"When Socrates Met Phaedrus: Eros in Philosophy"
November 3rd, 2013
The New York Times
Let me set the scene. It’s hot. It’s really hot. It’s the middle of the Greek summer. Socrates is in Athens where he bumps into an acquaintance called Phaedrus. They say hi. They begin to talk.
Phaedrus is a little excited. He has just heard what he thinks is an amazing speech on love — eros — by the orator Lysias. For the ancient Greeks, eros denoted both sexual pleasure and was the name of a god. That is, love has both physical and metaphysical aspects.
Socrates persuades Phaedrus to read him the speech (he has a copy hidden under his cloak). After a long morning listening to speeches, Phaedrus is eager to stretch his legs and Socrates agrees to accompany him on a stroll out of the city. What is remarkable is that this is only time in all the Platonic dialogues that Socrates leaves the city of Athens. He is no nature boy. Trees have nothing to teach him.
Indeed, the climate influences this dialogue more than any other text by Plato that I know. Such is the heat of eros described by Sappho,
Sweat pours down me, I shake
all over, I go pale as green
grass. I’m that close to being dead
Like I said, it’s hot.
The two men walk some distance along the Illisos River. They are both barefoot and walk in the water. Sweat pours down their faces. They decide to sit down by the banks of the river in the shade of a broad-leaved plane tree — in Greek, a platanos. A Plato-tree. It is hardly mere accident that the shade that provides the shelter for the dialogue is broad-shouldered Plato — from platus, meaning broad— the tree in which cicadas sing.
Socrates tells a story about the cicadas. Because they were so enthused by the Muses, cicadas sing constantly, stopping for neither food nor drink until they die. If cicadas are inspired by the Muses, Socrates suggests, then philosophers should be inspired by cicadas. The difference between philosophers and cicadas is that the former don’t sing so beautifully or so constantly … although they do get to live a little longer.
Lounging under a tree by the river, Phaedrus remarks that Socrates appears “to be totally out of place.” In leaving the city, Socrates seems to leave himself behind, to become beside himself, to become ecstatic, indeed a little manic. Love or what the Greeks call eros, as Socrates insists, is “manike,” a madness. It’s crazy hot.
Eros Is a Force
What is eros? More specifically, what is the eros of philosophy and the philosopher? We commonly understand it to be a force that compels physical love, but we might also speculate as to whether eros is a force that compels philosophy, a force that is somehow outside the self, but towards which the soul can incline itself, what Socrates calls a god, a force that perhaps even compels the philosopher to leave the cave in Plato’s “Republic.” Of course, it is not at all clear how the first prisoner in the cave emancipates himself. He frees the others, but who frees him? It is unexplained in the text. Perhaps eros is the animating and primal force that shapes philosophy and moves the philosopher to break free from the cave and move towards the light.
It is peculiar indeed that the enabling condition for freedom is a force that compels: a compulsion, a necessity. Unconditional freedom appears to be conditioned by what contradicts it. Eros, in making philosophy possible, somehow turns the freedom of the philosopher inside out, back to front. It is a nice, if totally incidental, peculiarity that the numerals of this year, 2013, looked at upside down, backwards and with a slight squint, spell eros (see here or here). Perhaps we can only see eros back to front, in the form of indirect communication, like a dialogue.
Philosophy’s Primal Scene
But how are we to understand the nature of eros as it appears in Plato’s “Phaedrus”? And here we approach the central enigma of the dialogue. For it appears to deal with two distinct topics: eros and rhetoric. My thought is very simple: I will try and show that these twin themes of eros and rhetoric are really one and they help explain that peculiar form of discourse that Socrates calls philosophy.
For the ancient Greeks, there was obviously a close connection between the passions or emotions, like eros, and rhetoric. We need only recall that Aristotle’s discussion of the emotions is in the “Rhetoric.” Emotion was linked to rhetoric, for Aristotle, because it could influence judgment, in the legal, moral or political senses of the word.
Of course, in the Athens of Socrates’ time, the two groups of people capable of stirring up powerful emotions were the tragic poets and the Sophists. Let’s just say that Socrates had issues with both groups. Tragedy, again in Aristotle’s sense, stirs up the emotions of pity and fear in a way that leads to their katharsis, understood as purgation or, better, purification. The Sophists exploited the link between emotion and rhetoric in order to teach the art of persuasive speech that was central to the practice of law and litigation. Classical Athens was a very litigious place, but mercifully did not have lawyers. Therefore, men (and it was just men) had to defend themselves and Sophists taught those who could pay a fee how to do it.
