and promises to his boy will be broken.

Phaedrus believes that one of the greatest goods given is the relationship between lover and boy. This relationship brings guidance and love into the boy’s life. Because the boy has a lover as such a valuable role model, he is on his best behavior to not get caught in something shameful. To get caught in something shameful would be like letting down his lover, therefore the boy is consistently acting his best. With the absence of shame makes room for a sense of pride to come in; pride from the wealthy feeling of impressing one's own lover. Impressing one's own lover brings more learning and guidance into the boy's life.

The non-lover, he concludes, will do none of this, always ruled by judgment rather than desire for pleasure. Socrates, fearing that the nymphs will take complete control of him if he continues, states that he is going to leave before Phaedrus makes him "do something even worse".[Note 15]

However, just before Socrates is about to leave, he is stopped by the "familiar divine sign", his daemon, which always occurs and only just before Socrates is about to do something he should not. A voice "from this very spot" forbids Socrates to leave before he makes atonement for some offense to the gods. Socrates then admits that he thought both of the preceding speeches were terrible, saying Lysias' repeated itself numerous times, seemed uninterested in its subject, and seemed to be showing off. Socrates states that he is a "seer". While he is not very good at it, he is good enough for his purposes, and he recognizes what his offense has been: if love is a god or something divine, as he and Phaedrus both agree he is, he cannot be bad, as the previous speeches have portrayed him.[Note 16] Socrates, baring his head, vows to undergo a rite of purification as a follower of the Muses, and proceeds to give a speech praising the lover.[Note 17]

Second speech of Socrates (244a–257b)

Madness (244a–245c)

Socrates begins by discussing madness. If madness is all bad, then the preceding speeches would have been correct, but in actuality, madness given as a gift of the gods provides us with some of the best things we have.[Note 18] There are, in fact, several kinds of divine madness (theia mania), of which he cites four examples:

  1. From Apollo, the gift of prophecy;
  2. From Dionysus, the mystic rites and relief from present hardship;
  3. From the Muses, poetry;
  4. From Aphrodite, love.

As they must show that the madness of love is, indeed, sent by a god to benefit the lover and beloved in order to disprove the preceding speeches, Socrates embarks on a proof of the divine origin of this fourth sort of madness. It is a proof, he says, that will convince "the wise if not the clever".[Note 19]

The soul (245c–249d)

He begins by briefly proving the immortality of the soul. A soul is always in motion and as a self-mover has no beginning. A self-mover is itself the source of everything else that moves. So, by the same token, it cannot be destroyed. Bodily objects moved from the outside have no soul, while those that move from within have a soul. Moving from within, all souls are self-movers, and hence their immortality is necessary.[Note 20]

Then begins the famous Chariot allegory, called by R. Hackworth the centrepiece of Phaedrus, and the famous and moving account of the vision, fall and incarnation of the soul. A soul, says Socrates, is like the "natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer". While the gods have two good horses, everyone else has a mixture: one is beautiful and good, while the other is neither.[Note 21]

As souls are immortal, those lacking bodies patrol all of heaven so long as their wings are in perfect condition. When a soul sheds its wings, it comes to earth and takes on an earthly body which then seems to move itself.[Note 22] These wings lift up heavy things to where the gods dwell, and are nourished and grow in the presence of the wisdom, goodness, and beauty of the divine. However, foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear.[Note 23]

In heaven, he explains, there is a procession led by Zeus, who looks after everything and puts things in order. All the gods, except for Hestia, follow Zeus in this procession. While the chariots of the gods are balanced and easier to control, other charioteers must struggle with their bad horse, which will drag them down to earth if it has not been properly trained.[Note 24] As the procession works its way upward, it eventually makes it up to the high ridge of heaven, where the gods take their stands, are taken in a circular motion and gaze at all that is beyond heaven.[Note 25]

