Phaedrus Summary and Analysis of Discussion of Rhetoric, Part II: 266c-274b

Phaedrus remains discontented with the understanding of rhetoric that Socrates proposes. After all, Socrates has yet to address many things—“everything, at any rate, written up in the books on the art of speaking” (266d). The two thus enumerate the many devices of speech that have been “discovered” by famous rhetoricians. After reaching the conclusion that everyone seems to agree on how to end a speech, Phaedrus is satisfied that all the major devices of rhetoric have been reviewed. Phaedrus emphasizes that these devices have “a very great power . . . especially in front of a crowd." Socrates, however, suggests that the “fabric is a little threadbare” (268a). He raises several examples by means of proof:

(1) Suppose a man has knowledge of the material contained in medical books but no practical knowledge. He claims to be a physician, since he can teach anyone the physician’s art. But this is evidently absurd. The man cannot really claim to be a physician, for “he knows nothing of the art [itself]” (268c). (2) Suppose someone approached a tragedian, such as Sophocles or Euripides, and claimed that he knew the art of composing all sorts of passages. He may believe that teaching such an art would mean teaching the art of tragedy, but evidently this would not be the case. He knows the “preliminaries of tragedy, but not the art of tragedy itself” (268e). (3) Now, suppose a great orator like Pericles has heard all the devices of rhetoric that Phaedrus and Socrates have just enumerated—devices which people write “as if they are rhetoric itself.” Such a person may be able to recognize the devices, but he would remain “ignorant of dialectic” (269b), taking the preliminaries or elements of rhetoric to be the complex art of speechmaking. One needs to know how to put these elements together to properly compose and then deliver a good speech on a particular topic for a particular environment.

Phaedrus is convinced by Socrates’ argument and now wonders how one can acquire this “art of the true rhetorician, the really persuasive speaker” (269d). Socrates suggests that, like many other things, natural ability plays a key part in becoming a great rhetorician. But there are ways to improve one’s rhetoric, and they are not to be found on the path taken by Lysias and Thrasymachus. Socrates proposes an answer by way of examining “why Pericles was in all likelihood the greatest rhetorician of all” (269e).

“All the great arts,” Socrates states, “require endless talk and ethereal speculation about nature: This seems to be what gives them their lofty point of view and universal applicability.” In addition to having natural ability, Pericles learned from Anaxagoras, who “got his full dose of ethereal speculation, and understood the nature of mind and mindlessness” (270a). Socrates thus suggests that Pericles understood something of the nature of the world as a whole. Consequently, he was able to grasp the nature and soul of rhetoric and distance himself clearly from an “empirical and artless practice” (270b). But Phaedrus does not fully comprehend this progression—from grasping the nature of the world to grasping the nature of the soul and to rhetoric. Socrates thus proposes to reexamine this view.

In order to “think systematically about the nature of anything,” one must take the following steps (270c). First, determine whether it is simple or complex; if it is complex, enumerate all its forms. In either case, determine its natural power—what it acts upon and what about it is acted upon. Socrates states that any other method would be like “walking with the blind.” Now, a teacher of rhetoric should be able to apply this method to the soul and and demonstrate the “essential nature” of the soul (270e). After all, rhetoric targets the soul to produce conviction. Any serious rhetorician will thus classify different kinds of speeches and souls and explain their different affects and effects. This is the only way, Socrates claims, to produce an artful speech, be it written or spoken.

The problem is that “since the nature of speech is in fact to direct the soul," the orator faces an extremely difficult task (271d). He must not only learn but also apply the theory of how to reach souls through words. To fully have the rhetor’s art, he must know the nature of any and every potential audience in order to be able to determine the right type of speech to use, and he must speak with the correct devices at the correct times. Phaedrus agrees with Socrates that no other path leads to the true art of speaking. But this path is evidently a “major undertaking,” so the two set out to “try to find some easier and shorter route to the art” (272b-c).

Many people say that in order to be an able rhetorician, one need not “know the truth about the things that are just or good” (272d). In law courts, after all, people only care about what is convincing. An effective rhetorician, following this path, need only address what is “likely” and pursue his argument from there. Here, Socrates invokes Tisias’s book on rhetoric, in which “the likely” is associated with the crowd’s opinion. By Tisias’s art of rhetoric, the following situation could well occur: if a weak but spirited man were taken to court for robbing a strong but cowardly man, neither man would tell the truth if the main criterion were effectiveness in persuasion. The spirited man would protest: “How could a man like me attack a man like him?” and the cowardly man, unwilling to admit his cowardice, would be forced to cover for himself by inventing some sort of lie (273c).

