Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

PLATO: Phaedrus

Readers of Plato should feel right at home in this dialog.  Socrates is featured in many of Plato’s writings and this one is no different.  Usually Socrates is doing the talking and this one is no different.  He’s usually talking to a young man or a group of young men.  This one is no different either.  Phaedrus is a young man who’s just heard an impressive speech by an orator named Lysias and Phaedrus says the speech “is one of your sort, for the theme which occupied us was love.”  Of course this is exactly one of Socrates’ “sort” because talking about that kind of theme is what he does all the time.  It’s his passion to talk about love and justice and knowledge and many other topics.  But they all seem to revolve around a primary theme, and Socrates returns to this theme time and again throughout the many dialogs by Plato.  We’ll let Socrates speak for himself: “I have certainly not time for this; shall I tell you why?  I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; and I should be absurd indeed if while I am still in ignorance of myself I should be curious about that which is not my business… I want to know not about this, but about myself.”  Socrates can talk about love but his first theme is always Delphian: know thyself.  It has to be personal.  The other theme is knowledge, a certain kind of knowledge.  Now we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and talk about love.  Socrates admits that “I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, not the trees, or the country.”  In Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” the Duke is forced to retire to the Forest of Arden and says, “this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it.”  This may satisfy the Duke but it’s not for Socrates.  He likes talking to, and learning from, other men and women.  For Socrates wisdom does not come spontaneously from contemplating trees and brooks and stones.  It comes from interacting with other people.  It comes from exploring perennial human themes such as love and knowledge and justice through back-and-forth dialog.  Animals (and Dukes) may learn all they need to know from observing things like trees and brooks and stones but wisdom lovers need teachers.  Phaedrus thinks he has found a good teacher in Lysias.  Socrates says Lysias “is a master of his art, and I am an untaught man.”  But Socrates is a master of irony.  What he really means to say is, Lysias doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  This is another major theme.  According to Socrates most people don’t know what they’re talking about.   He claims that “all good counsel begins in the same way; a man should know what he is talking about.”  But it has been Socrates’ experience that the speaker usually doesn’t really know what even relatively simple things are; things like love or knowledge or justice.  It turns out that these things are not as simple as most people think.  We may think we know what love is, what knowledge is, or justice.  Until we talk to Socrates.  Then we find out we don’t know as much as we thought.  Here was Socrates’ point to Phaedrus: neither does Lysias.  Lysias may in fact be a good speaker.  That doesn’t mean he’s a good man, much less able to give good advice when it comes to a topic like love.  Socrates wants Phaedrus (and later, readers of Plato’s dialogs) to be able to think for themselves.  He poses a question: “What is good and what is bad, Phaedrus?  Do we need someone to teach us these things?”  That’s a good question.  Do we need someone to teach us what good is and what evil is?  Socrates says, in effect, maybe.  It depends on who the teacher is.  We need a teacher who believes, as Socrates does, that “the soul is immortal.”  Once we find that kind of teacher, we need to learn how to protect our souls from hostile influences (such as Lysias).  Socrates ends this dialog with a prayer: “Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one.  May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as none but the temperate can carry.”  And may we all find good teachers.


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