|Philosophy of Literature
Rhetoric, Paideia and the Phaedrus
The interpretative puzzles of the Phaedrus are notorious: from a rhetorical point of view it is far from clear that it exhibits the organic unity it apparently endorses, from a philosophical one it exhibits in partially dialectical writing a critique of dialectical writing, while its self-commentary on its own set speeches is puzzling not least the degree of endorsement it allows to the associations between mania, eros, poetry and philosophy rhetorically presented in Socrates' second speech.
Richard Rutherford's recent discussion of these issues (1995: chap. 9) provides a helpful starting point. He plausibly argues for reading Socrates' second speech in the light of the wider dialogue not least in the light of the Phaedrus' own insistence (264c) that every logos should be a coherent whole and points out that Socrates declares that in his second speech or 'Palinode' he 'was forced to use somewhat poetical language because of Phaedrus' (257a). Rutherford goes on to propose that the Phaedrus is concerned with 'a vital choice Phaedrus must make, ... concerned with love' being properly read 'in part as a conversation-dialogue, presenting the process of Phaedrus' turning to philosophy' (1995: p. 248-9); thus we see 'Socrates as a lover wooing Phaedrus' to philosophy. (p. 247)
On this account, Socrates enacts in the dialogue the different varieties of good madness expounded in the Palinode (p. 262), and the latter 'exemplifies the rhetorical and persuasive skills which Socrates requires of the true orator in the second half of the dialogue' (p. 257). However, Socrates himself acknowledges (265b) that he has not in fact 'produced a perfect and uniform work such as that he describes as the ideal', and Rutherford suggests that 'the same is true of Plato's achievement (or deliberate underachievement) in the Phaedrus as a whole'. This feature both points to 'the imperfections of the written word, to the unfinished nature of this, and every, treatment of philosophic themes, and also to 'the complex and non-simple natures of the participants'. (p. 266) Phaedrus himself is 'complex and divided'. We recall that Phaedrus' response to the Palinode is 'principally aesthetic, ... he does not question Socrates about the conclusions he reached' (p. 258). So 'if the second half as a whole seems to fail to live up to the promise of the Palinode, that may be related to the fact that Socrates eventually failed with Phaedrus'. (p. 267)
But just how are we to understand this relation? Rutherford appears to see it in terms of a somewhat static conception of mimesis; the 'deliberate underachievement' imitates Socrates' non-deliberate failure, Socrates' association of written works with frivolity is enacted in the dialogue's playfulness, and 'perhaps the imperfection of the form mirrors the imperfection of the medium'; indeed, 'we may suspect that Plato himself, in recreational mood, might have enjoyed our bafflement'. (pp. 269-70) Well, perhaps; the dialogue is certainly 'rich in humour' and frequently displays a deft lightness of touch but Rutherford's deflationary account sits oddly with the seriousness of purpose many have detected in Socrates' second speech, and leaves it unclear why one should treat the denigration of writing itself seriously rather than playfully. It may at least be worth considering an alternative to the mimetic model presupposed by Rutherford for interpreting the features he draws to our attention that of paideia. (In following out this suggestion I shall draw on unpublished material from two of my current and recent doctoral students, Paul Deb on a perfectionist reading of Plato and Ole Martin Skilles on Plato's meta-fictional heuristic.)
Consider Nietzsche's conception of the relation between eros and paideia in 'Schopenhauer as educator'
There are moments and as it were bright sparks of the fire of love in whose light we cease to understand the word 'I'....; it is love alone that can bestow on the soul, not only a clear, discriminating and self-contemptuous view of itself, but also the desire to look beyond itself and to seek with all its might for a higher self as yet still concealed from it.... It is impossible to teach love, ... [but] he who has attached his heart to some great man is by that act consecrated to culture, ... [and] anyone who believes in culture is thereby saying: I see above me something higher and more human than I am; let everyone help me to attain it, as I will help everyone who knows and suffers as I do. (1983: 161-3)
In this account one can see traces of the Alcibiades of the Symposium, save that the latter shows no disposition to seek and offer help which may indeed be his downfall. By contrast, the seeking of help (from the gods) and the offering of it (to Lysias and Isocrates) are notable features of the close of the Phaedrus, and the capacity of the friendship of a lover who 'belongs among the followers of Zeus' is indeed portrayed by Socrates in his second speech as having the potential to enable the beloved attain what might quite plausibly be characterised as a higher self, a blessing, Phaedrus is told, 'so great as to be counted divine' (252c, 256e). If the dialogue indeed portrays Socrates as a lover wooing Phaedrus to philosophy, it may be worth considering its dynamics with the Nietzschean account in mind.
