Plato’s Phaedrus – A Review

I always like myself surrounded by books and magazines. Nevertheless, I’m the kind of person who instead of finishing them just drool over the fact that there’s so much to read and learn from it and hence whenever I get bored, I switch to other, in process delaying completing either of them. But, my love for them never fades away.

Why am I writing this? This is to declare that finally, I have read in totality the book I picked more than 2 months back – Phaedrus.

Why Phaedrus?

Originally, I hand-picked this from the Book Fair, which is held every year at Pragati Maidan, Delhi. I have heard a lot about Plato. So, I decided to know him from my first-hand experience. I read the back cover, and the talking subject was love – or should I be more specific – homoerotic love.

In modern times, when LGBTQ is still a hush-hush affair for fear of facing hate, discrimination, oppression and objection in even a progressive state, I was drawn to the fact that there was a time where philosophers had not only talked about it but had a discussion on whether ‘love’ is good or bad. It piqued my interest.

The book was inviting me to a rhetorical time, and I was in; to know their take, thinking, traditions on much of what has always remained a taboo.

Reading Phaedrus – A Review

Phaedrus is the eponymous orator of the book. Writing about it is as hard as going through their speeches. It is confusing and liberating at the same time. Though the opening pages explain what lies inside, the real imagination begins to build up only after immersing in their actual conversation.

On his way for a walk outside the city walls, Phaedrus happened to meet Socrates and lured him to join his company in the pretext of Socrates’ love for discourse over a speech. He told him that he has just come out hearing Lysias’ speech on the subject of love where he argues that a boy should offer his favours and services to a non-lover rather than a lover. He then earnestly ask to know his take.

Socrates, being Socrates, drew a sketch of the person that Phaedrus is and his affection for him. As the process of legilimency ensues between them, it entails the characteristic behaviour of both personalities, giving an impression of how well they know each other. After stripped naked of his behaviour, Phaedrus revealed the speech in possession and decided to read it under a tree by the river Ilissus.

Speech I: The first speech was of Lysia where he remarked the madness that loves brought with itself and forced a man to lose his sanity in the process. A beloved overlooks the irrational behaviour of the lover and the damage that it can wreak on his life if he is to go by it(which he does). However, when it is over he gained his sanity, and realizes the loss he havocked on himself and then blame and curse it over and over. Also, their love is bound to be found out by people and soon become the talk-of-the-town, whereas this is not the case when they are non-lovers. To avoid chaos and clamour, it is in the self-interest of the beloved to favour non-lover than a lover.

Interlude: Phaedrus was in awe of Lysias’ speech and believed that it couldn’t get any better as the speech is well-composed and had no space to add any more to it. He confided in Socrates wisdom who squarely saw the loose formation and loopholes, stating Lysias’ incompetency to add novelty to his speech and rendering the same meaning with a different flavour. Phaedrus challenged Socrates to compile a better speech, to which he coyly declines. Seeing his reticent behaviour, Phaedrus threatens him, first by force and then by his oath to never engage in future discourse.

Speech II: Socrates made an eye-opening revelation that the non-lover is, in fact, the lover of the boy in disguise who didn’t want to bear the consequences of love and so he is trying to convince the boy how it is in his benefit to please a non-lover than a lover. Thus – killing two birds with one stone. As he continued, he presented a rhetorically correct form of speech, in process renovating every structure of Lysias’ speech and what he meant by it.

Interlude: Shortly after explaining the non-lover point-of-view, Socrates ends the speech abruptly. He then goes on telling Phaedrus how he made a blunder of delivering it and profaned against the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite. He got carried away without thinking thoroughly, and if not for him, he would’ve never made such an awful speech. Socrates wanted to leave the place but didn’t as he felt the onus of purifying the earlier two speeches and this time nothing but truth be told.

Speech III: The speech begins in favour of ‘madness’, severely criticized in the former two speech as the side-effect of love; that ‘Some of our greatest blessings come from madness’ and if it were to be pure evil then this wouldn’t be the case.

He states four kinds of madness that led people to convey divine truth or inspire one to music and poetry or purify them from ills and evils. The fourth kind of madness is love.

The focus shifted from the eros as the central theme in above two speeches to the mythos in the last one, wherein, he discussed the Nature of the soul, both human and divine and how soul gain and lose its wings with reference to the Greek god and goddesses and mythical creatures.

My Analysis

Understanding Phaedrus is a mind-boggling exercise. It seemed smooth at first, as their conversation gears up and we get to know how well they are aware of others’ ability and good at reading minds especially Socrates. It also portrays a picture of how close they are – the glimpse of which we found in the way Socrates makes out a character of Phaedrus and he in return entice him to engage in conversation, respect his declamation and more so didn’t hesitate to threaten him to open up on the subject. There is a sense of mutual respect and admiration towards each other.

In the first speech, I could relate to the reasons Lysia had given against falling in love – the irrational nature, blind love, overprotective behaviour, losing sanity and then defaming the other when they broke up. Also, the attention that loves brings with itself in the eye of society, the moral code and stigma attached to it. And when in the next, Socrates make an extension of his speech, it started making more sense. Till this point, everything was clear to my head after going through it many times, when out of nowhere he realized that it was a folly. What folly? There must be a reason, and he had one.

As I progressed to read his redemption speech, it refused to make sense. Mainly, because of two reasons:

1. Now the shift has turned from eros to mythos, a great precision was required, to understand the whole spirituality thing of ‘the movement of a soul’ to ‘divine being’ to ‘reincarnation’. Even if you re-read it, the basic awareness of the talking subject demands to be known beforehand.

2. The talk of love, wisdom, madness, soul, declamation – it is way more philosophical than I had expected. Perhaps, another time!

This book has given me a serious ‘food for thought’ and a message – “Not to judge a book by its thickness”.