A Brief Poem From a Japanese Teamaster Who Lived from 1158-1237

Fujiwara Iyetaka writes,

“To those who only pray for the cherries to bloom, 
How I wish to show the spring
That gleams from a patch of green
In the midst of the snow-covered mountain-village!”

In other words, while there are some who anticipate the coming of spring, Spring in its entirety is implicit in a tiny, seemingly insignificant “patch of green.”

Daisetz T. Suzuki comments,

“Here is just a feeble inception of life power as asserted in the form of a little green patch, but in it he who has an eye can readily discern the spring shooting out from underneath the forbidding snow. It may be said to be a mere suggestion that stirs his mind, but just the same it is life itself and not its feeble indication. To the artist, life is as much here as when the whole field is overlaid with verdue and flowers. One may call this the mystic sense of the artist” (Zen and Japanese Culture, 26).

Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book III

Cicero begins this final book with a preface that tells his brother Quintus that Crassus spoke many “divinely inspired words” and was a “divinely gifted man” (225). He spoke like a swan, and swans were believed to sing more beautifully when they were about to die. In a footnote to this passage, James May and Jakob Wisse write that “Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (84-85) interprets [the likeness of a speaker to a swan] as a sign of prophetic powers” (225n5).

Then the story continues. Most of the interlocutors rested during the noon hour, but Crassus spent it in intense reading. When it is time for him to speak, he begins by saying that style and content cannot be separated: “I have the impression that those great men of the past, having grasped in their minds something of a higher order, have thereby seen much more than our mind’s eye, today, is able to contemplate: they said that all the universe above and below us is a unity and is bound together by a single, natural force and harmony” (230). So there ought to be agreement and harmony between all disciplines, and true eloquence forms that unity. Speech is like a river that branches into many smaller streams but still comes from the same source. Since things aren’t separated as we sometimes think they are, a person’s words cannot be separated from that person’s thoughts. Hence, “discovering words for a distinguished style is impossible without having produced and shaped the thoughts,” and “no thought can shine clearly without the enlightening power of words” (231).

Each speaker, however, has a distinct style, and all are talented in their own way. So it is the responsibility of teachers to see which students have which talents and to adapt instruction in such a way as to maximize the learning and potential of all students. One must speak with clarity, distinction, and in a way that is both suitable and appropriate to the situation. Orators should learn to control breathing, their tongue, and the sound of their voice. Orators should also use common words and avoid both ambiguity and overly long periodic sentences. No one admires an orator for speaking correct Latin, but they do make fun of one that doesn’t, so speaking correctly is necessary. One may refine grammar and diction by reading other orators and poets.

And then there’s this key passage which I will quote in full:
“For the true orator ought to have examined and heard and read and discussed and thoroughly treated all aspects of human life, since it is with them that the orator is engaged, and it is this that constitutes his material. Eloquence, after all, has its own place among the supreme virtues. Of course, all the virtues are equal and equivalent, but still, one is more beautiful and splendid in appearance than another. This is the case with the power that I am talking about: having acquired all-embracing knowledge, it unfolds the thoughts and counsels of the mind in words, in such a way that it can drive the audience in whatever direction it has applied its weight. And the greater this power is, the more necessary it is to join it to integrity and the highest measure of good sense. For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen” (239).
The ancients, Crassus continues, didn’t separate speech and act: “For the old form of learning seems to have taught both right actions and good speech. Nor were the teachers separated from each other, but the same people gave instructions for living and for speaking” (240). Disciplines became separated when people began to notice that they could prosper if they would specialize. A rupture between the tongue and the heart is also harmful. The best philosophers also said that “eloquence is a virtue and a form of wisdom” (244), and “used to link the principles of oratory with the entire study and knowledge of everything that was relevant to human conduct, to human life, to virtue, and to the state” (246). These ancients meant for there to be “communion between speaking and understanding” (247).

