A Lovely Afternoon Walk with Socrates and Phaedrus (Via my new Boeing Time-Traveling Vessel)

David Wright

Recently I had the fortuitous opportunity to travel back to the fifth century B.C. and take a lovely spring walk with Socrates and Phaedrus, just outside the walls of Athens. Coincidentally, Phaedrus had just arrived from a long morning walk and talk with Lysias when the door of my Boeing time vessel hemorrhaged open from a rather skittery landing.

I recognized Phaedrus immediately from the wry look of love on his handsome Athenian face. He couldn’t stop smiling and repeating lines from a speech about love. And you can always tell when someone is in love or talking about love because it is at the heart of reality.

Surprisingly, he paid little attention to my time-craft or my explanation of how I’d journeyed from the future. The speech and the idea were the logos of his entire essence; so much so that very little could distract him.

I greatly admired this—for my current cultural epoch is one of distraction; it is almost anti-speech and anti-idea. Furthermore, this was such a blessing, for I wished to be hardly noticed. I merely wanted to meander with them and take part in their discussion—the one that Plato recorded in his Phaedrus dialogue—without disturbing the moment because of my clothes or language. It all played out quite nicely.

My how green and rustic it was on the outskirts of Athens! Absolutely lovely. The insects whistling and the plantlife breathing fostered not only contemplation but also eloquence. For who would want to disturb such harmony with imprecise words? For nature speaks its own high language with perfect propriety.

Fortunately (actually once-in-a-lifetime-lucky), Phaedrus and I ran into Socrates sauntering near the west gate looking confused. It was really quite funny; he was extremely deep in thought and mumbling to himself—and having difficulty deciding whether to head toward the city center or toward the country. We quite easily convinced him to join us for a country stroll. And of course I had a small mp3 recorder. Our conversation proceeded as follows:

SOC: What were you doing there? Lysias was entertaining you with his eloquence, I suppose?

PHA: You shall hear, if you can spare the time to go with us. Oh, by the way, this is David, he’s from quite a ways away, though I’m not sure where. He’s very cordial and interested in discussion.

DAV: The pleasure is all mine. So nice to meet you. I hope you can spare the time to come with us.

SOC: Spare the time! Don’t you realize that to me an account of what passed between Phaedrus and Lysias is, to use Pindar’s phrase, ‘a matter which takes precedence even over business’?

PHA: Come along then.

SOC: Your story please.

PHA: Well, Socrates, what I have to tell you is very much in your line, for the subject on which we were engaged was love – after a fashion. Lysias has written as speech designed to win the favor of someone who is not in love with him. That is the clever thing about it; he makes out that an admirer who is not in love is to be preferred to one who is.

SOC: Noble fellow! I desire to hear your account of the speech.

DAV: I’d love to as well.

PHA: I’m an amateur. How can I reproduce such a perfect speech?

SOC: Don’t be coy. I know you’ve been out here walking and repeating the speech so much you have it memorized! That’s why you’re outside the city walls. Now you’ve met another man who likewise has a near disease-like passion for speeches. So get on with it!

DAV: Your fidelity to speeches is remarkable, as is your commitment to memorization and recitation, two canons of rhetorical discourse sorely lacking in my culture.

PHA: Let’s sit on the pretty grass in the shade below this tree. A gentle breeze is blowing.

SOC: Lead us on.

PHA: Tell me, guys, isn’t there a story that Boreas abducted Oreithyia from somewhere here on the banks of the Ilissus?

SOC: No, it was some quarter of a mile downstream, where one crosses to the temple of Agra; an altar to Boreas marks the spot, I believe.

PHA: But seriously, Socrates, do you believe this legend?

SOC: The pundits rejected it, so if I rejected it I’d be in good company. In that case I should rationalize the legend by explaining that the north wind blew Oreithyia down the neighboring rocks when she was playing with Pharmaceia, and that her dying in this way was the origin of the legend that she was abducted by Boreas.

But though I find such explanations very attractive, Phaedrus and David, they are too ingenious and laboured, it seems to me, and I don’t altogether envy the man who devotes himself to this sort of work, if only because, when he has finished with Oreithyia, he must go on to put the Hippocentaurs into proper shape and after them the Chimaera.

In fact he finds himself overwhelmed by a host of Gorgons and Pegasuses and other such monsters, whose numbers create no less a problem than their grotesqueness, and a skeptic who proposes to force each of them into a plausible shape with the aid of a sort of rough ingenuity will need a great deal of leisure.

