© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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E-mail Archives :
Phædrus, Boreas' myth and politics

August 3, 1995

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: plato <plato@freelance.com>
Date : August 3, 1995, 15:56:36
Subject : re: Phædrus, Boreas' myth and politics

There is so much to be said about what has been going on lately around the Phædrus that I don't know where to start! So let's try why the topic of history in Plato's dialogues, ans see where it leads us...

Sure enough, Plato's dialogues are set in a historical context, and use historical characters throughout. But just because of that, it doesn't mean they are history, because the purpose of Plato in writing them was not to write history, but to teach us to think, and to think about us in the present ("know thyself"), not about a lost past... Knowing the historical background of the dialogues sure helps (and I much appreciated Christopher's lessons on these matters on another list earlier this year (1) ), but it must not be to the extent of replacing thinking by scholarship! There are characters in Plato's dialogues of whom nobody knows for sure whether they are historical or fictitious (eg: Callicles in Gorgias, and may be even Polus), and it doesn't prevent us from appreciating the dialogue and understanding what it has to tell us.

The most obvious historical character in the dialogues is Socrates himself! And yet, Plato doesn't intend to write a history of Socrates; he doesn't pretend to be true to Socrates' history (as one of today's historians would understand this), but to Socrates' soul!... Because that's what is still living even after Socrates' death, and that's what can help us readers, even today. I guess very few scholars would still dare pretend nowodays that the dialogues "report" "historical" conversations of Socrates in a journalistic style. It should be obvious by now that, even if they are "likely" encounters (precisely because they are "truer" than life by being true to the spirit and not to the letter), they are the creation of Plato, fitted to his purpose. And I would add that this is even true of the Apology, of which I can show, by analyzing its plan, that it is a carefully structured dialogue, echoing many other themes of Plato's dialogues, and not likely to have been Socrates' "true" words at his trial (2) ...

Back to the Phædrus now. Is there politics in the Phædrus? Sure! How could there not be politics in a dialogue involved with rhetoric when Plato told us in the Gorgias that rhetoric, at least the way Gorgias understands it, is but a mockery of politics? But is the Phædrus about rhetoric, or about love, or about the soul, or else... you might say?... It is about all this and more!...

One good advice, when studying one of Plato's dialogues, is to look for indications everywhere, and especially in the setting, in the apparently useless details that may seem only to be there to add a touch of color, or of life, in the work. Nothing is useless in Plato's works, and nothing is left to chance. Scenery is part of the means of teaching us, and has its word to say to those who look for it.

What is all this about? Well! My take is that the setting of the Phædrus has a lot to do with the topic(s) delt with by the dialogue. In this dialogue, Plato is in search of soul's nature, and so, it takes place in the middle of "nature". And what he is looking for is man's soul, and, with man, at least at that time, especially in sophists' circles, one most debated topic was the opposition between "nature" and "culture" or, as they would have said at the time, between phusis and nomos. The Phædrus "stages" this debate in having Socrates teach the nomoi of logos in the phusis of Athen's countryside, through speeches that deal with eros, the "physical" force which drives man to erôtan (ask questions), that is to eirein (speak, whence the word rhetor), and which makes him a "political" animal building cities, and needing laws for these cities. In that search, Socrates uncovers man's soul, its logos and its ability to drive him "up in the sky".

At the beginning of the dialogue, Phædrus and Socrates are both "physically" walking. But, by the time the speeches start, they have stopped walking, and their souls start moving. A keyword of the Phædrus is psuchagogia, "driving of the soul": this word is used by Plato only in this dialogue, and only twice, at 261a8 and 271c10. If you are interested, I can show you the place these two words have in the structure of the third part of the dialogue, the one dealing with rhetoric (258c-274b), where they occur at the middle of each half of this part, itself centered at 265c-266b on the definition of the dialectical method (3). The only other occurrences of a word of the same family, the verb psuchagogein, are in the Laws (909b2 and 3), where it refers to the evocation of the souls of the dead to blame it (maybe the right way to call on the soul of the dead is precisely what Plato is doing in his dialogues with the soul of Socrates, see above...), and in Timæus, 71a6, to allude to a soul driven by ghosts.

Ain't the procession of the souls behind the gods in Socrate's second speech, the one about the soul, a psuchagigia in image, whereas the speech on speech, in the the third part, gives us the theory of that psuchagigia via the logos?

And now, what of Boreas? Methinks this chat on myth at the beginning of the quest is a way for Plato to exhibit some of the various ways for men to find gods in nature, that is to try to rise above ground, and then to find "reason", logos behind these "gods". But, IMHO, if you read carrefully what Socrates says at 229e-230a, you will see that all these attemps leave Socrate frustrated. Here you hear once again the Delphic motto "know thyself" and Socrates' reading of it, and you see that he is in search of his true phusei (230a6), that might "participate" in some theias moiras, in some "divine part". That's what the Phædrus is all about. It is not in making gods of creeks and trees, and cigadas, that you find god in nature, and even less in transforming history in myth, and making gods of men, but in looking "up in the sky" (not in the sense understood by Aristophanes in the Clouds, obviously!), that is, in using your logos, which is what makes men different from animals. The lesson on how to use "nature" to drive us to this point comes much later, in the Timæus, which is Plato's "true" vision of a myth.