Hence, true eloquence includes everything: “The real power of eloquence is so enormous that its scope includes the origin, essence, and transformations of everything: virtues, moral duties, and all the laws of nature that govern human conduct, characters, and life. It establishes traditions, laws, and legal arrangements, governs the State, and addresses with distinction and copiousness all questions belonging to any area whatsoever” (248). An orator is an actor. Sure, this is a lofty ideal, but we’re examining the ideal orator, and we do the same thing when we theoretically examine any other art or skill—we try to see it in its best, most ideal, and fullest form possible.

Crassus then discusses style. He says that sweetness and poetic diction in speech can sometimes be effective, but we can’t stand to eat sweet food all day, so moderation is best. The best speeches shift back and forth from the specific to the general because the specific addresses particular concerns, but the general principles enable audience members to apply things in multiple contexts. To become better orators, we must put good things into our minds—the best things, actually. And since all subjects are connected with one another, any good we can gain will help us become effective speakers. The same is true with virtue and the virtues. Plato was a teacher of speech, of the mind, and of virtue.

Crassus goes on to say that metaphors are useful because the mind’s eye is drawn more easily to things we have seen than to things we have only heard. He discusses tropes and figures, juxtaposition, rhythm, and periodic structure. Good rhythm is pleasing to an audience. Crassus mentions figures of thought and figures of speech and their usage, but the underlying rule is that, no matter what, “In every area, the capacity to do what is appropriate is a matter of art and natural ability, but to know what is appropriate at each time is a matter of intelligence” (290).

Finally, Crassus discusses delivery, what he calls the dominant factor in oratory. Orators are actors because they must use their voice, gestures, facial expressions, and eyes effectively. Delivery is “wholly a matter of the soul, and the face is an image of the soul, while the eyes reflect it” (294). In fact, everything is dominated by the eyes. Put another way, “Delivery is, so to speak, the language of the body, which makes it all the more essential that it should correspond to what we intend to say” (294). Delivery is so important and influential because human beings want to see a speech performed. The most useful is the most appropriate.

Crassus concludes by saying that his speech isn’t perfect, but it’s the best he could do. Catulus thinks it was awesome, though, and the group decides to rest their minds after the long discussion.


Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II  |  Book III

“CiceroBust”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CiceroBust.jpg#/media/File:CiceroBust.jpg

A Young Man Desires to Learn the Art of Swordsmanship

Once upon a time there was a young man who desired to learn the art of the sword, so he journeyed to the mountain hut of a retired master and asked to be his disciple. The master agreed, and then put the young man to work splitting wood, cooking rice, drawing water from a nearby spring, and doing other chores to care for the house in general. There seemed to be no formal instruction in the art of swordsmanship, so after a while, the young man became frustrated. He did not come to this mountain hut be a slave to the master; he came to learn the art of swordsmanship. So he approached the master about the matter.

After that discussion, the young man still was asked to complete seemingly mundane tasks with no apparent instruction in the art of the sword, except that now he could not do any of his chores without fear–for when he would be cooking rice in the morning, all of a sudden the master would hit him in the back with a stick. Or when he would be sweeping the garden in the afternoon, he would suddenly  be struck from an unknown direction by the master. After a period of time time, the young man was sometimes able to dodge the blow, but he never knew where or when to expect it.

But when the young man saw the master cooking his own vegetables one day, he decided it was pay back time. The young man took a big stick, crept up behind the master who was stooping over the pot to stir the vegetables, and let the stick fall over the master’s head–but the master, just in time, had raised the lid of the pan just in time to block the young man’s blow. 

This act opened the young man’s mind to the secrets of the art, and he was filled with gratitude for the master’s kindness.

(Adapted from Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)

Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book II

Prologue
Cicero begins Book 2 by telling his brother Quintus that “anyone who has ever achieved success and pre-eminence in eloquence can only have done so by relying on the whole of wisdom, not just on rhetorical rules” (126). In other words, eloquence isn’t about following a set of pre-prescribed rules, but about seeking and coming to know wisdom. That is, to some degree, why Isocrates was the father of eloquence. Then Cicero continues the story he told in Book 1.

