Phaedrus, a young student of rhetoric, has just come from hearing famous speechwriter Lysias deliver a speech at a friend’s house. When he and philosopher Socrates later cross paths, Socrates asks to hear Lysias’s speech from Phaedrus. In his speech, Lysias makes a sensible, straightforward argument that young men should resist the advances of men who are in love with them, preferring relationships with men who don’t love them, since the latter aren’t driven mad by desire. Overturning the conventional meaning of “madness,” Socrates in turn argues the opposite of Lysias. By presenting Socrates’s argument in this way, Plato argues that the god-given “madness” of love actually orients people toward a philosophical life and thus turns their attentions toward eternal truth rather than the things of this earthly world.
Lysias argues that a young man should prefer a relationship with a man who doesn’t love him to a relationship with a man who does. Yet many of Lysias’s arguments are heavily based on self-interest. He argues that it makes more sense to “grant favors not to those who stand in great need of them [i.e., those in love] but to those who are most able to pay [you] back,” and “not to the sort who will take advantage of your youthful beauty but to the ones who will share their own advantages with you when you become older.” Young men, he argues, should be mindful of how they can gain from any sexual relationship with an older man.
According to Lysias, even as young men safeguard self-interest, they should also know that a man in love suffers from clouded judgment and does things he wouldn’t normally do. A man in love, for example, is more likely to develop a physical passion for a lover and later find out things he dislikes about that person, whereas if the affair is conducted on the basis of friendship instead of love, friendship is likely to remain once passion is spent. Lovers also tend to become upset over meaningless things and to praise things about their lover that don’t actually deserve praise.
In other words, if people in love “know they are out of their mind but cannot control themselves,” then how, “when they come to their senses, could they approve of the decisions they make when in this condition?” In Lysias’s estimation, being in love—and thus “out of one’s senses”—is invariably seen as a bad thing that obscures the truth and compromises a young man’s future.
Though Socrates initially responds to Lysias’s speech with his own speech praising “sense and sanity” over “love and madness,” he senses a supernatural nudge to try again and to praise the god Love more piously. Changing his approach, Socrates argues that if madness were a bad thing, it might be true that one shouldn’t gratify a man in love on the grounds of his “madness.” However, the gods’ greatest gifts come through madness, and the greatest of these gifts is “love [which] is … sent from the gods to help lover and beloved.”
Socrates’s argument revolves around his metaphor of the soul as a chariot led by two horses—the first horse good and noble, the second one bad, constantly dragging the soul downward and away from the vision of true beauty that leads to immortality. Some don’t resist the “bad horse” driving their soul’s “chariot,” because they forget to look beyond their lover’s earthly beauty “to beauty itself, when he gazes on its namesake here,” and they animalistically surrender themselves to shameless worldly pleasure. It may seem like such a man experiences madness when he does so, but he’s really just out of his senses.
However, the soul that remembers true beauty—eternal beauty—continually battles with these two “horses” when in the presence of a beautiful lover. The more often the “bad horse” is forcibly subdued by restraint, accompanied by the remembrance of true beauty, the more passion becomes tamed. Instead of being tempted to sexual indulgence, “the soul of the lover follows the beloved in reverence and awe” and is more and more oriented toward a life of philosophy. Besides harmony in this life, such a philosophical soul is on its way to regaining the heavenly sight of beauty, and thus immortality. People who are occupied with such things are usually dismissed as “mad,” but this madness is god-given, and is the wellspring from which love flows.
To sum up Socrates’s argument, then, it’s preferable for a man to have a relationship with one who’s in love with him. If he doesn’t grapple with the “madness” that springs from love, he won’t have the opportunity to train the “horses” leading his “chariot,” thus gaining the pleasures of philosophy and the eventual vision of true beauty. In contrast, if one embraces the seeming “good sense” of a relationship with someone who’s not in love with him, he’ll only gain “miserly benefits of a mortal kind,” causing him to “wallow mindlessly around the earth” instead of contemplating eternal truth and beauty.
Love and Madness ThemeTracker
Love and Madness Quotes in Phaedrus
Phaedrus — if I don’t know Phaedrus, I’ve forgotten even who I am. But I do, and I haven’t; I know perfectly well that when he heard Lysias’ speech he did not hear it just once, but repeatedly asked him to go through it for him, and Lysias responded readily. But for Phaedrus not even that was enough, and in the end he borrowed the book and examined the things in it which he was most eager to look at, and doing this he sat from sun-up until he was tired and went for a walk […] knowing the speech quite off by heart, unless it was a rather long one. He was going outside the wall to practice it, when he met the very person who is sick with passion for hearing people speak — and […] he was glad, because he would have a companion in his manic frenzy, and he told him to lead on.
Yet how is it reasonable to give away such a thing to someone in so unfortunate a condition — one that no person with experience of it would even try to prevent? For the ones who suffer it agree themselves that they are sick rather than in their right mind, and that they know they are out of their mind but cannot control themselves; so how, when they come to their senses, could they approve of the decisions they make when in this condition? Moreover, if you were to choose the best one out of those in love with you, your choice would be only from a few, while if you chose the most suitable to yourself out of everybody else, you would be choosing from many; so that you would have a much greater expectation of chancing on the man worthy of your affection among the many.
