The first and second speeches of Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, as with the rest of the dialogue, deals squarely with the subject of love. Debating with Phaedrus over this subject, he gives two speeches (a third, as well, if dialogue is counted) that ruminate on the nature of love and of man in general. These speeches are both indicative of a well-thought out argument, though there are some differences in perspective between the two. In this paper, we will examine the two speeches Socrates gives in Phaedrus, as well as what they discuss and the ways in which they differ.
In Socrates’ first speech, he is dealing with Phaedrus’ recounting of Lysias’ speech, wherein he falls into Bacchic frenzy for the orator. While Phaedrus merely listed off reasons why someone should lend their love to someone who is not a lover, Socrates’ motivation is somewhat more complicated. In Socrates’ mind, even though beauty is something desired by all men, there are those who love and those who do not. There are, instead two principles that rule us: one is the instinctual need to feel pleasure, and the other is our practicality, the judgment that we acquire that looks for the objective advantage in all things. “Being in your right mind” is what Socrates calls the latter, while the former is “outrage,” the want for pleasure above all else (237e-238).
When you follow each desire, you end up with different outcomes. Gluttony can come from eating too much food (as that is a pleasure). Socrates denotes Eros as the desire for beauty, which then leads to pleasure.
According to Socrates, the problem with this is that someone who has too much desire in a boy will try to modify that boy to fit their own desires. However, this stifles whatever pursuits the boy would wish to have for themselves. Essentially, a lover would not want his boy to grow up in order to leave him eventually; this leads to an unhealthy shaping of mentalities out of their own desires, instead of what the boy truly wants. “Right-minded reason” must replace “the madness of love” at some point, and eventually the lover will come to their senses (241a).
Socrates’ first speech, in essence, indemnifies the concept of a lover, as there are many negative influences to be had in this state. The speech is transactional, noting that love is something that is traded for something else, equating it to nothing more than a commodity that can come at a price. Morality can be overwhelmed by lust, making one’s hubris win out among the rest of their personality. The body and soul are thus destroyed, making giving in to pleasure no good at all. In the end, says Socrates, desire for pleasure will overwhelm and destroy the boy at the behest of the lover, making it absolutely abhorrent.
In Socrates’ second speech (The Great Speech), his works turn from love to more enduring, lasting matters, such as the soul and madness. This speech is transcended, as He begins with the latter, stating that there are four kinds of divine madness at least (prophecy, mystic rights, poetry and love). Socrates has a much more positive outlook on love from this perspective as “in fact the best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god” (244c). While reason and logic do not suffice for creating a complete personality and a full spirit, human life must invariably be powered by forms of eros. In fact, were it not for the Gods of love, and the Nymphs, he would not be able to bring about the Great Speech.
Next, Socrates talks about the soul, wherein it has a primitive, instinctual drive to act on emotion. He likes the human soul to a dark horse: powerful, but difficult to control. However, there is also a good horse, which has restraint and self-control. The dark side always spins out of control, and man must work hard to control it. When the soul manages to control the dark horse, they can reach high enough in heaven to see the Forms of the world, which are much higher than that of men. Forms, such as Knowledge and Justice, are out of reach of man, unless he manages his darker impulses and has full control of his soul.
This brings the discussion back to love, and the idea of eros. According to Socrates, love is madness, and it is a good thing, but it must be tempered by control over our dark horse. The dark part of us would rush toward a beautiful boy and wish to take him as our own. They then become sexual beings who will inevitable ruin the boy and break their own hears. However, when a soul becomes noble and controls themselves, they can reach heaven – “there is no greater good than this that either human self-control or divine madness can offer a man” (256b). They then become a philosopher, and manage to successfully navigate relationships with people in a platonic manner.
Comparing these two poems can be somewhat daunting, if even a little unfair: Socrates seems to have a lot more to say in the second Great Speech than he does his first. However, there are some distinct differences that can set these two apart in very distinct ways. The first speech discusses love as a transaction; there is a strictly negative connotation to it that only brings madness to those who choose desire over reason. The second speech, while it still condemns irrational love, makes room for rational love, once that dark horse is tamed. When someone can come to a lover (in this case, a boy) with a noble heart and good intentions that are not focused strictly on physical pleasure, they can cultivate a real, focused relationship with them. This is the basis of Socrates’ Great Speech – the importance of platonic love, which leaves open the room for controlled sexual contact. With these two speeches in mind, Socrates’ outlook on love is quite complex. He warns about its dangers, and yet attempts to find ways to logically reconcile it as a concept.
In conclusion, the two speeches Socrates gives in Phaedrus give a cynical and pragmatic, if still workable, view of love. In the first speech, love is denounced as being foolish and dangerous; however, in the second speech, he states that love is a worthy form of madness, and that it merely takes great care and control in order to make it work. In the end, Socrates deems love a worthwhile pursuit, as long as the dark horse is kept under wraps. Only in this way can the passions of lovers be prevented from overriding reason, or standing in the way of what the person being loved wants.
Plato. Phaedrus. Champaign, IL: Project Gutenberg, 1990.