Phaedrus Summary and Analysis of Transition to Discussion of Rhetoric: 257b-259d

Phaedrus is deeply impressed by Socrates’ speech and believes that Lysias will be unable to match it with a speech of his own. Besides, Phaedrus notes, a politician has recently criticized Lysias as a “speech writer,” so Lysias may be reluctant to compose a speech to begin with. Socrates defends Lysias, however, stating that the man would not be so easily intimidated—and that the politician did not mean his comment as a reproach. Phaedrus retorts that “the most powerful and renowned politicians are ashamed to compose speeches or leave any writings behind” for fear of being called “sophists” (257d). But Socrates makes Phaedrus understand the contrary: “the most ambitious politicians love speechwriting and long for their writings to survive” (257e).

Politicians are actually in awe of speechwriting, for their legislative resolutions are much like speeches. Legislative writing begins by acknowledging the writer and “remains on the books” when it is politically successful (258a). Such was the case of writing practiced by Lycurgus, Solon, and Darius, all famous lawgivers in history. Socrates posits that none of these men would reproach Lysias for being a writer. He concludes: “It’s not speaking or writing well that’s shameful; what’s really shameful is to engage in either of them shamefully or badly” (258d). The question, then, becomes how to distinguish good writing from bad writing.

At this point, Socrates notes that they have plenty of time to discuss the question. Besides, the cicadas are watching them. They will laugh at Socrates and Phaedrus if they see the two succumb to the midday heat and break off conversation. On the other hand, if they see the two engaged in conversation, “they will be very pleased and immediately give [the two] the gift from the gods they were able to give to mortals” (259b).

Socrates explains this gift, which Phaedrus has not heard of. Before the birth of the Muses, cicadas used to be human beings. When the Muses came into existence, some people became so obsessed with singing that they died from forgetting to eat and drink. These people became cicadas, to whom the Muses gave a gift: they begin singing at birth and need neither food nor drink until death. And when they die, they report to the Muses “which morals have honored her.” To Calliope and Urania, they report humans “who honor their special kind of music by leading a philosophical life” (259d). Thus, there are many reasons for Socrates and Phaedrus to discuss rhetoric.


After Socrates concludes his Great Speech, the dialogue transitions to a discussion of rhetoric and writing. This marks the thematic midpoint of the dialogue, coinciding with midday. The following points have been introduced in order to be discussed: (1) the social standing or reputation of the speechmaker; (2) the permanence of writing; and (3) the difference between good and bad speeches, spoken or written.

Socrates offers further justification for continuing the discussion by commenting on the singing cicadas. As Nehamas and Woodruff note: “Consonant with the respect for myth and traditional theology which his visit to the countryside has produced in him, [Socrates] describes the cicadas as the Muses’ messengers” (xxx). The cicadas serve as reminders that the two friends should discuss philosophy instead of languishing under the noon heat. Alfred Geier also suggests that Socrates tells the tale to “war[n] Phaedrus that he is in great danger of becoming like one of those men who loved poetry without nourishment and so died and became a cicada” (184). Rhetoric, in other words, needs some sort of philosophic backing.