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)

An Imaginary Conversation with Someone from an Earlier Era and a Journey Through a Cave

“Suppose you were able to travel back in time and have a conversation with people who lived a thousand or even a hundred years ago. Imagine trying to describe to them some of the modern technologies that you and I take for granted today. For example, what might these people think of us if we told them stories of jumbo jets, microwave ovens, handheld devices that contain vast digital libraries, and videos of our grandchildren that we instantly share with millions of people around the world?

“Some might believe us. Most would ridicule, oppose, or perhaps even seek to silence or harm us. Some might attempt to apply logic, reason, and facts as they know them to show that we are misguided, foolish, or even dangerous. They might condemn us for attempting to mislead others.

“But of course, these people would be completely mistaken. They might be well-meaning and sincere. They might feel absolutely positive of their opinion. But they simply would not be able to see clearly because they had not yet received the more complete light of truth.”

From Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth,” Ensign, November 2014, 20. See this link for a video clip of the entire address.

Whenever we teach someone to do something new, we assume a similar perspective–we assume that we see more than our students. Say we are teaching students how to write. We see something our students can do to improve, so we tell them about it. They may become frustrated and angry. It is never easy to be asked to change. But if we are going to help our students become better writers, then we must point out what they can do differently. In short, we assume that we see more than they do.

It is like this classic story that you’ve all heard or read at some time or another. Two people are discussing education, and one says to the other:

“Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.”

“I’m imagining it.”

“Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it–statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.”

“It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners.”

“They’re like us. Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?”

“How could they, if they have to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”

“What about the things being carried along the wall? Isn’t the same true of them?”

“Of course.”

“And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?”

“They’d have to.”

“And what if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them? Don’t you think they’d believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers passing along the wall was doing so?”

“I certainly do.”

“Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.”

“They must surely believe that.”

“Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like, if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now–because he is a bit closer to the things that are and is turned towards things that are more–he sees more correctly? Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?”

“Much truer.”

“And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the one’s he’s being shown?”

“He would.”

“And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?”

“He would be unable to see them, at least at first.”

“I suppose, then, that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.”

“Of course.”

“Finally, I suppose, he’d be able to see the sun, not images of it in water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.”

“Necessarily so.”

“And at this point he would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.”

“It’s clear that would be his next step.”

“What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there? Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?”

“Certainly.”

“And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power? Instead, wouldn’t he feel, with Homer, that he’d much prefer to ‘work the earth as a serf to another, one without possessions,’ and go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?”

“I suppose he would rather suffer anything than live like that.”

“Consider this too. If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes–coming suddenly out of the sun like that–be filled with darkness?”

“They certainly would.”

“And before his eyes had recovered–and the adjustment would not be quick–while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, wouldn’t he invite ridicule? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward? . . . “

“They certainly would.”

That’s from C. D. C. Reeve’s revision of G. M. A. Grube’s translation of Book VII of Plato’s Republic, 514a-517a.

On Plato and Being Removed from the Truth

What is truth?

As soon as I typed that question, my thoughts went directly to the scene in the New Testament when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus that very question (the reference is John 18:38, in case you were wondering). But I’m not going to discuss Christianity in this post, at least not directly, and not necessarily intentionally. Instead of discussing truth from a Christian perspective, I’m going to discuss it from a–shall we say Pagan?–Pagan perspective. If, of course, we consider Plato to be a Pagan.

Yep, there he is. Plato.

Plato seems to believe that truth is what is–it is things as they really are. A useful definition, but he also seems to believe that we can’t know things as they really are unless we practice philosophy. For him, we’ll remember, philosophy is the love of wisdom and the love of truth (Republic 476e2-3). And truth is not and cannot be discovered via empirical means. At least, that’s what Plato seems to believe.

But I’m not going to take the time right now to discuss how Plato thinks we discover truth. I’m only going to point out a few interesting passages.

In Book VII of his Republic, Plato has Socrates say that “calculation and arithmetic . . . lead us towards truth” (525a6-b1). He believes this because numbers are abstract and universal. Numbers are everywhere, and the principles of mathematics are universal and can be applied in a variety of circumstances.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that subject later.

Moving on, this may sound weird, but I think to some degree reading Plato has helped me to be a better teacher, at least to the degree that he believes this:

[T]he power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and . . . the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call the good . . . Then education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately. (Republic Book VII 518c2-d7)

In other words, Plato always has Socrates ask his students questions, and the point of the dialog form that Plato constantly writes in (except for, perhaps, the Apology) is to show that the most important truths are only discovered, and the best teachers help students to discover for themselves. On that note, David A. Bednar once said, “The best lessons are caught, not taught.”

I wonder, since Aristotle was Plato’s student, how much of the above-quoted passage influenced Aristotle’s thinking. (There’s a whole bunch of stuff throughout Plato that alludes to what will later be known as Aristotle’s golden mean from his Nicomachean Ethics. There’s some other stuff, too, but too much for a parenthetical aside.) At any rate, in the first sentence of Book I of his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that “All human beings by nature desire to know.”

Now, we could talk about how sometimes the questions Plato has Socrates ask are a bit strange. We could also talk about how it gets a bit funny to see Plato constantly making people agree with Socrates (I believe Wayne Booth someplace calls this person that’s always agreeing the “Yes-man”), but Plato is smarter than I think sometimes he is made out to be. Notice that most of his dialogues are at least three times removed from the truth, the actual event. Take Plato’s Symposium, for example. Plato is telling us through the eyes of Apollodorus, who heard the story/dialogue from Aristodemus, who was with Socrates at Agathon’s house on the evening the story takes place. We’re several times removed from the truth here because Plato is trying to teach us that things as they really are are not always directly and consistently available to us as mortals.

I suppose I should now come full circle and quote from the New Testament, this time on purpose. Very well. Here’s the Apostle Paul on a similar idea:

But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God . . . But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:9-11, 14)