Earl’s Commentary on the Phaedrus, Part 4
In Part Three Socrates found Lysias’s speech to be repetititve and poorly
organized. In his own version of such a speech here, he shows Lysias how
it’s done. Socrates’s speech is masterfully organized. The disadvantages
the beloved will suffer if he accepts the lover as a suitor are broken
down into clearly defined categories and explained succinctly. These categories
- The beloved’s mind/education
- The beloved’s physical health/training
- The beloved’s property
- Pleasure during time the lover loves
- Promises broken, oaths unfulfilled after the lover has stopped loving.
But this very organization also emphasizes what the speech is missing:
the other half, the the list of advantages the beloved would enjoy from
accepting the non-lover. The tight structure here makes the piece seem
even more lopsided than it otherwise might. Phaedrus complains about this
at the beginning of Part
Five, and Socrates dismisses it by saying, „Just imagine everything
in reverse.“ Socrates is clearly not interested in completing this speech.
But even within the speech as he gave it, and the circumstances in which
he gave it, there are many things that undermine that speech and its supposed
There are several aspects of the speech that distance the speaker from
the topic. Lysias’s
speech is written in the first person.
Socrates’s speech begins with a third person narrative about a boy
with many suitors, and one who makes the argument he
then quotes. He thus establishes a structural distance between himself
and the argument of the text, a deliberate
dis-identification between the subject of enunication and the subject
Socrates also interrupts himself to describe the „inspiration“ that
seems to be flowing through him. He notes that his prose is rhythmic, like
a dithyramb. A dithyramb is a hymn to Dionysius. And indeed, his opening
phrase when he summoned the muses to aid him, „agete dê“ is a standard
beginning of a dithyramb. The invocation of the muses and the allusions
to dithyramb further distance Socrates from the responsibility for the
content of the speech, as the former suggest the muses generate it and
the latter a divine possession. Consider also, in the Ion
dialogue, what a low opinion Socrates expresses for rhapsodes [reciters
of epic poetry, particularly Homer], precisely because they are inspired
by muses, and thus do not know what they are talking about. That condition
which he maligned in the Ion
is the very one he uses as a defense against identification with the content
of his own recitation here.
Socrates’s definition of love here will also serve to subvert the text
of the speech from within, however it may not be apparent at first. He
asserts that „love is a desire.“
But this doesn’t seem to serve only as a basis for conceptual clarity.
This is the first lynchpin in his unmasking of the „I“ in Lysias’s speech.
Following the logic of Socrates’s speech as it proceeds from this definition
of love as desire,
one might very well ask oneself what the difference is then between the
lover and the non-lover? Both obviously desire the boy in question. This
question, however, doesn’t actually call attention to weaknesses in Socrates’s
speech, but rather is the question Socrates means to elicit, in order to
direct it onto Lysias’s speech. One of the fundamental obfuscations in
Lysias’s speech is that the premise, as delivered, erases any real distinctions
between the lover and the non-lover. In this case, it is also because,
as Socrates will say explicitly in Part Five, that the alleged „non-lover“
in Lysias’s text is really a would-be lover, and the argument developed
there is just a ploy to seduce the would-be beloved from a new, yet deceitful
The setting in which Socrates delivers the speech in praise of the non-lover
also generates a dissonance between the ‚form‘ and the ‚content‘ of that
speech. Just as the third-person narrative mode marked Socrates’s distance
from that „content“ discursively, the veil over his face during the delivery
of the speech marked that distance performatively. He covers his face because
he is ashamed of the words he speaks.
Even distanced by narrative structure, the praise of the non-lover is
further belied by the very reasons Socrates is delivering the speech against
his will. He gives the speech at the request of his beloved, Phaedrus.
And it is for his love for and Phaedrus and for speeches that prompts him
to do it. Phaedrus had threatened not to share any more speeches with Socrates
if Socrates would not fulfill this request. We were introduced to Phaedrus
as a lover of speeches (ton
logoon erastes). The semantic
range of eros to include individuals and speeches has already been
established as literal and dynamic.
It is not only out of shame Socrates covers his face. While spinning
a „mythic“ defense of the non-lover, he could not look on Phaedrus, who
is the embodiment of the eros motivating the speech in the first place.
Phaedrus is both the cause and the addressee of the speech, performed out
of love and against the will of Socrates, a condition which is precisely
that which Socrates describes as the „hubris“ or „excess“ of the lover
in this speech, thereby classifying the lover with the glutton and the
238b=c]. I will return to the contradictions of this particular conflict
between „lover“ and „philosopher“ in
a later Commentary.
BACK to Phaedrus Part Four
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Introduction to this Kit
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To a Customized Greek Glossary
Who Was Socrates?
Who Was Plato?
Who Was Phaedrus?
Who Was Lysias?
Who were the sophists
From the Life of Alcibiades
What were the Eleusinian Mysteries?
Precision – a Mini-Manifesto
A Greek Lexicon
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Con-texts of the Phaedrus