Imagery and Philosophy in Plato's Phaedrus
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Imagery and Philosophy in Plato's Phaedrus KENNETH DORTER THERE SEEMS TO BE general agreement today that Plato had some purpose in writing dialogues rather than treatises, and that one should not entirely ignore the dramatic form when studying the dialogues. There is, however, considerable disagreement as to how much weight it should be given in interpreting the speeches of the dialogue. Some scholars fear that one may go too far and read into the action a significance that wasn't intended, thus distorting the "obvious" meaning of the speeches. Others feel that by paying insufficient attention to the action one treats the dialogues, where Plato says not a word in his own name, as treatises written in his name, and that it is as unjustified to attribute the views of his characters out of context to Plato as it would be to do so with a playwright. The latter point of view has been increasingly advocated of late, and commentaries paying careful attention to the action of the dialogues have shown convincing success. 1 Nevertheless, those who disagree with this approach initially, may remain unconvinced and feel that its explanatory power is more a matter of ingenuity than insight. It would therefore be helpful if one could show, not so much that the dialogues can be interpreted through their literary form, but that they demand such an interpretation. How can this be put to the test? If it can be shown that the action or imagery of a dialogue is so consistent that it discloses a distinct pattern too structured to be undesigned, z and that this pattern illuminates the speeches so as to reveal significant aspects and relationships that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, it would suggest that these elements were meant to be given serious attention. a E.g., Gerhard Krtiger, Einsicht und Leidenschaft, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1948; Leo Strauss, The City and Man, Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964; Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato's Meno, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965; Stanley Rosen, Plato's Symposium, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968. For shorter treatments see Paul Friedl~inder, Plato, vols. 2 and 3, Princeton: Princeton University Press; Stanley Rosen, "The Role of Eros in Plato's Republic," Review of Metaphysics, XVIII, 3, March, 1965; Drew Hyland, "Why Plato Wrote Dialogues," Philosophy and Rhetoric, I, I, 1968; Kenneth Dorter, "The Dramatic Aspect of Plato's Phaedo," Dialogue, VIH, 4, 1970. 2 Seth Benardete has shown that such a pattern exists in the (at first glance interchangeable ) responses of Socrates' audience: "The Right, the True, and the Beautiful," Glotta, Band XLI, Heft 1/2, 1963. [279] 280 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY The aim of this paper, then, is to show that the literary character of a dialogue, like a carefully constructed play, stands up to the closest scrutiny and must therefore have been composed with a care that suggests a central function, and that it reveals significant content that would otherwise be inconspicuous. To make this point as strongly as possible we shall examine the dialogue which is at once richest in imagery (there are at least 18 religious allusions in the first 2 pages alone) and most concerned with the art of writing (257c-278b), the Phaedrus. The section which will concern us is approximately the first third, beginning just after the (literal) introduction--where Phaedrus leads Socrates into the country--and ending just prior to the great palinode of Socrates. II "By Hera, what a beautiful retreat!", Socrates exclaims when they reach their destination (230b2). He proceeds to examine it with each of his senses: sight (its beauty, the height, width and shade of the trees, the images and statues), hearing (the sounds of the grasshoppers), smell (the scent of the agnus) and touch (the coldness of the subterranean stream against his feet). Although he does not taste anything, it is his sense of taste that brought him there: his taste for speeches made him follow Phaedrus as hungry flocks follow shepherds who hold fruit before them (230d).a This elaborate passage at first seems without consequence, and even pointless. Phaedrus remarks on Socrates' strange behavior and chides him for not going...