Phaedrus

Introduced the Phaedrus to my undergraduates this week. They had more difficulty with it, I think, than the Gorgias. Next week, the graduates get a stab at it.

Most of my interpretation of the Phaedrus stems from two works: Richard Weaver’s famous essay on the three speeches and my mentor’s essay on whether or rhetoric is fully denounced in the dialogue. As such, I think the three speeches represent different kinds of ethical rhetorics (as Weaver does) – a piddling neutrality (Lysias), a base rhetoric (Socrates’s first speech) and a philosophical rhetoric (the Great Speech) – but I also think the dialogue needs to be read in light of Isocrates’s work, which it may respond to, and the comparatively restrictive definition of rhetoric and rhetors in classical Athens. Plato wasn’t a rhetor; we can call him one if we so wish retroactively, but only with knowledge of the equivocation.

I’ve been thinking that I may not assign the Phaedrus in the future for either class as unlike the Gorgias, it can be summed up relatively quickly, and there is so much else to cover in the meantime. The main thing to take away from it is that Plato finally gets around to showing, via the Great Speech, the persuasive technique behind his philosophy; we get to see what a “philosophical rhetoric” linked to transcendent truth would look like as opposed, directly, to the “baser” speeches in the dialogue. The existence of such a creature is hinted rather broadly at in the Gorgias, but not delivered.

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