Now I have no time for such work, and the reason is, my friend, that I’ve not yet succeeded in obeying the Delphic injunction to ‘know myself’, and it seems to me absurd to consider problems about other beings while I am still ignorant about my own nature. So I let these things alone and acquiesce in the popular attitude towards them; I make myself rather than them the object of my investigations, and I try to discover whether I am a more complicated and puffed-up sort of animal than Typho or whether I am a gentler and simpler creature, endowed by heaven with a nature altogether less typhonic.

DAV: I’m sorry, but I just have to comment here. Socrates, you have said several salient points. First, you mention that the pundits reject the myth, and that rejecting it is the popular thing to do.

In fact, they de-miracle-ize the legend don’t they?  Or as you say, they “rationalize” the legend by saying that a north wind blew Oreithyia down or else she fell from the Areopagus. But as you rightly say, these kinds of explanations are attractive but too ingenious and labored.

The slope of skepticism is a slippery one. Once a person begins this sort of cutting and trimming to fit his rational and empirical expectations and assumptions, he must continue to force all other phenomena into this machine—as you say, to put the centaurs and chimaera into proper shape.

This machine, by the way, becomes the dominant machine in about nineteen centuries, during a period called the Enlightenment. And once the machine is created, it can’t stop growing—it seems to feed itself.

You wouldn’t believe how indomitable the machine becomes in my century, entirely ruling the universities and the socio-political culture. Each successive generation since the Enlightenment has added a mechanism to the machine—a monistic gear, a materialist ball joint, an empiricist lever—and of course the fuel for the machine is an uncritical belief in technological progress.

And I love how you connect this to knowing oneself. The creation of this machine comes at the expense of the Delphic injunction. To ‘know thyself’ is vital; for man himself is the centaur and the Chimeara, a multi-faceted complexity who, ironically, defies and contradicts the very machine we have created.

To focus on the mystery of man and his soul is to watch the machine disintegrate. Your commitment to contemplating your own nature, Socrates, is in fact the greatest gift you will give mankind. For you and your commitment to the examined life is actually one of the few beacons, along with Christ the coming Messiah, that save philosophy.

Yes, you actually save it from the tyranny of negating systems such as sophistry, skepticism, nihilism, and many others. Indeed, true philosophy is rarely practiced in my era, and it’s almost nonexistent in schools, universities, and philosophy departments.

Unfortunately, because you are a point of light and a kind of savior, you will have to suffer for this. But I’m only telling you because I have a feeling you already know…

PHA: This is the place to rest and discuss.

SOC: Indeed a lovely spot for a rest. The plane is very tall and spreading, and agnus-castus splendidly high and shady, in full bloom too, filling the air with the finest possible fragrance. And the spring which runs under the plane; how beautifully cool its water is to the feet. The figures and other offerings show that the place is sacred to Achelous and some of the nymphs. I choose to lie down. Now read the speech of Lysias to me.

PHA: Why a lover not in love is preferable to lover who is in love. First, lovers repent the kindnesses they have shown when their passion abates, but for those not in love, there never comes a time for such regret. They behave generously, not under constraint, deliberately calculating their own interests.

Relieved from the disadvantages that being in love brings, nothing remains for them but to do cheerfully whatever they think will give their partners pleasure.

Second, lovers are apt to value any new love who comes along more than the old.

Third, lovers admit that they are mad, not sane; they know that they are not in their right minds but cannot help themselves. How then can one expect that designs formed in such a condition will meet their approval when they come to their senses?

Fourth, if you choose the best from among your lovers, you will have few to choose from, but if you look for the one who suits you best in the world at large, you will have a wide field of choice, and so a much better chance of finding one worthy of your friendship.

The fifth point concerns reputation. Lovers are easily offended by on another and incur worse reputations than non-lovers.

Sixth, lovers are more prone to quarrels and jealousy than non-lovers.

Seventh, with lovers, physical attraction precedes knowledge of character or circumstances, so it is uncertain whether they will want to remain friends when their passion has cooled. But for those not in love, who were friends before they formed a liaison, are in no danger of finding their friendship diminished as a result of the satisfaction they have enjoyed.

Eighth, lovers approve words and actions that are far from excellent and praise things which do not deserve the name pleasant—passion impairs their judgment.

Ninth, those not in love have an eye more to future advantage than to present pleasure, thereby laying the foundation of lasting affection.

Tenth, if you are possessed by the notion that firm friendship is impossible unless one is in love, then we should have little regard for our sons, fathers, and mothers.

And the eleventh and final point is that it is not the most insistent suitor that one should favor, such as a desperate lover, but one best able to make a return.

Well, what do you think of my speech, Socrates and David, isn’t it a wonderful piece of work, especially the diction?

