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Focusing mainly on Plato’s Phaedrus, Levy intends to reflect on the way Socrates characterizes his philosophizing in contrast to the intellectual activity of the sophists. Levy’s chapter takes up specifically the question of the character of the self-knowledge Socrates is seeking, why talking to others contributes to his self-knowledge, why Socrates is interested in and respectful of eros, and the character of Socrates’ interest in educating others.
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Except where noted, all references to Plato are to Burnet’s edition (1901–05). All unattributed line numbers are to Phaedrus. I wish to thank David Bolotin and Christopher Bruell for their many helpful suggestions about this chapter.
Indeed the question of the differences between Socrates and the sophists also remains thematic throughout the dialogue. Each half of the dialogue ends with Socrates giving Phaedrus a message about his own views to pass along to Lysias (243d5–7, 257b1–6, 278b6ff.), a message which, given Phaedrus’ propensity to share speeches he has heard and provoke speeches from others (228a5–c5, 242a7–b5, 243e2), Socrates can expect to be shared with the community of sophists more broadly.
See, for example, Harvey Yunis ( Plato: Phaedrus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), who without any explanation interprets Socrates’ claim to adhere to customary beliefs as “not so much affirming the literal truth of myth as expressing a lack of interest in the question” (94).
It is common for commentators to interpret Socrates’ question about whether he is like Typhon as indicating that he finds myth necessary for his pursuit of self-knowledge; they then point to Socrates’ use of a mythical depiction of the soul in the palinode as evidence for this view. For examples, see Charles Griswold, Self-Knowledge in Plato’s “Phaedrus” (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986), 36–39 and G.R.F. Ferrari, Listening to the Cicadas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 11–12. This view fails to consider that Socrates may use myth in his accounts with a view to his listeners, rather than because they are the best way to articulate the truth to himself, and the Phaedrus more than any other dialogue shows that Socrates believes in adapting speeches to the capacities of the listeners (see especially 277b5–c6). Furthermore, because Socrates regards the view provided by human reason or dialectical analysis as the authoritative view (249b6–c8, 266b6–7), it is impossible to see how he could regard as satisfactory a merely mythical account as opposed to the reasoning underlying the myth or a simply rational account.
Griswold notes that Socrates’ reference to Typhon implies a concern on Socrates’ part about whether he is guilty of hubris but goes on to suggest that this “must be equivalent to an irrational desire…to be master of the universe—a radical version of Typhon’s desire to dominate the gods” ( Self-Knowledge, 40–41). Griswold thus attributes to Socrates a concern about an extreme form of hubris—one which it is hard to see how Socrates could fear he is guilty of, given his repeated acknowledgments of his finitude—and passes over the more literal meaning of hubris, a meaning which is perfectly appropriate for Socrates to mention in response to Phaedrus’ question.
The praise tends to confirm our suggestion about Socrates’ ignorance. He mentions seven items at the resting place. Every item except the fourth is natural, and Socrates praises every item except the fourth, about which he merely says “from the maidens and statues it seems likely to be a holy place of some nymphs and Achelous” (230b7–8). Socrates cannot be sure the place is holy, and he is not inclined to praise the aspect of the place that suggests it is holy. See Seth Benardete’s similar suggestion ( The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991], 115).
To be sure, it is a different aspect of the oracle that Socrates says he is responding to in the Apology: Socrates describes his response to the alleged prophecy differently to different audiences.
Consider especially 252b1–c2 as well as 265e3–266a3 and the implication of 257a7–8 with 270c10–e2.
Consider also G.J. De Vries’ observation that no terrors had literally been mentioned earlier in the speech ( A Commentary on the Phaedrus of Plato [Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1969], 154).
On the meaning of embodiment, consider especially 250c4–6 in its context, which is a sort of reverie spurred by the thought of beauty. On the status of the immortality of the soul, see 245c5–7 with 247b6–c2.
See Yunis, Phaedrus, 152.
Consider Socrates’ definition of love in his first speech, according to which a desire for beauty is strengthened by “kindred desires” for the beauty of bodies (238b7–c).