The Conversation Continued
Catulus and Caesar join the previous day’s group, and all decide to continue the earlier discussion. Antonius begins by extolling eloquence, saying that the orator can speak well on any topic that belongs to the other arts. When he is finished, Catulus and Crassus act surprised, because what he says today seems to conflict with what he said yesterday, but Antonius explains his change of attitude: yesterday he was trying to refute Crassus, but today he’s trying to express his own opinions. Antonius then divides oratory and discusses judicial and deliberative oratory, historiography, and general, philosophical questions. The books we read, he says, influence our speech patterns. And when we learn the harder things, the easier things follow naturally. Catulus says that the hardest things to talk about are the gods, but Antonius disagrees.

[To some degree, it seems to me as if Antonius is sort of restating parts of Crassus’ speech of the previous day, or at least agreeing with parts of it.]

Antonius then discusses talent, natural abilities, and training. The orator should be a good man, cultured, and almost divine. In training, a learner must find someone to imitate, then reproduce the chosen model. We learn by practicing, and especially by writing.

Antonius then discusses invention, summarizing stasis theory. Oratory consists in three means of persuasion: “proving that our contentions are true, winning over our audience, and inducing their minds to feel any emotion the case may demand (153-154). Antonius’ method is based on three procedures: 1) “to win people over,” which requires gentleness, 2) “to instruct them,” which requires intellectual acumen, and 3) “to stir their feelings,” which requires vigor (157). Invention involves intellectual ability, method, and diligence, and diligence is “the single virtue on which all over virtues depend” (162). Aristotle wrote about the topics or commonplaces from which arguments come, and Antonius then lists several: definition is useful if people don’t know what a thing is, and there are also topics like connected terms, genus, species, similarity, difference, opposite, attendant circumstances, consistencies, antecedents, contradictions, causes, results, greater, lesser, equal. [These remind me of Kenneth Burke’s innate forms of the mind in Counter-Statement. They are things all human beings have the capacity to recognize. Cf. The Metaphors We Live By and The Meaning of the Body.] But Antonius rushes through these things quickly so he can come to “more important matters” (170)—the character of the speaker and the emotions.

As for character, people are won over by a person’s accomplishments, prestige, and reputation. “Such things are easier to embellish if present than to fabricate if totally lacking, but at any rate, their effect is enhanced by a gentle tone of voice on the part of the orator, an expression on his face intimating restraint, and kindliness in the use of his words” (171). Also “generosity, mildness, dutifulness, gratitude, and of not being desirous or greedy. Actually all qualities typical of people who are decent and unassuming, not severe, not obstinate, not litigious, not harsh, really win goodwill, and alienate the audience from those who do not possess them” (171). Good speakers often speak quietly, and in a gentle, low-key manner. Character “often has more influence than the case itself. Moreover, so much is accomplished by speaking thoughtfully and with a certain taste, that the speech may be said to mold an image of the character of the orator. Employing thoughts of a certain kind and words of a certain kind, and adopting besides a delivery that is gentle and shows signs of flexibility, makes speakers appear as decent, as good in character—yes, as good men” (171-172). I have quoted these passages in full because they seem to me to be key.

Poets call speech “soul-bending, the queen of all the world” (172). The hearer cannot feel emotion that the orator does not show in “words, thoughts, voice, face” (173). We act out our own character, and loyalty, moral duty, and diligence are important. Orators should not use oratorical firebrands for insignificant matters. A speech should have humanity to it.

Caesar’s Excursus on Wit
Then comes Caesar’s excursus on wit. Wit can accomplish good. Joking shouldn’t detract from authority, though but laughter is power. It can refute some arguments that can’t otherwise be easily refuted. Joking must be used with restraint, however. The orator “must give proof of his own good manners and modesty by avoiding dishonorable words and obscene subjects” (188). The orator is distinguished from the buffoon because he takes into account the occasion and exercises restraint and moderation, as well as tries to achieve some purpose with them instead of just being funny. Topics for humor can be topics for seriousness, such as observations, resemblances, similarities in words, puns, and ambiguity.

