© 1996, 1997 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 22, 1998
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(4th tetralogy : The Soul - 1st dialogue of trilogy)

Plan of Socrates' First Speech

1. The definition of love (under the protection of the Muses)
   Invocation to the Muses and setting of the speech (to a young lad)
   Point of method : we must first define what we are talking about
   Definition of love as a form of hubris (excess)
    Pause : Socrates feels like posessed by the spirit of the place 238c-d
2. Its effects on the beloved (under the inspiration of the Nymphs)
   2.1. Within "space"
             Introduction to second part
          Effects on the beloved's mind
          Effects on the beloved's body
          Effects on the beloved's "belongings" (family, friends and wealth)
   2.2. Over time
          Effects while he is loved
          Effects after he is no longer loved
   Conclusion : warning to the young lad 241c-d

(back to overall plan of the dialogue, or to plan of second or third speech)

Note : the numbers in parentheses represent the approximate number of full lines of text in each section or subsection, in the Greek text of the Budé edition. It is only intended to give an indication on the relative size of the sections with regard to one another.

This speech is made up of two unequal parts : a first one sets the context of the speech, the method to be used, and proceeds to give a definition of what the speech is about, namely love ; a second one investigates the effects of love on the beloved to show how awful they are in all respects. This second part may itself be further divided into two almost equal subsections : a first one looks at the effects of love on the different entities that, put next to one another, constitute the "spacial" extension of the beloved : mind, body and "belongings", the later including ties (family and friends) and material wealth ; a second one moves from "space" to time, depicting the effects of love on the beloved first while he is loved, then when he is no longer loved. To better mark a split between the first and second part, the speech is interrupted by Socrates and a short dialogue with Phædrus ensues.

Though, after splitting the second part in two as noted, we end up with three almost equal parts, the speech is far from having a balanced structure usual in Plato's dialogues or even a threefold structure that might parallel the threefold structure of the soul. If we look for the center of the speech, if falls in the section dealing with the body put in the hands of one who, "having become lord, is driven of necessity to seek pleasure before good (Phædrus, 239c)." This doesn't mark a major division of the speech, but at least it confirms that in it, Socrates stays at a very materialistic level. A further confirmation of this may be found in the threefold division of the beloved "space" that structure this subsection : it seems to parallel a division found elsewhere in the dialogues, and quite common at the time, in soul, body and external possessions. But, aside from the fact that this division is not central to Socrates/Plato -- when Socrates uses it, he usually takes it from one of his interlocutors --, it receives here a noticeable twist. In line with the fact that this speech is part of the "soulless" speeches, the word psuchè, soul, is not used in the subsection dealing with the first item of the list (it is used only once, halfheartedly, in the summary concluding the whole speech, when Socrates is almost done) (1). Rather, this subsection only refers to dianoian (intelligence, understanding, thought, 239a5 and 239c1) and its development, again a more fitting concept for the "naturalistic" mind that is supposed to stand behind the speech. And this "intelligence" is the first step of a downward movement (from the standpoint of Socrates/Plato's scale of values) that ends with ousia. But the ousia that comes as the last item of this investigation (240a2, a5) has nothing to do with the everlasting "being" that we should strive to become, it simply designates here the material wealth the beloved stands to lose by the fact of his being loved. (2)

Socrates himself confirms the "naturalistic" bias of his speech during the break that separates the first and second part. While he started his speech by invoking the Muses, goddesses of intellectual activity, he tells us there that what will come next might well be inspired rather by the Nymphs, goddesses of nature. Not only that, but while the call on the Muses was Socrates', coming from his own will, he makes it plain during the break that it is not him who is calling on the Nymphs but that he might nonetheless end up being "possessed" by them (numpholeptos, 238d), against his will. Besides, even the Muses, that are invoked at the beginning of the speech, are a very ambiguous patronage for intellectual activity ! They are invoked by the poet rather than the politician or philosopher, and the poet only comes in sixth position in the scale of lives found in the second speech (Phædrus, 248d-e), far behind the philosopher that holds first place.