The quest for man's soul in the Phædrus is in three parts, each one involving as its prime "partner" one of the three parts of the soul that will be "displayed" in Socrates second speech through the image of the winged chariot, and theorized in the Republic. In the first part, which I take to include both Lysias' speech and Socrates' first speech, and which I might call "the speeches without soul", we have instances of speeches which are not totally deprived of soul, but involve mostly the desiring parts of the soul, the epithumiai, in the sense that they are only involved in satisfying "physical" needs in man, not trying to raise him above the animal. And it doesn't matter that Lysias, and even Socrates, use some sort of logos, of reason, in their speeches (it might even look as if Lysias was only doing that, trying to be smarter than anybody else, except maybe Socrates...), because Plato's psychology is not one-sided, it is not Aristotle's. All parts of man's soul partake of some sort of "reason" (remember that, in the Republic, which purports to give an image "in large letters" of man's soul, all citizen are men, and yet they all represent one or another part of the soul), but they have to be judged on their goals, and the epithumetikon part of the soul, which, by the way, is plural, is characterized by the fact that each "desire" only craves for its own satisfaction, and can devise for that most artful stratagems...

In the second part, Socrates second speech (let's call it "the speech on the soul", and we might then call the third part "the soul of speeches"), we are dealing with the part in man's soul that is capable of choice, the thumos, which might become either of the two horses in the winged chariot, which must choose which god to follow in the sky up above. Yet, this part is not logos yet, and it has to be "enthousiazed", "divinized" through logos. Hence the insistence of Socrates in this second speech on enthusiasm, and divine inspiration: this speech is not yet a "rational" speech. Logos is the subject of the third part. But logos is an integral part of man's "nature", phusis, and thus, the laws of logos are not against man's phusis, they are the only way for him to achieve his true phusis by becoming what he is meant to be. Thus, logos is not meant primarily to be written, that is to become dead, but to be poured in somebody else's soul to "lead" it (remember psuchagogia) toward its own being. But the pouring of logos in one soul is not achieved by mere rote learning of somebody else's speech, as Phædrus would have it at the beginning of the dialogue, it comes with the interplay of discussion, with the questions and answers of a true dialogue, conducted in a dialectical manner.

That's why I won't quite subscribe to the suggestion that Lysias is the tyrant, Phædrus the philosopher-king, and Socrates the Socratic philosopher (and also because I don't see the difference between the philosopher-king and the Socratic philosopher, and don't think the philosopher-king is remote from reality, on the contrary, but to this, another time), at least not in this way (though it is not too off the mark, as you might see). Rather, I would suggest that Lysias shows us what man becomes when his soul is primarily a "desiring" soul, an epithumetikon, following only its beastly appetites, be it with cunning (and it was important for Plato to show us this soul "at his best", that is, with all the logos it could get, being what it is), and, yes, such a soul is "tyranical", both to itself and to others (in that, you were right); Phædrus is the hesitating soul, that might as well become either one of the two horses, a searching thumos lost in its own "nature" and hesitating between two guides; and Socrates, as always, is the soul endowed with logos, and trying to guide, to lead, the searching soul (Phædrus' and our's), through the right psuchagogia, toward its divine destiny, in teaching it how to make use of its logos when driven by its eros... (And may be he, or we, might some day become the philosopher-king, but don't go to fast, we ain't done yet! There is still a long road from here to the Laws, and don't forget the Republic is not the last word, but the (central) ideal that enlightens the road to the well-governed city: and it is the ideal, not the city itself, that is "up in the sky", otherwise, it would not be an "ideal"). Once there (at the end of the Phædrus, I mean), the stage is set for the next part, the "political" use of this logos, and that's what the Republic is all about: to show us the "becoming" of the soul, now that we know its "nature" (while the Phædo will eventually show us its likely destiny).

(1) This refers to a set of posts by Christopher Planeaux on the <plato-republic> list providing historical background on the first Bendideia, the feast that serves as a background to the Republic, and on the various characters that are gathered in the house of Cephalus and Polemarchus according to Socrates' story. Most of this information may be found at Christopher's page on Plato on the web. (back)

(2) This analysis may be found elsewhere in these pages, under the form of a commented plan of the Apology. (back)

(3) A slightly different analysis of the plan of this part of the Phædrus may be found elsewhere in these pages, but it doesn't challenge the key role of psuchagogia in this structure. (back)

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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