But not everything that is funny is also witty. For example, clowns may be funny, but orators should not try to imitate clowns, nor should they be in any way “peevish, superstitious, suspicious, boastful, [or] stupid” (191). Orators also shouldn’t be obscene or distort their face, like some comedians do. Humor can also come from many topics or commonplaces such as fables, similarity, exaggeration, insinuation, irony, calling something disgraceful by an honorable name, censuring stupidity, the unexpected turn, friendly advice, pointing to something that seems to fit a person’s character, pointed remarks, impossible wishes, or the unexpected.

Antonius Concludes

After Caesar finishes his excursus on laughter and humor and wit, Antonius takes control again and begins talking about arrangement: choice and distribution of arguments, character, and emotion. Orators must be good judges of situations. The audience’s expectations should be met as quickly as possible, even in the first few words of the introduction. The speech should charm and attract the hearer right away, and the following narration should be pleasant, after which comes the proposition, the argumentation, and finally the conclusion. Antonius mentions the deliberative and laudatory genres, and concludes his speech by discussing memory: since understanding a thing’s order improves its retention in the mind, one way to remember things is to form mental images of a related object or place and use that object or place to recall things in the speech. The purpose of the art of speaking is not to create something from scratch what isn’t present in us, “but to rear and develop what has already been born and created within us” (220). Antonius concludes, and the morning’s discussion ends with everyone anticipating what will be Crassus’ afternoon discussion of style and delivery.


Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II  |  Book III

“M-T-Cicero” by original: Gunnar Bach Pedersen; for that version: Louis le Grand – Image:Thorvaldsen Cicero.jpg.
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Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book I

In a preface, Cicero writes to his brother Quintus about oratory: eloquence is important because it has such powerful influence on people, society, politics, and even humanity, but there are few really great speakers. True oratory is challenging because one must know so many things, such as how language is shaped and arranged, how emotions work in human beings, and what kind of a person befits a gentleman. Also, one must understand history and law and delivery, as well as have a good memory. In short, one must know practically everything (62). Hence the challenge of oratory. Then Cicero begins to tell a story.

Five men, Crassus, Cotta, Sulpicius, Scaevola, and Antonius are walking in Crassus’ garden when Scaevola turns to Crassus and says that this plane tree reminds him of the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus in Plato’s Phaedrus. It is suggested that they have a similar conversation, and Crassus begins to extol eloquence and its power and greatness. This kind of praise and honor to eloquence, however, leads Scaevola to object by saying that sometimes eloquence has been harmful to people. Crassus replies by telling Scaevola that he heard these same arguments against eloquence on a visit to Athens, though ideally, eloquence is a good thing. Crassus continues to say that the orator does need philosophical knowledge if he is to speak well. The perfect orator can speak on any subject, even better than the specialists. He learns about life the same way he learns about a case from his clients. The true orator also knows all of the arts: the “entire topic of human life and conduct must be thoroughly mastered by the orator” (73).

Scaevola responds by saying that this ideal orator is unrealistic, and when Crassus says he’s only talking about the ideal, Scaevola says this ideal might go too far. Yet, prompted by Cotta, Sulpicius, and Scaevola, Crassus goes on to say that the most eloquent aren’t interested in many of the trivial handbooks that have been published (81). Natural ability is important, and, interestingly, the better a man speaks the more fearful he is about speaking because he knows that orators are judged harshly every time they open their mouths. “In an orator, . . . we have to demand the acumen of a dialectician, the thoughts of a philosopher, the words . . . of a poet, the memory of a jurisconsult, the voice of a tragic performer, and gestures close to those of a consummate actor” (86). Training and practice are also important, and the pen is the best teacher of all.

Then, when Cotta and Scaevola ask Crassus to develop more fully his picture of the ideal orator, Crassus emphasizes that the orator needs knowledge of law. The great orator they are discussing is a child of the gods: “The man we are searching for is, in the first place, the high priest of his art, an art whose great powers, it is true, were bestowed upon the human race by nature herself, but which is at the same time regarded as having had a god for its creator: the very faculty that is the hallmark of humanity appears not to have been produced through our own agency, but to have been presented to us from above by divine decree” (106). The orator is protected by his own title of speaker (and the assumption here is that he is an envoy who promotes peace).

