Phaedrus as a Discourse on Rhetoric

Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus is primarily about rhetoric. It initially shows rhetoric through speeches about love, (230e-234d, 237a-241d)1 but in the second half, Socrates broadens the discussion, detailing the nature and proper practice of love and rhetoric, bringing the two topics together, and showing how each is necessary for the practice and mastery of the art. (243e-257b) The first major speech, by Phaedrus, parodies the style of Lysias, a popular rhetorician, deals with the relationship between youths and their older male admirers, lovers and non-lovers.

In reply, Socrates accepts the basic topic, but develops and deepens several themes. Socrates follows this with a great recantation speech, filled with beautiful and powerful images. It is an allegorical myth, touching on the subject of true love and of the soul's journeys, and reaching genuinely poetic heights. (237a-241d) Phaedrus is unlike other dialogues in that it is not a retelling of a days events. It is the direct exchange of Socrates and Phaedrus, with no other interlocutors.

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The reader sees this exchange first hand, as if witnessing the events themselves.

Further, like natural conversation, the dialogue does not limit itself to a single subject. It glides from one topic to another. Phaedrus: The Dialogue versus the Limits of a Treatise: Phaedrus is a dialogue about rhetoric. It is a dialogue about love. It is also about the relationship between Socrates and Phaedrus, shifting conversationally from one subject to another, often moving through innuendoes and multiple entendres along the way. It is a human piece, as well as a study in different but interrelated topics.

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Using the dialogue form, Plato can intersperse themes in a ways unthinkable in a treatise.

One key issues that he interjects is pederasty, love of a man for a youth. In a treatise on rhetoric, almost any such reference would be awkward; here, it becomes an added layer, highlighting much that is said. Lysias’ speech is expressly about pederastic relationships. (230e-234d) In his great speech, Socrates details the impact of pederastic relationship on the evolution of the soul. Discussion of pederastic love and ideals. (250a-258b) Throughout the dialogue, double entendres and sexual innuendo is abundant.

Phaedrus flirts with Socrates as he encourages him to make his first speech. 235b, 236b-d) Phaedrus remarks that at noon-time that Socrates should not leave as the heat has not passed and it is "straight-up, as they say. " (242a) Socrates wishes to know what Phaedrus is holding under his cloak. (228d) And yet, role reversals between lover and beloved are constant. Socrates exhorts Phaedrus to lead the way at various times, (229b) and the dialogue ends with Socrates and Phaedrus leaving as "friends," equals, not lover and beloved. (279b-c) They sit under a “chaste” tree (229a, 236e) -- often known as "monk's pepper," used to decrease sexual urges and believed to be an antaphrodisiac.

Notably, Socrates sees the ideal relationship as asexual: the relationship is a form of divine madness, helping both lover and beloved to grow and reach the divine. (242a, 243a-b) Another, less notable topic that the dialogue keeps in play is the natural setting. After originally remarking that "landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me, only people do," (230d) Socrates make several references drawing on the natural setting. (229b, 242a, 242b, 251b) He repeatedly invokes the presence and action of gods and nymphs. 230b, 241e, 278b) In a treatise, Plato could not make such references.

This is clearly a work in which Plato knew how to use the dialogue form, and he used it thoroughly. To have presented this as a treatise would have been to give up much of the strength of this work. Phaedrus as an Ideal Conversation: Part of the effectiveness of Phaedrus lies in its sequence. It moves from Phaedrus’ reading of Lysias’ speech (228a-e) dealing with a foolish paradox of why it is better for a boy to give his favor to an older non-lover rather than to a lover, listing a range of reasons. 231-234c) Phaedrus is captivated with the beauty of this piece. Socrates fawns admiration, but when Phaedrus asks him not to joke, (234d-e) Socrates admits that he thought the speech poor: repetitious, uninterested in its subject, and pretentious.

He can do better, (235a, 235c) and he does, not simply listing reasons, but developing an argument. All men desire beauty, but some are in love and some are not. Men are ruled by two principles: the inborn desire for pleasure, and an acquired judgment to pursue the best. 237d-238) Following different desires leads to different things, the most selfish being the uncontrolled enjoyment of personal beauty. One caught in this desire will want to turn his youthful beloved into whatever is most pleasing to himself, not what is best for the youth. (238c-240a) 'As wolves love lambs so lovers love their loves. ' (241d) At some point, "right-minded reason" will finally overcome "the madness of love. " (241a) By contrast, a non-lover, ruled by judgment, will focus more on what is good for the youth. (241e) The second half of the Dialogue is a critique of the first.

Socrates assails rhetorical practice on various grounds, the key being the confusion of preliminary knowledge with creative power. No attainments will provide the speaker with genius; and the sort of attainments which can alone be of any value are the higher philosophy and the power of psychological analysis, which is given by dialectic, but not by the rules of the rhetoricians. (273d-e) Phaedrus and Proper Rhetoric Phaedrus claims that a good speechmaker does not need to know the truth of what he is speaking on, only how to persuade, (260a) persuasion being the purpose of oration.

Socrates first objects that an orator who does not know bad from good will harvest "a crop of really poor quality. " (260d) Socrates says of speaking that even someone knowing the truth cannot convince people unless he knows the art of persuasion; (260d) but mastery of the art of speaking requires knowing the truth. (260e) Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, encompasses all speaking. (261e) To persuade an audience one must approach them by using similarities. To do this, one must know what things are similar and different.

A person lacking this knowledge, cannot make proper comparisons. (262a-c) To master the art of rhetoric, one must recognize the division between objective subjects (iron, silver), and emotive subjects (love). (263b) 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 random, and is poorly constructed. (263e-264b) Socrates then goes on to say, every speech must be put together like a living creature, all parts fitting together as a whole work. (264c)

By contrast to Lysias’ failed effort, Socrates’ great speech starts with a thesis and proceeds to divine love, and setting it out as the greatest of goods. He shows how a true rhetorician must determine the nature of the hearer’s soul, just as medicine must determine the nature of the body. The skilled rhetorician must know the different types of souls and how they are moved. (271a-272b) The truly skilled speaker chooses a proper soul and sows within it discourse capable of helping itself as well as a the man who planted it, which 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. (276e-277a) To be a good rhetorician, then, one must know the truth of what he is speaking and how to analyze it to something indivisible. One must understand the nature of the soul and what sort of speech is proper to each soul. Only with all these points mastered will he be able to use speech artfully, to teach or to persuade. This is the point of the argument they have been making. 277c-278b)

The Failure of Rhetoric in Athens and in Modern Life Having set forth the requirements of true rhetoric, Socrates says, the truth is of no import in a law court, but rather the convincing; rhetoric, people claim, consists of cleaving towards the likely and should leave the truth aside. However, as it has already been determined that only people that know the truth can properly use the art of the "likely", this popular opinion is decided to be clearly wrong. (273d) Similarly, he decries the growing dependence on writing. Socrates doubts the value of writing.

It cannot teach, but can only remind those that already know what writing is about. (275d-e) Furthermore, writings are silent; they cannot speak, answer questions, or come to their own defense. (275e) By contrast, the best rhetoric is a dialectic process, a living, breathing discourse of one who knows, of which the written word can only be called an image. (277b-c) The one who knows uses the art of dialectic rather than writing. Plato offered these criticisms about the misuse of rhetoric more than 2,000 years ago. How much more forceful are they in the modern day and age?

Updated: Apr 12, 2021
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Phaedrus as a Discourse on Rhetoric essay
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