Exchanging pleasantries about the weather, Socrates and Phaedrus walk on the outskirts of Athens; the balmy day seems an appropriate setting for their discussion of love. The oppressive heat compels the peregrinating duo to take shelter next to a river until the temperature cools enough to allow them to continue. Phaedrus addresses much of the subject matter contained in Gorgias, rhetoric and right living, and closes with a discussion of writing. Yet these discussions are products of the pair’s original topic: love.
Phaedrus’s enthusiasm about Lysias’ speech on love infects the wandering Socrates, who asks “Where do you come from, Phaedrus my friend, and where are you going?” (476). These questions, though they should be taken literally in this context, represent Socrates ethos: truly, by examining through dialectic, Socrates attempts to discover and uncover the origins of one’s thoughts and attempt to project the outcome of those thoughts. Phaedrus is coming from a speech by Lysias; Socrates wants to know where this speech will take Phaedrus and anyone who might hear it—including the gadfly himself “who has a passion for listening to discourses” (477). Indeed, Socrates claims to learn by interacting with men and suggests that only in this way will he ever know himself.
Phaedrus reads Lysias’ speech on love to Socrates. His speech, as Socrates points out later, is a haphazard arrangement of redundant ideas contrasting the lover and the non-lover, suggesting the latter, who is not infected by irrational madness, is the master of himself. The lover’s motto, states Lysias, is may be summed up by a paraphrase of the first two line of Shakespeare’s sonnet 147: “My love is a fever, longing still for that which longer nurseth the disease.” The lover is sick, losing focus on external events, constantly guarding against jealousy, obsequiously flattering, and submitting to animal passion sans reason (480-1). The content of Lysias’ speech leaves Socrates unmoved, but Phaedrus’ performance of the speech that leads, probably, to their discussion of rhetoric.
Socrates is convinced that he has heard a better treatise on love, but he only has an inward feeling—a vague memory of something written or orated. While Lysias’ speech had some good points, states Socrates, the rhetoric—”arrangement and invention”—was all wrong (483). With a bit of coaxing from Phaedrus, Socrates begins his own speech about the ineffable Love. He starts with a parody of the epic poet by invoking the Muses. Socrates attempts to define his topic: love comes in two forms—”[o]ne is an innate desire for pleasure, the other an acquired judgment that aims at what is best” (485). Yet, Socrates continues, love seems to be a detriment to both the lover and the beloved. The lover becomes possessed, seeking to subvert and control his beloved. The former becomes irrational and controlling, while the latter becomes a victim of the lover. Socrates concludes: ruin of property, physique, and spiritual development is the ultimate outcome of love; “Be sure that the attentions of a lover carry no good will” (488). The non-lover retains his rationality, and the lover does not; therefore, the former position should be favored. This conclusion mirrors Lysias’.
But there is another side to the love question, and a good dialectician realizes this fact. Socrates playfully makes an atonement for his offense to Love by an encomium to the madness of love. This madness comes from the gods, and is therefore a blessing. Socrates uses two metaphors in his present discussion of love: the soul’s wings and the charioteer and his two steeds. The immortal soul, when free of the body, has wings that hold it aloft, in heaven. Yet the wings are lost when the soul is untied with the body, but since the soul has glimpsed the immutable forms, it strives to join them again.
The charioteer has two steeds: one that is wicked and drawn toward pleasures of the flesh, and one that is rational and aspires to goodness. The human is the charioteer, attempting to follow the good steed, but being weighed down by the wicked.
Finally, when the lover who is touched by madness sees beauty in this world, he is reminded of the true beauty and his wings begin to grow again. The lover is attracted to the soul mate, i.e., to one whose soul was in the company of the same go as the lover’s soul. So the Zeuslike soul is attracted to the Zeuslike soul. The beloved, therefore, stands for the god on earth and helps the lover emulate his god, bringing him closer to true beauty: “his every act is aimed at bringing the beloved to be every whit like unto himself and unto the god of their worship” (499). So the beloved guides the lover toward “the ordered rule of the philosophical life” which will grant them happiness on earth through self-mastery and inner peace (501). Socrates concludes his speech with an apology about his former speech, and puts the blame, somewhat facetiously, on Lysias.
Socrates’ mentioning Lysias and speech writing evokes a slanderous comment about speech writers from Phaedrus. Socrates admonishes him, suggesting that speech writing in itself is not a bad thing, only writing and speaking without knowledge of the truth. Here the dialogue recalls Gorgias’ subject matter: rhetoric. The idea that the rhetorician need not know the truth in order to effectively persuade is again condemned. Mere persuasion is a knack, while the true art of rhetoric is based on truth. Socrates suggests that the good orator will will define his terms, just as he did at the beginning of his speeches, and arrange his argument in an orderly fashion—like a living creature with a head, body, and feet (510). Finally the practitioner of the art of rhetoric must have an innate capacity for rhetoric, he must practice, and he must have knowledge to be successful (515). Alluding to Isocrates, this art cannot be learned from a book, but must be observed by examining “precisely what is the real and true nature of that object on which our discourse is brought to bear” (516). The composition teacher would call this knowledge—knowledge that Socrates calls an awareness of every type of soul—knowing one’s audience.
The conversation concludes with a discussion of writing. Socrates advocates the dialectic—a dynamic interaction that offers contention, dichotomy, and paradox whose source is memory of beauty (knowledge of truth). Writing is false memory—a reminder. It offers only a semblance of wisdom because it tells rather than teaches. The text, like a painting, simply tells the same thing ad infinitum; it knows nothing the types of souls, for it addresses them all in the same way. Instead of using ink and paper, Socrates advocates the writing of the individual soul by the rhetorician who knows the truth, knows the nature of the individual soul, and uses language catered to addressing the particular. Speech constantly changes depending on these variables, and therefore contains wisdom, unlike the inflexible text. Speech can continue to walk—to seek after wisdom and inspire the pursuit of truth in others. “Let us be going” (525).