Analysis of "Phaedrus"

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As translators Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff explain it, “The Phaedrus is a dialogue in the most literal sense. Unlike a number of others of Plato’s works, it is a conversation between two and only two people.” This dialogue by Plato features only two speakers—Socrates and Phaedrus. Socrates is a learned man who has never set foot beyond the city walls; as a scholar, all he has ever needed could be found right in Athens. Phaedrus is a grown man with remarkable admiration for rhetoric and speech-making, but little understanding of Socrates’ philosophical approaches. Their ongoing dialogue—originally about the practicality of love and its subsequent madness—serves as a metaphorical basis for the proper use of rhetoric, which Socrates voraciously argues is not just a means of entertainment, but rather a foundation of views to which one’s life can be lived. His attitude toward both philosophy and rhetoric is that life would be miserable without such deep matters of conversation, and that neither can exist solely without the other. Throughout Phaedrus, the reader is presented with various arguments using both verities, and how they relate to such grandiose topics like love, madness, and the soul. These issues are presented to the reader through a series of dialogues solely between Socrates and Phaedrus. Although assumed by most experts to be a purely fictitious discussion, the beliefs Plato presents in Phaedrus essentially mirror that which his mentor Socrates held in reality; rhetoric must be used with the true knowledge of what one is talking about, but is simultaneously crucial to the endorsement of an argument. I am going to analyze the uses of this rhetoric in Phaedrus and how it affects the transmission of such ideas between the two interlocutors, as well as the intertwining of both rhetoric and concept and how they affect each character’s ethos.

Socrates’ use of rhetoric is initially employed through a series of three speeches on love. However, the “love” addressed in these dialogues primarily concerned men, as paederastic relationships between older male scholars and adolescent boys were not uncommon in Athenian culture. Older men sought to win young boys to receive sexual pleasure in exchange for philosophical instruction, creating a symbiotic relationship of both socialization and ethical enlightenment. The first speech presented in Phaedrus is actually that of Lysias, an in absentia character of which Phaedrus is a strong advocate. Lysias asserts that in these paederastic relationships, it’s better for a man to not actually love his adolescent apprentice. Romantic feelings do make the men more passionate, but they subsequently create a sense of indifference—or even hatred—to their former lovers once the feelings are gone. Lysias further corroborates this by saying that non-lovers, on the other hand, are much more likely to remain friends once the adolescents get older, and are able to better control themselves without the “madness” that stems from love affairs. Upon Phaedrus’ recitation to Socrates, he criticizes the content of the speech and exclaims that he has heard better arguments proposed elsewhere on the same issue. Feeling inspired, Socrates goes so far as to say that he himself could give a better speech using the same argument as Lysias. He initially refuses to act upon it until Phaedrus threatens to never again recite another speech, and Socrates eventually concedes.

He begins his first challenge by explaining that while men desire beauty, not all are in love. Socrates believes that men are governed by one of two principal desires—the desire to pursue that which is best for oneself (often referred to as “rightness of mind”) or the desire to take pleasure in beauty (“eros”). He argues that lovers—as opposed to non-lovers—implicate the latter, and through their madness try to deviate the boy’s path to what is best for them rather than what is best for the boy. Socrates concludes that non-lovers...
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