Socrates’ inability to defend himself in the law court and how such an inability is the defining criterion of the philosopher, recurs in dialogue after dialogue, in the “Apology” obviously, but with particular power in the “Theatetus,” as I tried to suggest in very first column of The Stone in 2010. The philosopher is presented as a kind of madman or fool, like Thales, who falls into ditches because he is contemplating the stars. This is why the Thracian maid laughs. The philosopher is continually contrasted with the pettifogging citizen who speaks in the law court. Where the latter is skilled in speaking in court against the clock — the klepsydra or water-clock that quite literally steals time — the philosopher has no sense of time and consequently takes his time, but uses it badly. The philosopher’s inability to defend himself persuasively in the law court leads directly to being found guilty and sentenced to execution. Socrates’ inability to defend himself leads to his death.
Such is the primal scene of philosophy. Socrates is the tragic hero whose death moves the drama off the stage of the Theater of Dionysos on the south slope of the Acropolis into the heart of the city of Athens. To understate matters somewhat, there is no obvious historical alliance between philosophy and democracy. In killing Socrates (and it is highly arguable that this was justified), Athenian democracy stands indicted.
Who Is Phaedrus?
Philosophy’s main question, then and now, is how might there be a true speech which refuses the corrosive effects of bad rhetoric and sophistry? This brings us back to the “Phaedrus.” The purpose of the dialogue is to arouse an emotion, specifically a philosophical eros, in the rather unphilosophical Phaedrus.
We have to be honest about Phaedrus. Who is this guy? He is not the kind of feisty, angry and highly intelligent opponent that Socrates finds in Callicles from the “Gorgias” or even Thrasymachus from the “Republic,” let alone the superior intellect of the Stranger from “The Sophist” whose stunning dialectical ability reduces Socrates to silence.
Phaedrus is a more simple soul. We might define him as a being who lives in order to receive pleasure from listening to speeches. He is like someone nowadays who compulsively watches TED talks. So Socrates gives him that pleasure in order both to please and persuade him. Not just once, but twice. Indeed, the sheer length of Socrates’ second speech on eros might arouse our suspicion for we know from elsewhere that Socrates hates long speeches, even delivered by the most eloquent of speakers. Why is Socrates doing what he hates?
Now, I am not suggesting that Phaedrus is stupid, but he’s perhaps not the brightest spark in Athens (admittedly a city with many bright sparks). There appear to be many facts of which he is unaware and he also keeps forgetting Socrates’s argument and needs constant reminders. “So it seemed,” he says at one point, “but remind me again how we did it.” And this occurs during a discussion of recollection versus reminding. Phaedrus forgets the argument during a discussion of memory. You get the point.
Much of Socrates’s rather obvious and extended passages of irony in the dialogue also seem to pass him by completely. Occasionally, Phaedrus will burst out with something like, “Socrates, you’re very good at making up stories from Egypt or wherever else you want.” Phaedrus is very nice but a little bit dim.
Directing the Soul: Bad Rhetoric and Good
Rhetoric is defined by the Sophist Gorgias as inducing persuasion in the soul of the listener. But Socrates goes further and defines rhetoric as what he calls a techne psychagogia, an art of leading or directing the soul, a kind of bewitchment that holds the listener’s soul spellbound. Of course, the irony here is that it is precisely in these terms that Socrates criticizes the effects of tragic poetry in the “Republic,” which is why the poets cannot be admitted into a philosophically well-ordered city.
However, Socrates’s speeches in the “Phaedrus” are precisely this kind of bewitching psychagogy. Phaedrus, who loves speeches, is completely entranced. His soul is conjured by Socrates with complete success. The dialogue brings Phaedrus to love philosophy by loving philosophically.
Now, it might appear on a superficial reading that the question of eros disappears in the second half of the “Phaedrus.” But this is deceptive, for the forensic discussion of Lysias’s speech on eros leads to a definition of artful or true speech. The dialogue culminates in a definition of the philosopher as the true lover or lover of truth, by which point Phaedrus is completely persuaded by Socrates.
