Introduction. Plato’s Self-Disclosing Strategies

Why dialogues? Readers of Plato have asked this question again and again over the centuries, and there is no sign of them relenting. [1] Scholars in particular struggle to understand why Plato wrote dialogues as opposed to philosophical treatises, as if he had deviated from the natural course of things in some way. [2] A related question is why did he write at all, given that his master is reported to have written nothing. [3] Yet the question is not so much “why?” as the more radical (and more Socratic) “what?” [4]

What is a Platonic Dialogue? Poetry and Knowledge

There is a growing consensus that Plato’s ambition was not only to put forward his ideas, but also to provoke and persuade. [5] This viewpoint has important implications that have rarely been explored. If the ultimate goal is to persuade or convert people, it follows that a literary/rhetorical dimension must be crucial to Plato’s dialogues, the study of which cannot be reduced to a subordinate activity—to be pursued only insofar as it allows us to extract or reconstruct Plato’s doctrines. [6] Secondly, the very question of “why Plato wrote dialogues” is somehow misplaced, and should be preceded by a bolder one: “what is a Platonic dialogue?”
Surprisingly few ancient writers discussed dialogue as a genre. [7] Yet in his short second-century CE introduction to Plato, Albinus formulated the problem clearly (τί ποτ᾿ ἔστιν ὁ διάλογος), and provided a straightforward answer to what he sees as the very first question any Platonist should ask. [8] For Albinus, Plato’s dialogues were a form of philosophical drama, which could be described by way of an analogy with, and difference from, comedy and tragedy. [9] Characterization and style are key features of his definition, which, by modern standards, clearly privileges form over content. But can we be satisfied with such a definition? Some modern readers will be irritated by the parallel with tragedy and poetry, but our perspective is very remote from that of the ancient Greeks. We tend to assume that poetry and knowledge are two different, even opposite, phenomena. The Greeks, however, thought otherwise.
Plato’s efforts to deny or qualify the poets’ claims to knowledge countered the general view of his time. That is to say that poetry was, in fact, a form of knowledge whereby the poets, to quote from Simonides’ Plataea elegy written in the aftermath of the Persian wars, gained access to “the whole truth.” [10] The poets’ hegemony was, of course, declining by the time Plato began to write. Simonides himself, who composed his Plataea elegy a century or so before, contrasts Homer’s omniscience with his own craft, of which he seems to have a much more mundane view. In the course of time, sophistic and rhetorical discourse largely displaced poetry. Many authors, such as Hecataeus, Herodotus, and Thucydides, for example, had long been writing prose works in which they fiercely attacked poetic myth, [11] and the fourth century is by and large dominated by prose writing. So why did not Plato do the same? Why choose a form of writing that incorporates poetic genres, abounds in myths, indulges in seemingly ironic invocations to the Muses and even, at times, plays muthos against logos? [12]
My answer rests on a simple, if somewhat neglected, distinction. Even though their relationship with the inspiring Muses changed over time, the poets did not cease to present themselves as teachers of the polis. This seems to be integral to the defining status of their art, which continued to be seen as a form of mousikê, an “art of the Muses,” an inspired and inspiring educational agency. On the other hand, and herein lies my distinction, questioning the role of poetry was a relatively easy task for the “non-musical” genres such as logography, historiography, rhetoric, and medical prose, which dispense with divine knowledge and, broadly speaking, emphasize human agency. The subjects of these genres or discourses are not heroic or divine realities discernible only to inspired poets: human things and natural phenomena can be observed directly, and it does not take a Muse to reveal them. [13] Strictly speaking, such genres are not a form of mousikê. [14]
These “human” genres rival and attack poetry and song, and their agonistic stance takes the form of a human discourse that deliberately does without the Muses. Interestingly enough, the Muses are never mentioned in classical Greek literature by either orators or historians, as if Muse were a kind of taboo word. By contrast, several philosophers—if I may oversimplify a little—share the poets’ claim to enjoy access to a superior knowledge veiled from the naked eye. [15] One thinks of Pythagoras, for example, who is traditionally considered to be the inventor of the word “philosopher”: [16] the very birth of Pythagorean philosophy is closely connected with the worship of the Muses. [17] This possibly influenced Empedocles, who seems to summon Calliope as the Muse of philosophical logos. [18] Similarly, it is no coincidence that Parmenides claimed to have received his knowledge from a deity and, accordingly, expressed his thought in epic hexameters. The same is true of Xenophanes, who seems to have been a wandering rhapsode, ready to attack Homer and Hesiod with typically visceral hatred. In criticizing the immoral, anthropomorphic gods of poetry, Xenophanes is no doubt advocating a new Weltanschauung, though he would seem to be equally intent on discrediting epic rhapsodes, his immediate rivals and colleagues. [19] All in all, we can confidently say that rhetoric, history, and scientific prose are not “arts of the Muses” (mousikê), but that this was not necessarily the case with philosophy. [20] So what about Plato, then? Plato’s Sophist refers to pre-Socratic philosophy as undiluted muthos, while Heraclitus and Empedocles, together with their followers, are referred to as “Ionian and Sicilian Muses.” [21] Yet is Albinus justified in construing Plato as a quasi-poet?
