Phaedrus Summary and Analysis of Socrates’ Second Speech: 244a-257b

The second speech begins by denying that there was any truth in the preceding speeches. The only reason a boy should prefer the non-lover over the lover is if madness were “bad, pure and simple”; “but in fact the best of things have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god” (244a). There are several kinds of such divine madness:

(1) The madness that accompanies the work of the prophetesses of Delphi and the priestesses of Dodona, or prophets in general. (The speaker conflates the two similar but unrelated words for "madness" and "prophecy"—manike and mantike.) This madness guides entire cities as well as individuals.
(2) The madness that consoles or provides relief to those in hardship, which can occur in the form of prophecies, prayers, mystic rites, and consequent purification.
(3) The madness from the Muses, which awakens the soul to “a Bacchic frenzy of songs and poetry” (245a).
(4) Love is the fourth kind of madness, which will be discussed at length.

The speaker sets out to prove that love is a beneficial and divine madness. This proof requires an understanding of the soul, both human and divine. “Every soul is immortal”: the soul is a “self-mover” and thus is incapable of being destroyed or started-up; it has neither birth nor death (245c). As for the structure of the soul, to describe what it actually is would be a divine task—but it is possible to describe what it is like. The soul is like “the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer” (246a). While the horses and charioteers of the gods are all of good breed, men possess a mixture: if goodness graces one horse, than the opposite will plague the other, making it painful to drive the chariot.

So long as the soul’s wings are in good condition, it will be able to fly through heaven. But a soul without wings will come down to earth and acquire an earthly body, thus forming together a “living thing, or animal, and has the designation ‘mortal’” (246c). (The speaker thus rejects the view that gods are immortal beings made of body and soul.) The soul’s wings are nourished by “beauty, wisdom, goodness, and everything of that sort,” which lift it high up in heaven; “but foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear” (246e).

A great procession of chariots flies through heaven, led by Zeus and followed by other gods and spirits. There are many wonderful sights and places in heaven. The banquet in heaven, however, takes place on a steep hill. While the gods’ chariots can climb the hill easily, the other chariots struggle with the weight of the bad horse. Once at the top, the gods stand on the ridge and gaze at what lies beyond heaven. Of this “place beyond heaven,” the speaker will attempt to “speak the truth”:

What is in this place is without color and without shape and without solidity, a being that really is what it is, the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to intelligence, the soul’s steersman. (247c-d)

Beyond heaven, in other words, lies the Reality of such transcendent forms as Justice, Self-control, Knowledge, and Beauty.

Those souls who are closest to the gods will also have a view of reality, though made imperfect by the distraction of the horses. Many souls, however, will never make it to the top. After great pains, they will fall back down “without having seen reality, uninitiated,” leaving them only with their own opinions (248b).

All souls yearn to stand on the plain of reality and truth. The grass that grows there is the “right food for the best part of the soul”; it “nourishes soul’s wings” (248c). Moreover, the souls that manage to glimpse reality will remain unharmed until the next circuit, whereas other souls will fall down to earth.

The souls will take different forms in their first incarnations: (1) philosophers, or lovers of beauty, or cultivated men; (2) kings or commanders; (3) statesmen, household managers, or financiers; (4) trainers or doctors; (5) prophets or priests; (6) poets or other representational artists; (7) manual laborers or farmers; (8) sophists or demagogues; (9) tyrants. Leading one’s life with justice will improve one’s fate within this hierarchy. But a life of injustice will lead to punishment. Each soul must live out a ten-thousand-year cycle, except for those who practice philosophy, whose cycle is three thousand years. In addition, the soul lives through thousand-year cycles on earth, at the end of which the soul will be able to choose its new kind of life based on its experiences and recollections.

The reason the philosopher’s soul is able to grow wings in three thousand years is because it stays closest to the reality beyond heaven. The philosopher stands closer to the divine than other humans. This brings us to fourth kind of madness: “that which someone shows when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty” (249d). This is the best kind of madness—the madness of love that possess a man when he sees a beautiful boy. Of course, only a few souls remember reality well enough for such madness to be triggered by earthly things. To those souls, however, the radiance of beauty can be perceived vaguely, even on earth. By contrast, less radiant forms like justice, self-control, and wisdom do not shine out.

The vision of Beauty on earth evokes a fear for the divine, followed by a deep reverence. When a man perceives a truly beautiful boy, he feels a chill and then begins to sweat. The stream of beauty flows into his eyes, warming him up and feeding his soul’s wings. The soul experiences an “aching and itching” sensation akin to that which a child feels at the first growth of teeth—a sensation that is soothed by the flow of joyful beauty (251c). In the absence of the boy, the aching and itching return as a throbbing pain; but the memory of the boy allows the soul to recover its joy.

This mixture of pain and joy is love. Love enslaves the soul and makes it forget everything else because “in addition to its reverence for one who has such beauty, the soul has discovered that the boy is the only doctor for all that terrible pain” (252a-b).

The way the soul acts on earth—including its relation to the boy—depends entirely on the god with which it traveled in heaven. An attendant of Zeus, for example, will “be able to bear the burden of this feathered force [i.e., love] with dignity” (252c). But one of Ares, the god of war, might act more belligerently and mistreat the boy as well as others. The souls who will most likely be able to consummate their relations with boys are the followers of Zeus, Hera, or Apollo—those who “show no envy, no mean-spirited lack of generosity” and who “make every effort to draw [the boy] into being totally like themselves and the god to whom they are devoted” (253b). This path to capturing a boy relates back to the structure of the soul.

