Friday, 1 July 2011

Phaedrus - Plato

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Beyond Love and Knowledge

Reading the Phaedrus, one begins to really appreciate the complexity and depth of Plato’s thought, and when we consider moreover what a laborious process writing must have been two thousand five hundred years ago, it becomes all the more impressive. Without a clear structure or seeming balance, some early commentators relegated Phaedrus as being an early work of Plato’s opus. But the outward carelessness of form is but an illusion, and there seems little doubt that it is not only late Plato, but perhaps a dialogue to end all dialogues as we shall see, and unquestionably a masterpiece.

(Review by the absent-present Lysias)

“Phaedrus, my friend, where have you been and where are you going?" Thus is Socrates’ auspicious opening of the dialogue. Phaedrus it turns out is carrying a speech of Lysias on the subject of love under his cloak, symbolically in his left hand. To begin with, Phaedrus is a dialogue about love. In this regard it is in stark opposition to Plato’s Symposium both in the setting and in the movement of the argument. But discussion will turn towards the spoken word by which we access truth and seek to convince others, and finally to the inadequacy of the dead word, of writing. So on the surface, this dialogue weaves its way from the great mystery that is love to the great treasure that is knowledge, and its purpose is to inspire in [Phaedr]us a love of knowledge, to instill in us the way of thinking of the philosopher so that in our speech we seek truth, not merely persuasion.

But beneath the surface, Phaedrus is perhaps even more significantly a teaching by example of how the philosopher responds to the already-dead word of sophistry, or more generally to writing – it teaches us how to read and listen (outside the city walls of conventional thought, with a companion, a genuine interest, an open mind, inspired by the muses of nature and mythology and the text itself, but not weighed down by their truth, but rather using them as a vehicle for self-knowledge). Ultimately, as a dismissal of writing, it is also a challenge to the reader to spring back to its defence, just as Socrates does for love. Plato could have tried to do this himself, but to use writing to defend itself runs into the insurmountable obstacle of circularity, while to hint more clearly at this intention would undermine the self-confident finality of the Phaedrus itself. 

And so what a grand conception this is, if Plato meant it, to give us a demonstration in dialogue form of how to read the written word, so that we may imagine the possibility of doing the same for Plato’s own work, and so accomplish the impossible, if only by analogy. Because of the greatness of the Phaedrus itself, there is a deterrent for any who might actually think to carry off this feat, not to mention its impossibility, for in denigrating writing (as Lao-Tzu did in the Tao Te Ching at almost exactly the same time in ancient China), Plato has given himself the “last word”. Yet, to use the written word to dismiss writing as sophistry, in such a startlingly aesthetic way, is no less of an insult than the dismissal of love as madness which Socrates has to contend with in the Phaedrus. Indeed, just as Socrates conceives of such a thing as divinely inspired madness, we might conceive of such a thing as divinely inspired sophistry. Is that not the essence of Socratic philosophy? Is that not the essence of the Phaedrus? Truth transcends opposites, but words have power beyond their form.

“On the seashore of endless worlds, children play.” (Tagore)

Socrates: Ah, Phaedrus my friend, what a marvellous review. I’m in ecstasy!

Phaedrus: Oh, do be serious now Socrates. Tell me what you really think. Isn’t Phaedrus a remarkable piece of writing as the reviewer says?

Socrates: I enjoyed it immensely! It is remarkable especially that our conversation that day should have been recorded so precisely. And since there were only the two of us present, not to mention the crickets who despite their memory for speech and song are not known for their writing, I think I know who wrote it! Come now, don’t be shy.

Phaedrus: Well, in fact, that is true. By the time we returned within the city walls and bid farewell, the sun was already beginning to sink behind the western mountains, so I went straight to record our meeting as best I could from memory. It was at least two-thirds of the way through the night and at the expense of much wax before I had sufficiently satisfied myself of the main points and could sleep easy, knowing that what I had written would remind me of the finer points of our discussion which I could fill out at a later time. The following morning I would put your words of advice to Lysias and try to persuade him of his mistake. Alas!, he is not possessed by the prophetic Apollo like you, my dear Socrates, that would allow him to see how the structures of democracy and free speech will surely decay once separated from their nourishment in philosophy and truth. Nor does he suffer the madness of Dionysus nor the passion of Eros that might excuse him. Indeed, by Zeus, he is a pragmatic realist. Yet he is still subject to the great Muses whose eloquence can either exonerate or exacerbate our error depending on whether they sing with the voice of our own conscience or against it. Though refusing to write such a homage to Love as you had suggested, he asked me to provide him with the fullest account of our dialogue, and in the form of this review, he wrote a homage to writing instead. Just as we turned on its head his argument of the inferiority of the lover, he says he does the same for our dialogue, which in his view amounts on the surface to an argument of the inferiority of writing.

