Let’s talk about the Phaedrus

Posted: June 24, 2009 in Uncategorized
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The next work on my list is Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, which is one of the major rhetorical dialogues, primarily because of its discussion of the value of writing.

When I first read this dialogue, I had no idea of the subtext. But it’s hard not to see it now. This is a dialogue about Socrates trying to seduce a young man (Phaedrus) by convincing him that he should sleep with those who care about him rather than those who don’t. Basically, that Phaedrus should sleep with Socrates.

It begins early on, when Socrates says “…show me what you are holding in your left hand under your cloak, my friend” (228d), which we would rephrase as “is that a scroll in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” It continues with constant references to going off alone or sitting (or laying) together (229b) and other shameless flirtation, on both of their parts (230d, 243e, 252b, etc).

But it’s not the flirtation that’s important. What matters is the discussion of rhetoric, and of writing in general.Socrates is against writing. The problem with writing is that it cannot be questioned; once written down, it is static and cannot be changed (275d). He doesn’t like things being written down, because “it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own” (275a). So writing will make people stop using their memories.

Well, leave aside the irony of Plato writing about why writing is bad; this seems to be the sentiment of the real Socrates (assuming there was one), and so we can forgive Plato for committing it to paper anyway. But the argument in this quote keeps making me think. We have shorter attention spans today than we did in the age of our parents and their parents. We don’t memorize as much.

But is that a growth of laziness? I don’t think so. I think it’s just a refocusing of mental effort. We have access to so much more than Socrates did. He may have been able to get his hands on one thousand books, and that’s being generous. I can find millions by typing a few things into google. Education in his day included far less information than it does today. I’ve ready probably ten thousand or more pages worth of rhetorical theory this year. Aside from the fact that this is more rhetorical theory than even existed in Socrates’s day, I find it hard to believe that he could have remembered as much about it as I do. I write things down so that I can remember where to go to look for information. This indexing allows me to remember much much more. This whole blog is an example of that. Writing helps us remember more, because we can focus on the general remembering, and leave the details committed to paper.

I’m not saying that Socrates is entirely against writing. He does say that “It’s not speaking or writing well that’s shameful; what’s really shameful is to engage in either of them shamefully or badly” (258d). So good writing is okay, and using writing for the right purpose is okay. I like to think that Socrates would approve of this blog. I’m using writing to help me remember things, not to replace my memory entirely. I am, in Socrates’s words, “storing up reminders for himself ‘when he reaches forgetful old age’ and for everyone who want sot follow in his footsteps” (276d).

Let’s move on to talking about rhetoric itself. Socrates, and therefore Plato, are certainly against the Sophist school of thought, ranking them just above tyrant and just below farmer (248e). But when speaking of rhetoric, Socrates asks a question that makes for a pretty good definition of rhetoric, at least from Plato’s view: “isn’t the rhetorical art, taken as a whole, a way of directing the soul by means of speech, not only in the lawcourts and on other public occassions but also in private?” (261b). While I have problems with universal statements, I think it’s possible to see “taken as a whole” as being a way of generalizing, rather than a universal claim. And seen this way, it’s a pretty good definition of rhetoric. It’s a way of moving people from one place to another, whether that place is physical or metaphorical.

For final thoughts, I think this dialogue is interesting in that it displays the importance of audience analysis (271d), and also has what could be considered a precurser to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover (245d-e), the Forms (247d), and even of Plato’s Cave. For the last one, Plato writes that “Although distracted by the horses, this soul does have a view of Reality, just barely” (248a). The horses themselves being representatives of the loftier parts of the soul and the baser parts, with a driver trying to reach the highest heights despite the baser horse. This in itself could be the origin of Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego: The Id is the horse who wants baser pleasure, the Ego is the horse that is upright and good, and the Superego, straining to control both, is the charioteer. I’m not saying this is definitely where the idea came from, but it’s interesting to see that it is at least reflected here.

  1. Charlie Lehmann says:

    I am currently doing my undergraduate in English, and just finished a class on classical rhetoric. We covered this text , and I had a question for you: do Plato and Socrates also dislike writing because it is open for interpretation; more specifically, did they believe a text could be interpretated in a way to promote certain ideas?

  2. cogitas says:

    I don’t think Plato does dislike writing; if he did, he probably wouldn’t have written all those dialogues. But as for Socrates, he dislikes writing because it cannot be questioned. That is, you can’t ask the author what he or she means, or question their logic, or pursue a line of thought. Since the writer isn’t present anymore, all you have is the ‘dead’ words they left behind. Yes, it can be interpreted multiple ways, but the point is that you can’t ask the writer if one of those ways is correct.
    Also, Socrates was afraid that if writing became ubiquitous, humanity would lose its capacity for memory. My personal response to that is that it frees up the memory and the mind to understand and explore more things, because it is not spending so much memory on details. Essentially, I may not be able to recite the Phaedrus to you, but I remember enough of everything Plato wrote that I would at least know where to go to answer a question.

    If you’re interested, consider the way Socrates’s concern is answered by Reader Response Theory.

    Hope this helps!

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