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Phaedrus, Plato, and the Paradox of Writing

“And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing” (166).

This passage was of interest in its seeming contradiction, as it was found within a written text that apparently seeks to impart a kind of knowledge to the reader through the medium of the written word, despite its claim that words on a page do not have the ability to articulate ideas intelligently as does the medium of human speech. Though it is also clear from the end of this text[1] that is acceptable for a philosopher to write down words to “treasure up reminders for himself,” this quote seems to decry the existence of written texts in the absence of this type of verbal dialog in conjunction with it. Given the historical nature of this work, and that it has existed long after Plato’s mortal ability to debate about it, it seems to undermine the authority it seeks to establish as a commentary upon the elements of artistic or “good” rhetoric (166). Thus, the very words one reads in/as “Phaedrus” have ostensibly been “plant[ed] for amusement” by Plato if we are to take the words of the character/narrator Socrates as accurately portraying the ideas of Plato in the first place (166). This means of presentation brings to mind two issues, the first having to do with the privileging of the spoken over the written word, even within texts comprised of the latter, and the implications of the trope of having a character/narrator version of Socrates “speak” for Plato.

The first issue centers around the idea of phonocentrism in Western thought, a bias that places the spoken word on a higher plane of authenticity or meaning than that of the written. This bias is often traced to Plato, of which this passage offers one example. In Plato’s own words, “he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful… will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot reach the truth effectually” (166). If the written text, including the text of “Phaedrus, is nothing but an “amusement,” then how seriously is the reader to take the words on the page, including the ones dismissing the profundity or importance of those words since they are in a written format? This sentiment not only delegitimizes the rest of the text, but also calls into question the sentiment itself, as it is written in a static, unchanging format, and thus cannot be debated.

It is also of interest to note that Plato often has Socrates in his writings as a character/narrator figure who both speaks and is spoken to in an imitation of the dialog that would have been the primary vehicle of philosophic discourse in Plato’s time. At the same time, because Socrates was a real person and Plato’s teacher, it problematizes the distinction between what is being said by whom and to what purpose. Plato does not, for instance, create his written texts with himself as a speaker, but rather chooses to use Socrates as the speaking voice within his dialogs. If the apparently contradictory quote above destabilizes the fixity of meaning of the text, then having the words “said” by Socrates within that medium destabilizes this further. Does Plato believe this? Or does he imply that Socrates, who did not put his ideas into writing, believed this? Or is the reader to understand Socrates/Plato as the same voice/being?

This technique of distancing the author from the narrator or ideas narrated is of interest both historically and politically. As Socrates was executed for the vague crimes of corrupting the youth and impiety, Plato’s use of a dead, but beloved, teacher to “say” the words of his philosophy put the (then living) Plato at perhaps a safer distance from the ideas and possible political repercussions that may have been enacted upon him. As a student of Socrates, Plato himself was suspect as having been “corrupted” by his teacher, and thus might have been in danger politically; this trope may distance him as being the actual thinker/speaker of these thoughts and provided a bit of political insulation from would-be accusers.

In addition, given that Plato was one of Socrates most devoted students, this act of speaking for/as Socrates can be likewise viewed within the context of the theme of lover and beloved given in “Phaedrus.” If Socrates provided Plato with the means to the “divine truth” that he sought and about which he spent his life writing and debating, then from his own perspective (or at least that spoken by the character/narrator Socrates in this text), this relationship brings both the lover and beloved closer to the realm of the divine, even potentially shortening the duration of time it takes to reach a transcendent state after death (154-5). However, in a state of divinely inspired madness that is the highest form of love, the lover and beloved engage in a practice of mutual god-making, and “endeavor by every means in their power to lead him to the likeness of the god whom they honor” that propels them both to higher planes of existence that “is beautiful and brings happiness from the inspired lover to the loved one” (153). To this end, “Phaedrus” is a way of continuing that god-making power after death to the beloved from the lover, a kind of posthumous role reversal of divine inscription.

To this end, “Phaedrus” is a complex and interrelated text, in many ways doing what it is talking about, and at the same time undermining the authority of its ability to do so by means of it being a written text. It presents its arguments about “good rhetoric” in a way that adheres to the very tenets it prescribes, such as offering examples, appealing to culturally agreed upon maxims, restating the argument at the end, deconstructing the categories of meaning, and appealing to the audience through the use of persuasive tactics that will be effective to that audience. In addition, it puts forth Plato’s idea of absolute truth(s), eschewing a trust in contingent or relative truths, as the only sound basis from which to apply rhetoric ethically in the first place. In this way, the text does what it talks about doing while still questioning its authority to do so, making it a richer, more complex text than might be considered on the surface.

[1] This quote is excerpted from the second to last page of “Phaedrus.”


One comment on “Phaedrus, Plato, and the Paradox of Writing

  1. I like your reading of Phaedrus, too. An interestingly complex and ironic text, it itself demonstrates the immense affordances of writing even as it critiques writing as dangerous and damaging. In a dialogue like this Plato can endure, in a way he never could using speech alone. He can also present a philosophy without appearing to be making any knowledge claims … putting everything in the form of a question, putting it in the mouth of “Socrates.”

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