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Leopard

Leopard

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Phaedrus (World's Classics) - Plato, Robin A.H. Waterfield

Phaedrus is another Socratic dialogue, but one which actually is a dialogue. Socrates runs into his friend Phaedrus, who tells him of a conversation he just had with Lysias, a mutual acquaintance. As in the Symposium

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/711991082

the topic is love, but here, instead of looking at many different aspects of love, the topic is, initially, who is the better object of a man's love? One should keep in mind that one of the positions defended in the Symposium is: the most noble form of love is that of a mature, virtuous man together with a young, inexperienced man, because the latter could learn thereby from the former how to be a man of virtue; moreover, because they could go to war (or to the assemblies of (solely male) citizens) together, the fear of shame in front of the loved one would assure that both would fight (or otherwise comport themselves) bravely and virtuously. After walking into the countryside, Socrates and Phaedrus find a secluded spot and Phaedrus recounts Lysias' view that, on the contrary, better than a love to such a beloved is a love to a non-beloved.

What the devil did Lysias mean by that? I find that when I analyze Lysias' argument with the critical exactitude of a mathematician, it doesn't hold together. If one doesn't look too carefully, here are some of the main points. Strong desire blinds, causing errors and removing one's freedom; strong desire wanes, then obligations once willingly accepted are resented; if one chooses a lover on the basis of his apparent virtue (or potential for virtue), one is too strongly limiting the sample set - perhaps it is among the others you would find your truly deserving friend; if one has a lover, then everyone will think when they see you with him that you are either coming from or going to a sexual encounter (!! - Lysias counters that if you have a relation with a non-lover, then when others see you together, they will not have sex in mind...); if you have a lover, then you are doubly vulnerable to fate, for a blow to the lover is a blow to yourself. You get the idea. What Lysias proposes as better is, roughly speaking, don't get passionately involved with anyone, just have "friends with benefits" (or, using another colloquialism, "fuck buddies"). Note that the position taken has nothing to do with male-male relationships; it may be applied to any person-person relationship.

Having read a fair amount of Plato by now, I recognize that this is the set up of the straw man, whom Socrates/Plato(*) will now demolish. But, first, Plato's sock puppet, I mean, Socrates must go through his "Ah, shucks" routine and pretend not to be up to the challenge. (Big sigh...) After we have been subjected to that charade again, Socrates gets down to it.

I'm sure you noted in the partial list of Lysias' points above that he confused categories and tacitly weighted personal freedom of action and convenience more than other factors. That might go over well among Ayn Rand's flock, but, in light of Socrates'/Plato's defense in the Symposium of the position that the highest form of love is love for the Absolute, Lysias must get ready for a beat down. Duly delivered.

But, dear reader, this first third of the dialogue is just preamble. The reason why Plato wrote this at all is what comes next. He distinguishes between the natural desire for pleasure and the acquired desire, mediated by reason, for what is best. (Ever heard of persuasive definitions?) Guess which one he thinks is better. (Both Socrates and Phaedrus think that Socrates has been inspired by the gods here... sigh...) And then for 40 pages he elaborates in great detail on the position already presented in the Symposium - the highest form of love is divine love of wisdom, of the Absolute.(**) All other forms of love are lower and should best be sublimated into the higher form. But as transparent as Plato's rhetorical ploys have become to me, I must yet acknowledge that the man writes eloquently, if not always persuasively.

Plato makes an interesting digression in his paean to the Absolute - in the midst of an analysis of good versus bad speech (surprise: "good" speech reveals/serves the Absolute), he has Socrates expand upon the usefulness of written knowledge/wisdom. Although Plato's primary efforts were made in person in his school, he did, after all, write quite a bit. What did Plato think about such writings?

He begins the digression with an Egyptian (!) myth about the god Theuth, who offers written language to the king of upper Egypt, who politely declines, saying that the invention will ruin the memory of his people, for they will rely on the written page instead of internalizing the content. Having read such books, instead of being instructed by the wise, they will believe themselves to be knowledgeable, whereas they are actually ignorant. Socrates agrees with the king. The written word gives only the illusion of life, but it answers to no questions, cannot accommodate itself to different audiences, cannot defend itself against counterargument. This all is negatively contrasted with the living speech of the wise employing the "dialectical art" before his students. The only positive quality of writing books he mentions is if the writing is made "for one's self, to collect a supply of memories for one's own forgetful old age." (My translation from the German.(***)) He adds, rather inconsistently, the clause "and for every person who follows the same path" to this sentence.


(*) Once again, one should remember that Plato put these words into the mouths of all participants.

 

(**) Of course, I am oversimplifying here, as my next paragraphs already indicate.


(***) Read in a modern revision of Friedrich Schleiermacher's classic German translation.