An exhaustive answer to such a question would require a very long discussion and would have to take into account a large body of disparate evidence. And it would have to consider, as a minimum requirement, the following points:
  1. Plato’s Academy was sacred to Apollo and the Muses, the latter having their own altar (e.g. Pausanias 1.30.2). The tradition was further promoted by Plato’s immediate successors. [22]
  2. Not only does Aristotle include Plato’s dialogues in the Poetics, where he defines them in terms of mimêsis and poetry (1447b), but many others, including Platonic philosophers, regarded Plato as a poet, even a new Homer (e.g. Proclus on Plato’s Republic 1.196.9–13 Kroll). [23]
  3. Time and again, Plato’s dialogues refer to philosophy as the highest form of mousikê (e.g. in the Phaedo 60e–61a). Needless to say, the dialogues abound in myths and even invocations to the Muses (e.g. in the Phaedrus 237a, and in the Republic 545d). [24]
  4. Plato’s dialogues were sometimes recited during symposia along with excerpts from comedy (cf. e.g. Plutarch Table Talks 711b–c). [25]
  5. The anecdotal tradition reports that Plato, a former tragic poet (e.g. Dicaearchus fr. 40 Wehrli), was strongly influenced by the mimes of Sophron as well as by the comedies of Epicharmus and Aristophanes. [26]
  6. Plato himself, or at least the characters of his dialogues, seem to allude to his output as if it were a kind of song or drama.
Each of these points would require specific discussion, which is of course beyond the scope of the present study. [27] Suffice it to say that, though they raise very different problems, they also share a close affinity in that they all invoke the notion of poetry. It would seem that Plato’s philosophy, or at least his dialogues, are indeed a form of mousikê, and that modern scholars are simply not in a position to minimize or explain away these facts.
In what follows, I shall limit myself to point 6, which cannot be dismissed as a later superimposition. By Plato’s time, as I have already mentioned, poetry’s claims had long been questioned. Nevertheless, the idea that poetry was a form of knowledge, albeit refashioned, was an established belief, and even Aristotle thought that poetry was more philosophical than history and that it could function as a repository of endoxa. [28] To illustrate this point, I draw a comparison between two passages in which the role of poetry is discussed against the background of the crisis of the polis. The first is the famous assessment of poetry in Aristophanes’ Frogs, written on the eve of the fall of Athens in the Peloponnesian war (404 BCE):
Αι. … ἀπόκριναί μοι, τίνος οὕνεκα χρὴ θαυμάζειν ἄνδρα ποιητήν;
Ευ. δεξιότητος καὶ νουθεσίας, ὅτι βελτίους γε ποιοῦμεν
τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἐν ταῖς πόλεσιν

Aeschylus: … Come, tell me: why should we admire a noble poet?
Euripides: For his ready wit and his good counsels
and because we make men better in our cities.