Antonius objects, saying that Crassus has essentially defined a philosopher, not an orator. Philosophy is not necessary for an orator because philosophy is impractical. Legal knowledge is also not totally necessary, and, overall, Crassus’ demands are too high: an orator is one who “is able to speak in a manner that is suited to persuasion” (123) and who must constantly practice and work hard. And with those words of Antonius, the discussion ends for the day.


Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II   |  Book III 

“M. Tullii Ciceronis De oratore liber” by Arundel MS 124, f. 1site http://italophiles.com/illuminations.htm.
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Isocrates, Against the Sophists: A Brief Summary

Isocrates is, needless to say, against the sophists—those learned men in ancient Athens who told people that they were so skillful with words that they could teach how to make the weaker argument the stronger and the stronger the weaker—a skill they argued was essential for a person in democratic society to gain power, prestige, and influence. 
Isocrates argues that these sophists, however, make promises that are impossible to fulfill, saying that they can all but make gods out of men. They pretend to be searchers of the truth in order to appeal to people, but they don’t actually focus on it. In reality, they’re liars, he says. Additionally, they also say they don’t want money, even though their actions contradict their words. The sophists have their students pay tuition to a third party, who watches the money before tuition is due. Hence, the sophists don’t really trust their students. And contradictions in deeds are bad just as contradictions in words are bad. People shouldn’t say one thing and do another, or do one thing and say another. If contradictions are bad, then consistency is good. Indeed, Isocrates believes that people should be consistent and their judgment reasoned. He wants people to speak well and judge well, and to do one is to be equally skilled in the other.

Another problem with the sophists is they try to teach art as if it could be taught like the alphabet. But art is not learned by rote rules because art is about discovery and creativity. On the contrary, good oratory is suited to the occasion. And those who try to teach contrary to this principle (the sophists) should pay instead of be paid, since they are the ones in need of instruction.

Ability to speak comes from being endowed by nature and then from practice. Training improves discovery, and we must learn knowledge from those who have knowledge, and not from those who simply make great or grand promises. Teachers should set the example so that students can imitated them.

“And yet those who desire to follow the true precepts of this discipline may, if they will, be helped more speedily towards honesty of character than towards facility in oratory” (74-75). Mirhady and Too’s translation of the same passage reads, “Nevertheless, those who wish to follow the prescriptions of my philosophy may be helped more quickly to fair-mindedness than to speechmaking” (66). In other words, Isocrates believes that his manner of education makes good people in addition to influential speakers.

Then, at the very end, he adds, “Nevertheless, I do think that the study of political discourse can help more than any other thing to stimulate and form such qualities of character” (75). In short, the study of oratory makes people better.

“Isocrates pushkin” by user:shakko – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Isocrates_pushkin.jpg#/media/File:Isocrates_pushkin.jpg

Aristotle’s Rhetoric: A Brief Summary

Book I
Rhetoric is the antistrophos (counterpart, counter-turn, or even correlative) of dialectic and can be treated systematically. Argumentative persuasion involves pisteis, which are a kind of apodeixis (demonstration). The rhetorical form of apodeixis is enthymeme. Although rhetoric is often misused, it should be used to promote truth and justice. Rhetoric is the dynamis to see in any given situation the available/possible pithanon (typically, this sentence is translated as saying that rhetoric is the ability/power/faculty to see the available means of persuasion in any given situation). The pisteis entechnoi are ethos, pathos, and logos, which involve the character of the speaker, the emotions of the audience, and the logos of the speech. Hence, rhetoric is an offshoot of dialectic and ethics. Paradeigma in rhetoric corresponds with epagoge in dialectic, and enthymeme corresponds with syllogism.

There are 3 kinds or types of rhetoric: deliberative (or political), forensic (or legal), and epideictic (or ceremonial oratory or display). The political speaker will appeal to the good of the hearers and show that he is interested in their happiness. The epideictic speaker is concerned with virtue. The forensic speaker should study wrong doing, law, and motives. All voluntary actions are good or apparently good, pleasant or apparently pleasant. (In other words, I take this to mean that people don’t do things because they think they’re bad or unpleasant; Aristotle makes a similar statement in the Nicomachean Ethics.)
The pisteis atechnoi are 5 in number and pertain especially to forensic oratory: laws, witnesses, contracts, tortures, oaths.

