Historical Rhetorics/Plato's Relationship to Rhetoric/Plato, ''Phadreus''

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[lecture notes on the Phaedrus]


Plato. "Phaedrus." Trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell. Complete Works. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett P, 1997.

Socrates / Plato's Conception of the Soul[edit]

As in other places in the dialogue, Socrates' account of the soul is predicated upon a division from the body (see particularly 250c for a strong rejection of the body). This binary opposition grounds not only his account of the soul, but his entire metaphysic, since the soul is immutable and immortal, and the body subject to change.

Starting at 246, Socrates offers his famous account of the divine, immortal soul as a charioteer with his two sets of horses. As a soul descends from the transcendental realm, into a human body, it loses its wings. If it follows the philosophic path, and dedicates itself to glimpses of "higher" beauty and truth (in large part by conquering the demands of its body), then it can, in a mere 10,000 years time regrow its wings and return to its transcendental bliss. Later in the dialogue Socrates distinguishes the two horses:

"The horse that is on the right, or nobler side, is upright in frame and well jointed, with a high neck and a regal nose; his coat is white, his eyes are black, and he is a lover of honor with modesty and self-control; companion to true glory, he needs no whip, and is guided by verbal commands alone. The other horse is a crooked great jumble of limbs with a short bull-neck, a pug nose, black skin, and bloodshot white eyes; companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears--deaf as a post--and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined. Now when the charioteer looks in the eye of love, his entire soul is suffused with a sense of warmth and starts to fill with tingles and the goading of desire..."

The philosophic soul will be guided by the former horse, and thus control physical temptation (hence the term Platonic love), while the lecherous soul will take its cue from the latter, satisfy its biological urges, and thus doom itself to earth, or hell (the tortures that take place below the earth's surface).

Note that there is a strong strain of essentialism in Socrates' account of the soul--since each soul descends from following a particular god. This is why, for instance, some of us swoon while in love, while others are quick to jealously and rage (some souls, while in the transcendental realm, followed Zeus, and are thus prone to temperance and philosophy, others followed Ares, and are quick to take to war (250b-c, 252c). This essentialism is not a negligible point, since Socrates' entire philosophical-rhetorical program begins with identifying the varying kinds of souls (which, we can conjecture, are tied to the 12 gods). Another interesting point of essentialism occurs at 255b--my grandfather's old phrase when it comes to friends: water seeks its own level.

There is another interesting note at Phaedrus 255b, one that comes up also in Protagoras (at x), and that is the idea that love (or philosophy, or sophistry, or learning) lies in opposition to family. The other day, talking with a colleague, I made the comment that sometimes our job involves explaining, or at least suggesting to students, that they do not have to believe what their parents believed.

Note Socrates' Hierarchy of Souls:

 1. "a soul that has seen the most will be planted in the seed of a man who will become a lover of wisdom or of beauty, or who will be cultivated in the arts and prone to erotic love
 2. lawful king or warlike commander
 3. statesmen, manager of a household, a financier
 4. trainer who loves exercise or a doctor who cures the body
 5. prophet, priest of the mysteries
 6. poet or some other kind of representational artist
 7. manual laborer or farmer
 8. sophist or demagogue [Polus--the sophist who feeds the beast what it wants to hear]
 9. tyrant

The Philosopher vs. the Public[edit]

There's a few places in the dialogue that echo the anti-democratic sentiments of the other dialogues--particularly the idea that the philosopher does not concern himself with "human concerns"(249d), (including, we are led to believe, politics). The proper concern of the philosopher is self-governemnt, not the government of others.

The soul in love takes as its master only the object of its affection, and turns away from all other notions of decorum or propriety (so the philosopher, whose soul has turned toward wisdom, cares only for her approval and not the approval of others) (252).

What is Sophsitry?[edit]

During the earlier speeches, Socrates is carried away by the style, and makes several references to style as a kind of drug, one that carries us away (for instance 238d, where Socrates warns "don't be surprised if I'm quite taken by the Nymphs' madness as I go on with the speech"). What is surprising to me is that in places Socrates speaks approvingly of madness--of the divine madness of inspiration (since it recalls to us the transcendental place from which we fell). Although, when discussing the "controlled non-love of the non-lover," Socrates notes that Lycias' speech (and his first speech) only offer "cheap, human dividends"--advantages in this "civil" world--and nothing that can push us beyond this world into the transcendental realm of logos.

The boast of the Sophist is made not only in the Gorgias, by Gorgias (the episode concerning the doctor), it is echoed toward the conclusion of the Phaedrus; Socrates, playing sophist, argues: "I do make this boast: even someone who knows the truth couldn't produce conviction on the basis of a systematic art without me" (260d). Socrates challenges this assumption on the grounds that the sophistic art, without the foreground of dialectic, is merely a

What is Writing?[edit]

Of course, the most direct challenge to Plato/Socrates' condemnation of writing is offered by Derrida. In Dissemination Derrida highlights the irony...