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The Phaedrus: Plato's teaching on philosophy, love, poetry, and writing

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Summer School 2014

This course has two intentions. The first is to provide an introduction to the study of Plato in general, through a discussion of the central themes of his philosophical teaching. The second is to provide a detailed reading of a central Platonic dialogue. As a whole, the course in intended to provide a justification for Plato’s claim that philosophy in his sense is the truest access to human self-understanding.

Plato wrote dialogues in order to show the emergence of philosophical and scientific principles as incorrigible inferences from ordinary experience, which is constituted by our opinions about ourselves and the world. Plato thus attempts to show that there is implicit in all of our various desires a desire and ability to understand our own nature. Thus in the Phaedrus he makes the experience eros or love central to the understanding of the human psyche or soul. The dialogue contains, amongst other things, possibly the most persuasive account of what human beings experience, and why they misunderstand themselves, in love. This account leads to the topic of poetry, because the meaning of love seems to be most fully expressed by the poetic creation of the beautiful gods, then through a mythical depiction of philosophy. The dialogue ends with a discussion of writing and politics, because the gods also represent our expectations for justice. The Phaedrus provides an illustration of Plato’s teaching that our first orientation to the truth is by way of impossible fictions, and its detailed interpretations shows us how he proposes we may approach the genuine principles of things.

Some specific suggestions will be made as to how Plato’s thought can answer to the objections of later thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, on the one hand, and the analytical school of philosophy, on the other. All of these diverse later thinkers orient themselves by the basic approach of modern philosophy, which, by contrast with Plato, limits our experience by subjecting it to a method, that is, to the universal principles of some scientific or moral schema. Plato tries to show that this procedure gives us a reductive account of ourselves because it separates desire and thought, and so conflates theory and practice. But this manner of thinking is also the central aspect of our ordinary misunderstanding of ourselves, from which he proposes to free us.

Plato does not teach that we have direct access to the first principles; to explore them we must critically interpret our false opinions or the impossible fictions of poetry. Prominent ancient and modern commentators have taken the Phaedrus to be the introduction to Plato’s work as a whole because it is the only dialogue which discusses the diversity of human aspirations and characters in their relation to our partial apprehension of our own natures and of nature as a whole.

Course Schedule

Monday

Introduction to Plato’s understanding of philosophy and some of its key differences from modern philosophy; the opening of the Phaedrus.

  • Text discussed: Selections from the various other dialogues and authors, and then Phaedrus 227a-237b

Tuesday

Human nature if passion and reason are divided: the speeches of Lysias and Socrates on why the beloved should favour the non-lover, and Socrates’ criticism of both speeches

  • Text discussed: Phaedrus 237b-243e

Wednesday

The human being as a whole who is “desiring intelligence or thinking desire”: Socrates’ second speech on eros

  • Text discussed: Phaedrus 243e-257b

Thursday

Writing and politics, speech and philosophy

  • Text: Phaedrus 257b7-279c

Friday: Recapitulation of the main themes of the course and comparison with some strands of modern thought

Recommended Reading List

A PDF containing a translation of key passages from several Platonic letters and dialogues, including some portions of the Phaedrus, will be available when the course begins. However, it would be good to read a complete translation of the Phaedrus before the course. Two good recent versions are:

  • Plato: Phaedrus, translated with Introduction, Notes, and Interpretive Essay by James Nichols, Jr. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998)
  • Plato’s Phaedrus, translated with notes, glossary, appendices, Interpretive Essay and Introduction by Stephen Scully (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2003).

The latter’s many supplements are very helpful.

Level of Difficulty: Introductory/Intermediate: No prior training is expected, and the course is intended as an introduction that will follow Plato’s beginning point in ordinary speech; however, some of themes are philosophically advanced.

 

 

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