Book II
A speaker must seem to be a good sort of character in order to persuade an audience. He must also put his hearers into the right frame of mind. Hence, the necessity of discussing human emotion: anger and calmness, friendship and enmity, fear and confidence, shame and shamelessness, kindness and unkindness, pity, indignation, envy, and emulation. Then, Aristotle presents generalized characters of the old and prime, then comments on good birth, wealth, power, and the ability to see backward and look forward.

Two general modes of persuasion (koinai pisteis) are paradeigma (example/paradigm) and enthumema (enthymeme). Maxims are a part of the enthymeme. Paradeigma are either historical or invented, which invented are either parabolai (illustrations) or logoi (fables), like those of Aesop. A maxim is an incomplete enthymeme. Maxims invest a speech with moral character. Enthymemes are either demonstrative or refutative.

There are 28 Topics, or lines of proof or argument, that can be used to make enthymemes. The most effective enthymemes are those which the audience foresees the conclusions from the beginning, as long as it’s not totally obvious. Part of the pleasure we feel is at our own intelligent anticipation.

Book III
It’s not enough to know what to say, but one must be able to say it effectively and in the right way. Style is a small thing with real importance, and has much to do with poetry, though ideally our bare facts should be enough to persuade. Style must be appropriate and clear. It cannot be overblown, but should appear natural.

Correctness in style is discussed under 5 heads: right use of connecting words, use of special, and not vague general, terms, avoidance of ambiguity, observance of gender, correct indication of grammatical number. Impressiveness is given 6 heads: description instead of simple name, metaphors and epithets, plural for singular number, repetition of the article, connecting words, description by means of negation. The appropriate style adapts itself to the emotions of the hearers, the character of the speaker, and the nature of the subject. There is power in setting things before the eyes of the audience through metaphor. Rhythm is also useful and influential.

To arrange a speech, first state the case, then prove it. To these can be added introduction, which should indicate the aim of the speech, and epilogue. An argument attempts a conclusive proof, but it does so differently in forensic, epideictic, and judiciary speeches. The epilogue (peroration, conclusion) has 4 parts: make the audience well-disposed towards yourself and ill disposed towards your opponent, magnify or minimize the leading facts, excite the required kind of emotion in your hearers, and refresh their memories by means of a recapitulation. In closing, Aristotle writes, “make sure that hearers know that you’re letting them decide for themselves: I have spoken, you have listened. You have the facts before you. Now you be the judge.”

“Aristoteles Louvre” by After Lysippos – Eric Gaba (User:Sting), July 2005.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aristoteles_Louvre.jpg#/media/File:Aristoteles_Louvre.jpg

Two Scholars On Reading Well

What does it mean to read something well? What sources can you think of that discuss reading well?

One source from the Appendix in Wayne Booth’s Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism. Booth was a scholar of literary criticism and rhetoric. The Appendix to this book is called “A Hippocratic Oath for the Pluralist,” and in it, Booth gives what he calls five “ordinances” for achieving good criticism, saying at the end that if we kept them, “we would experience a renewed sense that our critical sanity does not depend on ‘covering’ as many works as possible” (352). Here is what he says:

1. We shouldn’t publish anything about anything we’ve read all the way through at least once.
2. We’ll try to not publish anything about anything that we haven’t totally understood.
3. We’ll not believe other critics unless they convince us that they’ve abided by the first 2 rules.
4. We won’t take on a project that has us violate principles 1-3.
5. We won’t judge others’ “inevitable violations” of the first 4 principles worse than we judge our own.

Isn’t that interesting?

Another source on reading well comes from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis was a medieval and renaissance scholar who became Christian apologist later in life. In Chapter 4 of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis gives 5 characteristics of bad readers, but I’ll sum them up into 3 categories:

1. Bad readers only read narratives.
2-3. Bad readers have no ears and are wholly unconscious of style.
4-5. Bad readers enjoy narratives that are reduced to the minimum and are action-packed.

What do you think about these guidelines for reading well?
What sources have you found about good reading and bad reading? And what does it mean to read well?

