Sunday, December 19, 2010

The living word and silent writing in Phaedrus, part 1

These are the fifth and sixth posts (two on the Meno and two on the Symposium precede these, here, here, here, and here) in response to Steve Wagner’s distinction between philosophical stories, in dialectic with argument, and merely manipulative ones (“the noble lie” or Phoenician tale and not much else). Plato's Phaedrus gives a whole new sense of image, one in which the written word is but a symbol of the living word, written in the soul (psyche) of him who speaks (276a).

The Phaedrus thus defends, against the surface or the existence of the dialogue as a written document, the word of one who knows. This suggests, with Socrates who perhaps knows something more than others, long days – each day - of asking questions and forging arguments. But such words are also, except in image, beyond those who are just beginning to make arguments and may, as Steve observes, not yet, or perhaps not at all, be grasped as arguments. Socrates distinguishes between what are good arguments now (subjects which one can, through questioning, figure out the truth about; geometry in the Meno), things which may at least not yet be teachable to others (the idea of the good in the Republic) and things which may not, like what happens to each of us in dying, be “graspable” beforehand.

Writing is bad for memory, Socrates says in the Phaedrus; a dialogue does not reveal its secrets on the surface. Only she who knows how to read – and not the ordinary reader - will fully understand it (274e-275c). The Phaedrus also presents the stunning image of the soul as a charioteer with a black and white horse which can, despite their contrary pulls, wing to glimpse the realm of ideas. It shares and transforms a depiction of life and death and the great journeys of the Myth of Er in the Republic and the conclusion of the Gorgias. The philosopher may come to share in the divine and by repeated striving (three 1000 year-long cycles, 249a – the afterlife journeys are plainly not in human time), ascends again toward the contemplation of those things through which god becomes divine or which make god divine (pros oisper theos on theios estin, 249c). So divinity comes from the contemplation of these things; the universe is perhaps not made by a god…

Here again, the grand, many-sided, Delphic quality of the images is visible, their hinting at a long course of study, the primacy of a certain quality of reading – one that understands the complex significance of the pointing, and perhaps the need for a course of living study beyond what the texts can offer. The paths are treacherous. For instance, I suggested here, here, and here, that Aristotle (and Al-Farabi, Heidegger and Strauss), all took a prominent but wrong path – that of the overt and hidden pointing of the Republic to philosopher-kingship emerging out of a certain kind of tyrant and identifying the tyranny of the supposedly wise. But Plato intended his students to adopt the fierce rejection of tyranny in his surface argument, the allegiance of Socrates and philosophers - the seekers for wisdom rather than highhanded philosopher-rulers, supposedly already wise, supposedly to themselves gods – to the truth against tyranny. See here ("Do Philosophers counsel tyrants?," Constellations, March, 2009, in which I took a wrong path about Plato for a time).

Socrates meets Phaedrus and they walk into the country. Phaedrus, a handsome and conversational young man, is the lover of the great orator Lysias who has written a speech about love. Phaedrus has been desperately trying to memorize his lover's words, but, still holding the copy of the speech beneath his cloak, has not yet succeeded. He is in love with written speeches, wishes to be or emulate a great orator. But the end of the dialogue reveals that Phaedrus does not have a good memory for argument: "Yes, I thought so, too; but please recall to my mind what was said" - 277c. The ending mocks writings in an Egyptian story of the god Thoth who invented the written word for the king of the gods, Thamus (Ammon). Contrary to Thoth, Thamus says that writing will not help memory but substitute for it, not lead to the truth but to the imitation of truth. People will babble of all sorts of things of which they have sloppy knowledge (of couse, this can also be true with an unwise teacher). Hearing this Egyptian story, the bedazzled Phaedrus blurts out that Socrates can invent any story or image he wants (is a better orator than the orators, one whom, as Alcibiades says in the Symposium, one might grow old sitting beside):

“‘This invention [of letters], O king, said Theuth, ‘will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.’ But Thamus replied: ‘Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise but only appear wise.’” (274e-275b)

Phaedrus’s performance at the beginning of the dialogue is the living example of the point at the end. He loves to memorize written words and loves speeches, but has little ability, through questioning, to acquire wisdom. His temptation toward philosophy (his relation to Socrates) is shown, particularly in his response to Socrates’s dazzling last speech. Despite soaring images, however, philosophy remains, for Phaedrus, but a temptation:

