Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedrus

Since I’m among the brave few who dislike the Symposium, I was a little disappointed at first that most of Phaedrus covers the same subject, love. However, it also covers a couple other things that I find much more interesting, and it’s also back to having just one interlocutor for Socrates. Rather than the more-or-less hostile exchanges that characterised the dialogues with the Sophists, though, this conversation is much more amiable, similar to some of the earlier dialogues like Lysis and Laches. Socrates’ discussion with Phaedrus isn’t a debate, but a conversation between two friends while out for a walk, albeit at a much higher level than any conversation I’ve ever had.

One interesting observation comes early on. Socrates happened to cross paths with Phaedrus while the latter was out taking a walk, and they happen to cross a river near the point where Boreas was said to have seized Orithyia. Phaedrus asks Socrates whether he believed the myth to be true, and he says this:

I should be quite in the fashion if I disbelieved it, as the men of science do. I might proceed to give a scientific account of how the maiden, while at play with Pharmacia, was blown by a gust of Boreas down from the rocks hard by, and having thus met her death was said to have been seized by Boreas, though it may have happened on the Areopagus, according to another version of the occurrence. For my part, Phaedrus, I regard such theories as no doubt attractive, but as the invention of clever, industrious people who are not exactly to be envied, for the simple reason that they must then go on and tell us the real truth about the appearance of centaurs and the Chimera, not to mention a whole host of such creatures, Gorgons and Pegasuses and countless other remarkable monsters of legend flocking in on them. If our skeptic, with his somewhat crude science, means to reduce every one of them to the standard of probability, he’ll need a deal of time for it. I myself have certainly no time for the business, and I’ll tell you why, my friend. I can’t as yet ‘know myself,’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters. Consequently I don’t bother about such things, but accept the current beliefs about them, and direct my inquiries, as I have just said, rather to myself, to discover whether I really am a more complex creature and more puffed up with pride than Typhon, or a simpler, gentler being whom heaven has blessed with a quiet, un-Typhonic nature.

Recall that Socrates will later be charged with corrupting the youth, and encouraging impiety. Yet, apparently there were “men of science,” which I take to be an ironic phrase roughly equivalent to calling the New Atheist twats “brights” or “fedoras,” who spent a good deal of time in trying to explain myths surrounding the gods rationally. Socrates, though, says that he accepts the common beliefs around these myths. That doesn’t mean he has no doubts, of course, but he focuses on other, more important matters first.

This seems to me the best course, since there’s little to gain in attacking these myths from a rationalistic perspective. Most likely, it would serve only to encourage real impiety. If one did decide to criticise these myths, the way to do it would be to criticise the myths themselves for impiety, for portraying the gods as too human and imperfect.

Finally, it’s also interesting that Socrates describes the sceptics’ position as “in the fashion.” I’m curious as to just how popular this scepticism was, but at the least it was apparently an accepted position among high-status people.

So, after crossing the river they find a place to sit, and Phaedrus reads to Socrates  a short treatise written by one Lysias on the subject of love, which feels like it could’ve been one of the speeches in the Symposium. Socrates, being Socrates, isn’t impressed, and the two begin discussing the matter. Again, I’m not terribly interested in the subject, but my ears perked up when I came to this part, where Socrates discusses the nature of the soul:

All soul is immortal, for that which is ever in motion is immortal. But that which while imparting motion is itself moved by something else can cease to be in motion, and therefore can cease to live; it is only that which moves itself that never intermits its motion, inasmuch as it cannot abandon its own nature; moreover this self-mover is the source and first principle of motion for all other things that are moved. Now a first principle cannot come into being, for while anything that comes to be must come to be from a first principle, the latter itself cannot come to be from anything whatsoever; if it did, it would cease any longer to be a first principle. Furthermore, since it does not come into being, it must be imperishable, for assuredly if a first principle were to be destroyed, nothing could come to be out of it, nor could anything bring the principle itself back into existence, seeing that a first principle is needed for anything to come into being.

The self-mover, then, is the first principle of motion, and it is as impossible that it should be destroyed as that it should come into being; were it otherwise, the whole universe, the whole of that which comes to be, would collapse into immobility, and never find another source of motion to bring it back into being.

