Phaedrus

by

Plato

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Phaedrus: 257c-274a Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Phaedrus praises Socrates’s speech and admits that Lysias now appears “wretched” to him by comparison. He muses that he heard someone disparaging Lysias as a “speech-writer,” and that writers of speeches fear being dismissed as “sophists” by posterity. However, Socrates points out that some people crave recognition as speech-writers even in their own lifetimes.
Phaedrus’s attitude toward Lysias shifts dramatically after he hears Socrates’s lengthy speech. However, he isn’t yet able to explain why Socrates’s speech was better—something Socrates will explore in the coming section. The stigma attached to “sophists” is that they essentially sell knowledge and rhetorical tricks rather than imparting enduring skill and knowledge. 
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Socrates asserts that writing speeches itself isn’t to be considered shameful, but speaking and writing poorly is shameful. He suggests that they discuss what it means to write well or badly, and Phaedrus agrees that this will be a pleasure. Socrates also says that perhaps the cicadas singing overhead—according to legend, they used to be humans who sang ceaselessly until they died—will bestow the Muses’ divine gifts on them. 
Socrates has successfully guided Phaedrus toward a deeper exploration of what constitutes good or bad speaking. Socrates continues to be attentive to supernatural elements in their surroundings and the impact these have on human speech.
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Socrates asks whether, if something is going to be said well and beautifully, it’s necessary that the speaker have knowledge of his intended subject. Phaedrus replies that he’s heard that it’s not necessary for an orator to know what is really just, but only what appears to be so to the majority, because “persuasion comes from [appearance] and not from the truth.”
Phaedrus’s response reflects a common outlook among popular orators at the time—that persuasion is the ultimate goal of speaking, regardless of the underlying truth of the matter at hand.
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Socrates gives an example, imagining a scenario where Socrates wanted to persuade Phaedrus to defend himself against his enemies by getting a horse, but Phaedrus thought that a donkey was a horse and Socrates knew no better. If Socrates gave a speech persuading Phaedrus to get a donkey, thinking it was a horse, it would be quite ridiculous, but at least it would be foolishness committed in the context of friendship.
Socrates offers this silly scenario in order to set up a much more harmful scenario by way of contrast.
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Wanting to establish the point that a ridiculous friend is better than a clever enemy, Socrates gives another scenario—that of a rhetorical expert, knowing nothing of good and bad, who finds a city as ignorant as he is and gives a speech commending something bad as if it were good and persuading the city to act accordingly. Socrates asks what sort of harvest this would yield. Phaedrus admits that it wouldn’t be a very good one.
Socrates’ point is that it’s one thing if someone tries to persuade a friend of something foolish out of ignorance; but someone whose skills garner authority and respect has the power to influence an ignorant populace in any way he likes. This suggests that knowing the truth before speaking is, in fact, quite important.
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Socrates then moves to the argument that “unless [Phaedrus] engages in philosophy sufficiently well, neither will he ever be a sufficiently good speaker about anything.” He begins by saying that rhetoric is “a kind of leading of the soul by means of speech.” Socrates also suggests that it’s important for a speaker to understand the truth of things in order to identify fine distinctions between them, in order to lead souls in one direction or another.
Having established the point that truth matters in rhetoric, Socrates reaches the next step in his argument about what constitutes good vs. bad speaking—that one must be a good philosopher in order to speak well. This is because rhetoric is aimed at the soul.
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Socrates and Phaedrus decide to examine Lysias’s speech and Socrates’s own, in order to see whether they accord with the science of rhetoric, and to see if they can find an example of how “someone who knows the truth can mislead his audience by playing with them.” Phaedrus accordingly reads aloud the beginning of Lysias’s speech.
Socrates doesn’t discuss rhetoric in the abstract, but scrutinizes the earlier speeches in order to identify where they go wrong and how they function. The function of those two speeches—so clearly aimed at influencing the hearer’s soul in a specific direction—within the dialogue as a whole become clearer.
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Socrates stops Phaedrus after he’s read a few lines. He points out that, when people use certain concrete terms, such as “iron” or “silver,” everyone who hears them has the same thing in mind. But in the case of more abstract things, like justice or goodness, “one of us [goes] off in one direction, another in another, so that we disagree both with each other and with ourselves.” In these latter cases, rhetoric is more powerful, because it has greater power to deceive. So, a foundational rhetorical skill is to be able to distinguish between clearer and more uncertain kinds of things.