On the tension between sexual satisfaction and rationality, see Philebus 47a–b.
As for Socrates having a “divine” portion, consider the possible implication of the statement that “only” philosophers are truly perfect at 249c6–8.
The most obvious substantive connection of the treatment of rhetoric to the treatment of writing is the following: because the task of rhetoric is to persuade souls by speeches (270e2–271a2), the rhetorician must understand that different speeches have different effects on different souls (271b1–5); he thus understands a basic problem for writings, since they are, as such, available to all kinds of souls (275d9–e3). Dramatically, the discussion of rhetoric leads Phaedrus to a more serious concern for speeches, thus helping him better to appreciate the importance of the contrast between written and spoken instruction. The conversation turns from writing to rhetoric after Phaedrus suggests that the discussion of writing does not fulfill a prior need but should be engaged in as pure pleasure (258e1–5). Socrates responds to this first with his myth of the cicadas, which indicates the psychological root of the mistaken wish to regard oneself as free of necessities (259b6–c2), and second by changing the subject to rhetoric (259e1–260a4, cf. 258d7–11), the art of speeches that most attracts Phaedrus but which he does not regard with sufficient seriousness. In the treatment of rhetoric, Socrates appears to investigate first whether Phaedrus could be led to prefer the philosophic use of speeches to that of the rhetoricians (260b1–d2, 261a3–5, 266b3–c5). When this fails (266c6–7), Socrates leads Phaedrus not to a philosophic attitude toward speech but to a pious one, in which the primary aim is to speak in a manner that gratifies the gods, which requires much study, the need for which Phaedrus now accepts (273e5–274b2).
This claim by itself could mean either that speeches about just, beautiful, and good things can be clear, complete, and worthy of seriousness only when written in the soul—that is, passed on through speech rather than writing—or it could mean that speeches written in the soul about only just, beautiful, and good things can be truly clear, complete, and worthy of seriousness. The former interpretation is suggested by consideration of the peculiar difficulty of education in moral matters. Furthermore, it is hard to see how Socrates, who discusses many subjects in addition to just, beautiful, and good things, could regard only education about these moral matters as worthy of seriousness. On the other hand, as we shall see, there is a sense in which education about these matters surpasses other kinds of education in terms of clarity, completeness, and seriousness.
That Socrates does not limit the philosopher to writing about moral matters, and that Socrates says the philosopher will, when he writes, “know where the truth lies,” perhaps indicates that the philosopher can have knowledge of other subjects, in addition to knowledge of just, beautiful, and good things. On the other hand, the claim that the philosopher, when writing, has knowledge of “where the truth lies” may mean no more than that he has knowledge of his ignorance about the matters about which he might write. What is clear is that Socrates indicates that the philosopher must possess knowledge of just, beautiful, and good things.
It is striking that Socrates does not include “beautiful” together with “good” and “just” in his list of controversial terms. He also fails to mention beauty in his list of what the one who is ignorant of the weakness of writing is also ignorant of (277d10–e1), though he does include beauty in his lists of what the one who understands the weakness of writing knows (276c3–5, 278a3–4). To be sure, one can have a confused view of beauty, as the whole Greater Hippias shows, but Socrates appears to indicate that beauty is less controversial than goodness or justice. In the palinode, Socrates contrasts beauty, which is easily seen and quite splendid, with justice and moderation, which are difficult to recognize and lack splendor (cf. 250b1–5 with d1–3, d6–e1). Socrates knows that people differ in regard to what they find beautiful (252d1 with 251a2–3), but everyone’s experience, at least of bodily beauty, which is the beauty that first strikes us, comes with an unshakable confidence that it really is beautiful, unlike the doubts one experiences about claims of goodness or justice. Furthermore, Socrates indicates that public disputes are primarily concerned with justice and goodness and not disagreements about beauty (261c4–d4), which are less pressing in public matters and which we are usually content to attribute to differing tastes. Finally, we may wonder whether beauty ever becomes the source of serious controversy except insofar as it becomes associated with goodness and justice. If Socrates does think that it is primarily justice and goodness that are controversial and beauty is only derivatively so, he may not mention beauty in his list of what the one ignorant of the weakness of writing is also ignorant of because this man’s ignorance is primarily about goodness and justice.