The intention of the “Phaedrus” is thus to persuade Phaedrus. Nothing more. The purpose of the dialogue, as Alexander Nehemas has convincingly suggested, is to inflame philosophical eros in Phaedrus that gives him the ability to distinguish bad rhetoric, of the kinds found in Lysias’s speech and in Socrates’s first speech, from true rhetoric, of the kind found in the second speech and then analyzed in the second half of the dialogue.
What does this suggest about philosophical dialogue? I think it leads us to the view that each dialogue is radically singular, as singular as a proper name of its title. This is why the dialogue is called in Greek “Phaidros.” The dialogue is addressed to a specific and named interlocutor. It meets Phaedrus on his ground (it even walks out with him barefoot into the countryside) and brings him to philosophical eros. It meets him in his own terms, namely in terms of his questionable estimation of the high importance of speeches. It meets him by accepting his preferences, his prejudices, his sense of what matters, and then slowly turning his sophistical delight in speeches into a commitment to philosophy.
The Purpose of Philosophical Dialogue
Philosophy is addressed to a particular and existent other, not the empty personification of some particular virtue or vice (which is arguably the error of the dialogues of later philosophers like Berkeley and Hume, which can appear oddly contrived and wooden). Dialogue is the attempt to persuade that other in terms that they will understand and accept, whatever it is that they believe. Otherwise, philosophy is building castles in the air with its concepts, its systems and its bizarre jargon, which go right over the head of someone as unphilosophical as Phaedrus.
In philosophy, we have to meet the other on their ground and in their own terms and try and bring them around, slowly, cautiously and with good humor. Socrates does not say how awful he finds Lysias’s speech and he shouldn’t. It would mean that the dialogue had failed and we should note that Platonic dialogues do sometimes fail. For example, Callicles simply refuses to play Socrates’s question and answer game and the “Gorgias” ends up as a crazed monologue of Socrates talking to himself. Socrates doesn’t always get his way.
But the “Phaedrus” is a success in that Socrates completely persuades his interlocutor. We might want to say that a philosophical dialogue is more like a case study in psychotherapy, which also sometimes fail. Such case studies might be exemplary and thereby exert a general claim, as the “Phaedrus” unquestionably does, but each dialogue is a singular and highly specific case.
Philosophy as Performance
Socrates specifies the conditions that any rhetoric must meet in order to be a philosophical rhetoric capable of engendering eros. If rhetoric is a kind of psychagogia, or soul-leading, then a philosophical rhetoric must be based on knowledge of the nature of various kinds of soul and which sorts of speeches would appeal to which sorts of souls.
Socrates then goes on, and listen closely to his words,
On meeting someone he will be able to discern what he is like and make clear to himself that the person actually standing in front of him is of just this particular sort of character…that he must now apply speeches of such-and-such a kind in this particular way in order to secure conviction about such-and-such an issue. When he has learned all this…then, and only then, will he have finally mastered the art well and completely.
Of course, this is an exquisite commentary on the very situation in which Socrates finds himself during the “Phaedrus.” He has to make his speech address the “the person actually standing in front of him.” Namely, Socrates has to speak to Phaedrus in terms that he will accept “in order to secure conviction.” He will have to say the right thing in the right way at the right time to the person right in front of him.
The sheer reflexivity of the “Phaedrus” is astonishing. It is not only a piece of the most beautiful writing that, in its final scene, denounces writing. It is also an enactment of the very conditions of true philosophical rhetoric theorized in the dialogue. It is the enactment of philosophical theory as a practice of dialogue. The opposite of a self-contradiction, the “Phaedrus”is a performative self-enactment of philosophy.
If eros is a force that shapes the philosopher, then rhetoric is the art by which the philosopher persuades the non-philosopher to assume philosophical eros, to incline their soul towards truth. But to do this does not entail abandoning the art of rhetoric or indeed sophistry, which teaches that art, although it does so falsely. Philosophy uses true rhetoric against false rhetoric.
The subject matter of the “Phaedrus” is rhetoric, true rhetoric. Its intention is to show that veritable eros, as opposed to the kind of vulgar pederasty that Socrates criticizes and which was the Athenian specialty of the time, is both subject to true rhetoric and the subject of true rhetoric. Philosophical eros is the effect of rhetoric, of language used persuasively. To state the obvious, sometimes it succeeds, and sometimes it fails.
[Simon Critchley is Hans Jonas professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York and is the author of several books, including “The Faith of the Faithless,” and “Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine,” co-written with Jamieson Webster.]