“And if in our former discourse Phaedrus and I said anything harsh against you [eros], blame Lysias [Socrates perhaps displays jealousy or erotic competitiveness here], the father of that discourse, make him to cease from such speeches, and turn him, as his brother Polemarchus is turned toward philosophy, that his lover Phaedrus may no longer hesitate, as he does now, between two ways, but may direct his life with all singleness of purpose toward love and [or with] philosophical discourses (pros erota meta philosophon logon -257b)

Lysias is the brother of Polemarchus, who, like Phaedrus early in the dialogue (236 c-d),* threatens to beat Socrates up unless he comes and performs for them – a talisman of Socrates’s coming trial and death. It is perhaps also an emblem, as in America today, that the first reaction of a troubled city or country, and of many people within it, is force (in America, there is also, among many of us, revulsion at imperial force…).

Socrates goes along with Polemarchus, a stupid bully, in book 1 of the Republic - he mocks him - only because Glaucon, with whom he has gone to the Pireaus and in whom he has a philosophical/erotic interest, insists. Socrates fears injustice and “sitting at the door” of the rich” more than death or physical harm. In the course of the first book, Polemarchus takes in the argument of Socrates against Thrasymachos, begins to change. In contrast, in the gentler Phaedrus, the rhetorical threat from Phaedrus is then followed by a greater and successful one, that he will show Socrates no more speeches. In the Phaedrus, Polemarchus is now described, importantly, as a philosopher…

Now Polemarchus would lead the fighting of the democratic party in the Piraeus against the Tyranny of the Thirty, headed by Plato’s relative Critias (a student of Socrates who features prominently in the Timaeus and Critias). Polemarchus died there. I had initially been struck by the fact that there is no Platonic dialogue named Polemarchus. But the Republic and especially the Phaedrus mark out Polemachus for himself seeking philosophy. They defend him – now a philosopher - for going down to the Pireaus – recall the first line of the Republic - to fight tyranny, just as they defend Socrates doing so (Socrates defends the democracy which tolerated him for 70 years, until the trial, tries to make it a better home for philosophy). Polemarchus has become what neither Lysias the orator nor Phaedrus, torn between rhetoric and philosophy, is.

The images of the dialogue reveal rhetoric – as, for example, that which convicts Socrates in the trial - as that which cares nothing for the truth, which paints good as evil and evil as good. (Consider the continuing wars/occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in Bush and Obama and their representation in the corporate media versus the truth). Lysias and, to a large extent, Phaedrus – except perhaps if he hears the end of the dialogue - side with the rhetoricians; in contrast, Polemarchos and Socrates are on the path of truth.

Lysias’ oration has the unlikely theme that the lover, not the beloved, needs gifts (as Socrates says amusingly, hopefully, he will next praise the rich for giving to the poor, since most of us are poor…227d). But then Socrates is provoked to a speech, tricked up, as he says, with all kinds of meter, in which the lover turns out to be just awful to the beloved, to want to restrict him to be dumber than the lover (and hence exchange his beauty for not very much of the promised teaching...), and further gets sick of the beloved, so he adds carping to his unlovely physique/stage of life. Being touched by a lover is unpleasant (almost as in one of Picasso’s late sketches), but the words…

Socrates has not written his speech down, but Phaedrus takes it in, is prepared to demand a revision (in writing) from Lysias. Oration will contend with oration…

But speeches too can be deceptive. Socrates's inner voice – his daemon – warns against his own speech as well as that of Lysias. For he has mocked all lovers – and so, a serious and gentle lover would think him uncouth – and been impious toward eros the god. This is the charge of the Apology, that Socrates is impious, though in this dialogue as well, he hurries from it, tells us that eros is the child of the beautiful Aphrodite, the conventional view.** Phaedrus will then deliver that view, not very dazzlingly in the Symposium, in which, as I emphasized in the posts on story and image here and here, Socrates denies that eros is a god and traces a different lineage. In the Symposium, Plato signals sharply that Socrates does disagree with the conventions, is impious toward the gods of Athens. Recall the prophetess Diotima who is the philosopher, in Socrates’s tale, to Socrates’s bumbling, stumbling interlocutor (rhetorically, Plato's Socrates shifts the impiety to her, so that a careless reader may not notice).