Aristophanes Frogs 1008–1010
Needless to say, this passage has its own function within the comedy, and yet, in all probability, it represented widely accepted ideas. [29] The Athenians voted to allow the Frogs to be produced again by anyone who wished to do so, and thus it became the first comic classic in history. [30] In the same comedy, moreover, we hear that the degradation of Euripides’ poetry is tantamount to its losing the status of mousikê, which only confirms the relevance of the distinction I make above between “musical” and “non-musical” arts. [31]
The second passage is found in Lycurgus’ Against Leocrates, a postwar reflection written after the battle of Chaeronaea (338 BCE), which, for most modern readers at least, marks the end of the classical era. After quoting a lengthy passage from the Erectheus in order to remind his fellow Athenians that Euripides “used to educate” their fathers, [32] Lycurgus goes on to say:
Βούλομαι δ’ ὑμῖν καὶ τῶν Ὁμήρου παρασχέσθαι ἐπῶν. οὕτω γὰρ ὑπέλαβον ὑμῶν οἱ πατέρες σπουδαῖον εἶναι ποιητήν, ὥστε νόμον ἔθεντο καθ’ ἑκάστην πεντετηρίδα τῶν Παναθηναίων μόνου τῶν ἄλλων ποιητῶν ῥαψῳδεῖσθαι τὰ ἔπη, ἐπίδειξιν ποιούμενοι πρὸς τοὺς Ἕλληνας, ὅτι τὰ κάλλιστα τῶν ἔργων προῃροῦντο. εἰκότως· οἱ μὲν γὰρ νόμοι διὰ τὴν συντομίαν οὐ διδάσκουσιν, ἀλλ’ ἐπιτάττουσιν ἃ δεῖ ποιεῖν, οἱ δὲ ποιηταὶ μιμούμενοι τὸν ἀνθρώπινον βίον, τὰ κάλλιστα τῶν ἔργων ἐκλεξάμενοι, μετὰ λόγου καὶ ἀποδείξεως τοὺς ἀνθρώπους συμπείθουσιν.
I want also to recommend Homer to you. In your fathers’ eyes he was a poet of such worth that they passed a law that every four years at the Panathenaea he alone of all the poets should have his works recited; and thus they showed the Greeks their admiration for the noblest deeds. They were right to do so. Laws are too brief to give instruction: they merely state the things that must be done; but poets, depicting life itself, select the noblest actions and so through argument and demonstration convert men’s hearts.
Lycurgus Against Leocrates 102, trans. Burtt
Interestingly, Lycurgus credits the poets with quintessentially philosophical procedures such as “argument” (λόγος) and “demonstration” (ἀπόδειξις).
The two passages frame the adult life of Plato, whose own work would confirm the crucial role of the poets. The tragedians figure importantly among the supposedly wise people questioned by Socrates in the Apology, and in the Laws Plato goes so far as to define Athens as a “theatrocracy.” [33] One may add that the sophists were ready to present themselves as the direct heirs of the archaic poets in educating the citizens, [34] and it is interesting to note that the Republic’s full-scale attack on poetry takes place in the house of Cephalus, a man whose vision of life, and of the afterlife in particular, is clearly shaped by traditional poetry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, poetry is duly superseded by the eschatological myth at the end of the dialogue. [35]
These and other facts can be used to argue that, as Danielle Allen puts it, “Plato wrote … all his dialogues to displace the poets.” [36] In my view, this is far too radical. At the risk of stating the obvious, it must be added that Plato was not satisfied with either rhetoric or sophistry, the very forms of thought and expression that had partly displaced/replaced the poets, and which were so prominent in the fourth century BCE. [37] Plato surely felt “the need for a shibboleth separating Socratic from dubious sophistic logoi,” as Andrew Ford puts it. [38] And this, I believe, is precisely where poetry comes in. As we shall see in the course of this book, the Phaedrus can be read as a partial defense of poetry against the attacks of rhetorical and eristic discourse; it is as if Plato were looking for an appropriate compromise—which squares well with Plato’s own choices as an author and (potential) legislator. For not only did he opt for a form of prose that has much in common with poetry, but he clearly envisages an ideal city, both in the Republic and in the Laws, where a (reformed) mousikê will continue to be the predominant medium in the education of the citizenry, even if literacy and speech are also given their fair share. [39] As Myles Burnyeat so aptly puts it: “the cave is not abolished in the ideal city, only purified.” [40]
