The dialogue, somewhat unusually, does not set itself as a re-telling of the day's events. The dialogue is given unmediated, in the direct words of Socrates and Phaedrus, without other interlocutors to introduce the story or give it to us; it comes first hand, as if we are witnessing the events themselves. This is in contrast to such dialogues as the Symposium, in which Plato sets up multiple layers between the day's events and our hearing of it, explicitly giving us an incomplete, fifth-hand account.
Lysias was one of the three sons of Cephalus, the patriarch whose home is the setting for Plato's Republic. Lysias was perhaps the most famous "logo-graphos" - lit. "argument writer" - in Athens during the time of Plato. Lysias was a rhetorician and a sophist whose best-known extant work is a defense speech, "On The Murder of Eratosthenes." The speech is a masterpiece in which a man who murdered his wife's lover claims that the laws of Athens required him to do it. The outcome of this speech is unknown.
As they walk out into the countryside, Phaedrus agrees to recite for Socrates the speech of Lysias. Socrates, however, suspects strongly that Phaedrus has a copy of the speech with him. Saying that while Lysias is present, he would never allow himself to be used as a training partner for Phaedrus to practice his own speechmaking on, he asks Phaedrus to expose what he is holding under his cloak. Phaedrus gives in and agrees to read the speech as it is written.
Socrates declares that he is in ecstasy, and furthermore, it is all Phaedrus' doing. As the speech seemed to make Phaedrus radiant, and Socrates is sure that Phaedrus understands these things better than he does himself, he followed Phaedrus' lead and shared in his Bacchic frenzy. Phaedrus asks Socrates not to joke.
Socrates then admits that he thought the preceding speech was terrible. It repeated itself numerous times, seemed uninterested in its subject, and seemed to be showing off. He then says he can make an even better speech than Lysias on the same subject.
Socrates, rather than simply listing reasons as Lysias had done, begins by explaining that while all men desire beauty, some are in love and some are not. We are all ruled, he says, by two principles: one is our inborn desire for pleasure, and the other is our acquired judgment that pursues what is best (237d). Following your judgment is "being in your right mind", while following desire towards pleasure without reason is "outrage" (hybris).
Following different desires leads to different things; one who follows his desire for food is a glutton, and so on. The desire to take pleasure in beauty, reinforced by the kindred beauty in human bodies, is called Eros.
Remarking that he is in the grip of something divine, and may soon be overtaken by the madness of the nymphs in this place, he goes on.
The problem, he explains, is that one overcome with this desire will want to turn his boy into whatever is most pleasing to himself, rather than what is best for the boy. The boy's intellectual progress will be stifled, his physical condition will suffer, the lover will not wish the boy to mature and take a family, all because the lover is shaping him out of desire for pleasure rather than what is best. At some point, "right-minded reason" will take the place of "the madness of love", and the lover's oaths and promises to his boy will be broken.
The non-lover, he concludes, will do none of this, always ruled by judgment rather than desire for pleasure. Socrates, fearing that the nymphs will take complete control of him if he continues, states that he is going to leave before Phaedrus makes him "do something even worse".
However, just before Socrates is about to leave, he is stopped by the "familiar divine sign", his daemon, which occurs always and only just before Socrates is about to do something he should not. A voice "from this very spot" forbids Socrates to leave before he makes atonement for some offense to the gods. Socrates states that he is a "seer". While he is not very good at it, he is good enough for his purposes, and he recognizes what his offense has been: if love is a god or something divine, as he and Phaedrus both agree he is, he cannot be bad, as the previous speeches have portrayed him. Socrates, baring his head, vows to undergo a rite of purification as a follower of the Muses, and proceeds to give a speech praising the lover.
As they must show that the madness of love is, indeed, sent by a god to benefit the lover and beloved in order to disprove the preceding speeches, Socrates embarks on a proof of the divine origin of this fourth sort of madness. It is a proof, he says, that will convince "the wise if not the clever".
Then begins the famous Chariot allegory, called by R. Hackworth the centrepiece of Phaedrus, and the famous and moving account of the vision, fall and incarnation of the soul. A soul, says Socrates, is like the "natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer". While the gods have two good horses, everyone else has a mixture: one is beautiful and good, while the other is neither.
As souls are immortal, those lacking bodies patrol all of heaven so long as their wings are in perfect condition. When a soul sheds its wings, it comes to earth and takes on an earthly body which then seems to move itself.These wings lift up heavy things to where the gods dwell, and are nourished and grow in the presence of the wisdom, goodness, and beauty of the divine. However, foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear.
In heaven, he explains, there is a procession led by Zeus, who looks after everything and puts things in order. All of the gods, with the exception of Hestia, follow Zeus in this procession. While the chariots of the gods are balanced and easier to control, other charioteers must struggle with their bad horse, which will drag them down to earth if it has not been properly trained. As the procession works its way upward, it eventually makes it up to the high ridge of heaven, where the gods take their stands, are taken in a circular motion and gaze at all that is beyond heaven.
