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In this review I will compare 3 editions of Plato's Phaedrus: 1. Alexander Nehamas & Paul Woodruff (Hackett Pub Co, 1995). 2. Stephen Scully (Focus Pub/R.Pullins Co , 2003). 3. James Nichols (Cornell University Press, 1998). I have given all 3 editions 5 stars for their own unique perspectives. Throughout the centuries, scholars have debated on what exactly is the central theme of Phaedrus: is it a dialogue about rhetoric? Or is it about Love? Or perhaps it is about both? If so, how are we supposed to understand the connection between Rhetoric and Love? The book itself is divided into 2 parts: the first part is about Love and the second is about Rhetoric, and because of this division in the book that it generated a lively discussion about Rhetoric versus Love. The 3 editions I review here provided 3 unique perspectives. Nichols argues strongly that Phaedrus is definitely about Rhetoric, in fact he links Phaedrus to Gorgias. His argument is that in Gorgias, Plato discusses Rhetoric in relations to justice, and in Phaedrus, he discusses Rhetoric in relations to Love. Love, therefore is a subordinate subject to Rhetoric. Similarly, Nehamas also argues that Phaedrus is about Rhetoric albeit not as strongly as Nichols. It is a "sustained discussion of Rhetoric" in which Plato used Eros as examples. (xxxviii) Scully's interpretation is slightly different; this is where I find my own position to be closer to. His argument is that Love and Rhetoric are equal parts of Plato's Phaedrus. This unity is possible because "both [love and rhetoric] requires the philosopher at the helm. As a lover, the philosopher guides the soul of the beloved, as a rhetorician, he guides the soul of his partner in conversation.Read more ›
This is one of my favorite Platonic dialogues, an analysis of both rhetoric and love which leads to some compelling discussions. However, the translation offered by Pengin Classics is hideously lacking. I can't put my finger on exactly where it goes wrong, but the translator makes it a pain to get through just one page. Everything seems laborous and technical, including the normally exquisite speeches.
Get another translation instead. Might I suggest the one published by Hackett? Or perhaps Cornell University Press? Both of those translations take care to make the dialogue as lively annd exciting as it rightfully should be.
In Phaedrus, Plato records the conversation of love and rhetoric between Socrates and Phaedrus. Socrates uses love as a metaphor for rhetoric by categorizing the differences between love and lust, as well as the differences between a philosopher who pursues divine truth, and a poet who forgoes truth for ostentations. Then Socrates and Phaedrus eventually conclude the requirements for being a dialectician. In the course of defending proper love and truth, Socrates pointes out that beauty and truth are divine. Whoever pursues reality would worship beauty and truth with reverence, and his admirations of divinities yield pleasures. Then in order to receive the blessing from gods, the proper lover and the philosopher must overcome desires with reasoning. Conversely, those commoners who are tempted by earthy imitations of the reality would be trapped by carnal or linguistic pleasures, as the improper lover and the poet, who lack reasoning would drown in the momentary enjoyments of their own wantonness.
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_I have heard some call this work a confused jumble of unrelated concepts. These people just didn't get it. There is one unified theme to the Phaedrus: without a deep connection to the soul and to the higher Reality only accessible to the soul, then all human endeavors are in error.
_The first part of the dialogue deals with three speeches on the topic of love. This is used only as an example and is not the primary theme (though it is an extremely thorough and compelling examination of the subject.) The first speech (by Lysias) is clearly in error- it is badly composed, badly reasoned, and supports what is clearly the wrong conclusion. The second speech (by Socrates), while an impeccable model of correct rhetoric, and reaching the correct conclusion is also essentially flawed- for it makes no appeal to the deepest fundamental causes of things. Simply put, it lacks soul. The third argument (attributed to Stesichorus) however, delves deeply into the soul. In fact, the core of the argument is centered around the proof of the existence and nature of the soul. That is the consistency here- unless you are Philosopher enough to have looked deeply within your own soul, to have made contact (recollection) with ultimate Reality (Justice, Wisdom, Beauty, Temperance, etc.) then your arguments are just empty words- even if you are accidentally on the correct side.
_The second part of the dialogue concentrates on showing how true rhetoric is more than "empty rhetoric" (i.e. just clever arguments and tricks used to sway the masses.) True rhetoric is shown to literally be the art of influencing the soul through words. It also reads as the perfect description, and damnation, of modern politics and the legal system. No wonder Socrates was condemned to later take poison- he actually BELIEVED in Justice, Truth, and the Good. As a Philosopher he could not compromise on such things for he knew the profound damage and that it would do to his soul and to his "wings."