In everything, my boy, there is one starting-point for those who are going to deliberate successfully: they must know what they are deliberating about, or they will inevitably miss their target altogether. Most people are unaware that they do not know what each thing really is. So then, assuming that they know what it is, they fail to reach agreement about it at the beginning of their enquiry, and, having gone forward on this basis, they pay the penalty one would expect: they agree neither with themselves nor with each other. So let us, you and I, avoid having happen to us what we find fault with in others: since the discussion before you and me is whether one should rather enter into friendship with lover or with non-lover, let us establish an agreed definition of love, about what sort of thing it is and what power it possesses, and look to this as our point of reference while we make our enquiry as to whether it brings help or harm.
When I was about to cross the river, my good man, I had that supernatural experience, the sign that I am accustomed to having — on each occasion, you understand, it holds me back from whatever I am about to do — and I seemed to hear a kind of voice from the very spot, forbidding me to leave until I make expiation, because I have committed an offence against what belongs to the gods. Well, I am a seer; not a very good one, but like people who are poor at reading and writing, just good enough for my own purposes; so I already clearly understand what my offence is. For the fact is, my friend, that the soul too is something which has divinatory powers; for something certainly troubled me some while ago as I was making the speech, and I had a certain feeling of unease, as Ibycus says (if I remember rightly), ‘that for offences against the gods, I win renown from all my fellow men’. But now I realize my offence.
[It is not true that] when a lover is there for the having, one should rather grant favors to the one not in love, on the grounds that the first is mad, while the second is sane. That would be rightly said if it were a simple truth that madness is a bad thing; but as it is, the greatest of goods come to us through madness, provided that it is bestowed by divine gift. The prophetess at Delphi, no less, and the priestesses at Dodona do many fine things for Greece when mad, both on a private and on a public level, whereas when sane they achieve little or nothing; and if we speak of the Sibyl and of others who by means of inspired prophecy foretell many things to many people and set them on the right track with respect to the future, we would spin the story out by saying things that are obvious to everyone.
About its form we must say the following: that what kind of thing it is belongs to a completely and utterly superhuman exposition, and a long one; to say what it resembles requires a lesser one, one within human capacities. So let us speak in the latter way. Let it then resemble the combined power of a winged team of horses and their charioteer. Now in the case of gods, horses and charioteers are all both good themselves and of good stock; whereas in the case of the rest, there is a mixture. In the first place, our driver has charge of a pair; secondly, one of them he finds noble and good, and of similar stock, while the other is of the opposite stock, and opposite in its nature; so that the driving in our case is necessarily difficult and troublesome.
This is the life of gods; of the other souls, the one that follows god best and has come to resemble him most raises the head of its charioteer into the region outside and is carried round with the revolution, meanwhile being disturbed by its horses and scarcely seeing the things that are; while another now rises, now sinks, and because of the force exerted by its horses sees some things but not others. The remaining souls follow after them, all straining to reach the place above but unable to do so, and are carried round together under the surface, trampling and jostling one another, each trying to get ahead of the next. So there ensues the greatest confusion among the sweating competitors, and in all of it, through their charioteers’ incompetence, many souls are maimed, and many have their wings all broken; all of them with great labor depart without achieving a sight of what is, and afterwards feed on what only appears to nourish them.
When the agreed time comes, and they pretend not to remember, it reminds them; struggling, neighing, pulling, it forces them to approach the beloved again to make the same proposition, and as soon as they are close to him, head down and tail outstretched, teeth clamped on its bit, it pulls shamelessly; but the same thing happens to the charioteer as before, only even more violently, as he falls back as if from a starting barrier; still more violently, he wrenches the bit back and forces it from the teeth of the horse of excess, spattering its evil-speaking tongue and its jaws with blood and, thrusting its legs and haunches to the ground […] When the bad horse has had the same thing happen to it repeatedly and it ceases from its excess, now humbled it allows the charioteer with his foresight to lead, and when it sees the boy in his beauty, it nearly dies of fright; and the result is that then the soul of the lover follows the beloved in reverence and awe.
And then, well, if the better elements of their minds get the upper hand by drawing them to a well-ordered life, and to philosophy, they pass their life here in blessedness and harmony, masters of themselves and orderly in their behavior, having enslaved that part through which badness attempted to enter the soul and having freed that part through which goodness enters; and when they die they become winged and light, and have won one of their three submissions in these, the true Olympic games - and neither human sanity nor divine madness has any greater good to offer a man than this. But if they live a coarser way of life, devoted not to wisdom but to honor, then perhaps, I suppose, when they are drinking or in some other moment of carelessness, the licentious horses in the two of them catch them off their guard, bring them together and make that choice which is called blessed by the many, and carry it through…
These are the blessings, my boy, so great as to be counted divine, that will come to you from the friendship of a lover, in the way I have described; whereas the acquaintance of the one not in love, which is diluted with a merely mortal good sense, dispensing miserly benefits of a mortal kind, engenders in the soul that is the object of its attachment a meanness that, though praised by the many as a virtue, will cause it to wallow mindlessly around the earth and under the earth for nine thousand years.