What is outside of heaven, says Socrates, is quite difficult to describe, lacking color, shape, or solidity, as it is the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to intelligence. The gods delight in these things and are nourished. Feeling wonderful, they are taken around until they make a complete circle. On the way they are able to see Justice, Self-Control, Knowledge, and other things as they are in themselves, unchanging. When they have seen all things and feasted on them, coming all the way around, they sink back down inside heaven.
The immortal souls that follow the gods most closely are able to just barely raise their chariots up to the rim and look out on Reality. They see some things and miss others, having to deal with their horses; they rise and fall at varying times. Other souls, while straining to keep up, are unable to rise, and in noisy, sweaty discord they leave uninitiated, not having seen reality. Where they go after is then dependent on their own opinions, rather than the truth. Any soul that catches sight of any one true thing is granted another circuit where it can see more; eventually, all souls fall back to earth. Those that have been initiated are put into varying human incarnations, depending on how much they have seen; those made into philosophers have seen the most, while kings, statesmen, doctors, prophets, poets, manual laborers, sophists, and tyrants follow respectively.
Souls then begin cycles of reincarnation. It generally takes 10,000 years for a soul to grow its wings and return to where it came, but philosophers, after having chosen such a life three times in a row, grow their wings and return after only 3,000 years. This is because they have seen the most and always keep its memory as close as possible, and philosophers maintain the highest level of initiation. They ignore human concerns and are drawn towards the divine. While ordinary people rebuke them for this, they are unaware that the lover of wisdom is possessed by a god. This is the fourth sort of madness, that of love.
When one is reminded of true beauty by the sight of a beautiful boy, he is called a lover. While all have seen reality, as they must have to be human, not all are so easily reminded of it. Those that can remember are startled when they see a reminder, and are overcome with the memory of beauty.
Beauty, he states, was among the most radiant things to see beyond heaven, and on earth it sparkles through vision, the clearest of our senses. Some have not been recently initiated, and mistake this reminder for beauty itself and pursue pleasure and procreating. This pursuit of pleasure, then, even when manifested in the love of beautiful bodies, is not "divine" madness, but rather just having lost one's head. The recent initiates, on the other hand, are overcome when they see a bodily form that has captured true Beauty well, and their wings begin to grow. When this soul looks upon the beautiful boy it experiences the utmost joy; when separated from the boy, intense pain and longing occur, and the wings begin to harden. Caught between these two feelings, the lover is in utmost anguish, with the boy the only doctor for the pain.
Socrates then returns to the myth of the chariot. The charioteer is filled with warmth and desire as he gazes into the eyes of the one he loves. The good horse is controlled by its sense of shame, but the bad horse, overcome with desire, does everything it can to go up to the boy and suggest to it the pleasures of sex. The bad horse eventually wears out its charioteer and partner, and drags them towards the boy; yet when the charioteer looks into the boy's face, his memory is carried back to the sight of the forms of Beauty and Self-control he had with the gods, and pulls back violently on the reins. As this occurs over and over, the bad horse eventually becomes obedient and finally dies of fright when seeing the boy's face, allowing the lover's soul to follow the boy in reverence and awe.
The lover now pursues the boy. As he gets closer to his quarry, and the love is reciprocated, the opportunity for sexual contact again presents itself. If the lover and beloved surpass this desire they have won the "true Olympic Contests"; it is the perfect combination of human self control and divine madness, and after death, their souls return to heaven.Those who give in do not become weightless, but they are spared any punishment after their death, and will eventually grow wings together when the time comes.
A lover's friendship is divine, Socrates concludes, while that of a non-lover offers only cheap, human dividends, and tosses the soul about on earth for 9,000 years. He apologizes to the gods for the previous speeches, and Phaedrus joins him in the prayer.
Phaedrus claims that to be a good speechmaker, one does not need to know the truth of what he is speaking on, but rather how to properly persuade, persuasion being the purpose of speechmaking and oration. Socrates first objects that an orator who does not know bad from good will, in Phaedrus's words, harvest "a crop of really poor quality".Yet Socrates does not dismiss the art of speechmaking. Rather, he says, it may be that even one who knew the truth could not produce conviction without knowing the art of persuasion;on the other hand, "As the Spartan said, there is no genuine art of speaking without a grasp of the truth, and there never will be".
They go on to examine this. They first determine that rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is one single art that governs all speaking.To practice this art of persuasion, even when one is persuading the audience to a falsehood, one draws their audience through similarities. To do this properly, whether to deceive or avoid deception, one must know the truth- precisely in what respects things are similar and different; without this knowledge, to make proper comparisons is impossible, and to do so can not be considered an art.
