After Socrates has refuted the speechwriter Lysias’s argument about love, Socrates and Phaedrus begin talking about the speechwriting (rhetorical) profession in general. In the ancient world, rhetoric—which Socrates defines as “a kind of leading of the soul by means of speech”—was sometimes dismissed as a manipulative art that held loosely to the truth. Through Socrates and Phaedrus’s discussion, Plato argues that, while rhetoric in itself isn’t a shameful pursuit, it isn’t enough for a speaker to master rhetorical tools; to truly speak and write well, he must understand souls—that is, a good rhetorician must be a philosopher.
Socrates rejects the idea that the goal of rhetoric is persuasion alone. Socrates asks Phaedrus whether, in order to speak or write well, it’s necessary for one to possess knowledge of the subject he intends to tackle. Phaedrus responds that he’s heard it isn’t necessary for an orator to know, for instance, what is truly just, but only what appears to be just, since the object of speaking is to persuade, and knowledge of the truth isn’t necessary for that.
Socrates counters Phaedrus by giving an example of someone making a persuasive speech claiming that a worthless donkey is actually a valuable horse. If an expert in rhetoric is ignorant of good and bad and tries to persuade an ignorant populace “to do something bad instead of good, what sort of harvest do you think rhetoric reaps after that from the seed it sowed?” Phaedrus acknowledges that the harvest would be poor. Thus, it’s necessary that a good orator “should acquire the truth first and then get hold of [rhetoric].” Socrates further points out that a skilled rhetorician has the ability to make the same thing appear at one time just and at another time unjust—simply “playing” with his audience. He rejects the idea that rhetoric should be primarily concerned with persuasion alone.
Nevertheless, Socrates argues that rhetorical tools are indispensable for speaking and writing well. Socrates suggests that they examine the speech Lysias gave, and the speeches Socrates gave in response, to understand the proper use of rhetoric. When Phaedrus reads Lysias’s speech again, Socrates points out that Lysias doesn’t define “love” from the beginning. This is a problem because, while audiences have the same meanings in mind when they hear concrete terms like “iron” or “silver,” an abstract term like “love” sends everyone in different mental directions.
Also, Lysias starts his argument about love not from the beginning, but “from the end, trying to swim through his speech in reverse, [and] … begins from the things the lover would say to his beloved when he’d already finished loving.” As a result of this convoluted approach, the rest of the speech is randomly organized and therefore garbled, insufficiently informed by the science of rhetoric.
Socrates explains that “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”; that is, each part should fit with each other part and with the whole. This organic structure serves truth by ensuring that the orator’s argument can be clearly understood throughout.
According to Socrates, the art of rhetoric also includes the ability to collect and divide things properly. Socrates goes through his second speech and shows Phaedrus how he organized his argument—for example, collecting in one place the various types of madness, so that it was clear what Socrates did and didn’t mean about the “madness” of love, allowing the speech as a whole to be internally consistent.
Secondly, Socrates explains that a speech needs to be divided at its “natural joints,” not sliced up like the work of an “inexpert butcher.” Because Lysias failed to divide his subject properly, he discussed madness as though it were a single thing, while Socrates divided “madness” up into various kinds and was thus able to show how love is a praiseworthy form of it.
Socrates goes on to explain that this ability to collect and divide so as to speak and write properly is actually not rhetoric per se, but dialectic—the systematic inquiry into the truth which Socrates held to be the heart of philosophy. When dialectic, with its concern for truth, is joined to other rhetorical tools, rhetoric is on its way to being truly philosophical. One more thing is needed, however.
To use the tools of rhetoric and dialectic well, Socrates argues, it’s necessary to have a thorough knowledge of the soul. Socrates explains that if somebody claimed to be an expert doctor, but in reality only knew how to cause a patient to vomit or help their bowels move, people would say that that “doctor” may have stumbled upon a remedy or two, but didn’t know anything of the science of medicine. Likewise, a novice musician can’t claim to be an expert on harmony just because he knows how to produce high and low notes on his strings. Such things are necessary rudiments and prerequisites, but in no way does grasping them suggest mastery over the sciences of which they’re part.
From this Socrates argues that, if rhetoric is indeed the leading of the soul by means of speech, then “the man who means to be an expert in rhetoric must know how many forms soul has,” “why some people are like this, and others like that,” why different people are responsive to different methods of persuasion, and so on. Only when someone has learned these things and observed them in real life is he then prepared to speak in different ways suitable to different occasions (that is, be a true rhetorician). Whenever someone lacks the fullness of this knowledge of souls and how to address them, he isn’t truly speaking according to the science of rhetoric, regardless of what he claims.