In emphasizing the poetic quality of Plato’s dialogues, Albinus was simply following in the footsteps of Aristotle. In discussing the Republic and, surprisingly, the Laws, Aristotle claims in the Politics that “all the discourses of Socrates possess brilliance, cleverness, originality, and keenness of inquiry.” [41] Even more famously, in the Poetics he associates Socratic logoi with the mimes of Xenarchus and Sophron. [42] The latter were probably a mixture of prose and verse, which complements another statement by Aristotle, to the effect that Plato’s dialogues stand somewhere between (μεταξύ) poetry and prose. [43] Aristotle’s view that Plato’s dialogues are meant as a kind of poetry provides us with a useful working hypothesis, and it neatly rounds off my argument that the function of poetry, as discussed in Plato’s Republic and Laws, is to influence people and shape their beliefs. It follows logically that Plato’s dialogues themselves should be read as poetry, which gives us a provisional definition of the dialogues. And yet, how sufficient and warranted a definition is this? What would Plato himself have said if, in mockingly Socratic style, we had knocked at his door and asked, “For the dog’s sake, Plato: what is a Platonic dialogue? Is your pupil Aristotle right when he says that your own writings are some kind of fancy poetic stuff?” It is a pity we cannot ask him directly; yet we can probe his dialogues for clues. What I shall be looking for in particular is a Platonic answer to this question.

Towards a Self-Definition of Platonic Dialogue

Plato’s dialogues never mention Plato’s dialogues, and with good reason: they are all set in a relatively distant past (second half of the fifth century), and their characters, Socrates and others, are in no position to comment on a set of works that were yet to be born. [44] From this point of view, Plato’s dialogues resemble tragedies. No overt reference to the tragic genre can be found in a tragedy, for the simple reason that tragedies are set in a pre-theatrical past. However, one might expect references to the dialogues in the Letters, where, exceptionally, Plato speaks in his own voice. [45] Yet what we find is a notorious and astonishingly negative statement. In the Seventh Letter, Plato famously declares that philosophy is a lifelong process involving a number of stages, none of which takes a written form, and it is for this reason that he, Plato, has not confided his philosophy to writing. [46] This is indirect confirmation that Plato’s dialogues are not primarily an exposition of doctrine and that they must have had a different aim. So once more we find ourselves asking, what are Plato’s dialogues?
Clearly, the answer cannot simply be that they are (a new kind of) tragedy or drama. [47] The parallel I have put forward is only valid insofar as Plato’s characters, like tragic heroes, “predate” the genre they belong to. Just as Medea, for example, cannot possibly mention Euripides’ tragedies or discuss what’s on at the Dionysus theatre, so Socrates cannot possibly name or discuss Plato’s dialogues. [48] In both cases, direct comment is not possible, but allusive references most certainly are. We know very well that the tragedians had ways of discussing their own work (and their colleagues’) through allusion. Euripides’s Electra, for example, famously “criticizes” Aeschylus for his implausible handling of the relevant recognition scene, and a similar attitude can be found in the Phoenician Women, where Euripides implicitly compares his own version to Aeschylus’. [49] The same can be expected of Plato, who could rely on a shared code that he only needed to adapt to his own purposes. Thus, far from being an overly subtle or anachronistic exercise, searching for such allusions is a perfectly plausible agenda: the technique was already well known as early as the fifth century BCE. But how does it work in the case of Plato? A quotation from a recent article by Stephen Halliwell makes the point clearer:
There is, to put it concisely, the seemingly Platonic attitude (and, consequently, the Platonism) which criticizes, censors and even “banishes” poets, and which speaks in terms of unmasking the false pretensions and the damaging influences of poetry. But there is also the Platonic stance which never ceases to allow the voices of poetry to be heard in Plato’s own writing, which presupposes not only extensive knowledge but also “love” of poetry on the part of Plato’s readers, and which at certain key junctures claims for itself nothing less than the status of a new kind of philosophical poetry and art: the status, indeed, of the “greatest music” and even of “the finest and best tragedy” … The notion of Platonic writing as itself a kind of poetry has roots … in explicit moments of self-consciousness in the dialogues as well as in their multiple literary qualities. [50]
Halliwell emphasizes the relative novelty of such an approach, especially as regards scholarship in English, and he shows how effective it can be by very successfully highlighting the subtle (and no doubt self-conscious) ambiguity of Plato’s attitude towards poetry in the Republic. In fact, Halliwell’s “explicit moments of self-consciousness” had long been studied by one of the most important Platonists of the 20th century, namely Konrad Gaiser.
