|© 1996, 1997 Bernard SUZANNE
|Last updated May 16, 2004
| Plato and his dialogues :
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(4th tetralogy : The Soul - 1st dialogue of trilogy)
|Introduction : the hidden speech from Lysias and the silent book from Nature
|1. The soulless speeches :
Lysias' speech and Socrates' 1st speech
1.1. Lysias' speech read by Phædrus from the roll
Interlude : Socrates' criticism of Lysias' speech
Prologue to Socrates' speeches : Lysias vs. Socrates and Phædrus' pledge
1.2. Socrates' first speech spoken with his head hidden
|Interlude : Socrates' need of a palinode to appease the god
|2. The speech on the soul : Socrates' 2nd speech
|Interlude : the speechwriters' desire to write to equal gods
|3. The soul of speeches : Socrates' dialogue (3rd "speech") on true rhetoric
|Conclusion : the silence of written books and the spoken message to Lysias
|Epilogue : Lysias vs. Isocrates and Socrates' prayer
The overall plan of the dialogue shows it is made up, between an introduction and a conclusion, of three major parts separated by two "interludes". The first part comprises two speeches linked together by one more interlude : Lysias' speech read by Phædrus and Socrates' first speech, the "soulless speeches". And indeed, the word "soul (psuchè)" appears for the first time in the dialogue at the very end of Socrates' first speech (1), when Socrates is about through with what he was forced to do. Actually, as has been said in the introduction to the dialogue, this section shows, not a soulless love, but a love inspired by epithumiai alone, a soul limited to its lowest part (2) as evidenced by the "graphical" fact that Socrates delivers this speech with his head, his logos, veiled (Phædrus, 237a). The second part corresponds to Socrates' second speech, the speech on the soul. This speech focuses on the composite nature of the soul and the conflict that ensues within it, and it highlights the role of the idea of beauty -- idea for the logos and beauty for the feelings -- as mediator between our earthly, bodily, nature and our aspiration toward the divine, heavenly beings, pictured by the wings. The third part is a dialogue between Socrates and Phædrus that criticizes the existing schools of rhetoric and defines what true rhetoric, that is, the rules for a proper use of the logos in its material dimension, should be. It points at dialectic and true knowledge of the soul as the "soul" of speeches.
Before looking in more details at the structure of each of these speeches, we will turn to the shorter sections that open and end the dialogue and bind the speeches together. The introduction depicts both the written speech of Lysias, hidden beneath Phædrus' coat (Phædrus,228d), that he wants so hard to instill in his heart by rote, and the open "book" of nature, so inviting and yet so silent for Socrates, eager to learn about himself and finding more material for study in the men in the city (Phædrus, 230d). It shows Socrates critical of the rationalistic interpretation of mythology about a myth relating to Boreas -- a godly wind that was said to have begotten twelve flying mares so light they could run across wheat spikes without bending them (an apt prelude to the image of the soul to come) -- and its abduction of the daughter of a legendary king of Athens (yet another image for the ability of eros to divert the fruits of the leading power), supposed to have taken place near where Socrates and Phædrus stand. Answering it, the conclusion sees Socrates manufacturing a myth about a far away country (see Phædrus, 275b)-- and reproaching Phædrus his skepticism about it -- in order to show the limitations of written speech, which is unable to answer when interrogated, and Phædrus ready to go back to town with a speech for Lysias, and the whole world, speech-writers, poets and lawmakers alike, a speech written in his soul and inspired, according to Socrates, by nature and the Nymphs of the place (Phædrus, 278b).
The two interludes that separate the three parts, on either side of Socrates' second speech, oppose Socrates' obedience to his "divine sign" and willingness to offer penance to the god of Love for the blasphemy that both previous speeches represent (Phædrus, 242a-b), to the eagerness of speech-writers and politicians to be admired and become almost like living gods through their writings (Phædrus, 258b-c). Socrates, on the one hand, understands the silent "demonic sign (daimonion sèmeion)" stopping him and refuses the cheap consolation that "having failed with the gods, [he] accept as a compensation to be in honor amongst men (Phædrus, 242c-d)" ; Lysias, on the other hand, seems not to care for the ambiguous spoken "sign" sent him by the politicians who brand him "logographer" (Phædrus, 257c), knowing perfectly well, as Socrates shows Phædrus, that those same politicians are most eager to act the same way to ensure their everlasting fame amongst men. Thus, at one end of the middle speech that put us in front of the choice our soul has to make, Socrates shows by both acts and words how a soul dominated by its desires (that of the first speech) may progress in the right direction by listening to the godly voice of reason within itself, while at the other end he shows how men that pretend to have logos and to be leaders of men, but act in direct contradiction with the way they talk, only care for a worldly reward and are all too willing to look at themselves as gods and to play gods for others.