Consider also Republic 504d–506a.
Let me suggest the following to illustrate how the dialogues could offer no more than reminders to those who know while also contributing to the education of some of those who do not yet know. A careful reading of the palinode’s indications about the relationship between justice and eros and, more important, a careful reading of Socrates’ treatment of justice in the Republic will leave the reader who does not already understand Socrates’ view with nothing more than focused problems, questions raised by the many discrepancies and unexplained claims in the text. If the reader is so inclined, he will think through these problems, either on his own or with the help of a teacher, and grasp their necessary solutions. Only at this point will the relevant portions of the text become intelligible.
To be sure, the misrepresentations of eros also depend on the first source of deception that Socrates notes in the Phaedrus: “likenesses” or the similarity between a form of madness that is part of the erotic experience and that experience as a whole (261e6–262b3). The dialogue, however, subtly indicates that this source of deception on its own tends to be incapable of leading listeners to views that differ greatly from the truth. In order to explain the dependence of rhetoric on knowledge of the truth, Socrates initially proposes that rhetoric could use a series of likenesses to lead to wildly divergent views (261c4–262c3). But one can read Socrates’ initial proposal as being itself an attempt to liken rhetoric to sophistry or Zeno’s paradoxical physics, which is ultimately unpersuasive to Phaedrus: he senses that he is being misled and wishes to look at examples of rhetoric (262c4–9). Precisely because language about uncontroversial terms is basically clear, there can be relatively little deception about them. Socrates thus later implies that this initial account was inadequate to explain the dependence of rhetoric on knowledge of the truth (273d2–6). The sequel to Socrates’ initial discussion of likenesses is his discussion of the controversial class of terms, about which, as Socrates notes, rhetoric has more power and deception is easier (263b3–9). This discussion then leads, as we have seen, into his discussion of how his speech turned from blame to praise. The suggestion, then, is that the power of mere likenesses to deceive is strengthened by confusion about the controversial class.
It is noteworthy that Socrates does not return to the language of recollection here.
“Behind, after his track, as a god’s” resembles a half verse repeated four times in the Odyssey (2.406, 3.30, 5.193, 7.38), as De Vries ( A Commentary, 218), and Nichols following him ( Plato’s Phaedrus, trans. James Nichols Jr.[Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998], 74, note 157), notes. In each of these passages, a character follows a goddess after having received guidance from her.
See the conflation of reasoning and the philosopher’s thought at 249b6–c5.
Consider 252b3–c1. For commentators with very different interpretations of the dialogue from my own who agree that the question must be about more than a mere name, see De Vries, A Commentary (218–219), and Yunis, Phaedrus (154–155, 199).
The palinode indicates this in “mythical” terms by allowing embodied souls no direct access to the hyperuranion beings.
In this regard, consider 245d6–e4, with 245c5–7 and 247b6–c2.
Consider that Socrates’ image of the soul in the palinode consists of two motive powers and a charioteer or mind which has its own aims (246a6–7, 247c6–7, 253e5ff.). That sciences of just, beautiful, and good things entail clarity about one’s own aims means that they would have at least considerable overlap with knowledge of eros.
Since sciences of just, beautiful, and good things are, in this sense, independent of questions about the gods, while accounts of other kinds of beings are necessarily affected by questions about the gods, we may say that, in this respect, speeches about just, beautiful, and good things surpass speeches about other matters in terms of their clarity, completeness, and worthiness of seriousness (see note 16).
Socrates, however, does not fail to use some of the devices taught by the rhetoricians in his effort to persuade Phaedrus (see especially 267c9–d1 with 268a1–269c5).
