Phaedrus finishes reading Lysias’s speech and asks Socrates what he thought of it. Socrates replies that he was “beside himself” listening to the speech, particularly because Phaedrus was “beaming with delight” as he read it; he couldn’t help joining in the supernatural “ecstasy” of his “inspired” friend. Phaedrus senses that Socrates is joking with him. Socrates admits that he was only paying attention to “the rhetorical aspect of the speech.” It seemed to him that Lysias said “the same things two or three times over” and with a “youthful swagger.”
Socrates teases Phaedrus good-naturedly about his enthusiasm for this speech; his observation that Phaedrus appears divinely inspired in his delivery of the speech perhaps suggests that Lysias wasn’t so inspired in the writing of it. Socrates further acknowledges that the content didn’t interest him so much as the construction of the speech itself—and that didn’t impress him very much.
Phaedrus says that Socrates is “talking nonsense,” and that Lysias’s speech lacked nothing worth saying on the subject. Though Socrates pleads “ignorance” and his layman status, Phaedrus eventually prevails upon him to say something more and different about love. But Socrates says he’ll speak with his head covered, so he can proceed quickly and not be embarrassed by seeing Phaedrus’s reactions.
Phaedrus doesn’t see anything lacking in Lysias’s speech and playfully strong-arms his older friend into attempting something better. Socrates’s claims of “ignorance” reflect his belief that philosophy is about pursuing wisdom and not about possessing knowledge. He doesn’t feel suited to making a speech of this kind, perhaps because he’s not interested in trying to beat a popular rhetorician at his own game.
Socrates calls upon the Muses for help with his speech. He opens by telling the story of a handsome young lad with many lovers. One cunning lover convinced the lad that he (the lover) was not in love with the boy. This lover began to persuade the boy that he should grant favors to him rather than to someone who’s in love with the boy.
Socrates is clearly setting up his speech so as to undercut Lysias’s claims. The forthcoming speech will parody Lysias.
Socrates quotes the imaginary lover as saying that most people fail to establish the subject of their deliberations at the outset, so they end up agreeing neither with themselves nor each other. He therefore proposes that he and the lad agree on a definition of love to serve as the basis for subsequent discussion.
Socrates explains that, in order to distinguish between a man who’s in love and one who isn’t, the first step is to observe that every person is ruled by two things: “the one an inborn desire for pleasures, the other an acquired judgment that aims at the best.” These things are sometimes in accord; at other times they’re not, with one or the other gaining the upper hand. When judgment is in control, it’s called “restraint”; when desire is in charge, it’s called “excess.” Socrates explains that when the irrational drive toward pleasure overpowers restraint, this is called “love.”
Socrates continues to establish what he means by “love” within the context of this parodic speech. Now he begins to explore a person’s internal motivations, hinting at his later development of the topic of the soul. The Greek term for “restraint,” sophrosune, means something like “being in one’s right mind,” suggesting that its opposite is a kind of madness. In this speech, Socrates views love as a kind of madness that overpowers restraint.
In a brief aside, Socrates asks Phaedrus if he thinks that Socrates, too, is under divine inspiration. Phaedrus agrees that he’s speaking especially fluently. Socrates resumes the speech, arguing that one who’s ruled by desire will want to make his beloved as appealing to himself as possible, and will be jealous of any strengths in his beloved which he himself lacks. Therefore, he’ll keep his beloved away from many beneficial things, and will even “be the cause of the greatest harm by keeping him from that association from which he would become wisest.”
Socrates argues that the “madness” of love is to the beloved’s detriment—and the worst outcome is that, out of jealousy, a lover might prevent his beloved from pursuing philosophy, that love of wisdom which Socrates sees as the path of greatest happiness for a person. A lover will want his partner to look to himself (the lover) for all things, so philosophy would be viewed as unwelcome competition—a rival lover.
An excessive lover, Socrates goes on, will even keep his beloved in a weak physical condition and try to keep him away from family, possessions, and marriage for as long as possible, caring only for his own enjoyment. Moreover, there will be an aspect of unhealthy compulsion in the relationship that will make the young boyfriend feel trapped by his older lover, and will eventually make that lover repugnant to him.
Someone who’s madly in love, Socrates explains, will overstep the culturally understood boundaries of such relationships by preventing his boyfriend from maturing and moving on to take his expected place within society. He paints a picture of a relationship driven by love as an inherently abusive setup.
When the lover falls out of love and returns to his senses, leaving his “previous mindless regime,” says Socrates, the indignant boyfriend will realize that his lover doesn’t intend to make good on his former promises. Socrates concludes that “the friendship of a lover does not come with goodwill; it’s like an appetite for food, for the purpose of filling up—as wolves love lambs, so is lovers’ affection for a boy.” Phaedrus wants to know if Socrates will go on to praise the virtues of the non-lover.
In this speech, Socrates portrays love as inevitably fizzling out and resulting in enmity between the former lovers. To him love is an animalistic appetite that’s not sustainable or grounded in genuine affection for its object.