Gaiser has devoted an entire book (and an impressive array of profound scholarship) to this fascinating subject: [51] I am referring to his Platone come scrittore filosofico, which in turn builds upon his previous work Protreptik und Paränese bei Platon. [52] Unfortunately, Gaiser, as an exponent of the so-called “Tübingen school,” is commonly associated with the declining querelle that revolves around Plato’s “unwritten doctrines” [53] (largely a “continental” affair [54] ), even though the book’s main arguments are not committed to the “unwritten doctrines” hypothesis (which, incidentally, I wholly disagree with). [55] One can only conclude that its virtual absence from the landscape of scholarship in English is yet another example of what Francisco Gonzalez refers to as “a growing insularity in Platonic studies, especially among English-speaking scholars: extremely helpful and worthy work is ignored simply because it is not in the right language or school.” [56] What follows is a summary of Gaiser’s conclusions, which, at the same time, are integrated with new insights within a broader perspective.
Gaiser’s starting point derives from reception theory: what was the intended readership of Plato’s dialogues? By piecing together the little specific evidence we have, [57] he reminds us that, contrary to the assumptions of most modern readers, Plato’s dialogues were written for the general public and had a protreptic and/or “hypomnematic” function, [58] whereas “real” philosophy was a personal affair, taking place in Plato’s Academy for the benefit of both pupils and “casual hearers.” [59] Gaiser made a crucial breakthrough when he analyzed, and definitively clarified, an important passage from Philodemus’ Index Academicorum. [60] It is worthwhile quoting it in full:
… τῶν πάντων [ἀνθρώ]|πων οὗτος εὔξεσε̣[ν φ]ιλο|σοφίαν καὶ κατέλυσ̣[ε] π̣ρ̣ο|[ετ]ρέψατο μὲγ γὰρ ἀπ̣ε[̣ίρ]ο̣υ̣[ς]|ὡς εἰπεῖν ἐπ’ αὐ̣τὴν̣ δ̣ιὰ|τῆς ἀναγραφῆς τῶν λ̣[ό|γω]ν. ἐπιπολ[α]ί̣ως δὲ καί|[τινας] ἐπο[ίησ]ε φιλοσοφεῖν̣|φαν̣ερὰν ἐκτ̣ρέ[πων …
… [Plato] both promoted and damaged philosophy more than anyone else. By composing his dialogues, Plato, as it were, led to philosophy (προετρέψατο) countless people; on the other hand, he caused some people to philosophize superficially, and he misled them …
Philodemus Index Academicorum, col. I 9–17, ed. Dorandi
A few lines later, we learn that Philodemus is quoting Dicaearchus, who goes on to declare that the misleading aspect of Plato’s philosophy lies in his emphasis on eros. We also learn important details of the Academy’s way of life, to which Dicaearchus devotes much attention, possibly to conclude that Plato’s dialogues motivated many other people who did not directly attend. The importance of such an early authoritative source as Dicaearchus cannot be overstated: [61] Plato’s dialogues, it would seem, aimed at stimulating and possibly encouraging people. [62]
If the dialogues were indeed meant for the general public, then it follows that Plato did not assume any systematic reading of his works on the part of his readers and would have allowed for the possibility that they would have only a limited knowledge of them; [63] as Diskin Clay remarks, “disconcertingly, in the Platonic dialogues, ‘the sun is new every day.’ ” [64] This raises crucial hermeneutic issues. We may, for example, presume to reconstruct Platonic doctrine(s) by means of a thorough, comparative reading of all his dialogues, and there is no doubt that the history of philosophy, by evolving as a “series of footnotes to Plato,” has benefited from such efforts. [65] Nevertheless, such a bookish enterprise was not what Plato would have expected from his original public, and it is no coincidence that his exoteric dialogues, unlike Aristotle’s esoteric writings, do not contain cross-references. [66]