As previously noted, the soul is composed of thee parts: two horses and a charioteer. The horse on the right side is the better, nobler one, who is a “lover of honor with modesty and self-control” (253d). The horse on the left is uglier and wilder, “companion to wild boasts and indecency” (253e). At the sight of beauty, the right horse retains a sense of shame and does not move, while the left horse leaps forward in an attempt to jump on the boy. As for the charioteer, he yanks back the reins in fear when he recalls the reality of Beauty standing next to Self-control. A struggle thus arises between the three elements, at the end of which the bad horse is tamed and the lover’s soul finally “follows its boy in reverence” or awe (254e).

As for the boy, he may initially resist the lover. But he eventually allows the man to spend time with him since good naturally associates with good. And as he spends time with the man, the boy realizes that the friendship with a man inspired by a god exceeds all other friendships in his life. Eventually, the boy also begins to feel the effect of desire flowing through him. He thus “has a mirror image of love in him” and acts on the desires “to see, touch, kiss, and lie down with [the man]” (255e).

Meanwhile, the bad horse begins to pull against the charioteer’s reins again. If the man and boy practice modesty and self-control, they will follow the path of philosophy and grow wings after death. And “there is no greater good than this that either human self-control or divine madness can offer a man” (256b). But if the man and boy let the bad horse slip out of control, they may consummate their relationship, albeit sparingly. In this case their souls will remain wingless after death—but nonetheless will not slip further down, since they will have begun the journey upwards by trying to sprout wings. In both cases, then, a lover’s friendship brings a boy divine benefits. A non-lover’s companionship, on the other hand, only brings a boy “cheap, human dividends” (256e). Thus Socrates concludes his speech and palinode.


Socrates’ second speech, also known as his Great Speech, overshadows the previous two speeches in style, length, and content. Although it is decidedly uncharacteristic of Socrates to speak so imaginatively at such great length, many of the most important Socratic (or Platonic) ideas derive from the Great Speech. As a paean to eros, the speech can be broken down roughly into three parts: (1) the importance of madness; (2) a picture of the immortal soul’s life and structure; (3) an exploration of platonic love.

(1) Both Lysias and Socrates thus far have posited the corruptive and evil nature of madness. In the Great Speech, however, Socrates paints a more complex picture of madness. To be sure, it has negative influences; “but in fact the best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god” (244c). The four types of madness are later classified as gifts from Apollo, Dionysus, the Muses, and finally Aphrodite. Socrates suggests, then, that logic and reason (logos) are not sufficient for the highest modes of human life. As Graeme Nicholson notes, for example, “the barren intellectualism of Lysias’s address, devoid of. . . all forms of eros, would signify the deviant situation in which the soul as a whole was overshadowed by, subordinated to, logos” (197). Socrates himself gives us a converse example: outside of his usual intellectual confines of Athens, the Nymphs and gods inspire him to deliver his Great Speech.

(2) The importance of madness reappears in the structure of the immortal soul as a primordial, nonrational drive. Here the deference to straight logic yields to a simile: the soul is like a chariot with two horses. All gods and men have the same structure of the soul. But whereas the gods possess perfect internal harmony, men must struggle to subordinate a wild, dark horse. This dark horse represents the nonrational and impulsive side of man, which is opposed diametrically to the rationality and self-control that the good horse represents. Both in heaven and on earth, man must constantly struggle to dominate his dark side. Note that the soul’s director, or charioteer, somehow must act both on and with rationality—and more. While this toil is eternal—since the soul is immortal—the reward is also great.

In the famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of the Republic, Plato evokes a world of perfect Ideas, or Forms, that reside in a realm higher than that of man. The Phaedrus paints a similar picture. When the soul grows wings and travels through heaven, its ultimate reward is to see what lies beyond it: true Knowledge, true Justice, true Self-Control, and so on. These are the perfect Forms that life on earth can only attempt to imitate. Souls that are lucky enough—or practice enough control over the dark horse—will be able to climb high enough in heaven to catch sight of such Forms. According to Socrates, this upward voyage brings the human soul its greatest reward.

(3) Eros, then, involves seeing beauty on earth and recalling the true Beauty seen in heaven. As such, the madness of eros itself represents an essentially positive force. The real danger of eros resides in the dark horse as it rushes impulsively towards the vision of beauty—specifically, a beautiful boy. Many souls will give in to such impulses and consummate their relationships with sexual pleasure. But the truly noble soul will be able to reign in such impulses with modesty and self-control. Such a soul belongs to a philosopher, who will be rewarded by a return to heaven after three thousand years instead of ten thousand. And “there is no greater good than this that either human self-control or divine madness can offer a man” (256b).

The popular notion of a “Platonic relationship” derives from the above discussion in the Phaedrus. The phrase is often used to indicate a romantic relationship devoid of sexual intimacy. Socrates’s definition of a good pederastic relationship, however, does not exclude such intimacy on an absolute basis. So long as the man and boy treat each other respectfully and thoughtfully, occasional, controlled sexual pleasures may well be acceptable to the soul. Both parties simply must know their own limits and keep the soul’s dark horse under tight harness. Again, this relationship is a symbol of all such loves. As the inscriptions on the stone at Delphi remind Socrates: “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess.”