Plato’s Phaedrus: A Brief Summary

Socrates meets Phaedrus outside the city gates—an anomaly for Socrates, who’s often found inside the city. But this dialogue is full of the unusual.

Phaedrus tells Socrates he was just listening to one of Lysias’ speeches, and Socrates asks him to recite it. They find a shady chaste-tree, in full bloom and filled with fragrance, and lie down, resting their heads on the cool grass. Phaedrus then reads a speech which, when it is finished, Socrates criticizes and says he can make a better one. So he invokes the muses and gives what seems almost like a parody of overblown speech. And while his speech to some degree alludes to what will come in a minute, Socrates cuts himself off in medias res saying that his divine sign, his daimon, requires him to give a different speech, one that gives respect and reverence to Love.

So Socrates begins again, saying that the best things we have come from divine madness. Madness which is possession by the gods awakens the soul to songs and poetry which both glorify past achievements and teaches them to future generations (245a).1 Living beings have in them the mortal and the immortal, and every soul is immortal. The soul is like a charioteer with 2 horses: one horse is beautiful and good, and the other is the opposite. Souls with wings fly high to where the gods dwell. Souls who fly high enough are nourished by Beauty, Wisdom, and Goodness, which let them fly even higher, but “foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear” (Woodruff 32, 246e). 

The gods dwell in heaven, where they have a view of Justice, Self-control, Knowledge, and Truth—things as they really are. Souls want to catch sight of these things, but only get a tiny glimpse because they are distracted by the horses. When a soul loses its wings, it is born into a certain kind of human being, which kind is determined by how much Reality and Truth the soul saw before it shed its wings. If the soul lives rightly, it eventually grows its wings again. Philosophers, as lovers of truth, grow their wings back faster than others. Love is a type of madness because when a charioteer sees the beautiful face of the beloved, he is reminded of that Beauty of which he caught a glimpse in a previous life before mortality. Love must be coupled with self-control.

When Phaedrus admits Socrates’ speech was better than Lysias’, Socrates asks what the difference is between good writing and bad (258e), thus getting Phaedrus to philosophize with him—the whole point in Socrates’ speech: hence rhetoric is a way of directing the soul by means of speech, in the law courts, in public, and in private. The good speaker must know all of the different types of souls, as well as the nature of the world as a whole—a difficult task, Phaedrus remarks. But there is beauty, Socrates responds, in attempting to do the beautiful, so one should not despair at the challenging task. Writing can be more problematic than speech because writing only says one thing forever and can’t respond to direct questions. Those who come upon it can read it, but they don’t know for whom it was written or why it exists. It can’t defend itself. But there is another kind of writing: a living, breathing person, who can respond to questions and can speak for some and remain silent for others.

Ultimately, to speak or to write well, one must know the truth of everything, define each thing in itself, and then divide it until it is indivisible. One must understand the nature of the soul and determine what kind of speech is appropriate to what kind of soul. That is truly artful speech. It is real techne. And, naturally, it would be spoken by a lover of truth—a Philosopher.

(Socrates has done with Phaedrus, just as Plato has just done in this dialogue with us, exactly what he says ought to be done.)

So the heat has died down. Socrates prays to the god, asking to be beautiful on the inside and to have only enough money that a moderate man would carry and use. Then both Socrates and Phaedrus depart.


The Codex Clarkianus 39, a manuscript of the Phaedrus in the Bodleian Library. From Wikipedia Commons.



End Notes
1.   I wonder if Emily Dickinson was alluding to this section of Plato’s Phaedrus when she wrote,

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – and you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –


                        (620)

Some Larger Way, Path, or Errand

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

“‘That sounds like a bit of old Bilbo’s rhyming,’ said Pippin.

. . .

“‘I don’t know,’ said Frodo. ‘It came to me then, as if I was making it up; but I may have heard it long ago. Certainly it reminds me very much of Bilbo in the last years, before he went away. He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?” He used to say that on the path outside the front door at Bag End, especially after he had been out for a long walk.'”

(The Lord of the Rings, one volume edition, p. 73-74)