This doesn't mean that there is nothing to be saved from this first speech, because Socrates manages to speak the truth even when joking (after all, even the Nymphs are of godly ascent). But it is a partial truth, and we should be as careful about what is missing as we are about what is said ! True ! the speech starts with a statement of principles asking for a clear definition of and agreement on (3) what we are talking about, and we can only subscribe to it. But we should be careful about the way it is applied. True ! Socrates proceeds with a definition of love grounded in a principle that looks quite acceptable : "we must understand that there are in each one of us two forms providing leadership and leading to action (duo idea archonte kai agonte) : on the one hand, stemming from nature (emphutos ousa), the desire for pleasure (epithumia hedonôn) ; on the other hand, an acquired opinion (epiktètos doxa), the pursuit of the best (ephiemenè to aristou) (237d)". But that's where things start getting messy. The conflict within us is clearly acknowledged in the following sentence, but the location of that conflict, the soul, is not even mentioned, not to talk about the threefold structure of that soul, which provides for an explanation of the conflict and paves the way toward a principle of resolution. Here we are in a dualistic approach playing on the opposition between mind (not soul) and matter, nature and culture, and, if love is at the outset defined as a desire, an epithumia, desire itself, though the word is used no less than 9 times in the speech, is never defined ! Once again, we come to see that the view taken on love by the speech is one-sided. Love is only seen in its excesses, as a form of hubris (precisely, the word that means excess) opposed to sôphrosunè (moderation). All that is said is (almost) true, except that it doesn't tell the whole story... The speech sins by moving too fast toward the second step of dialectic, the separation of forms (here the various forms of "excess"), and not spending enough time on the first step, the drive toward a unifying principle (here the structure of the soul).

The structure of the speech bears witness to this dualistic and "materialistic" bias. The speech is split in two parts, not three. It lacks the middle level, that of the will, between the logos provided by the first part under the form of definitions (another meaning of the word logos in Greek) and the "physical" consequences detailed in the second part. In its place, we get a break in the flow of the speech that precisely points at the disappearance of Socrates' will : he is taken over by the spirit of the place !... The whole movement of the speech is a downward one, going in one single step from logos/definitions to behavior in a materialistic world limited to space and time where soul is replaced by thought. And the description of this materialistic world of desire, eroticism and selfishness takes twice as much time as the logos it builds upon. We will have to compare this with the balanced structure of the second speech, not to mention that of the ensuing dialogue.

(1) When for instance Socrates uses such a division in his discussion with Alcibiades (Alicibiades, 128a-130c), for one, it moves from belongings (and only material belongings in that case) up to the soul (psuchè), not the other way around as is the case here ; and then, its whole purpose is to show in the end that "man is his soul". It is far from being the case here where the soul is not even mentioned ! (back)

(2) Though in a deeper reading, playing on the dual meaning of the word, it might be one more clue in the same direction. After all, a few lines earlier, at 237c3, in the statement of principles about how to conduct a speech, the word ousia is used with its "metaphysical" meaning, as if to warn us that Socrates has both meanings present to his mind. In that perspective, the inventory of "belongings" might somehow been read as paralleling the "parts" of the soul in an attempt to move back upward only to fall flat on the ground : the family that comes first is the origin of our being, the phusis ; friends that come next are the choice of our own free will ; and the ousia that comes last should be the goal of our logos. Alas ! here, it is but the gold of our purse... (back)

(3) Within a few lines in this statement, we find the words diomologein (237c3), homologein (237c5), both of whom mean "to agree", and homologia (237d1), agreement, that is, sameness of logos, a concept that is central to Socrates' understanding of justice. This is for instance what Socrates most dearly wants to establish with Crito in his jail on the eve of his death. More generally speaking, the vocabulary of this section is quite "Platonic/Socratic". (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.
Tetralogies : Phædrus' home page - 4th Tetralogy's home page - Tex of dialogue in Greek or English at Perseus

First published September 29, 1996 - Last updated November 22, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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