This anecdote, in the eyes of Socrates, shows sufficiently that the shorter path to the art of rhetoric is unacceptable. The effectiveness criterion and arguments from likelihood, all too often, lead souls to embrace what is false. The only way to truly possess the art of speaking passes through a long detour. This detour, Socrates recapitulates, involves acquiring “the ability to enumerate the sorts of characters to be found in any audience, to divide everything according to its kinds, and to grasp each single thing firmly by means of one form.” Only with such abilities can one “speak and act in a way that pleases the gods as much as possible” (273e). Indeed, wise men say that a “reasonable man” must strive to please not his equals but his masters, “who are wholly good” (273e-274a). Thus Socrates concludes the discussion of artful and artless speaking.


Having disposed of his sophistic views on rhetoric, Phaedrus remains unwilling to relinquish all the rhetorical devices that he has learned from books. Surely, since they have been discovered and developed by so many great orators, they must serve a rhetorician well! Socrates offers several anecdotes in response. Several points here are essential. For one, knowing the elements of something is different from knowing how to put the elements together. That is, theory is not sufficient for practice. Just as one who has read books on medicine cannot credibly claim to be an able physician, so too must students of rhetoric learn more than mere rhetorical devices from books. True rhetoric, Socrates repeats, is founded on dialectic—or more broadly, philosophy.

A good rhetorician must be able to persuade souls and do it justly, not just effectively. As Socrates points out in another dialogue, Gorgias, one of the greatest possible evils is to know the truth but to intentionally put falsehood into another’s soul. How can the noble rhetor avoid this evil? He not only must be able to apply the dialectic method of collecting and dividing to any subject on which he must speak, but he also must be able to use that method to understand different kinds of souls in order to persuade each one according to its kind. Since the rhetorician must direct the soul of his listeners, he must have a perfect understanding of the soul and be able to distinguish between different audiences. What can he do for a mixed audience, where the same speech might persuade some but lead others astray?

In order to understand the nature of the soul, the rhetorician must follow the Socratic maxim “Know thyself” and strive to understand, to start with, his own soul. Thus the true art of rhetoric requires philosophy to such a degree that it cannot possibly be achieved by anyone except a philosopher. As Graeme Nicholson notes, “What the dialectician practices . . . is the full Socratic art of thinking and living, and only that gives an adequate buttress to rhetoric” (65).

The rhetorician, then, faces a superhuman task. Even Socrates himself cannot claim to have mastered the art of speaking, since he still struggles to know himself (230a). He does not even clearly understand how his daemon intervenes to keep him from making certain mistakes. Indeed, Socrates states repeatedly that his two speeches stemmed from divine inspiration rather than his own knowledge.

Given the long path that leads to mastering the art of speaking, then, Socrates proposes to look for a shortcut. As a practical matter, a shortcut seems absolutely necessary, for how else could someone deign to persuade someone about anything? As life goes on, people need to make decisions and cannot wait for philosophy or philosophers to step in. Thus, Socrates appears willing to look for a shortcut. But this is just one of many places where Socrates hides an ulterior motive; he intends to reject the shortcut.

The shortcut they examine derives from the technique of appealing to the likely, as found in Tisias’s book on rhetoric. The problem is that, as shown by the example of the weak opportunist beating the strong coward, the rhetorician’s appeal to the likely all too often obstructs rather than promotes justice and truth. This shortcut resembles sophistry in that it can easily obscure justice and truth. The path that leads to the true art of speaking, Socrates repeats, must pass through a thorough study of dialectic and philosophy. In this regard, Phaedrus contains Socrates’ advice to Phaedrus and perhaps to all speech-lovers: do not spend your time on speeches, where the best you can do is make concessions to the likely, and where the worst outcome can be truly bad, but study and live by philosophy. It seems better to withhold assent if assenting sometimes leads to accepting falsehood into the soul.

But this path seems extremely impractical. Is there no better shortcut? Do we not have to assent to many things on the basis of likelihood, just to make basic decisions every day? Plato presents us with a view of Socrates as a person who makes a lot of provisional arguments without finally deciding that he knows anything substantial. Maybe the shortcut involves seeing the true nature of rhetoric as something provisional; that is, the art of persuasion is the art of moving souls without going so far as to try to put either true or false statements in the souls of an audience. He who would go that far had better be a philosopher, not a rhetorician. That way, if people are persuaded to make decisions that turn out badly, the rhetorician may be excused on the ground that he openly admitted that he really did not provide anything more than an argument from likelihood.

If this shortcut holds, then the good rhetorician ought to learn how to express humility and how to convey various degrees of certainty and uncertainty, unlike the rhetors who claim to be able to speak persuasively on any subject.