Socrates’ place in history as an intellectual innovator and crucial contributor to Western philosophy is largely due to his unique character. His approach is characterized by conversations with his fellow Athenians meant to reveal and question their convictions. Many of Plato’s dialogues show Socrates exploring how knowledge is obtained, expressed, and taught, and in The Phaedrus this focus addresses knowledge across all its mediums. As he sees it, the flaws of writing stem from greater problems with the art of rhetoric and how it’s used.
Overview of The Phaedrus
The Phaedrus begins with Socrates encountering Phaedrus, a student of the rhetorician Lysias, who has written a speech arguing against love, listing all the ways that a non-lover is a better person than a lover. When Socrates asks more about these ideas, Phaedrus admits that his own explanation would not fully represent the genius in Lysias’s work, so he reads it to Socrates instead. After the reading, Phaedrus is adamant that the work eloquently flows from one point to another and leaves nothing unsaid, but Socrates is unimpressed. He tells Phaedrus that he could compose a speech of equal or superior quality making the same argument Lysias does. Socrates cuts his speech off when it becomes poetic repetition of the same point over and over again, and quickly disavows his own ramblings.
Socrates soon follows this with a second explanation of love, where he builds on the idea of love as madness. Lysias’s argument focuses on love as a kind of madness and malady, since the decisions lovers make are not completely guided by reason, but Socrates uses this idea to defend love, by describing madness as evidence of a person’s connection to divinity. This explanation focuses more on the nature of the soul, which Socrates describes as a charioteer holding the reins of two horses: one noble and rational, and the other one erratic driven by desire. It is a detailed and methodical explanation of a key part of the human condition, arguably worthy of its own separate dialogue. Its inclusion in The Phaedrus nonetheless makes the dialogue unwieldy because it is juxtaposed with the two previous speeches to understand what constitutes good rhetoric.
Perfecting the Art of Rhetoric
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Phaedrus admits to liking Socrates’ second speech more than his first, and his vehement admiration for his teacher starts to slip away. His understanding of rhetoricians, specifically statesmen, is that they take pride in being effective communicators of wisdom. Socrates is quick to disagree, pointing out that they care more about convincing others than revealing truth, mentioning how politicians will begin speeches by thanking their listeners which will either approve or dismiss the law proposed. Ultimately, the beauty or persuasiveness of spoken and written word does not necessarily need to be edifying, but good rhetoric needs appropriate management and distribution knowledge, and this does not simply mean that it needs to be truthful.
Socrates’ first proposed rule of rhetoric is to begin with a truthful understanding of what one is talking about, a rule which Lysias’s speech immediately breaks. Socrates and Phaedrus both agree that love is an abstract concept which cannot be quickly and accurately described like material things. Lysias begins his speech with his own conviction of love’s essential quality, namely, that the kindness which comes from love is regretted once that feeling disappears. This definition is too strict and makes every point which follows it insubstantial. Lysias’s speech relies more on the actions of lovers and non-lovers than the different kinds of love someone can feel.
Socrates’ second speech shows his employment of a subsequent rule of rhetoric which Lysias had already prevented himself from following. When Socrates describes love as madness, he distinguishes between madness from human insecurity or fragility and madness that comes from a divine inspiration. The latter type of madness is further categorized into four different types with respective characters and divine inspirations. Even though Socrates didn’t believe in the Greek gods (and was executed for it), associating types of love with mythological figures is not completely arbitrary, since he understands the soul to be immortal and the part of the body which loves. Furthermore, the different types of love a person has can be observed in their goals and actions. Socrates asserts that a good rhetorician must make these subdivisions when discussing their subject matter, but that these divisions must be accurate to naturally occurring variance.
Audience and Application
Those first two rules of rhetoric address how rhetoric ought to be structured, but not how it should be used. Socrates later compares rhetoric to medicine, and gets Phaedrus to agree with him that a physician who knows how to perform specific treatments, but not when or to what extent they be performed, expecting his patients to figure this out, would not be a real physician. Likewise, a rhetorician who knows how to make a certain argument, but not how his listeners can benefit from it, is not a good rhetorician.
Announcing the utility of one’s argument goes hand in hand with clarifying its limits. Structuring an argument for a specific audience means it will inevitably assume importance within that context. It is important, then, for a good rhetorician to not overestimate how significant their contribution is and be aware of which questions or refutations can be settled and which ones cannot.
The Problem with Writing
The Phaedrus ends with Socrates retelling an old Egyptian myth of the gods Theuth (Thoth), the inventor of many arts and sciences, and Thamus, who ruled as king over Egypt. When Theuth brought his greatest invention, written language, to Thamus, explaining how it would make it easier for Egyptians to gain wisdom and hold onto memories, Thamus only figured that it would only deprive his people of real wisdom. He figured that more reading would remove his people from real knowledge and memory, since by reading they would only learn from a reminiscence of something that was truthful. They would become more dependent on writing, and further remove themselves from the actual thought, conversations, and experience which make people wise.
Socrates has this same understanding of writing as a reminiscence of when its rhetoric was most effective. To him, great writers and artists alike have come to grasp a fundamental truth in nature. However, it is precisely because they have such awareness of it that they can never express it entirely. On the contrary, those who claim to be wise often fail to hide their own lack of knowledge when their understandings are questioned. It would make sense that Socrates, having claimed “All I know is that I know nothing,” was never overzealous enough to write himself. Nonetheless, Plato’s dialogues prove that Socrates was a wise man, beholden to knowledge too truthful and profound to fit into cut-and-dried explanations.