On the celebration of the birth of Aphrodite, Diotima tells the deeper story of penia (poverty), lying down in the garden of Zeus beside the drunken Poros (resource) and engendering – causing Poros to engender in her – eros. Eros – the ever impoverished and gifted by mania, resourceful hunter after Aphrodite or beautiful boys and philosophy (Socrates) or the idea of beauty as conjured in the Symposium – its oceans, in Diotima’s words – and even more startlingly, in Phaedrus, in the divine image that is glimpsed through sight. Wisdom, Socrates says, would be more startling, but is not seen, in the way that beauty is seen [Phaedrus, 250d]. Beauty is glimpsed by the charioteer with a white horse that rises and an unruly black horse that pulls downward. This image of the soul reveals differently the tellingness of Alcibiades’ drunken, manic metaphors for Socrates as Silenus (uncouth on the outside, filled with golden images within) or Marsyas (the satyr flutist; Socrates enchants with words and questions, without a flute).

Eros resembles Socrates; he is a being between the mortal and the divine, seeking the latter, as the Symposium tells us, inspired by a divine mania (what the Phaedrus exemplifies). Socrates is not sane in the everyday sense, but instead sees and seeks the truth, the whole, busting up conventions (Phaedrus, lines 244-245).

“For if it were a simple fact that insanity is evil, the saying would be true; but in reality the greatest of blessings come to us through madness when it is sent as a gift of the gods. For the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona when they have been mad have conferred many splendid benefits upon Greece both in private and public affairs, but few or none when they have been in their right minds; and if we should speak of the Sibyl and all the others who by prophetic inspiration have foretold many things to many persons and thereby made them fortunate afterwards, anyone can see that we should speak a long time.”

Note that there is quite a lot irony in Socrates’s speech; yet he speaks himself as something of a prophet, here and in the Phaedo. He says he is speaking to Phaedrus, the son of Pythocles [the name suggests: eager for fame – a quality of a rhetorician] of Myrrhinus, whereas Socrates will now, in the soaring speech that follows, speak as Stesichorus, son of Euphemus [reputable or man of pious speech] of Himera [town of desire] 244a. As with Diotima, so with Stesichorus (who is unspecified, except in his parentage and town), one must think about the complexities of who is speaking, what is said and perhaps not said. Now Stesichorus was the first poet of the Greeks after Homer, who told grand or epic stories in lyric meter. Homer was actually a collective poet, whose songs like those of Beowulf all rhymed so that the tellers could go perform in villages as the nights came on, around the fire. There were undoubtedly variations and additions among the many nameless singers. Stesichorus is the first poet who composes verses of his own that have come down.

Stesichorus is also known for opposing the tyrant Phalaris [Aristotle quotes a speech to the people of Himera against the tyrant – Rhetoric, 1393b). Again, Socrates speaks for resistance to tyranny and prophetically warns against Aristotle’s siding with Alexander.

Socrates’s fear in the dialogue also emulates Stesichorus. For Stesichorus was initially blinded and then cured, after a dream, for composing verses first insulting and then flattering Helen of Troy. Socrates had, as it were, a near miss. In addition, Aphrodite went off with Mars. The first impulse of a poet and perhaps of a philosopher is to oppose war, but one must, as it were, experience war (say, against tyrants, perhaps, we think now, by mass, nonviolent engagement) to conquer war, if it can be conquered.

Stesichorus, is of course a poet. Socrates’s invocation of dazzling images is, in this vein – and with the limits of poetry, here as in the Myth of Er, stretched as opposed to some of Socrates’s sayings in book 10 of the Republic. But they are still the words of a poet rather than a philosopher. To attempt to win Phaedrus to philosophy in the contest with rhetoric - to persuade him to change gods - Socrates needs to attract or beguile him through poetic imagery, fused with, but also soaring beyond questions and argument.

*What Phaedrus says is ”Now my friend you have given me a fair hold [he is speaking as one who wrestles or exercises naked with Socrates]; for you certainly must speak as best you can, lest we be compelled to resort to the comic ‘you’re another’; be careful and do not force me to say ‘O Socrates, if I don’t know Socrates, I have forgotten myself,’ and ‘he yearned to speak but feigned coyness.’ Just make up your mind that we are not going away from here until you speak out what you said you have in your breast. We are alone in a solitary spot, and I am stronger and younger than you; so, under these circumstances, take my meaning, and speak voluntarily, rather than under compulsion.” (236c-d)

**Showing the folly of pseudo-wise, or a certain kind of rural questioning about nothing, Socrates also recalls the injunction of the Pythia (the Delphic oracle) in the Apology “to know yourself.” (229 c-e)

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