The philosopher Socrates encounters Phaedrus, a young student of rhetoric, outside the Athens city walls. When he learns that Phaedrus has just come from hearing Lysias, a famous orator, Socrates is interested in hearing Lysias’s speech for himself. He persuades Phaedrus, who’s carrying a copy of Lysias’s speech, to read it aloud.
Lysias’s speech is addressed to a young man, arguing that it’s better to have a sexual relationship with someone who’s not in love with you than with someone who is. A primary reason for this, according to Lysias, is that people in love aren’t in their right mind, and they act under the compulsion of madness rather than according to free choice. Lysias also tries to persuade his listener that the long-term social advantages are greater when a relationship is grounded in friendship rather than passion.
When Phaedrus sees that Socrates isn’t impressed with Lysias’s speech, he prevails upon his friend to deliver his own speech in response. Though he’s not enthusiastic about doing so, Socrates agrees and gives a speech parodying Lysias’s. Like Lysias, Socrates speaks as a man trying to persuade a younger man to sleep with him even though they’re not in love. He defines love as a form of madness that occurs when desire overpowers one’s better judgment. This madness causes lovers to deprive their beloved of good things out of jealousy, even keeping them from philosophy, that source of greatest happiness. Love eventually spends itself and fizzles out, leaving both men in a worse condition than they were before.
After Socrates finishes his speech and is about to leave, he senses a supernatural nudge warning him that his words have displeased the gods by slandering Eros, the god of love. Socrates starts over with a second speech. He completely changes tactics by arguing that it’s wrong to reject the advances of a lover on the ground of the lover’s madness. When madness is given by the gods, it is a praiseworthy thing. The very best “madness” is love.
In defense of this idea, Socrates gives an elaborate explanation of the nature of the soul. He describes the soul metaphorically as a winged chariot driven by two horses, one noble and one filled with lowly desires. Souls that can control their “horses” attain the summit of heaven and glimpse eternal realities, but most are dragged back toward earth by the lowly horse. Those who can remember their soul’s glimpse of eternal beauty in an earlier existence are constantly oriented heavenward, making average people assume they’re mad.
Socrates goes on to explain that the philosophically inclined soul will work hard to restrain his “bad” horse through self-control and remembrance of heavenly beauty. With lots of practice, the lowly horse is eventually subdued, and the lover enjoys a passionate relationship with his beloved, but it’s focused on the beauties of philosophy, not on sex. Only this kind of relationship orients someone’s soul heavenward; thus, there are greater benefits in a relationship with one who’s in love with you than with someone who isn’t.
Socrates and Phaedrus then discuss rhetoric and the difference between good and bad speaking, since Phaedrus admits that Socrates’s second speech is superior to Lysias’s speech, but he can’t explain why. Socrates begins by establishing that rhetoric must be concerned with the truth, not just with what appears to be persuasive. Next, he explains that, if rhetoric is a “leading of the soul by means of speech,” then it’s important for a speaker to understand the nature of the soul.
Together they examine Lysias’s speech and discuss Lysias’s failure to properly define his subject from the beginning. Socrates explains that precise definition is important and is connected to the philosophical practice of dialectic—of clarifying a topic through step-by-step inquiry. He shows how he carefully divided up the topic of “madness” in his own speech in order to lead his audience through his argument that love is a desirable form of madness. He also argues for the indispensability of the soul to the practice of rhetoric; no one who has merely mastered rhetorical skills can claim to be an expert in the art of rhetoric unless he knows how to apply rhetorical remedies to specific souls in specific contexts.
Finally, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the propriety of writing speeches. Writing is a relatively new and ambivalent technology in Socrates’s eyes—it promotes the appearance of wisdom while undercutting the reality of it. This is because writing is silent and lifeless, unable to respond to inquiry or challenge. Philosophical dialectic is superior, because it’s adapted to each specific soul and, through interaction, guides that soul toward wisdom.