What exactly is meant by enumerating the forms of soul is not immediately clear. By itself, the statement would seem to mean enumerating the kinds of souls, but Socrates’ analogy between medicine’s analysis of the nature of body and rhetoric of the soul suggests that forms of soul means parts or aspects of the soul (270b4–5, 271a6–7), which is also how Socrates analyzed soul in his palinode. Socrates later indicates that from the analysis of forms of soul, one would be able to determine the kinds of people (271d2–3), and it makes sense that different kinds of people result from differences in the way the diverse aspects of their souls are related to each other, just as, to use Socrates’ image from the palinode, people will vary based on how their black horses are related to their charioteers. We therefore take Socrates to mean that one must first enumerate the different aspects of soul, although this is done in the service of determining different kinds of people, so as to predict the effects of speeches on their whole souls. Note also the switch that Socrates makes from “forms”( eide) of souls to the “kinds” ( gene) of them at the point when one would study the impact of different speeches on different kinds of people or souls (cf. 270d1, 5, 271a7 with 271b1). Cf. Yunis, Phaedrus, 212–213.
Notice how Socrates’ description of the natural power of the soul’s wings serves as a definition of them (246d6–7).
If something manifestly different from light and colors came to act on our eyes and produced a sensation, we would regard this as a different form of perception rather than sight. Whether one regards the light and color that act on the sense of sight as potential or actual depends on how one understands the existence of the sensible apart from actual sensation.
Socrates’ use of “just now” ( nunde) at 273d8 would seem to imply a time more recent than the “recently” ( arti) at 273d5, which presumably refers back to the rhetorical art as Socrates had just described it (271d1–2). For the “recently” implies a time more recent than when Socrates first mentioned the discovery of likenesses (262a5–b8), and this is the only place where Socrates has recently referred to a knower. Furthermore, it makes sense that the one with knowledge of soul will best discover likenesses. But if the “recently” refers to Socrates’ previous account of rhetoric, the “just now” appears to imply that the list of requirements is new.
The new description of rhetoric not only makes sense as an account of an art that can be attained; it also accords with the search for a shortcut that proceeds it. This search begins with the claim Phaedrus mentioned at the outset of the dialogue’s treatment of rhetoric (259e7–260a3), a claim common among professional rhetoricians, according to which there is no need for them to learn the truth about “just or good deeds, or human beings who are such by nature or nurture,” as Socrates puts it here. For in court everyone cares about the “persuasive” rather than the true; the persuasive is what is “likely,” and as Socrates goes on to say, attributing the view now to Tisias, the likely is how things seem to the multitude (272d2–273b1). Courts commonly consider questions about good or just deeds, but it is striking to add the question of how humans are just or good, whether by nature or nurture, that is, nature or convention, as we may say, following the distinction common among the sophists (Yunis, Phaedrus, 219). According to Socrates, Tisias illustrated this point with a story. A strong coward is robbed by a weak but courageous man, and neither can tell the truth in court. Perhaps surprisingly, the strong coward must not mention his “badness” or “vice” in court, though this may well result in his losing the case (273b4–c4). It thus appears that Tisias told a story, ostensibly about unlikely deeds, which in fact explains his point about the many people’s disregard of the truth about human beings who are just or good by nature or convention. To one who follows the sophists’ distinction between nature and convention, the robber may exemplify natural excellence of soul, while the coward, who stole nothing, represents conventional justice (cf. Gorgias 482eff.). In this case, the multitude is shown in an appropriately subtle way to be inconsistent, unwilling to tolerate the truth about either natural or conventional justice and goodness. Tisias thus teaches that the necessary confusion of the multitude limits the range of permissible discourse, so that a rhetorician need not understand all kinds of souls. Therefore, Socrates’ indication that one must enumerate the natures of the listeners likely means no more than that one must divide the audience into its most relevant groups in order to determine what is permissible to say. Socrates thus offers here, at the conclusion of his explicit treatment of rhetoric, an account of an art suited to the tasks and limits of public speaking, which is the task the rhetoricians had assigned themselves (261b3–5).
In fact, at 274b3–4, Socrates merely asks that one “let” his treatment of the art of speeches “suffice.” At the dialogue’s conclusion, however, when Socrates offers what he presents as a mere recapitulation of the dialogue’s earlier discussion of the art of speeches, Socrates claims it has been discussed “in a measured way” (277b2–3). Socrates then goes on to give a new list of the requirements for an art of speeches and concludes by saying the “ whole earlier argument has disclosed” it (277c6, my emphasis).