Stanley Cavell has recently pointed to such a reading of the Republic. Of the 'higher self as yet still concealed from it', he observes: 'It is my own, unsettlingly unattained' (1990: p. 51), and the aspiration to achieve it a dimension of what he terms 'perfectionism', a perspective that pictures the self as split between attained and attainable, which once attained becomes neighbour to a further unattained self to which one may aspire, and in which the aspiration may be decisively affected by others. The concept of perfectionism is assembled through examples, crucial among which is the Republic conceived as a perfectionist work; among the features he alludes to are the following:
In the Phaedrus, Socrates again plays the role of elder friend, and in his second speech seeks to convince Phaedrus of his potential to rise through the wings of love to a higher state, closer to reality than that of the form of life and love displayed in Lysias' speech, with which Phaedrus has been so enamoured: 'These are the blessings, my boy, so great as to be counted divine, which will come to you from the friendship of a lover, in the way I have described' (256e). As part of the transition he, in his first speech, shows himself the master of Lysias on his own terms (and that of the associated form of life and aspiration), thereby lending credibility to his claim to point beyond it; he has earned the right, in Nietzsche's terms to be 'contemptuous' because his vision of that world has been shown to be 'clear and discriminating'. Further, the positive presentation is couched in imagistic terms displaying the human soul as 'a beast more complex ... than Typhon ... sharing some divine and un-Typhonic portion by nature' (230a) though with strongly Typhonic elements too. Earlier he had declined to demythologise the tale of Oreithuia, Pharmaceia and Boreas on the ground that one's primary concern should be to know oneself; here he constructs a myth with the primary aim of using the images as speculative instruments through which to articulate a vision of, in Cavell's terms, knowing what we are made of and how we are to cultivate the thing we are meant to do.
Socrates' effort succeeds in unchaining Phaedrus from his fixation on Lysias but, as Rutherford notes, the latter's response is couched in terms of admiration of the fineness of the speech rather than of its perfectionist aspirations. One might say that Phaedrus' already attained self does not yet neighbour that to which Socrates has been pointing. Accordingly, as a good elder friend Socrates responds at the level of Phaedrus' concern with form, and the success actually marked in the dialogue is that of weaning Phaedrus from dependence on written forms and the authority of others to a recognition of the superior value of writing in the soul where conviction is attained through questioning and response with 'a fitting soul' such, presumably, as the Cavellian friend. The dialogue thus leaves open the possibility of moving from this newly attained perspective to one nearer to that presented in the second speech. But of course, this conversation never happened, nor was the historical Phaedrus so transformed.
In the dialogue, then, one may see Socrates wooing Phaedrus to philosophy. The apparent failure of the direct approach shows that Phaedrus is not ready for that self-abandonment to the mania of eros presented in the second speech as capable of transforming the self into that love of virtue and truth here called 'philosophy', a vision which 'will be disbelieved by the clever, believed by the wise' (245c) (one remembers Socrates' disinclination to demythologise with the clever); Phaedrus, with his concern for rhetorical technique, we might say, is too attracted by cleverness and the skills of technical control to yet neighbour mania. Socrates thus uses this failure as an integral part of a more indirect wooing of Phaedrus, to philosophy as the complement to rhetoric, thereby 'placing' his own rhetorical effort in terms acceptable to the 'clever'.
Perhaps there is a dynamic mimeticism here. It is worth considering the possibility that Socrates' wooing of Phaedrus is echoed in Plato's wooing of the reader. Part of the objection to writing is said to be that every composition is trundled about everywhere in the same way, in the presence both of those who know about the subject and of those who have nothing at all to do with it, and it does not know how to address those it should address and not those it should not. (275e)
This of course contrasts with the philosophical ideal of 'taking a fitting soul'; but perhaps Plato is aiming in the dialogue to interact precisely and primarily with 'fitting souls' those who at least neighbour 'knowing about the subject' (philosophy) with which it is concerned in a manner fitting to the dialogue's presentation of it and the widespread 'bafflement' of which Rutherford writes testifies to his success in excluding 'those it should not address'.
More than a decade ago Martha Nussbaum argued for a reading of the Phaedrus according to which the Palinode presents Socrates' (and also Plato's) 'deepest philosophical insights in poetic language' (1986: p. 201). Bringing this suggestion together with Cavell's perfectionist model, then if Plato is wooing the fitting reader to philosophy through his own act of love for such we should remember that the standing danger of a journey of ascent (in the Symposium as in Cavell) is to become stuck, and where an older friend is involved the problem may be fixation on the friend. In the Symposium it is Alcibiades' inability to move beyond the person of Socrates that in Socratic terms accounts for his failure of self-transformation, and Socrates himself seeks to subvert his own authority by pointing beyond himself to the figure of Diotima (a name which, etymologically, honours the gods). In the Phaedrus the dialogue subverts both its own authority through its critique of the authority of the written text, and that of Socrates' second speech by 'placing' it rhetorically as at once playful and partial. Nietzsche, we remember (who was already moving away from reliance on the authority of Schopenhauer when he wrote 'Schopenhauer as educator'), declared that it is impossible to teach love, but the self-transcendence it alone can bring can come about through a form of paideia in which one's heart is attached to someone or something greater, as in the Symposium Apollodorus had been transformed, on his own account, by his attachment to Socrates. The impossibility, one might say, is marked by the need for subversion of authority the characteristic Socratic insistence that his practice is maieutic is very much to the point here, it must be self-transcendence but that others such as the elder friend can indeed help in the ascent marks the possibility of paideia, a paideia for which the model of wooing is highly appropriate.
