In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates and his young student Phaedrus discuss a variety of philosophical matters ranging from the relationship between a lover and the beloved, the benefits of moderation, divine inspiration and madness, and the proper employment of the art of rhetoric. While reading the text and preparing prompts for discussion, I considered how the various arguments that Plato proposed throughout the dialogue could be interpreted in a more modern context. Although many of the social conventions present in Athens around 370 BC have no modern equivalents, through conversation we have found that similar notions of love, moderation, madness, instinct, and rhetoric have survived long since the time of Plato.
In terms of love, Phaedrus argued, based on a speech delivered by a man named Lysias, that a lover or a friend ought to pour their energies into someone they do not love, as this is a relationship free of emotional baggage, and one in which the tangible rewards are more easily transferred between participants. Socrates retorts that it is natural that a person desires beauty, and that although love is a form of mental instability, it comes about in the formation of a relationship, for better or worse. A modern equivalent of the relationship Phaedrus describes is “friends with benefits,” in which two people seek tangible rewards, in this case, sex, without the emotional investment of a monogamous relationship. Interestingly, according to Dr. Suzanne Lachmann, more often than not, one or both parties in these strictly physical relationships end up falling in love with the other, and complications arise due to a determined lack of communication, a refusal of one to articulate love for the other (1). In many ways, the forces of love described by Socrates are unavoidable, though from an objective perspective, it is dangerous to give oneself fully to such powerful emotions, it is hard coded in our instincts to want to love, trust, and extend our loyalty to those we care about, even if it could hurt us later on.
Similarly, Socrates’ commentary on the benefits of moderation mostly correlate with our modern sensibilities regarding addiction. Through conversation, we concluded that moderation in most things was healthy and sensible, but in cases where excess and addiction was inevitable, attaining moderation became a long term process in which abstinence compensates for prior dependence. In the case of alcoholism, a study conducted through the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, found that for recovering alcoholics, total abstinence was overwhelmingly more successful than moderate drinking, as this continued to engage the addictive behavior (2). In a more general sense, relegating moderate amounts of attention and energy to the various areas of life allows for flexibility, so that the random turmoil that comes with living cannot overtake the other portions.
Later in the dialogue, Socrates introduces the idea of divinely inspired bouts of madness which allow us to traverse times of peril or misery relatively unscathed. The Greeks being a culture of omens and portents, Socrates included the oftentimes irrational ways in which the gods contact individuals as part of this divine madness. Although our relationship to a divine force has changed as a result of secularism, in discussion, we still acknowledge the strange instances that cannot be explained away by science, when a more visceral part of our nature leads us towards the right path, our gut feeling. According to a report conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge, those who are involved in risky business ventures and rely on gut instinct to make decisions are more successful and tend to love and appreciate the art of business on a fundamental level (3). When we grow more in touch with this unconscious force, it seems to grant a better outcome than when we overanalyze, and allow our mind to block these unconscious messages.
Lastly, Socrates discusses the art of rhetoric itself, and how the point or purpose of a speech may be clearly defined, but grow more ambiguous through extended scrutiny or discussion. This is the most readily apparent today, as the rhetoric of the presidential campaign, coupled with the innumerable opinion pieces and editorials that put ideas and sound-bites through the wringer. Rarely is it clear when either Trump or Clinton is being genuine, as pre-written speeches and press releases focus more on protection and slander than articulating policy. It has become necessary that every citizen fact check in order to fashion concrete facts from the morass of ambiguity. Included in the list of referenced sources in a site called FactCheck.org, which is dedicated to sorting through the unfathomable number of statements made by both candidates in order to find the threads of truth and present it to citizens interested in making clear, concise arguments through political action in November (4).
Presentation PowerPoint: ep-phaedrus-presentation