To acquire the art of rhetoric, then, one must make systematic divisions between two different kinds of things: one sort, like "iron" and "silver", suggests the same to all listeners; the other sort, such as "good" or "justice", lead people in different directions. Lysias failed to make this distinction, and accordingly, failed to even define what "love" itself is in the beginning; the rest of his speech appears thrown together at random, and is, on the whole, very poorly constructed.Socrates then goes on to say,
Socrates's speech, on the other hand, starts with a thesis and proceeds to make divisions accordingly, finding divine love, and setting it out as the greatest of goods. And yet, they agree, the art of making these divisions is dialectic, not rhetoric, and it must be seen what part of rhetoric may have been left out.
When Socrates and Phaedrus proceed to recount the various tools of speechmaking as written down by the great orators of the past, starting with the "Preamble" and the "Statement Facts" and concluding with the "Recapitulation", Socrates states that the fabric seems a little threadbare.He goes on to compare one with only knowledge of these tools to a doctor who knows how to raise and lower a body's temperature but does not know when it is good or bad to do so, stating that one who has simply read a book or came across some potions knows nothing of the art.One who knows how to compose the longest passages on trivial topics or the briefest passages on topics of great importance is similar, when he claims that to teach this is to impart the knowledge of composing tragedies; if one were to claim to have mastered harmony after learning the lowest and highest notes on the lyre, a musician would say that this knowledge is what one must learn before one masters harmony, but it is not the knowledge of harmony itself.This, then, is what must be said to those who attempt to teach the art of rhetoric through "Preambles" and "Recapitulations"; they are ignorant of dialectic, and teach only what is necessary to learn as preliminaries.
Rhetoric, then, must determine the nature of the soul to be an art, just as medicine must determine the nature of the body; it must know the different types of souls and how they are moved. And yet, Socrates says, the truth is of no import in a law court, but rather the convincing; rhetoric, people claim, consists of cleaving towards the likely and should leave the truth aside. However, as it has already been determined that only people that know the truth can properly use the art of the "likely", this popular opinion is decided to be clearly wrong.
They go on to discuss what is good or bad in writing. Socrates tells a brief legend, critically commenting on the gift of writing from the Egyptian god Theuth to King Thamus, who was to disperse Theuth's gifts to the people of Egypt. After Theuth remarks on his discovery of writing as a remedy for the memory, Thamus responds that its true effects are likely to be the opposite; it is a remedy for reminding, not remembering, he says, with the appearance but not the reality of wisdom. Future generations will hear much without being properly taught, and will appear wise but not be so, making them difficult to get along with.
No written instructions for an art can yield results clear or certain, Socrates states, but rather can only remind those that already know what writing is about. Furthermore, writings are silent; they cannot speak, answer questions, or come to their own defense.
Accordingly, the legitimate sister of this is, in fact, dialectic; it is the living, breathing discourse of one who knows, of which the written word can only be called an image.The one who knows uses the art of dialectic rather than writing:
To be a proper rhetorician, then, one must know the truth of what he is speaking or writing on and how to define and divide it until reaching something indivisible, one must understand the nature of the soul and what sort of speech is proper to each soul, and only then will he be able to use speech artfully, to teach or to persuade. This, he says, is the whole point of the argument they have been making.
You are only a true practitioner of the art of rhetoric, then, if you have
With the afternoon over and the heat dying down a bit, Socrates offers a short prayer to "dear Pan and all the other gods of this place", and they depart for the city.
The role of divine inspiration in philosophy must also be considered; the philosopher is struck with the fourth kind of madness, that of love, and it is this divine inspiration that leads him and his beloved towards the good- but only when tempered with self-control.
Writing, examined separately but ultimately equated with philosophy and rhetoric, is somewhat deprecated; it is stated that writing can do little but remind those who already know, somewhat reminiscent of the archetypical Zen master's admonishment that "those who know, know". Unlike dialectic and rhetoric, writing cannot be tailored to specific situations or students; the writer does not have the luxury of examining his reader's soul in order to determine the proper way to persuade. When attacked it cannot defend itself, and is unable to answer questions or refute criticism. As such, the philosopher uses writing "for the sake of amusing himself" and other similar things rather than for teaching others. A writer, then, is only a philosopher when he can himself argue that his writing is of little worth, among other requirements.
This final critique of writing with which the dialogue concludes seems to be one of the more interesting facets of the conversation for those who seek to interpret Plato in general; Plato, of course, comes down to us through his numerous written works, and philosophy today is concerned almost purely with the reading and writing of written texts. It seems proper to recall that Plato's ever-present protagonist and ideal man, Socrates, fits Plato's description of the dialectician perfectly, and never wrote a thing.
There is an echo of this point of view in Plato's Seventh Epistle (Letter), wherein Plato says not to write down things of importance.