Socrates: It would be worthwhile to consider if the Phaedrus does indeed demote writing, and if so, whether there is something else that it promotes in its place. What do you think, Phaedrus?

Phaedrus: It promotes speech above writing, for the speaker of the word can be seen face-to-face and defend what he has spoken when questioned. Also, speech is closer to action, and action is by its nature superior. For, mere words would be empty if they did not move one to a corresponding action. Travellers from the far East describe a teaching of their philosophers of the finger pointing at the moon. Words are like this also! Even this teaching of theirs is itself but a finger, and their philosopher sages advise us to stop looking at the finger, but follow the line to where it points. They also describe a meeting between a man from the forest who has never seen the sea and a man from the sea who has never seen the forest. The forest man takes out of his sack a handful of leaves, each different, each a cure to some ailment of the body. “Where I come from, there are a hundred thousand trees,” he says, “of various kinds. And each of these trees contains a hundred thousand leaves just like this one, but utterly different.” And he gives a leaf to the man from the sea who marvels at the beauty of its colour and form. In exchange, the man from the sea takes out a single seashell. “Where I come from,” he replies, “there are a hundred thousand of these of all sizes and colours. They are living creatures in the sea, and get washed up on the seashore. What is more, if you put this shell to your ear, you will hear the sound of that sea echoing within, but the sea is a hundred thousand times more loud and powerful.” So saying, he gives a seashell to the man from the forest who is absorbed by its exquisite beauty, and hark! as if by magic, when he puts it to his ear, he can even hear the sea in which it once lived. Isn't that marvelous! Writing is a lot like the leaves and the seashells that the Eastern travellers use to describe the unknown secrets of the land from which they come. They are but a sign, but if we already have the understanding of experience, they remind us of what we already know.

Socrates: Well said, my dear Phaedrus! You’re not the same Phaedrus as I spoke to last time, no longer the practitioner of empty technique. We no more intended to denigrate writing than the man of the forest would his precious leaves, or the man of the seashore his exquisite seashell. We merely demote words as insignificant compared to the source from which they come. So, how did Lysias respond when you put this to him, as I am sure you must have done?

Phaedrus: He responded that if the source — that is Socrates and I — are so much more infinitely rich than the beautiful and complex work that is the Phaedrus, for which I am flattered to be partly responsible, then Socrates and I must be very complex beings indeed. So he asked me as you had asked yourself rhetorically, “Is Socrates a beast more complicated than Typhon, or is he a tamer simpler animal with a share in a divine and gentle nature?” I had no answer, though I would like to say the latter. So I apologized my ignorance, made excuses and departed for my daily walk which you know my doctor recommends, and what a coincidence that I should meet you once again! So let me put that question to you, Socrates. Are you a complex or a simple being?

Socrates: You were right not to answer. For of course, I am both a being of such complexity that I cannot fully understand myself, and thus how could I hope to capture this vastness by mere words? Yet also, I am a simple fellow of little wisdom, but in possession of that divine essence of such minuteness that no word is small enough to describe it. Being both, how can one answer such a question? As Lysias himself observed, truth transcends opposites! How well you did to keep divine silence!


  1. I'll come back and linger but was pleased to see my friend Plato cited here.

  2. Cool! I was just saying to a friend that I'm not at the level of feeling "friendship" for the great minds of history, but I certainly feel a deep admiration.

    If you have any musings on the Phaedrus, now or any time in the future, feel free to post them here...

  3. Thanks okei. I just finished the Phaedo.
    Plato set things up with different views,
    depending upon what he wished convey.

    For instance, he was not much for poets
    and songsters, however himself mentioned
    creating poetry before his death, so I suppose
    some could see it an an anomaly, but really
    I think his drift was, 'creative thought,' can be
    'stuck in a round,' without ever being understood
    and repeated as if it were gospel.

    I have a few friends in the field, as well Ralph
    Waldo and Descartes and Spinoza. I am actually
    touched each time I read a mind that is free of
    the present day restrictions and that I can 'watch'
    it thinking.