SOC: More than wonderful. Divine. I concentrated on you and saw how what you were reading put you in a glow. I followed your example and joined in the ecstasy, you inspired man.

PHA: Do you think this is a laughing matter?

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

DAV: I’m having trouble taking you seriously, too, Socrates.

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

PHA & DAV: No.

SOC: Well, approving of the speech’s matter is one thing, and its style another. If you want to approve of the former, it is you who must take the responsibility. I can only admire its style, the clarity, shapeliness, and precision with which every phrase is turned. The matter I don’t suppose even Lysias himself could think satisfactory.

DAV: This ought to be good.

SOC: It seems to me, Phaedrus and David, that he has said the same things two or three times over, either because he couldn’t find sufficient matter to produce variety or from sheer lack of interest in the subject. The speech struck me as youthful exhibitionism; an attempt to demonstrate how he could say the same thing in two or three different ways.

PHA: Nonsense, Socrates. If the speech has one merit above all others, it is that no single aspect of the subject worth mentioning has been omitted; no one could improve on it in either fullness or quality.

DAV: I have a feeling Socrates may be able to improve on it.

SOC: Wise women and men of old have written on the subject more soundly.

PHA: Who are they?
SOC: Either lovely Sappho or wise Anacreon or some prose writers. And I can compose a better speech because I, in my ignorance, have been filled with external inspiration, like a jar from a spring.

DAV: Your acknowledgment of those who have come before is both humbling and vital to the great conversation. Nothing is new under the sun. We all absorb and build from those who have come before. I am excited for your speech.

SOC: Come, shrill Muses, help me in my tale. In every discussion, there is only one way of beginning in order to come to a sound conclusion—that is to know what one is discussing.

DAV: You must mean the crucial topic of Definition in the canon of Invention.

SOC: Right. Most people are unaware that they are ignorant of the essential nature of their subject. Believing that they know it, they do not begin their discussion by agreeing about their use of terms, so as they proceed they fall into self-contradictions and misunderstandings.

Do not let us make the same mistake. The subject we are discussing is whether the friendship of a lover or non-lover is preferable. Let us begin by agreeing upon a definition of the nature and power of love and keep this before our eyes as we debate whether love does good or harm.

Love is a kind of desire. But we know that one does not have to be in love to desire what is beautiful.

In each of us there are two ruling and impelling principles whose guidance we follow: a desire for pleasure, which is innate; and an acquired conviction which causes us to aim at excellence.

Sometimes these two are in agreement within us and sometimes at variance. The conviction which impels us toward excellence is rational, and the power by which it masters us we call self-control; the desire which drags us toward pleasure is irrational and when it gets the upper hand in us its dominion is called excess.

The conclusion to which all this is leading is obvious. When the irrational desire that prevails over the conviction which aims at right is directed at the pleasure derived from beauty, and in the case of physical beauty powerfully reinforced by the appetites which are akin to it, so that it emerges victorious, it takes its name from the very power with which it is endowed and is called eros or passionate love.

Now, let me summarize Lysias’s speech. The man who is under pleasure and a slave to pleasure will inevitably try to derive the greatest pleasure possible from the object of his passion. Hence, he will wish for his object to be inferior in all ways— in intelligence, in physical appearance and bearing, in possession of wealth, in number of friends and family members—so he can ensure total dependence from the object.

There is no kindness in the friendship of a lover; its object is the satisfaction of an appetite, like the appetite for food. One who is in love is faithless, morose, jealous, and disagreeable, and will do harm to one’s estate,  harm to one’s physical health, and harm above all to one’s spiritual development, of which nothing is or ever will be more precious in the sight of God and man. There, my speech is over.

DAV:  So you agree with Lysias? I detect a strong level of irony in your speech, Socrates. For one, it seems too “ingenious and labored,” to use your words about the pundits from earlier. It seems you’ve made an effort to trim love of its wings to fit it into a physical and rational box. I’d like to hear a speech from you in favor of love and being in love.

PHA: I also expect to hear just such a speech. For some reason, I don’t feel like you’re showing all of your cards…

SOC: OK, I confess, that even while I was speaking some time ago I felt a certain uneasiness; I was afraid that I might be ‘purchasing honor with men at the price of offending the gods’. Now I see where I went wrong.

PHA & DAV: Where?

SOC: Our speeches were dreadful, guys, dreadful—both the speech of Lysias and the speech you made me utter. They were silly and more than a little blasphemous. What could be worse than that?

DAV: Even the speeches themselves lacked love. What you are about to say is what I came here to hear. Let it fly!

[The rest of our conversation on that lovely spring day outside of Athens will be revealed in a subsequent post.]

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