LITERATURE: Phaedrus – A Word on Technique

Something about the style of Plato’s essays, his use of what was common then, the play and interaction of the actors, permits a wonderful sense of realism to his lectures.

Phaedr: Now, Socrates, what do you think? Is not the discourse excellent, more especially in the matter of the language?

Soc. Yes, quite admirable; the effect on me was ravishing. And this I owe to you, Phaedrus, for I observed you while reading to be in an ecstasy, and thinking that you are more experienced in these matters than I am, I followed your example, and, like you, my divine darling, I became inspired with a phrenzy.

Phaedr. Indeed, you are pleased to be merry.

Soc. Do you mean that I am not in earnest?

Phaedr. Now don’t talk in that way, Socrates, but let me have your real opinion; I adjure you, by Zeus, the god of friendship, to tell me whether you think that any Hellene could have said more or spoken better on the same subject.

Soc. Well, but are you and I expected to praise the sentiments of the author, or only the clearness, and roundness, and finish, and tournure of the language? As to the first I willingly submit to your better judgment, for I am not worthy to form an opinion, having only attended to the rhetorical manner; and I was doubting whether this could have been defended even by Lysias himself; I thought, though I speak under correction, that he repeated himself two or three times, either from want of words or from want of pains; and also, he appeared to me ostentatiously to exult in showing how well he could say the same thing in two or three ways.

Phaedr. Nonsense, Socrates; what you call repetition was the especial merit of the speech; for he omitted no topic of which the subject rightly allowed, and I do not think that any one could have spoken better or more exhaustively.

Soc. There I cannot go along with you. Ancient sages, men and women, who have spoken and written of these things, would rise up in judgment against me, if out of complaisance I assented to you.

In the sarcasm of Socrates, in the willingness to play with words with his friend, and with the final statement that he does disagree, Plato reiterates what Phaedrus has just spoken of, the honesty of those who are not lovers, because the fear of loss and disapproval does not interfere.

Plato usually seems to let Socrates listen carefully, declaring himself less wise or knowledgable, and then, through clever and gentle discourse reveals the truth that often can refute without derision what has been said by others.  It’s a subtle style of argument and yet bears impact.  Socrates here, I don’t think, is proving Phaedrus’ recital wrong in content, but rather in presentation.  In other words, to question the writing separately from what is said.

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