    I think many great works of philosophy were
    created by the 'act' of sitting and writing them,
    and have felt such a connection 'to' their
    writer that I could say, 'yes I just said that too,
    the other day, and now much alike our minds
    do perceive. In that 'knowing,' I know that thought
    is a pool in which we may all dip and bring back
    the same conclusions, which abets me in seeing
    the 'connection of all to one.'

    Some, it is difficult to perceive it, but others,
    confirm that even though others 'are difficult
    to perceive this connection,' 'know, that because
    of it, it must be so.

  4. Ahh, very well said!!!

    He seems to put the lovers of poetry above the poets themselves, but
    (1) a poet must love poetry in order to write it, and
    (2) Plato's writing was very poetic.

    I think maybe he was referring to the poets-by-trade, or "bards", just as he criticises the speakers-by-trade, because both are technicians, and not artists moved by the divine inspiration of truth or beauty. (But as the second speech showed, even that which seems like a kind of divine inspiration may not have a divine source... and how could Socrates tell it was not divine? ... from his sense of shame, and the warning of his inner guide!)

  5. He did commit himself to verse as he waited for the proverbial hemlock.
    Do you think they were separate peoples, Socrates and Plato?

  6. Definitely! Plato was one of Socrates' students, and while Socrates was obsessed with speaking, Plato was obsessed with writing!

    I didn't know Socrates wrote anything, but maybe he did before he died?

    Have a look at this picture from the Middle Ages... the French philosopher Derrida was inspired to write a whole book inspired by it (called The Postcard), and although I haven't read any of it, it is very deep if you think about it... Is the pupil (Plato) merely forcing his master to write, or is he telling him what to say? And shouldn't it be the other way round?

  7. Well, I do not think any of Socrates's contemporaries wrote of him, though other authors (including Aristotle) wrote of him, after the fact. And Plato liked teaching
    'using' analogy, so it is not far fetched to believe that he was a 'parable' which
    Plato used. And no, I do not believe Socrates had any existing writings of his
    own, so it makes me 'wonder.'

  8. Yes, good picture. I gather it rather indicates Plato's words through Socrates though Plato.

    Which helps a lot!

  9. You know I often see something brilliantly written and touches me greatly,
    which is answered by, 'quotes' that somebody else wrote in response to it.
    I am not sure we can 'recognise genius' when it is amongst us, but if it preceded
    by 'so-and-so said so,' people gasp.

  10. 'Perhaps' such was the case for Plato.

  11. Then 'too' perhaps he could get away with certain writings,
    for it was a 'dead man' who made them?

  12. We know of Socrates from Xenophon also. It's true his name is a device, and not necessarily representative of the real Socrates' views. I do wonder if Plato had to self-censor to avoid the same anger. Socrates was really loved by his students, and they are robbed of their teacher, so as well as a powerful device, it's also Plato's way of preserving his memory, so for example the end of the Symposium is so tragic because it was written at a time when all these great characters are no longer living, Athens is in decline and the reader looks back at this golden age and wonders how such a superman as Socrates could be no more. He drinks without getting drunk, talks all night, and then goes into town the next day as normal while all his companions have long since gone to sleep. So I think this is Plato writing out of a real love for his teacher. Meanwhile, Plato doesn't appear once in his dialogues! He is the man behind Socrates, lol.

  13. I use the allegory of the cave to relate to people the most,
    of what I mean by making our efforts towards, that which
    raises the level of our own conscious utilization of 'being'
    truly there in the moment, as an act of, coming out of the darkness,
    into the light.

    People that are sporadically conscious, 'get' that they are not conscious
    'all the time.' People that think they 'are' conscious all the time are not at all, and those that actually 'are' are rare
    and people like Plato device methods to convey, by establishing: This is
    after all, from the great Socrates,' so that he is 'effected a following.

    I tend to be inclined to like a gnostic point of view to think that parables
    were the height of 'teachings,' and all was fodder for Plato to teach
    the soul to admit it 'knows nothing,' but now 'lets talk, and reason, and awaken.'

  14. Even Socrates can be taken in, the fable goes, by the persuasive speech and speaker, but unlike most he perceives his error... By the way near the beginning, Socrates asks rhetorically, am I a creature more complicated than the monster Typhon or a simpler divine nature? But it's not clear if he thinks he is or isn't...I think he isn't, but then he admits to not yet understand himself, so perhaps he thinks man is more complicated than Typhon? Wonder what you made of that...