A related point is the effect of philosophical discourse as described in the dialogues. Gaiser reminds us, as a number of other scholars have also noted, that Plato often compares such discourse to a kind of therapy produced through katharsis (purification) and epôidê (incantation), i.e. two fundamental aspects of ancient medicine. [67] These two aspects were meant to counterbalance the spell of other forms of “magic” discourse such as the poetic, the rhetorical, and the sophistic. As Elizabeth Belfiore observes, they corresponded to two distinct stages (or “weapons”) in the philosophical process: namely, “one that purifies the rational element, driving out false belief (the elenchos or a process similar to it that will ‘turn around’ reason to its proper objects, as the Republic 518e describes it) and another procedure that will actively train and strengthen the emotions so that they will be in harmony with reason (the epôidê, the myth, musical education).” [68]
These two phases represent the “critical”/“dialectical” and the “constructive”/“dogmatic” modes of Plato’s philosophy respectively, and are most famously contrasted in Gregory Vlastos’s theory of the two distinct (and opposed) Socrateses within Plato’s dialogues. [69] The antinomy katharsis/epôidê can be (and has been) interpreted in many different ways, [70] and one can always engage in a favorite exercise of Platonists—that is, project the distinction on to the tripartite division of the soul as outlined in the Republic and elsewhere. [71] However, such qualifications, along with their possible evolution over time, are of limited relevance to my present argument, which is based on a rather simple premise: Plato’s philosophical discourse can be described as a form of purification followed, either logically or chronologically, by a form of incantation. [72]
The twofold “therapeutic” characterization discussed by Gaiser and Belfiore squares well with an aspect of Plato’s writings that no reader can fail to notice: the dialogues abound in myths, metaphors, similes, ethopoeias, and so on; i.e. quintessentially poetic devices aimed, one might say, at influencing people’s minds and emotions. [73] Against this general background, Gaiser explores a number of passages that can be construed as “moments of self-consciousness,” which I prefer to call “self-disclosures.” [74] It would be long to discuss them here, so I refer the reader to the Appendix. Suffice it to say that a reappraisal of Plato’s self-disclosures as discussed by Gaiser results in a rich (and ultimately consistent) picture. Philosophical discourse has a twofold nature: “comic” purification and “serious” enchantment. The first may take the form of comedy (Symposium), playfulness (Phaedrus), or popular tale (Phaedo), while the latter is called hymn (Phaedo) or tragedy (Symposium and Laws).
However broad, Gaiser’s discussion by no means exhausts the number of Plato’s self-disclosures. There is Halliwell’s discussion of Republic 10 for example, where Socrates seems reluctant to banish poetry and advocates a form of “counter-enchantment,” plausibly interpreted as a reference to the dialogues themselves. [75] The Gorgias, where Plato appropriates structurally the subtext provided by Euripides’ Antiope, is also part of the picture. As Andrea Nightingale has argued, Plato “invites his readers to juxtapose his dialogue to its tragic model, and he reinforces this message by persistently probing at the nature of the tragic and the comic. At the heart of Plato’s critique of tragic wisdom, finally, is a detailed and complex portrait of its newly invented adversary: philosophy.” [76] The lyre of Amphion-Socrates, too, can be construed as the symbol of philosophy’s musical nature, as Mauro Tulli has suggested. [77] The epic story of the Critias, embedded as it is in rhapsodic language while at the same time incorporating other poetic genres, [78] can be shown to be in line with Plato’s criticism of poetry as expressed in the Republic, of which the Timaeus-Critias is a sequel. [79] Finally, in the Lysis, a young sophist attacks old-fashioned poetry, but Socrates ends up comparing philosophical discourse to a form of old-fashioned poetry designed to correct the excesses of eristics. [80] Yet the most “disclosing” dialogue is certainly the Phaedrus, which in the current book’s four chapters will reveal a new set of powerful “self-disclosures.” It is about time to say a few introductory words on the Phaedrus itself.

