Socrates comes upon Phaedrus outside the city walls of Athens. He asks his young friend, “Where is it you’re going, and where have you come from?” Phaedrus says he’s just come from hearing Lysias speak and is taking a refreshing walk.
Socrates’s query isn’t just small talk; he’s concerned about where his protégée is headed in a larger sense and how he’s being influenced along the way—especially when he hears that Phaedrus has been learning from famed orator Lysias. Socrates’ words also gesture ahead to his upcoming discussion about the journey of the soul.
Socrates asks if Lysias had been “feasting you all with his speeches.” Phaedrus says that it will be appropriate for Socrates to hear about Lysias’s speech because it was “in a certain sort of way about love.” He goes on to explain that in his speech, Lysias argued that one should grant sexual favors to a man who’s not in love with him rather than one who is.
The subject of rhetoric and its purported delights will recur throughout this dialogue. Phaedrus’s term for “love”—“eros” in Greek—has definite sexual connotations. While sexual relationships between older mentors and younger men weren’t uncommon in elite Athenian circles, Lysias’s speech sounds as if it is particularly suggestive, assuming that a young man will have many opportunities to “grant his favors.”
With a heavy dose of sarcasm, Socrates remarks that Lysias’s speech sounds admirable, and that if only he were arguing in favor of a poor man over a rich one, or an older man instead of a young one, “then his speeches would be … for the general good.” He tells Phaedrus he wants to hear the speech. Phaedrus acts astonished that Socrates would expect him, a novice, to be able to repeat from memory the speech of such a clever writer.
Socrates’s sarcasm suggests that he doesn’t think much of Lysias or his chosen subject. His comments also suggest that he thinks the value of speeches lies in their usefulness to the general public. He wants to hear what’s gotten young Phaedrus so fired up, but Phaedrus, rather coyly, replies that he could never imitate a speaker of Lysias’s stature.
Socrates retorts that if he knows Phaedrus at all, Phaedrus asked to hear Lysias’s speech not once, but repeatedly, and even borrowed a copy to memorize. He’s sure that Phaedrus wants a companion in his “manic frenzy,” and Phaedrus has come upon “the one who is sick with passion for hearing people speak,” so he might as well go ahead and speak, since he wants to anyway.
Phaedrus is known for being an enthusiastic fan of speeches, to the point that he likes to learn them by heart. Socrates describes this passion in both Phaedrus and in himself as a kind of “madness,” a theme he’ll develop later. And Socrates’s love of “hearing people speak” is different from simply listening to speeches, a point that will also be brought out as he talks more about rhetoric.
Phaedrus agrees to run through the speech, but Socrates asks to see what’s hidden under Phaedrus’s cloak. It’s a copy of the speech, as he’d suspected. Socrates tells Phaedrus he’d rather not have Phaedrus practice declaiming a speech he’s memorized, if he can hear Lysias’s exact words instead. Phaedrus admits he’s been foiled.
Phaedrus had been hoping to give a dramatic delivery of Lysias’ speech, but Socrates would rather hear it straight. The fact that Phaedrus is carrying around and practicing Lysias’ speech suggests he’s interested in modeling himself on Lysias. Socrates doesn’t seem too impressed by that fact.
Socrates and Phaedrus find a shady spot on the riverbank where they can sit and read Lysias’s speech. Phaedrus asks if this is the spot where the wind god Boreas was said to have seized the daughter of the King of Athens, and whether Socrates believes this “fairy-tale” to be true. Socrates admits that “wise people” disbelieve the story and offer some plausibly logical re-readings of the tale. However, he adds, “while I think such explanations attractive in other respects, they belong in my view to an over-clever and laborious person who is not altogether fortunate.”
Phaedrus appears to scoff at this traditional Greek tale as unsophisticated—in contrast to the sophisticated rhetorical style he favors. However, Socrates, as Plato portrays him, is never eager to identify himself with the self-proclaimed “wise.” He sees value in traditional stories and myths that more clever folks too readily dismiss—to their detriment, Socrates suggests.
When Socrates speaks poetically of the beauties of the spot, Phaedrus remarks that Socrates is an extraordinary person—even though he’s a local, he acts as though the place is new to him. Socrates explains that as a lover of learning, he doesn’t learn anything from the country, but from the people of the city. He teases Phaedrus that “speeches in books” will be just the thing to get him out in nature more.
Socrates isn’t truly unappreciative of what the country has to offer, but his comment about people in cities is in keeping with his view that conversation with others is the key to learning. His ambivalence toward written books will come up again later.