What is outside of heaven, says Socrates, is quite difficult to describe, lacking color, shape, or solidity, as it is the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to intelligence.[Note 26] The gods delight in these things and are nourished. Feeling wonderful, they are taken around until they make a complete circle. On the way they are able to see Justice, Self-control, Knowledge, and other things as they are in themselves, unchanging. When they have seen all things and feasted on them, coming all the way around, they sink back down inside heaven.[Note 27]

The immortal souls that follow the gods most closely are able to just barely raise their chariots up to the rim and look out on Reality. They see some things and miss others, having to deal with their horses; they rise and fall at varying times. Other souls, while straining to keep up, are unable to rise, and in noisy, sweaty discord they leave uninitiated, not having seen reality. Where they go after is then dependent on their own opinions, rather than the truth. Any soul that catches sight of any true thing is granted another circuit where it can see more; eventually, all souls fall back to earth. Those that have been initiated are put into varying human incarnations, depending on how much they have seen; those made into philosophers have seen the most, while kings, statesmen, doctors, prophets, poets, manual laborers, sophists, and tyrants follow respectively.[Note 28]

Souls then begin cycles of reincarnation. It generally takes 10,000 years for a soul to grow its wings and return to where it came, but philosophers, after having chosen such a life three times in a row, grow their wings and return after only 3,000 years. This is because they have seen the most and always keep its memory as close as possible, and philosophers maintain the highest level of initiation. They ignore human concerns and are drawn towards the divine. While ordinary people rebuke them for this, they are unaware that the lover of wisdom is possessed by a god. This is the fourth sort of madness, that of love.[Note 29]

The madness of love (249d–257b)

One comes to manifest this sort of love after seeing beauty here on earth and being reminded of true beauty as it was seen beyond heaven. When reminded, the wings begin to grow back, but as they are not yet able to rise, the afflicted gaze aloft and pay no attention to what goes on below, bringing on the charge of madness. This is the best form that possession by a god can take, for all those connected to it.[Note 30]

When one is reminded of true beauty by the sight of a beautiful boy, he is called a lover. While all have seen reality, as they must have to be human, not all are so easily reminded of it. Those that can remember are startled when they see a reminder, and are overcome with the memory of beauty.[Note 31]

Beauty, he states, was among the most radiant things to see beyond heaven, and on earth it sparkles through vision, the clearest of our senses. Some have not been recently initiated, and mistake this reminder for beauty itself and only pursue desires of the flesh. This pursuit of pleasure, then, even when manifested in the love of beautiful bodies, is not "divine" madness, but rather just having lost one's head. The recent initiates, on the other hand, are overcome when they see a bodily form that has captured true Beauty well, and their wings begin to grow. When this soul looks upon the beautiful boy it experiences the utmost joy; when separated from the boy, intense pain and longing occur, and the wings begin to harden. Caught between these two feelings, the lover is in utmost anguish, with the boy the only doctor for the pain.[Note 32]

Socrates then returns to the myth of the chariot. The charioteer is filled with warmth and desire as he gazes into the eyes of the one he loves. The good horse is controlled by its sense of shame, but the bad horse, overcome with desire, does everything it can to go up to the boy and suggest to it the pleasures of sex. The bad horse eventually wears out its charioteer and partner, and drags them towards the boy; yet when the charioteer looks into the boy's face, his memory is carried back to the sight of the forms of Beauty and Self-control he had with the gods, and pulls back violently on the reins. As this occurs over and over, the bad horse eventually becomes obedient and finally dies of fright when seeing the boy's face, allowing the lover's soul to follow the boy in reverence and awe.[Note 33]

The lover now pursues the boy. As he gets closer to his quarry, and the love is reciprocated, the opportunity for sexual contact again presents itself. If the lover and beloved surpass this desire they have won the "true Olympic Contests"; it is the perfect combination of human self-control and divine madness, and after death, their souls return to heaven.[Note 34] Those who give in do not become weightless, but they are spared any punishment after their death, and will eventually grow wings together when the time comes.[Note 35]

