Rhetoric, Paideia and the Phaedrus
ABSTRACT: Some of the notorious interpretive puzzles of the Phaedrus arise from reading it in terms of a static version of mimesis; hence, the concerns about its apparent failure to enact its own norms and the status of its own self-commentaries. However, if the dialogue is read in the light of the more dynamic model of a perfectionist paideia — that is, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates as attempting to woo Phaedrus to philosophy (with only partial success) is itself a rhetorical attempt to woo the appropriate reader — then many of the puzzles fall into place as part of the rhetorical strategy. The apparent lack of formal unity arises out of Phaedrus’ own deficiencies; the written dialogue turns out precisely not to fall foul of the criticisms of writing that it contains, and its self-commentaries can be given their appropriate ironic weight. On this reading, a Platonic conception of philosophy that embodies yet transcends the dialectical is given persuasive expression.
The interpretative puzzles of the Phaedrus are notorious: from a rhetorical point of view it is far from clear that it exhibits the organic unity it apparently endorses, from a philosophical one it exhibits in partially dialectical writing a critique of dialectical writing, while its self-commentary on its own set speeches is puzzling — not least the degree of endorsement it allows to the associations between mania, eros, poetry and philosophy rhetorically presented in Socrates' second speech.
Richard Rutherford's recent discussion of these issues (1995: chap. 9) provides a helpful starting point. He plausibly argues for reading Socrates' second speech in the light of the wider dialogue — not least in the light of the Phaedrus' own insistence (264c) that every logos should be a coherent whole — and points out that Socrates declares that in his second speech or 'Palinode' he 'was forced to use somewhat poetical language because of Phaedrus' (257a). Rutherford goes on to propose that the Phaedrus is concerned with 'a vital choice Phaedrus must make, ... concerned with love' — being properly read 'in part as a conversation-dialogue, presenting the process of Phaedrus' turning to philosophy' (1995: p. 248-9); thus we see 'Socrates as a lover wooing Phaedrus' to philosophy. (p. 247)
On this account, Socrates enacts in the dialogue the different varieties of good madness expounded in the Palinode (p. 262), and the latter 'exemplifies the rhetorical and persuasive skills which Socrates requires of the true orator in the second half of the dialogue' (p. 257). However, Socrates himself acknowledges (265b) that he has not in fact 'produced a perfect and uniform work such as that he describes as the ideal', and Rutherford suggests that 'the same is true of Plato's achievement (or deliberate underachievement) in the Phaedrus as a whole'. This feature both points to 'the imperfections of the written word, to the unfinished nature of this, and...