"Phaedrus" is an extremely important dialogue of Plato's. It concerns a discussion between everyone's favorite homosexual genius, Socrates, and Phaedrus, a (reputedly) beautiful youth of Athens. The subjects of their discourse are (1) the nature of love, and (2) the nature of rhetoric. Both of these are keystones of Socratic/Platonic philosophy.

In summary:
Phaedrus is anxious to show off to Socrates that he has learned all sorts of important things about love from a great orator and sophist: Lysias. Phaedrus attempts to recite Lysias' speech from memory, but Socrates stops him at once. Socrates is concerned that Phaedrus not identify personally with Lysias' ideas, and thus orders the boy to read directly from the speech, so Phaedrus will not be sprayed with bloody shit when Socrates rips Lysias a new asshole...to, ah, speak in coarse terms.

The bottom line of Lysias' pedantry, although it is buried beneath many pretty phrases and fancy metaphors, is that it is more expedient to love a non-lover than it is to love a fellow lover. In less obscure terms, it's better to fall in love with a cold fish than a fellow romantic. His logic is as follows:

  • Love is a type of insanity
  • This insanity surfaces as jealousy, possessiveness, and anger in the behavior of the lover
  • thus the non-lover is a safer bet

Socrates is appropriately contemptuous of Lysias' obvious effort to manipulate Phaedrus into getting down and dirty with him, simply because he hasn't pursued the youth. It's a dirty sophist trick is what it is, but Socrates exposes the charlatan philosopher.

Socrates parodies Lysias by spontaneously delivering two speeches of his own, arguing Lysias' case both ways, in each way subtly and sarcastically mocking the sophist. In this way, he demonstrates just how far some cheap phrases can twist an argument. Then he proceeds to articulate the goals and nature of rhetoric in a final speech, differentiating between true rhetoric (the goal of which is to seek knowledge) and false (the goal of which is only to persuade). All in all, the Phaedrus contains important text regarding the Platonic theories of knowledge, love, the immortality of the soul, and didactic thought.

The following is an excerpt from Socrates second speech on love, containing one of the most famous metaphoric images of the human soul: that of the charioteer.

...And we, on our part, will prove in answer to him that the madness of love is the greatest of heaven's blessings, and the proof shall be one which the wise will receive, and the witling disbelieve. But first of all, let us view the affections and actions of the soul divine and human, and try to ascertain the truth about them. The beginning of our proof is as follows:-

The soul through all her being is immortal, for that which is ever in motion is immortal; but that which moves another and is moved by another, in ceasing to move ceases also to live. Only the self-moving, never leaving self, never ceases to move, and is the fountain and beginning of motion to all that moves besides. Now, the beginning is unbegotten, for that which is begotten has a beginning; but the beginning is begotten of nothing, for if it were begotten of something, then the begotten would not come from a beginning. But if unbegotten, it must also be indestructible; for if beginning were destroyed, there could be no beginning out of anything, nor anything out of a beginning; and all things must have a beginning. And therefore the self-moving is the beginning of motion; and this can neither be destroyed nor begotten, else the whole heavens and all creation would collapse and stand still, and never again have motion or birth. But if the self-moving is proved to be immortal, he who affirms that self-motion is the very idea and essence of the soul will not be put to confusion. For the body which is moved from without is soulless; but that which is moved from within has a soul, for such is the nature of the soul. But if this be true, must not the soul be the self-moving, and therefore of necessity unbegotten and immortal? Enough of the soul's immortality.

Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite-a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him. I will endeavour to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortal creature. The soul in her totality has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing--when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground-there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature. For immortal no such union can be reasonably believed to be; although fancy, not having seen nor surely known the nature of God, may imagine an immortal creature having both a body and also a soul which are united throughout all time. Let that, however, be as God wills, and be spoken of acceptably to him. And now let us ask the reason why the soul loses her wings!

The wing is the corporeal element which is most akin to the divine, and which by nature tends to soar aloft and carry that which gravitates downwards into the upper region, which is the habitation of the gods. The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like; and by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows apace; but when fed upon evil and foulness and the opposite of good, wastes and falls away...

All knowledge herein was recognized by the humble author during intimate philosophy lectures on blustery autumn days under the tutelage of one Dr. MaryLou Sena. The excerpt is courtesy of the translation of B. Jowett (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/phaedrus.html).

What the above writeups fail to mention is that there was in fact a real man named Phaedrus, back many milennia. He wrote fables; five volumes of them, in fact. All in Latin.

Phaedrus was (as far as we know) born in Macedonia c. 14 AD. He was a slave, and was then freed by the Roman emperor Augustus. It is not known when he died.

Phaedrus's fables were partly translations/summarizations of the fables of Aesop and partly taken from the folklore of the time (he was not considered a good writer). They overwhelmingly tend to deal with animals and rural environments. They are extremely short; 40 words or less is about average. They are written in iambic meter. One of them (Pastor et capella), to give an example, deals with a farmer who breaks his sheep's horn and is then found out and punished by his master (moral: keep quiet and you'll get your due). The morals are always present and are always simple and to-the-point. Only 93 fables survive.

Ironically, the man who himself plagiarized and generally did unoriginal things was himself much copied and imitated later. A number of the stories that circulated in Europe under Aesop's name could be in fact traced back to Phaedrus. La Fontaine, the great French fabulist, was an imitator(though a much superior one) of his.

Information: http://19.1911encyclopedia.org/P/PH/PHAEDRUS.htm (wonder if she's related to Webster 1913). A complete collection of his works (in Latin) can be found at: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/phaedr.html.

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