In my last post I described how my class of high school sophomores struggled to believe Socrates’ arguments that a Just man is more powerful than a Tyrant. I turned to Aristotle for consolation, who confided to me that youth desire honor and victory. They hope for their future in the body moreso than do older people. They feel ashamed to challenge conventional norms moreso, too.
Aristotle’s explanations are helpful to a point, but they don’t give an educator a path to persuasion (though Aristotle does offer advice on that, too!). But Aristotle studied under Plato, and Plato knew how difficult it is to persuade young people away from the enticements of demagoguery and common opinion.
As we go further into The Gorgias, my sophomores will witness Socrates’ efforts to persuade falter into futility. Eventually Socrates is left talking to himself, and can only resort to a parable at the end, hoping to dissuade his listener from evil by the threat of punishment in the afterlife.
But when we come to Plato’s other dialogue on rhetoric, The Phaedrus, something different happens. Phaedrus is a youth who comes to Socrates with a speech from the rhetorician Lysias, which he has copied down in hopes of memorizing. Phaedrus is captivated by Lysias’ skillful use of language, as well as his novelty in defending the non-lover as the more desirable friend than the lover. The two go to a secluded grove by a river, a spot where Muses visit, to hear and discuss the speech.
Socrates, philosopher and expert in dialectic, has shown his disdain for demagoguery and falsehood in The Gorgias. So we might expect him to tear apart Phaedrus’ thoughts about Lysias’ speech. Instead, Socrates listens and takes joy in Phaedrus’ enthusiasm. However, Socrates does not leave Phaedrus to revel in Lysias’ blasphemy.
Instead, Socrates gently chides Lysias’ arrangement and style, focusing on the part of beauty that has captivated Phaedrus. Phaedrus demands Socrates’ explanation, which he gives, but then Phaedrus also demands Socrates’ outdo Lysias. Socrates complies and gives a speech that defends the same thesis as Lysias, but does so with better arrangement and style. Phaedrus is awed. They discuss what makes Socrates’ speech superior, but Phaedrus also questions why Socrates cut his speech short.
At this point Socrates has prepared Phaedrus for a turn. He has accomplished two things: (1) he has impressed Phaedrus with a skill that Phaedrus admires, and (2) he has imparted to Phaedrus knowledge that Phaedrus is hungry to have. With this ethos added to whatever respect Socrates has in Phaedrus’ estimation, he makes the turn.
Socrates’ tone up to this point has been playful and mocking, but he suddenly grows sober and intense. He tells Phaedrus that he fears he has offended the gods by condemning the lover, who partakes of love by inspiration of the god, Love. Socrates begs leave to give a second speech, repenting of his error by praising the lover. Phaedrus, not desiring to offend the gods or Socrates, adopts Socrates shame and enthusiastically agrees.
Socrates second speech begins shaping Phaedrus’ affections toward Truth and Justice by associating the bodily appetite for sex with a pious ascent to the eternal verities. The madness of the lover is meant to be reigned away from the sensuality of the flesh and directed toward the ecstasy of communion with the gods in Truth and Justice. The speech excels his first speech not only in style and arrangement, but also in substance. First awed by Socrates skill, then by his piety, now Phaedrus is awed by his vision of ecstasy.
Only now, with Phaedrus’ desire reigned in does Socrates take Phaedrus through a dialectic analysis of the skillful use of language and memory—those skills rhetors use to craft beautiful speeches and philosophers use to weave their noble lies.
The Phaedrus presents a beautiful rejoinder to the futility of The Gorgias. All of Socrates’ efforts in The Gorgias began upon his use of dialectic, and after reducing every interlocutor to absurdity, he had no audience left but his own voice, answering his own questions. But in The Phaedrus, Socrates responds to the frame of Phaedrus, sensitive to Phaedrus’ appetites, but also aware of Phaedrus’ spiritedness. Socrates first wins, and then shapes, Phaedrus’ love of language away from demagoguery toward Truth and Justice.
Skillful rhetoric adapts its desire to the personality of the audience. Rhetoric is an open hand, inviting the other to be itself, but wooing it toward something different by the end. In the mouth of demagogues, lovers of influence, rhetoric is impure manipulation. Rhetoric corrupts the soul. But in the mouth philosophers, lovers of wisdom, rhetoric is pure persuasion. Rhetoric entices the soul toward Truth and Justice.