104. Phaedrus by Plato (c.360 BC)

104. Phaedrus by Plato (c.360 BC)

Plot:  Socrates begs Phaedrus to repeat a speech by Lysias on the nature of love, comparing the lover and the non-lover (which seems to mean a friendship without desire, or perhaps a desire held in check). Phaedrus does so, but then insists Socrates make his own speech on the subject. Like Lysias’ speech, Socrates finds flaws with the inconstancy and selfishness of the lover, but before he can leave the spot, he is divinely struck to repent of his words against Love, who is after all a god.

He makes a second speech, beginning by praising the overwhelming madness of a lover as a divine gift, similar to the madness which allows prophecy, or possession by the Muses, or as a release from other griefs. In this case the madness is the admiration of earthly beauty (again invariably in the guise of a handsome youth) as a reminder of heavenly beauty glimpsed in an earlier incarnation and scarcely remembered.  This digresses to cover Socrates’ suggestion of a system of reincarnation where it takes 10,000 years for a soul to regrow its wings and fly back to heaven (or 3,000 years if you choose to be a philosopher three cycles running), and a description of the human soul as a charioteer with two steeds, one noble and virtuous with self-restraint, and the other base and degenerate, ruled by lust. It is the bad horse that drives the soul towards lustful physical acts.
The second half of the dialogue then veers onto the art of writing and rhetoric, and the art of persuasion by introducing a series of small differences in definition during a speech which leads from one viewpoint to the extreme opposite. These differences are easier to introduce when the definitions are not universally agreed by everyone, such as the concepts of justice or goodness or love. And if one knows which arguments will have the greatest impact on which sorts of personalities, one will do well.

There is a rather curious ending where the pastime of writing is seen as inferior to the truth of the word in one’s own mind, suitable only for the reminiscences of old men. Think of this when you read my posts or write yours.

For this read, I used the Plato volume of the 54-volume set Great Books of the Western World, translated by Benjamin Jowett and published by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, on thin semi-gloss paper and featuring only a brief biographical note and few footnotes. The set is still published (the latest edition contains 60 volumes, will take up 5 ½ feet of shelf space and weighs 47 kg.)

My thoughts:  Interestingly the setting for this discussion is an idyllic spot on the banks of a quiet river outside town, rather than the usual gathering in a friend’s house or the gymnasium, baths or meeting place. Perhaps this more secluded and private beauty spot is meant to suggest a lover’s trysting place?

I loved the story of the grasshoppers, who had originally been human beings with such a love of music that they sang all day, forgetting to eat or drink, until they died. The Muses turned them into grasshoppers so that they could sing all day without hunger or thirst, and in return the grasshoppers inform the Muses which humans honour them. There must be a lot of farmers who scoff at the idea of a grasshopper that doesn’t eat!!

And souls are always and naturally female – which shows a greater respect for women than the silence of the rest of Plato’s dialogues.

Favourite lines/passages:

“For only hold up before me in like manner a book, and you may lead me all around Attica, and over the wide world.”    Socrates, page 117.

“As wolves love lambs so lovers love their loves”   Socrates, page 122 (although this may have been a quote from someone else)

“Is not rhetoric, taken generally, a universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments, which is practised not only in courts and public assemblies, but on private houses also, having to do with all matters, great as well as small, good and bad alike, and is in all equally right, and equally to be esteemed?”    Socrates, pages 131-132

“of madness, there are two kinds; one produced by human infirmity, the other was a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention”   Socrates page 134 (sounds pretty but I remain unconvinced)

Personal rating: While not particularly memorable for me, I can give Phaedrus a higher rating simply on the strength of the passages I have quoted above, so maybe a generous 5?

Next : Hiero the Tyrant by Xenophon.

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