By having Socrates examine the three speeches that occur earlier in the dialogue, Plato is able to build a nuanced argument for the necessity of rhetoric as well as its insufficiency by itself for speaking well. He neither dismisses the value of rhetoric as a persuasive tool nor disregards its potential risks; instead, he raises the broader contemporary debate about rhetoric to another level by showing that the orator must also be vitally concerned with whom he is persuading—that is, he must be a philosopher.
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Rhetoric and Philosophy 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.
But, Phaedrus, 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; just because after that he must set the shape of the Centaurs to rights, and again that of the Chimaera, and a mob of such things […] if someone is skeptical about these, and tries with his boorish kind of wisdom to reduce each to what is likely, he’ll need a good deal of leisure. As for me, there’s no way I have leisure for it all, and the reason for it, my friend, is this. I am not yet capable of ‘knowing myself’, in accordance with the Delphic inscription; so it seems absurd to me that while I am still ignorant of this subject I should inquire into things which do not belong to me.
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.
Socrates: Well then, for things that are going to be said well, and beautifully, mustn’t there be knowledge in the mind of the speaker of the truth about whatever he means to speak of?
Phaedrus: What I have heard about this, my dear Socrates, is that there is no necessity for the man who means to be an orator to understand what is really just but only what would appear so to the majority of those who will give judgement; and not what is really good or beautiful but whatever will appear so; because persuasion comes from that and not from the truth.
Socrates: …[I]t would be [ridiculous] when I tried in earnest to persuade you by putting together a speech in praise of the donkey, labelling it a horse and saying that the beast would be an invaluable acquisition both at home and on active service, useful to fight from and capable too of carrying baggage, and good for many other purposes.
Phaedrus: Then it would be thoroughly ridiculous.
Socrates: Well then, isn’t it better to be ridiculous and a friend than to be clever and an enemy? […] So when an expert in rhetoric who is ignorant of good and bad finds a city in the same condition and tries to persuade it, by making his eulogy not about a miserable donkey as if it were a horse but about what is bad as if it were good, and — having applied himself to what the masses think — actually persuades the city to do something bad instead of good, what sort of harvest do you think rhetoric reaps after that from the seed it sowed?
Socrates: Isn’t this sort of thing, at least, clear to anyone: that we’re of one mind about some things like this, and at odds about others? […] When someone utters the name of iron, or of silver, don’t we all have the same thing in mind?
Socrates: What about the names of just, or good? Doesn’t one of us go off in one direction, another in another, so that we disagree both with each other and with ourselves? […] So in which of the two cases are we easier to deceive, and in which does rhetoric have the greater power?
Phaedrus: Clearly in those cases where we go off in different directions.
Socrates: So the one who means to pursue a science of rhetoric must first have divided these up methodically and grasped some mark which distinguishes each of the two kinds, those in which most people are bound to tread uncertainly, and those in which they are not.
Now I am myself, Phaedrus, a lover of these divisions and collections, so that I may be able both to speak and to think; and if I find anyone else who I think has the natural capacity to look to one and to many, I pursue him ‘in his footsteps, behind him, as if he were a god’. And the name I give those who can do this - whether it’s the right one or not, god knows, but at any rate up till now I have called them ‘experts in dialectic’.
The method of the science of medicine is, I suppose, the same as that of the science of rhetoric. […] In both sciences it is necessary to determine the nature of something, in the one science the nature of body, in the other the nature of soul, if you are to proceed scientifically, and not merely by knack and experience, to produce health and strength in the one by applying medicines and diet to it, and to pass on to the other whatever conviction you wish, along with excellence, by applying words and practices in conformance with law and custom.
But I think it is far finer if one is in earnest about those subjects: when one makes use of the science of dialectic and, taking a fitting soul, plants and sows in it words accompanied by knowledge, which are sufficient to help themselves and the one who planted them, and are not without fruit but contain a seed from which others grow in other soils, capable of rendering that seed forever immortal, and making the one who has it as happy as it is possible for a man to be.
Until a person knows the truth about each of the things about which he speaks or writes, and becomes capable of defining the whole by itself, and, having defined it, knows how to cut it up again according to its forms until it can no longer be cut; and until he has reached an understanding of the nature of soul along the same lines, discovering the form of speech that fits each nature, and so arranges and orders what he says, offering a complex soul complex speeches containing all the modes, and simple speeches to a simple soul: not until then will he be capable of pursuing the making of speeches as a whole in a scientific way, to the degree that its nature allows, whether for the purposes of teaching or for those of persuading either, as the whole of our previous argument has indicated.