The Phaedrus' subversion of its own authority and that of Socrates' second speech is suitably nuanced. Socrates does indeed claim that the speech is partial, but this is hardly to disavow it since the part in question, which the speech is said to 'discover and exhibit', is the 'right-handed' love which in this very passage he still affirms as 'divine' (266a-b); this would hardly disable it from exhibiting the form of love which motivates the Platonic wooing of the reader. To regard playfulness, of course, as incompatible with serious wooing would display the reader as ignoring the enactment of wooing presented in the dialogue and, precisely, as one who should 'have nothing at all to do with' it. And the critique of writing invites the retort that if a work is able to discriminate between readers, and those who are fitting find in the text upon interrogation responses to their questions, so that it does not, when 'you ask it about any of the things it says out of a desire to learn' only superficially point 'to just one thing, the same each time' (275d-e), then it is not simply the illegitimate brother to speech and may indeed play that role in the reader's self-development that it would appear that the Phaedrus itself has indeed itself frequently achieved. It is, indeed, a little strange that the dialogue's deflationary account of writing has so often been taken as representing the literal truth it undoubtedly designates without regard for the possibility of seeing the literal description as ironic commentary on its misleading nature as an account of a work such as that within which it is embedded.
The motif of 'the fitting' is prominent in the dialogue right from the start. Lysias' speech is fitting for Socrates' ears since it is about love (227c), Phaedrus remarks how appropriate it is that he like Socrates is barefoot so they can wade together to the spot Socrates declares to be 'just right' in such extravagant terms that Phaedrus stops to comment on the encomium as extraordinary (229a; 230b-d); the concluding insistence on the need in philosophy to find 'a fitting soul' represents, one might say, a fitting climax. Anyone blind to these signals about the importance of appropriateness, it would appear, is hardly a fitting reader of the dialogue. The comments Phaedrus finds so extraordinary are those that concern the conditions for learning; when later Socrates insists on the importance of the intellectual environment for 'living speech' one remembers both Phaedrus' earlier incomprehension and the inappropriateness of his aestheticising response to Socrates' second speech; perhaps the two go together. The background is once again foregrounded with the discussion of the cicadas as we move from the discussion of love to that of rhetoric; they died through over-attention to beauty but through this excess the Muses allowed them transformation and to form a positive relation to philosophy, parallel to the transformation Socrates is now to attempt with Phaedrus. The setting, once again, is fitting. By the time we have the critique of writing, the reflective reader may properly be asking of the appropriateness of his or her own responses to this written text.
And here we have as markers the responses in the text itself to what is said. First there is Socrates' response to Lysias' speech. Martha Nussbaum has herself implied that the condemnation is overstrong in part, she suggests, because Plato is here recanting his own former beliefs. However this may be, if we do indeed read Socrates as being one-sided in his criticism of this written text and find ourselves wishing to speak on its behalf for although it is said that 'Lysias is also here' (228e) the point is that he is not this may prepare us for the account of the difficulties Socrates is later to declare as endemic to written texts and lead us to wish to do for the Phaedrus what Plato, being absent, cannot do. This, admittedly, cannot be more than highly tentative. Clearer, I think, is the inappropriateness of Phaedrus' response to Socrates' second speech. If we do not feel the shock of a praise that fails to engage with the Socratic vision we may still be brought to philosophy by what (with an echo of the Phaedo, one might term a 'second best voyage'), though much of the dialogue will no doubt baffle one. But if one responds in a more fitting manner to Phaedrus' encomium one will wish to engage as generations of readers have with the substance of the vision, interrogating in one's own experience the intimations and aspirations of the self-abandonment there described. The lovers of the speech, like the dialecticians of the conclusion, seek each an appropriate soul: 'so they look to see whether he is naturally disposed towards philosophy and towards leadership, and when they have found him and fall in love they do everything to make him of such a kind' (252e). Plato, perhaps, is seeking this of those readers who fit this description.
If one responds positively as, for example, so many Romantic poets or indeed Martha Nussbaum have done then one's feelings and aspirations may be given shape as one gives oneself over to a vision of philosophy with a power that draws on one's non-intellectual elements in a disciplined yet imaginatively open framework, inviting one to interrogate the vision in an active progress which may draw one beyond it as one's sensibility is transformed. The way that in the Palinode feelings such as joy, awe and reverence are brought within the range of the intellect is here significant, for it is through interrogating such feelings in the context of one's own experience of eros that one may find one's sensibilities transformed. The wings of the soul of the appropriate reader, on this account, would be capable of being nourished into growth through the dialogue itself, standing to us as older friend in the perfectionist aspiration, a dialogue which in appropriating one may move beyond.
Cavell 1990: Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, Carus Lectures 1988, Chicago and London, University of Chicago
Nietzsche 1983: Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Nussbaum 1986: Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Plato 1986: Plato, Phaedrus, ed. and tr. C.J. Rowe, Warminster, Aris & Phillips
Rutherford 1995: R.B. Rutherford, The Art of Plato, Trowbridge, Duckworth