Prologue to the Phaedrus

The core of this book is devoted to the Phaedrus and its fascinating cultural background, with particular regard for archaic poetry in its performative and biographical dimensions. These are important and surprisingly neglected issues, which, if correctly understood, can shed fresh light on how Plato positioned himself in the context of Athenian society, both as writer and thinker. Yet this is not the place to anticipate the more general import of my arguments. Rather, my immediate concern is to provide some general background for the interpretation of this dialogue. There are two things, in particular, to be borne in mind: firstly, that in the Phaedrus Plato is arguably at his most self-referential; and, secondly, that the dialogue is unique in presenting a sustained case for a positive form of inspiration. Both aspects are connected with another remarkable feature: the unparalleled importance of the natural landscape.
The landscape of the Phaedrus is not so much a gentle, out-of-town glade as a jungle of symbols, often deeply ambiguous, and designed to trigger all kinds of associations in the minds of Plato’s contemporaries. [81] Take the chaste-tree, for example (230b). Scholars have patiently prized out its meaning, which conveys the idea of both chastity and lust, [82] thus playing subtly with the erotic potential of the scene: Socrates and a young man are lying alone in a very sensual ambient at a time of the day (noon in midsummer) that the Greeks associated with Pan’s sexual exuberance. [83] The importance of the landscape can hardly be overestimated, and it is important to note that ancient readers, much more so than ourselves, would have felt its spell throughout the dialogue. Not only were there innumerable imitations of it, to the point that Plutarch felt the need to distance himself from the “commonplaces” of its imitators, [84] but it seemed to acquire a kind of metonymic status. [85]
In a letter addressed to the Imperator, Themistius argues for the philosophical character of the kingdom, and he does so by pointing to Plato’s “famous Republic, divine Laws, and the whole discussion by the thick and tall plane-tree.” [86] It is fascinating, therefore, to find the plane-tree used as a title almost. Even more interesting is the following passage from Timon of Phlius:
τῶν πάντων δ’ ἡγεῖτο πλατίστακος, ἀλλ’ ἀγορητὴς
ἡδυεπής, τέττιξιν ἰσογράφος, οἵ θ’ Ἑκαδήμου
δένδρει ἐφεζόμενοι ὄπα λειριόεσσαν ἱεῖσιν.

And a plate-fish was leading them all, though it was a speaking one,
and sweet-voiced at that! In his writings, he matches the cicadas,
pouring out their lily song from the tree of Academus.
Timon of Phlius fr. 30 Di Marco
Despite some textual complications, [87] these lines, as elsewhere in Timon’s verse, make a pun out of Plato’s name, given that the word platista(k/t)tos calls to mind the name Plato. [88] The pun, moreover, is extended well into the third line. The mention of the cicadas is no doubt an allusion to the Phaedrus (and to Iliad 3.150–152). [89] At a key point in the dialogue, the cicadas singing from the plane-tree become the very subject of Plato’s myth, which equates their beautiful song with the voice of philosophy. [90] At the same time, Plato’s Academy was famous for its trees, and planes were a celebrated feature of its landscape. [91] We have, therefore, an implicit joke revolving around the word platanos, plane-tree, with its pun on Platon and platista(k/t)tos. Thus, the plane-tree stands for the Phaedrus and, more generally, for Plato’s writings. This is confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt by other authors, such as Philitas, Cicero, Petronius, and Aristaenetus, who unhesitatingly associate Plato with the plane-tree of the Phaedrus. [92]
Was Plato himself punning on his own name? This is certainly possible, since “Plato” was soon interpreted as a nickname related to the adjective platys, from which the word platanos, plane-tree, was also derived. [93] Some scholars have put forward convincing arguments to this effect, not only in relation to the Phaedrus, but also to other dialogues. [94] Whatever the case may be, if this had been the perception of ancient readers, many of whom were persuaded that the Phaedrus was Plato’s “first” dialogue, it would have been fully justified by a number of details. [95] This is not the place for a full discussion of this fascinating subject, which would have to take into account possible references to other dialogues. [96] It should at least be noted, however, that the Socrates of the Phaedrus is invested, quite unusually, with a kind of “authorial aura,” as if he were Plato himself. At least six points are worth mentioning: first, Socrates compares himself to Plato’s rival Isocrates; [97] second, he worships a mouseion, which calls to mind Plato’s Academy and its mouseion; [98] third, he criticizes writing, as Plato does in his own voice in the Seventh Letter; [99] fourth, he apparently alludes to Plato’s friend and beloved Dion; [100] fifth, he compares the philosopher to a caged bird, which closely recalls an image Plato used of himself; [101] sixth, and possibly most important, he describes philosophy as both an oral and a written enterprise, a description that fits Plato, but is totally inappropriate for someone like Socrates, who never wrote anything. [102] These points, all together, would have given Plato’s readers the impression that Plato was coming very close to breaking the dramatic illusion and revealing his authorial identity.