A lover's friendship is divine, Socrates concludes, while that of a non-lover offers only cheap, human dividends, and tosses the soul about on earth for 9,000 years. He apologizes to the gods for the previous speeches, and Phaedrus joins him in the prayer.[Note 36]

Discussion of rhetoric and writing (257c–279c)

After Phaedrus concedes that this speech was certainly better than any Lysias could compose, they begin a discussion of the nature and uses of rhetoric itself. After showing that speech making itself isn't something reproachful, and that what is truly shameful is to engage in speaking or writing shamefully or badly, Socrates asks what distinguishes good from bad writing, and they take this up.[Note 37]

Phaedrus claims that to be a good speechmaker, one does not need to know the truth of what he is speaking on, but rather how to properly persuade,[Note 38] persuasion being the purpose of speechmaking and oration. Socrates first objects that an orator who does not know bad from good will, in Phaedrus's words, harvest "a crop of really poor quality". Yet Socrates does not dismiss the art of speechmaking. Rather, he says, it may be that even one who knew the truth could not produce conviction without knowing the art of persuasion;[Note 39] on the other hand, "As the Spartan said, there is no genuine art of speaking without a grasp of the truth, and there never will be".[Note 40]

To acquire the art of rhetoric, then, one must make systematic divisions between two different kinds of things: one sort, like "iron" and "silver", suggests the same to all listeners; the other sort, such as "good" or "justice", lead people in different directions.[Note 41] Lysias failed to make this distinction, and accordingly, failed to even define what "love" itself is in the beginning; the rest of his speech appears thrown together at random, and is, on the whole, very poorly constructed.[Note 42] Socrates then goes on to say,

Every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a body of its own; it must be neither without head nor without legs; and it must have a middle and extremities that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work.[Note 43]

Socrates's speech, on the other hand, starts with a thesis and proceeds to make divisions accordingly, finding divine love, and setting it out as the greatest of goods. And yet, they agree, the art of making these divisions is dialectic, not rhetoric, and it must be seen what part of rhetoric may have been left out.[Note 44]

When Socrates and Phaedrus proceed to recount the various tools of speechmaking as written down by the great orators of the past, starting with the "Preamble" and the "Statement Facts" and concluding with the "Recapitulation", Socrates states that the fabric seems a little threadbare.[Note 45] He goes on to compare one with only knowledge of these tools to a doctor who knows how to raise and lower a body's temperature but does not know when it is good or bad to do so, stating that one who has simply read a book or came across some potions knows nothing of the art.[Note 46] One who knows how to compose the longest passages on trivial topics or the briefest passages on topics of great importance is similar, when he claims that to teach this is to impart the knowledge of composing tragedies; if one were to claim to have mastered harmony after learning the lowest and highest notes on the lyre, a musician would say that this knowledge is what one must learn before one masters harmony, but it is not the knowledge of harmony itself.[Note 47] This, then, is what must be said to those who attempt to teach the art of rhetoric through "Preambles" and "Recapitulations"; they are ignorant of dialectic, and teach only what is necessary to learn as preliminaries.[Note 48]

They go on to discuss what is good or bad in writing. Socrates tells a brief legend, critically commenting on the gift of writing from the Egyptian god Theuth to King Thamus, who was to disperse Theuth's gifts to the people of Egypt. After Theuth remarks on his discovery of writing as a remedy for the memory, Thamus responds that its true effects are likely to be the opposite; it is a remedy for reminding, not remembering, he says, with the appearance but not the reality of wisdom. Future generations will hear much without being properly taught, and will appear wise but not be so, making them difficult to get along with.[Note 49]

No written instructions for an art can yield results clear or certain, Socrates states, but rather can only remind those that already know what writing is about.[Note 50] Furthermore, writings are silent; they cannot speak, answer questions, or come to their own defense.[Note 51]

Accordingly, the legitimate sister of this is, in fact, dialectic; it is the living, breathing discourse of one who knows, of which the written word can only be called an image.[Note 52] The one who knows uses the art of dialectic rather than writing:

The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the character of others. Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it happy as any human being can be.[Note 53]

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