Plato’s Phaedrus

Hey everyone!  Tomorrow, as you know, we’ll be traveling back about 2.5 millennia to discuss one of my favorite texts: Plato’s Phaedrus.  As a Rhetoric major, I’ve read this about four times in various classes because (as a brief aside) it’s the first text to make a distinction between Rhetoric and Philosophy and the very reason we have a department of Rhetoric in the first place, why that bothers some people, etc.  That distinction has everything to do with Plato’s opposition between speech vs. writing, which we’ll be talking about tomorrow.  I won’t into much detail about why this matters to Rhetoric, but feel free to ask me about it after class if you’re interested, because it’s a fascinating story.

Anyway, let me start off by saying this: it’s a really racy text.  Let me try to explain what happens between the intro and the conclusion, because it’s important and hilarious: picture like, the worst office hours conversation ever imaginable, something out of a Freudian fever dream you could spend entire weeks trying to forget.  You’re talking with your 70-year-old philosophy professor (who looks like Woody Allen, judging by Socrates’s busts), and it’s just you and he, talking about what distinguishes a good speech from a bad one.  He’s very helpful and you’re learning a lot from him—he’s ecstatic that you asked, just brimming with good answers.  Part of the reason you’re learning a lot is because he isn’t just telling you what the difference is—he’s actually teaching you by example, giving you a lot of great speeches and then going over them, talking about their composition and structure and the concrete benefits of oratory over writing because, what text could possibly do what he’s doing?  His words are so honied, so perfectly tailored to you.  He anticipates how skeptical you will be of his argument and will address your concerns one by one until—finally—you can hardly think of a counterargument.  You concede.

Only, here’s the thing: all his examples involve sleeping with you.  He seduces you by telling you exactly how he is going to seduce you, and by the time he finishes his lesson you’re practically on your knees waiting for him to do the honors.  I’m not making this up: this actually happens.  And, at the moment you find yourself completely abandoned of any sense at all, nearly about to sleep with a man who’s old enough to be your grandpa, yeah,
that is when the lesson ends: when he shows you just how powerful the art of speech really is, when you’ve been seduced by a man who is, by numerous accounts, the ugliest person in all of Athens.  (He doesn’t actually sleep with Phaedrus; that’s why it’s hilarious.)

I’m not incredibly glib, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from all my literature professors here at Berkeley and how I made it through all sorts of canonical texts that seemed really dreadful at the time—books with titles like The Canterbury Tales that feel like the literary equivalent of eating broccoli—it’s to talk about the sexy parts a priori.  You know what I’m talking about: Hollywood invented this, that whole “Oh, hey, this is a Bad Movie, better show some bits” then throws Jennifer Aniston in a shower.  (For the record:  The Canterbury Tales, our professor advertised Day 1, contains the earliest known reference to analingus.)

So, back to all this highly ridiculous stuff about old men seducing children, part of the reason the Inferiority of The Written to The Spoken Word sounds kind of dull is because we’ve fast-forwarded through most of that expository foreplay in order to get a concrete understanding of what, exactly, Plato’s point is.   We’ll go over this tomorrow, because there’s a lot to say about why this might complicate Socrates’s argument at the
beginning—at least from an ethical standpoint.  It’s not that Plato’s making an argument for pedophilia, not at all (a lot of people tend to miss this point).  He’s making an argument that, in the wrong hands, the art of speech is black magic, a terrible thing— terrible enough to make a rational person do something that is completely, utterly insane. Think Hitler; Johnnie Cochran; Rush Limbaugh.

Tomorrow I’d like us to start by parsing the literal arguments Socrates makes in the conclusion.  What exactly is it that he says about speech, writing, and the distinction thereof?  Hopefully this can generate a discussion about whether these distinctions hold up when compared with the figure of Lysias, who is introduced in the beginning and basically represents everything that is wrong with the world.  Think, too, about the following point,
a point so frequently ignored when talking about this book: how, in what medium, has the Phaedrus been delivered to us?

I’m looking forward to a feast of discourse.

-Kevin Zeidler

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