Figurative analysis - Phaedrus
December 4, 2016
GSI: Kuan S. Hwa
the Phaedrus: “Every one sees that love is a desire…is called love”
Socrates walks beyond the Athens city limits to enjoy the pleasures of the countryside with his friend Phaedrus. Phaedrus has just heard Lysias speak and is clearly impressed; Socrates however will not allow this impression to take root in his friend because he believes philosophy is a superior discipline for understanding truth than is rhetoric. They walk beside the Ilisus River conversing about rhetoric and philosophy. During their conversation, Socrates engages his mission to persuade his young friend, through personal conversation in this pleasant setting, that while rhetoric is a useful tool of oratory, it is philosophy that is the better arbiter of truth. In the course of their walk Socrates engages mimesis to feign aporia as a means of mock-questioning the very question he is begging. In the process he also presses a metaphoric divisio notion of erotic love and non-love as a basis for dividing philosophy and rhetoric as separate and juxtaposed, ultimately arguing that philosophy as the more serious pursuit.
In the process of making the first of his two main arguments in the Phaedrus, Socrates distinguishes between the lover and the non-lover, identifying them again metaphorically as “two guiding and ruling principles” and amplifying them by claiming that while they are sometimes in harmony, they are often at war. Socrates puts at odds the kind of desire of the erotic lover possesses against the kind of desire of those who love things because they are Beautiful of form (Platonic form); the former he argues causes one to be ruled by a metaphorical tyrant in the form of the lower, appetitive desires that cause gluttony, drunkenness, and excess, whereas the latter is the proper orientation toward that which is True, Just, And Beautiful. This argument is an argument from assumptio through which Socrates holds forth that those pursuits of the mind are of a higher and better order than those of the body (ref: Plato’s Divided-line Epistemology).2 This can be seen in his words: “When opinion by the help of reason leads us to the best, the conquering principle is called temperance; but when desire, which is devoid of reason, rules in us and drags us to pleasure, that power of misrule is called excess.”
Socrates uses hyperbole in an all-out attack on rhetoric in the form of the erotic lover who is cast as a most base creature who follows only his urges and passions and rarely his higher callings of thought and understanding. There is of course significant irony in this passage, and in Socrates’ whole argument about philosophy vs. rhetoric through the depiction of platonic vs. erotic love, in that Socrates’ deploys rhetoric in order to persuade Phaedrus that rhetoric is a base level operation, unworthy of enlightened human beings. One might humorously ask, and reasonably so: if rhetoric is so terrible Socrates, why have you gone to such great lengths to press it into service for your argument?
1. Plato, John M. Cooper, and D. S. Hutchinson. "Phaedrus." Translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. In Complete Works, 516-17. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1997.
2. Plato, John M. Cooper, and D. S. Hutchinson. "Republic, Book VI, 509d5." In Complete Works, translated by G.M.A. Grube and C.D.C. Reeve, Rev., 1130. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1997.