  15. Or perhaps it is an indication he is aware he has a foot upon the platform, of each.

  16. Of course! Truth transcends opposites...the recurring theme... Thanks for that! I sleep easy:)

  17. And thank you for prodding my mind to think it, it helped 'wake me up' for that moment.

  18. Ah, I've just realised that we've been reading different dialogues...I haven't read Phaedo yet, and this review was about Phaedrus. But the mention of dreams and poetry at the beginning of Phaedo is fascinating, as is the ascetic idea of freeing oneself of the desires of the body so that we may awaken the wisdom of the soul.

  19. Sorry, thought you'd realised. I haven't read the Phaedrus but had just finished the Phaedo series which relates the death and in which Socrates 'rather cures those around him,' at the idea of losing him, teaching into the last breath, seeking knowledge into the last remnant of life.

  20. Sorry for the confusion. I'm reading Phaedo next.

  21. Oh, none on my side. I've enjoyed the exchange.

  22. Enjoyed the blog and thread, Okei...

  23. Thanks Nancy, but I've changed my mind a bit since I wrote it, so I was thinking of having the review continued in dialogue at some point, though not sure if my imagination is up to do the idea justice.

  24. Look forward to it, Okei... :-)))) Go for it!

  25. I've re-written the review as a review by Lysias, who is absent from the Phaedrus, but ever-present in the form of his speech which Phaedrus reads to Socrates, starting the whole dialogue off. This review is then followed by an imaginary dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates as they meet once more to discuss a second text by Lysias. But the difference here is that Lysias is the manipulator criticizing his own words and not Plato, just as Plato was the manipulator criticizing Lysias' speech in the Phaedrus which was likely his own speech! Mind-boggling aside, one has to be faithful to one's subjects, so the result though seeming to criticize Lysias, yet affirms his very point that wordlessness can very well be described with words.


    P.S. The story of the man from the forest and the man from the seashore is my invention, but simply a variant of Buddha's parable of the handful of leaves. (This is in analogy to Plato's supposed re-telling myths which often do not appear in earlier writings so are believed might be partly his creations.)

  26. P.P.S. Thanks Rose for helping provide some of the inspiration, especially for the answer in the thread below to the question of whether we are complex or simple beings! And thanks Nancy also for the encouragement.

  27. You've inspired me to review Peter Kingsley's book, "In the Dark Places of Wisdom" through which he brings a new perspective to the loss of the pre-Socratic philosophical tradition and how this influenced the evolution of the Western mindset from which we perceive reality today.... and the divide between Eastern and Western traditions...

  28. I'll poke around later okei. Too early, no coffee, cobwebs.
    Some of your explanations, well, I have to admit I haven't read
    everything Plato has written, and I have found him so often (at
    least in my own mind) beset with the reviewer of his work, to
    not 'get the slant,' I got from reading the same passages.

    For instance, I have not aligned in my mind quotes I have
    read from The Republic, with my own mental image of him.

    I'll be back when I am coherent. Meanwhile, I wish you
    (it is morning here) a 'good whatever it is,' where you are
    and go to forage for strong black coffee.

  29. Thanks Nancy!

    It's still not really clear to me why Socrates was a break from the pre-Socratic, and Nietzsche also seems to talk about some corruption of the pre-Socratic enlightenment, so I look forward to your review. I can see that Socrates was not as interested in science as one would expect, because his approach is more psychological, or through self-knowledge. Heraclitus is also especially interesting because on the one hand, almost no-one paid any attention to him, yet despite that he is still remembered and fragments of his still preserved.

    Hi, Rose, no rush! "All things pass", but I hope this site won't run away, so you can come back read it whenever you feel like it. I don't mean my review to be an advertisement, and certainly not to replace the real thing, or even to explain it, but maybe just to add another layer of perspective, while also hopefully being possible to read independently.

    By the way, it occurred to me that this is not proper dialectic. But I was cunning to write this review with the pen of Lysias! Writing words for Socrates is an enormous responsibility, but if Lysias makes Socrates come across as mildly hypocritical, and Phaedrus as wiser than he really is, and both inferior to Lysias himself, then that would seem to fit exactly with Lysias' intention.

  30. I am afraid I would have to now have both to do either proper credit.