Here, I follow the manuscripts rather than Burnet’s edition. If one follows Burnet, the question is still out of place: Socrates asks Phaedrus how he would “most gratify a god, acting and speaking, about speeches.” The text as it is in the manuscripts is difficult because it provides no object for “gratify.” This may be explained as follows. Socrates has just recommended that one must speak and act in order to gratify the gods (273e5–8); he then expects that, when he here says “gratify,” Phaedrus will assume he means gratify a god, but Socrates does not say as much because he does not think there are gods to gratify.
Note also “having thought about these things sufficiently” at 271d7.
One might be inclined to regard Socrates’ attempts to get Phaedrus to pray, the first of which fails while the second succeeds (257b7–8, 279c6), as an aspect of his study of religious psychology, but getting Phaedrus to pray would merely confirm an aspect of psychology that Socrates does not need to confirm. That is, Socrates confirms his opinion by discovering that a believer is confused about morality, but he already sees as clearly as possible that those confused about morality will be inclined to pray. On the other hand, cultivating piety in Phaedrus may not only make his soul relatively healthier; sending a more pious Phaedrus back to the sophists would make more compelling Socrates’ messages to them about the difficulty of genuine education (which is implied by Socrates’ argument about the usefulness of eros in education and by his critique of writing). Consider in this regard the piety of Socrates’ final message to Lysias (278a7ff.).
Shortly before referring to those who do not understand the weakness of writing as “simpleminded,” Socrates goes out of his way to describe those who reported hearing the first prophecies as “simpleminded.” To be sure, Socrates here seems to be speaking ironically about these adherents of prophecy, but he does not make clear that they investigated the truth of what they heard, as he advises Phaedrus to do (275b5–c2). Furthermore, shortly after this, Socrates speaks in such a way as to indicate that one can be simpleminded while understanding a prophecy (275c7–8). As we have seen, Socrates traces the simplemindedness of those who fail to understand the weakness of writing to their ignorance of good and just things (277d10–e2).
On the meaning of “assist,” see Yunis, Phaedrus, 231. The above interpretation of the assistance this education offers the teacher is supported by the following consideration. As we have seen, at the outset of the discussion of writing, Socrates gives the impression that the discussion will also address how one should speak and act regarding speeches of gods (274b9–c3). Socrates’ report of Ammon’s view of writing then shows how one should speak about speeches by or about gods, by presenting a rational theology, that is, by having Ammon express a view of writing consistent with what human reason would expect from a divine ruler (274e7–275b2, cf. Statesman 295b). If Socrates also indicates in this section of the dialogue how to act with regard to speeches of the gods, it would appear to be by his account of the activity of teaching sciences of just, beautiful, and good things. Furthermore, since Socrates stresses the seriousness of teaching these sciences in contrast to the playfulness of writing (276b1–277a4, 277e5–278b2), and since he has earlier indicated that his pursuit of self-knowledge leaves him little leisure, we may suggest that this teaching, as well as the study of those incapable of education which would necessarily accompany it, is especially what prevented Socrates from writing.
Our suggestion about the character of Socrates’ pursuit of self-knowledge perhaps allows us to account for the most striking changes he makes in his final account of the requirements of an art of speeches. First, in keeping with his recent indication of the possibility of sciences of, at least, just, beautiful, and good things, Socrates now demands that one knows the truth about the subjects about which one speaks or writes (277b5–6). Second, Socrates now calls for an ongoing process of discovering the form of speech suited to “each nature” (note the present subjunctives and participles at 277c1–3, in contrast to the aorists at 277b6–8), that is, Socrates now demands that one makes sure one understands each kind of soul one meets. Finally, Socrates suggests that in discovering the form of speech suited to each nature, one will focus on two kinds of souls and speeches: the complex and the simple soul and speech (277c2–3). We may regard as complex those souls and speeches that are divided within themselves about morality (cf.263a2–10) and as simple those free of self-contradiction. After indicating that one must understand each nature, Socrates suggests that one focus on whether or not each nature is confused about morality.
- Socrates’ Self-Knowledge
- Chapter 5