But that's not all with regard to the overall structure of the dialogue. There is one more interlude that we have not taken into account yet : it is the one that binds Socrates' first speech to Lysias' speech. In it, Socrates takes a very materialistic view of Lysias' speech to bring about the counterspeeches he will end up delivering, praising only the carefully "crafted" and accurately selected words (onomata) that make up the building blocks of Lysias' logos (Phædrus, 234e). But this short dialogue between the two speeches also ends on two items that find a counterpart at the very end of the dialogue : a parallel between Lysias and Socrates (Phædrus, 236b) answered at the end by a parallel between Lysias and Isocrates (Phædrus, 279a), and a pledge by Phædrus to force Socrates into delivering a speech (Phædrus, 236d-e) answered at the end by Socrates' prayer to have the wisdom not to ask for more than what is fit (Phædrus, 279b-c). Phædrus doesn't know what god to invoke -- he can't even remember Boreas he himself mentioned a short while ago, or Achelous and the Nymphs whose statues Socrates pointed at soon after under the plane tree (Phædrus, 230b-c) -- and ends up taking an oath by that very plane tree, the nearest, least godly and most material thing on hand, while Socrates invokes Pan, the god of nature whose name means "whole", and extends the invocation to all the other divinities of the place. Unwillingly, Phædrus teaches us that we may find a trace of god even in the most natural things while Socrates tells us through his prayer that wisdom must take its roots in nature, far from denying it.
As regards the parallels, between Lysias and Socrates on the one hand, between Lysias and Isocrates on the other hand, they invite us to two more parallels : between Socrates and Isocrates may be, but more probably, between Plato himself and Isocrates, Plato being to Socrates what Isocrates is to Lysias, the most able follower of the next generation. As I said elsewhere (see "The short path of Isocrates" in the general introduction to the dialogues), the end of the Phædrus happens to be the exact middle of the short cycle through the dialogues limited to the first five tetralogies, the path that sees in rhetoric the culmination of an educational cursus and doesn't care for dialectic. Here, Plato is not telling us in plain words : "Look, I am not talking about dead people, writing only for historical purpose about rhetoricians of the past. What I am talking about keeps happening right under your eyes. Now, make your own judgment...", but he subtly leads us into such an understanding, adding to it a touch of irony with the seeming praise of Isocrates he has Socrates deliver. The whole wording of it incites to caution and builds upon Isocrates own theories, insisting as it does on the gifts of nature, the philosophy coming from nature in him (3).
From the standpoint of the overall structure, this analysis suggests that there may be more than one way of looking at the dialogue. So far, we have been looking at the first two speeches as making together a first part. But now, we are invited to isolate Lysias' speech as a sort of extended prelude to a dialogue made up of the three speeches by Socrates (assimilating, as we have done already, the dialogue on true rhetoric to a third "speech" by Socrates). And here is the real parallel between Lysias and Socrates, hum..., between Isocrates and Plato, that is ! Whereas the one stays at the level of speeches talking to your feelings, the basest part of the soul, and can only teach you by giving you his own speeches as examples to be learned by rote and counting on nature to do the rest (and that may be another reason why Phædrus moves out of the city to "memorize" the speech), the other takes you where you happen to be, be it deep down in nature, and tries to help you, in abiding by your own rules (Socrates always gives in to Phædrus' requests), to work your way all the way up to the noblest part of yourself where he can eventually teach you the rules of true logos, if only you are willing to follow him, counting on god-inspired love to induce you to do so.
In this approach, which is in no way exclusive of the previous one, the dialogues ends up being made of two unequal "dialogues" masterfully stitched together : one (227a-236b) centered on Lysias and the other (the rest of the dialogue) centered on Socrates. The later, the dialogue limited to Socrates' speeches, splits in two almost equal parts : one is made up of Socrates' first two speeches, the two monologues, the sections dealing, in our scheme, with the "mortal" parts of the soul, the two horses, while the other is made up of the whole of Socrates' dialogue about true rhetoric, the section focusing on the "immortal" divine part in our soul, the charioteer.
With this gross picture of the dialogue as a whole in mind, we may now proceed to investigate the finer structure of each one of Socrates' speeches and see what it may tell us about the dialogue and Plato's purpose.
(1) The forsaken beloved should have known that his lover was "most harmful to the education of his soul (Phædrus, 241c)." Besides, in the interlude between the two speeches, Plato twice carefully avoids the word psuchè and replaces it by stèthos (235c5 and 238c8), a quite unusual word in the dialogues, that means in the first place the chest, and only by analogy what's inside, that is, the heart and eventually the soul, but a very "materialistic" and "biological" soul. The word is found only 12 times in all the dialogues, 4 times in quotations from poets, and 4 more times in the Timæus, a work including biological considerations that justify it. Letting aside the two occurrences in the Phædrus, we are left with only two other uses in the remaining dialogues in text from Plato : one in Aristophanes' speech in the Symposium (Symposium, 191a1) and one in Socrates' discussion with Protagoras (Protagoras, 352a5). (back)
(2) 15 out of the 17 uses of the word "epithumia" in the whole dialogue are in these two speeches : 6 in Lysias' and 9 in Socrates' ; they also include 13 out of 19 uses of the word "hèdonè (pleasure)", 10 of them in Socrates' speech alone. (back)
(3) In his speech "Against the Sophists", Isocrates criticizes those who pretend to teach political rhetoric without taking into account "the natural gifts" of the student ; he explains how the teacher should give himself as an example to be imitated and denies that "justice is something that can be taught", stating that "there doesn't exist such an art (technèn) that would bring about moderation and justice in those who are ill gifted by nature for virtue (Against the Sophists, 21)." (back)