A question on the Phaedrus

Today in class, we are finishing up Plato’s Phaedrus, and the students in my first section seemed to be mildly disturbed by the famous critique of writing therein. It was clear that they “wanted” Plato’s own writing to somehow be written in such a way as to escape his own critique. The best we were able to come up with is the way that his dialogues seem to be almost uniquely fruitful for discussion — and I would add that the multiple points of view (even though those other than Socrates are sometimes a little weak) as well as the complications that come from the situations of the dialogues and other literary features may make Plato’s dialogues nearly impossible to take “literally.”

What do you think?!

5 thoughts on “A question on the Phaedrus

  1. Remember that Plato’s dialogues still served an oral culture. Writing strictly in the service of speech — just as computer memory, from cache to RAM to swap space, exists strictly for the sake of execution. And storage and preservation of data is merely an auxiliary! Writing for the sake of replacing speech is as ridiculous as the dialogue portrays it — except that we now have an entirely written/visual culture, in which speech is ephemeral and that’s a problem. For Socrates/Plato, speech is to an audience — it is embedded in context! Hear them out knowing that this is the case, and it’s very different.

    We may find it ironic that Plato criticizes writing in a written document — but we’re missing the point. There’s nothing to escape, when the critique is of writing for its own sake as a sophistic exercise. Writing as sui generis. Because any performer knows that the manuscript doesn’t speak. It can’t tailor itself to the needs of any audience; that’s the orator’s job. It takes Phaedrus reproducing the speech to Socrates to have it again, which he can do because of the emphasis on memory in education.

    My suggestion: don’t take them literally — take them dramatically. Play them out live. Let the characters be persuasive, and watch how they do it.

  2. Hey, Adam. You’ve traced my favorite knot, the one that binds the what of an argument to its how, the rhetorical aims to rhetorical means. Which works two ways. You can ask, does the text escape it’s own critique? And you can also ask, is the critique what I thought it was now that I see that it’s situated in a context that undermines its literal sense? Or to put this differently, just because Socrates says it doesn’t mean that we know Plato’s attitude towards this saying. And just because Plato wrote it, doesn’t mean we know the text’s attitude towards writing. I’m rehashing Derrida and de Man on the example and allegory. Your last lines show me that you’re already on this track: it’s nearly impossible to take Plato’s dialogues literally. And it’s just as impossible to take them figuratively, right?

  3. True, Plato was writing for a largely oral society on its way to greater literacy and thus fixity too of ideas. This growing fixity was, however, an ironic effect of Sophistic orality and its exaltation in Hellenic rhetorical culture (the Athenian democracy being its core and paragon). That is, writing became a way of enshrining speeches, of (almost) divinizing the authors of such. Plato objected to this facile divinization, which he deemed at best demagoguery, tyranny even at worst. There were good historical grounds for this from the years of Plato’s youth. When he then set to writing the Phaedrus just prior to the mid-period (and pivotal) Republic, the dangers had already metastasized into an Empire-fever, then noisily championed by the Panhellenist Isocrates. Against these trends, Plato tried to DEVELOP Sophism in a different direction – NOT merely counter or dismiss it. From the inherited culture of legal and political debate he wanted to salvage dialectic, not for expediency, but for probing with minimal pretense what MIGHT lie beneath the flotsam of Protagorean chaos (it wasn’t there of course). In this sense he was, as an ARCH-SOPHIST himself, the mean of Derrida and Habermas of his age. Yet the Laws as his least dialectical (or even dialogical) swansong was, sad to say, his own tired and sclerotic surrender to the fixity of ideas, all the more heroic for its fatal invention of political theology (at least succeeding Deuteronomy) to justify a totalizing cybernetic (again his own concept and an alternative to Isocrates’). Is the (earlier) Phaedrus then subject to its own critique of writing? Yes indeed, if critique be urgent there, but for me the critique is strongest if you apply the Phaedrus not to itself, but to the later Timaeus and Laws.

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