Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thoughts on Plato's Phaedrus

I.               Prologue: Speaking of Eros (227a-230e)
II.             First Speech: Lysias’ encomium of the non-lover (231a-234c)
III.           First Interlude: Lysias’ argument good, but he lacks proper rhetorical form (234d-237a)
IV.           Second Speech: Socrates1‘ encomium of the non-lover (237b-241d)
V.             Second Interlude: Socrates rhetorical form good, but the god Eros will be offended (241e-243e)
VI.           Third Speech: Socrates2 ‘ encomium of the lover (Eros) (244a-257b)
VII.         Discussion 1: Proper Method of Communication: Dialectical v. Rhetorical (257c-274b)
VIII.       Discussion 2: Proper Mode of Communication: Oral v. Written (274b-277b)
IX.           Summary of Discussions 1 and 2 (277b-279c)

Socrates’ main burden is to persuade Phaedrus to acknowledge the superiority of philosophical discourse. In order to do this, he must convince Phaedrus that his present highest pursuit—rhetorical discourse—is inadequate. Lysias’ speech does not fulfill the epitome of rhetorical expression, though its basic argument fits the criteria for debating the weaker case. Socrates, in his second speech, adopts the argument of Lysias in order to show Phaedrus that he is more than competent to speak about rhetoric, since he is himself a consummate rhetorician. Socrates’ rhetorical expression is impeccable. Now that Phaedrus has been captivated by Socrates ethos, Socrates can move Phaedrus more capably than before.

Socrates repents of the argument of his first speech, acknowledging the ideal nature of eros, which is to stimulate the return of the soul to its primary being; union with the Forms. The second speech epitomizes Socrates’ goal for Phaedrus and demonstrates Socrates’ argument for rhetorical art in the following discussion: Socrates’ knows that Phaedrus’ soul is speech-loving, which is definitive of the philosophical, kingly or Zeus-loving soul. However, Phaedrus has been deceived by the appealing nature of rhetoric, thus Socrates must purify Phaedrus through dialectic—a process he can only arrive at through first winning the admiration of Phaedrus in his current state of confusion. Since Phaedrus’ soul is multi-faceted, Socrates presents the same idea through facets of speech (i.e., first something prettily formed, then something pretty-formed and true in content, then something formed for truth and true in content). The second speech is Socrates’ appeal to pathos, for it is meant to stir in Phaedrus a desire for the sort of Eros that leads to knowledge and the proper pursuit of knowledge.

Socrates proceeds from his second speech to discuss the true art of speaking, which is, of course, dialectical rather than rhetorical—or better yet, any rhetorical art necessarily presupposes dialectical discussion. The latter portion of the discussion, which evaluates written and oral discourse, is necessary (and so is the discussion of dialectic) due to Plato’s epistemology. Plato believes in a three-tiered reality; at the top, the unchanging and unified Forms; in the middle, the somewhat stable and unified intellectual reality of definitions; at the bottom the realm of appearances and bodily sensations, which are constantly in flux. The Forms are only understood through a divine intuition, which occurs through a gradual ascent from the realm of appearances up to the Forms. To recall Socrates’ second speech: beauty is visible in appearances, which can stimulate one to recollect the Form of Beauty, or not. The common response to erotic stimulus is to reproduce bodily desire: beautyàdesireàsexual intercourseàreproduction of a body. Another, uncommon response, is to reproduce knowledge of the Forms: beautyàdesireàintellectual intercourseàrecollection of the Form of Beauty. The orgasm resulting from sexual intercourse is, perhaps, analogous to the divine intuition of the Form resulting from intellectual intercourse.

The process of intellectual intercourse is properly dialectic, because it is able to extrapolate from appearances the more stable definitions of things in themselves, which prepares the soul to receive the divine intuition of the thing-in-itself, which is not reproducible discursively. Herein lies the division between the Forms and Intellectual Reality. Because intellectual reality depends upon discursive reasoning, it depends upon language. Language is highly codified, but it remains unstable because the names of things change or encompass more than one term, making even good definitions susceptible to confusion (cf. Plato’s Seventh Epistle).

The instability of language even in the realm of intellectual reality also reveals the greater incapacity of written discourse when compared to oral. In oral discourse there is greater assurance that the names we use correspond to the terms of the definition—the speaker is always free to correct his own or his interlocutor’s errors. In written discourse the non-present author cannot correct misconceptions of the names being used, therefore there is less stability even in the realm of definition. Oral discourse can also be directed to a specific audience, and preserved from foreign audiences for whom the discourse is not intended. Written discourse may be picked up an read by anyone, whether or not the individual’s “soul is fitted” to the discourse. Additionally, written discourse is a copy or image of the thoughts in the mind, which makes it metaphysically as well as epistemologically inferior to dialectical discussion within one’s own mind. At best writing functions as a reminder of what one already knows but has not had on the mind, or as a playful activity, or as a stimulus for those souls who will take up its discourse in their own search for eternal truths.

Rhetoric, oral or written, in Plato’s epistemology, is a propaedeutic to discourse on knowledge, or “mature” speech (contrast with Callicles’ view that dialectic is propaedeutic to rhetoric, or “mature” speech in Plato’s Gorgias). Furthermore, rhetoric is only helpful as a propaedeutic when it has been established upon the foundation of dialectical discourse—scientific knowledge grounds right opinion; so not only is episteme superior to doxa, but so too techne as Plato defines it.

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