Phaedrus Study Guide

Scholars disagree on the date of composition of Plato's Phaedrus. This Note consults the version edited and translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, who note that the second speech of Socrates "seems to allude to many of the ideas Plato expressed in the Meno, the Phaedo, and the Republic" (xiii). Consequently, the date of composition has been placed with some certainty between 375 and 365 B.C.

Unlike many other Platonic dialogues, Phaedrus is literally a dialogue, a conversation solely between two people. Through dialogue with the young speech-lover Phaedrus, Socrates develops ideas on the nature of eros, rhetoric, philosophy, and the soul. The German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher noted that the dialogue "usually bears a second title, 'Or of the Beautiful'; and has been sometimes named, 'Of Love and of the Mind'" (48). Such titles—undoubtedly additions by a hand later than that of Plato—testify to a fundamental uncertainty about the central topic of the dialogue. The first half of the dialogue treats the subject of eros, whereas the second half makes what seems to be a clear break to treat of rhetoric. Does philosophy, or “the Mind,” serve as the unifying theme? This meta-question lies behind the many questions that the dialogue raises directly.

Phaedrus is in many ways a strange, un-Socratic dialogue. For one, Socrates leaves the confines of Athens. Once in the countryside, he is inspired by the divine madness of the gods and Nymphs to produce speeches. Given Socrates’ demonstrated aversion to long speeches, Socrates’ magnificent second speech is as surprising as his overpowering desire to hear Lysias’s speech on love.

What did this mean to Plato? Did Plato believe the views presented by Socrates? Remember that there are always at least two conversations in a Socratic dialogue: one is between Socrates and the interlocutor, and the other is between Plato and the reader. What does Plato lead the reader to think about while examining the interaction between Socrates and Phaedrus?

For a more comprehensive introduction to the dialogue and its place among other Platonic dialogues, see the introduction to Nehamas and Woodruff’s edition of the dialogue.