|© 1996, 1997 Bernard SUZANNE||Last updated November 22, 1998|
| Plato and his dialogues :
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(4th tetralogy : The Soul - 1st dialogue of trilogy)
The Phædrus, as the first dialogue of the central trilogy on the soul, deals with the "nature (phusis)" of the soul, as opposed to its behavior (Republic) or destiny (Phædo). And indeed, nature is more akin to the lower part of the soul ; behavior depends in the end on the choices of the middle part ; and destiny chiefly concerns the "immortal" part of the soul, the logos. But this doesn't mean that the Phædrus only deals with the lower part of the soul, the epithumiai, while the two other dialogues would deal each with another part. Quite the contrary : each one looks at the whole soul, only from its specific standpoint.
The noblest part of the soul is the logos. Logos is a Greek word loaded with multiple meanings. As a part of the soul, it stands for "reason". But it is the very same word that may also mean "speech" ! And so is it that logos-speech may be viewed as the "materialization" of logos-reason, its "visible" (or rather "audible", but in any event perceptible by the senses) dimension, the side of it that most relates to "nature", the "physical" world. This is the reason why a dialogue on the "nature" of the soul must deal with speech.
On the other hand, the part of the soul most closely related to "nature", to the visible world, is the epithumiai, the desires, passions, appetites, whose common driving force is the thirst for pleasure fueled in each case by some sort of "love", eros. What a better topic then, to investigate the nature of the soul, than eros, and more precisely, logoi on eros, speeches on love that will find their justification, their rationale (another meaning of logos) in a speech on speeches, a logos on logoi ?!...
And indeed, starting from a written (that is, one step deeper in "matter") speech by a professional speech-writer (Lysias) who attempts to satisfy his erotic drive by denying love as the "matter" of his investigation, Socrates will develop three "speeches" that each climb one step higher in the soul. A first speech shows what love might mean to a soul limited to epithumiai. A second one brings about the choice of lifestyle a soul has to make between looking down toward the earth and looking up toward gods and "ideas", and it gives a vivid image of this situation by comparing the soul to a winged chariot whose charioteer has to deal with two quite different horses, one tractable and the other stubborn. The third "speech" is no longer a continuous speech, but a dialogue that gives the rules of a proper use of logos through the criticism of the earlier speeches and of masters of rhetoric of the time.
From the standpoint of setting, in order to deal with the nature of the soul, Plato moves Socrates (and us) out of the city in the middle of green nature and takes ample time to help us appreciate the scenery in one of his most "scenic" dialogues. And because nature is what is immediately available to our senses, he writes a direct dialogue which plunges us up front in a discussion between Socrates and Phædrus, and we get all the information about the surroundings -- quite a lot at that : time, place, scenery, weather, vegetation, ... -- only from the logos of the two characters. And he tries to talk to all parts of our soul by masterfully mixing cunning, myth and poetry, vivid images and tight dialectic in a carefully built structure (see the plan of the dialogue).
. . . . WORK IN PROGRESS - PLEASE BE PATIENT . . .