And now that we have seen that that which is moved by itself is immortal, we shall feel no scruple in affirming that precisely that is the essence and definition of soul, to wit, self-motion. Any body that has an external source of motion is soulless, but a body deriving its motion from a source within itself is animate or besouled, which implies that the nature of soul is what has been said.

And if this last assertion is correct, name that ‘that which moves itself’ is precisely identifiable with soul, it must follow that soul is not born and does not die.

I take it that by “motion” Socrates means something like change, not just physical movement. I want to say moving from potentiality to actuality, but I’m hesitant to impose Medieval, Scholastic terminology on a much earlier work. Nonetheless – isn’t this a prototype of the argument from motion? I expected something along these lines from Aristotle, but didn’t know whether Plato would cover the same ground or not. I certainly didn’t expect something that, at least to my layman’s eye, looks so close. For reference, here’s St. Thomas Aquinas’s formulation of the argument from motion, from the Summa Theologiae, I. Q2. A3., “Whether God exists.”

The first and more manifest way [to prove God’s existence] is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

It’s certainly not exact, and Socrates is talking about soul rather than God, but the basic argument of moving from the observation of motion to the need of a self-mover is there.I’m still not clear on what Socrates believes soul to be, since he’s not using it in its normal sense (i.e., of individuals’ souls, in the plural). Starting at 249a he also begins talking about reincarnation, but I’m not sure how literally to take this part of the discussion. He says, in part, “For a soul does not return to the place whence she came for ten thousand years, since in no lesser time can she regain her wings,” and “Such a soul, if with three revolutions of a thousand years she has thrice chosen this philosophical life,” which is very specific when taken at face value. I assume that the wings are metaphorical, and would guess that the numbers are, as well, but I’m not completely certain.

In any case, this is a bit above my pay grade, even more so than the rest of the dialogues, but the next point I want to address is more concrete. Near the end of the dialogue, Socrates criticises writing.

Yes, writing. References to Socrates’ opposition to writing are scattered here-and-there across the internet, and if you’ve ever wondered where exactly he talks about it, now you know. He tells a myth about the Egyptian god Theuth visiting an Egyptian king, Thamus, and teaching him a variety of arts. When it came to writing, Theuth said that it would promote memory and wisdom, but Thamus politely declines this knowledge, explaining:

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

Socrates then makes a point about writing in general that previously, in Protagoras and Lesser Hippias, he’s applied only to poetry in particular, saying, “[written words] seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.” That is, if you’re reading something and would like the author to clarify a point, or want further information about something, you can’t get it. Books can only serve as an author’s monologue.

Now, that problem is reasonable enough, and I think most people would agree that there’s something to them. There certainly is a distinction between “memory” and a “reminder,” and we should be wary of conflating “reading a lot of books” with real wisdom. Socrates then adds this:

And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.

This is a more difficult point. People certainly can get themselves into trouble by reading things they can’t understand, or taking away the wrong ideas. For some things, one can look for a curriculum of some kind, but that’s not practical most of the time. However, I think Socrates slightly misses the mark here. Not that he’s wrong, but the problem we see is not that people are reading books they aren’t disposed to understand, but that most people don’t read at all, and if they do, it’s things like Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling novels. I suppose the former is preferable, since a little learning is a dangerous thing, but I see little that can be done about the latter. I spend a lot of time telling people to read more and better books, but the only ones apt to listen to that advice may be those who need it least. It still doesn’t solve the problem of knowing which books, even assuming they’re good, we’re well disposed to read and understand.

Socrates offers dialectic as a solution. I’ll actually agree that discourse with intelligent, amiable people is a better way to gain wisdom than reading. Good luck finding people who fit the bill on that, though. One’s interlocutors must have some level of wisdom and agreeableness, not to mention a good deal of leisure time. Socrates and Phaedrus have each other. I have, at best, a few people on Twitter and one IRL friend who I’d describe as intelligent and agreeable, but time is hard to fine IRL and social media is a poor setting for this sort of thing. Should I just leave off this project, then? That doesn’t seem right, either. So, for the time being, I’m stuck with my books, whether I’m ready for them or not.

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