Socrates points out that it’s critical for speakers to clearly define things—especially more abstract ideas—from the outset, so as to be consistent with themselves and not lead their audiences astray. This is a point at which an unscrupulous speaker can easily manipulate an audience.
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Phaedrus and Socrates agree that “love” is a more abstract, uncertain type of thing, and Phaedrus aptly points out that Socrates indeed toyed with his audience by describing love as harmful in one speech and as the greatest of gifts in the other. They look again at Lysias’s speech to see if he clearly defined “love” at the beginning and ordered the rest of the speech accordingly.
Socrates, no doubt aware of what he was doing, achieved the very rhetorical trick they’ve just been criticizing in his pair of speeches on love—presenting love one way in the first speech and the opposite way in the sequel.
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After Phaedrus reads the beginning of Lysias’s speech again, Socrates points out that Lysias didn’t even “begin from the beginning,” but tried “to swim through his speech in reverse, on his back,” with the result that the rest of the speech is thrown together in a “random heap,” as though he was simply saying things as they occurred to him. Socrates suggests that, instead, “every speech should be put together like a living creature, as it were with a body of its own, so as not to lack either a head or feet but to have both middle parts and extremities, so written as to fit both each other and the whole.”
Socrates points out that Lysias began his speech with the words of a disenchanted lover, rather than starting with a clear definition of love, and that this had a muddled effect on the speech as a whole. It seems that Lysias not only isn’t clear about the truth of his subject, but he isn’t as skilled in the science of rhetoric as he’s reputed to be.
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In contrast to Lysias’s speech, Socrates points out how he began his second speech by first distinguishing between human and divinely caused forms of madness, and from there identified four types of divine madness, culminating in the best one, love. He explains to Phaedrus how this worked scientifically: first, he gathered together scattered things under one heading (madness), then divided the one heading up again, according to the subject’s “natural joints.” The first two speeches failed to gather and divide properly, assuming that “madness” has only a single form and then slicing up that form until it settled on an abusive form of “love” that proved the speaker’s argument. Socrates explains that he calls this ability to collect and divide properly “dialectic.”
Socrates explains how and why he arranged his second speech on love. None of his choices were accidental, but worked together toward a specific persuasive aim. From there he’s able to show how Lysias’s speech and his own initial speech were poorly—and manipulatively—constructed, assuming from the beginning that love is an undesirable form of madness. Socrates associates the term “dialectic”—the same method he follows in philosophical discussion—with the ability to think and speak in an organized fashion about a topic.
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Socrates and Phaedrus talk for a while about the various components of a proper speech, according to the consensus of famous Greek rhetoricians. But Socrates maintains that there’s a gap in their approach. By way of example, Socrates describes an “expert” doctor who only knows remedies relating to one’s body temperature or bowels, or a playwright who only knows how to write specific types of passages, or a musician who claims expertise in harmony, but only knows how to produce certain notes.
Socrates goes on a slight side trail from the subject of dialectic, admitting the value of expert views on the science of rhetoric, but arguing that these men are missing something vital. They’re like naïve aspirants in other fields, who imagine they’ve grasped the whole of their profession, but have only actually mastered certain rudiments.
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Socrates explains that, just as it’s important in the science of medicine to understand the nature of the body, so in rhetoric one must understand the nature of the soul. Instead of “[producing] health and strength” in the body “by applying medicines and diet to it,” in rhetoric one “[passes] on to the [soul] whatever conviction you wish, along with excellence, by applying words and practices.” 
Socrates returns to the centrality of the soul in the practice of rhetoric, drawing a parallel between medicine and rhetoric as healing arts for body and soul respectively.
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Socrates says that a rhetorician must understand the various types of souls and how various types of speech can be successfully applied to each. Therefore, anyone who claims to teach rhetoric accurately, yet doesn’t delineate the various forms of soul, can’t claim to be approaching his subject scientifically. A student of rhetoric must both grasp the theory and observe these things being put into practice. Once he has done these things and knows how to speak to the specific person in front of him on a given occasion, only then will “his grasp of the science … be well and completely finished.” 
Socrates sums up what he thinks the curriculum for rhetoric should be, as opposed to the abridged version that most manuals of the subject actually present. One can only claim to teach or practice rhetoric when technical skills are matched by a thorough grasp of souls and how to guide them under specific circumstances.
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