So much for the Phaedrus’ self-referential quality. I shall now deal with the theme of inspiration, which, given that Plato is after all the author of the Phaedrus, is wholly consistent with its “authorial aura.” In the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates deliver his famous palinode, whereby he seems to rehabilitate divine madness over and against mere tekhnê. Madness can take various forms: divination, purification, poetry, love. [103] Although his primary focus is eros, Socrates rehabilitates them all. It should also be noted that the boundaries between the four forms are rather blurred. After all, Socrates’ palinode is an offer to Eros, even though it takes the form of a “hymn” or “myth” ostensibly divining supernatural realities and purifying Socrates of his sins against the Gods. [104] These four instances of madness, moreover, are well conveyed by Socrates’ suggestion that the “divine landscape” (theion topon) is making him equally “divine” (theion) and prone to “nympholepsy,” an idea that is rendered through a strange and rare word (nympholêptos), but which is later expressed in plainer language. Socrates now feels “enthusiastic,” completely at the mercy of the nymphs, and the dialogue concludes with Socrates’ celebrated prayer to “Pan and all you gods of this place.” [105]
The earliest instance we have of someone described as nympholêptos is from a late fifth-century graffito from a cave sacred to Pan and the nymphs on the slopes of mount Hymettos. [106] The present study does not allow for a full discussion of the question, but nympholepsy, in the light of some recent studies, may be seen as both a literal experience (being snatched by the nymphs) and, more frequently, as a particular form of divine possession resulting in a “heightened fluency and awareness, a concentration of faculties, an elevation of expression, and ultimately the reorganization of personality into a new identity and a new social role.” [107] As such, it is explicitly linked with practices of divination and purification, as expressed through the medium of lofty poetry or as in erotically charged contexts. This takes us back to the Phaedrus’ four kinds of madness.
Socrates’ palinode is, then, a multifaceted, multilayered text that reflects the complexity of its cultural background. Unsurprisingly, it is nigh impossible to pin down its topic by way of a straightforward definition, and the same is true of the entire dialogue. More than any other Platonic work, the Phaedrus defies definition, [108] which is why Derrida was so fond of it, since it provided him with such fertile ground for his deconstructive exercises. [109] Crucial questions remain open: What is the Phaedrus about? Is it about love, or rhetoric? Or maybe both? But then what is the relationship between the two? Ever since the scathing remarks of Norden, who found the Phaedrus wholly deficient in clarity and force, [110] the unity of the dialogue has been the subject of endless interest and discussion. This, in turn, has led scholars to compare modern and ancient notions of unity. [111] Here is not the place to resume the debate. [112] Suffice it to say that, once more, the problem would benefit more from a circular than a linear approach. By the end of the dialogue we learn that true love inspires true rhetoric, and that true rhetoric is achieved only when addressed to a beloved soul. Thus, true rhetoric is erotic and true eros is rhetorical, in what would seem to be a full circle. Apparently, the Phaedrus is carefully constructed so as to stimulate lateral thinking by means of an extraordinarily dense textuality, as if its intention were to defy the inevitable linearity of writing and thus provide an internal antidote to Socrates’ devastating critique of written speech within the Phaedrus itself. Few would doubt that such density is the result of a quintessentially poetic technique, which results in hardly any meaning being simple or univocal.
Poetic density, then, is a crucial factor in the dialogue. But to what extent is Plato engaging with poetry? Here is a crucial question that can tell us much about how Plato perceived his own work and, ultimately, about his deepest concerns as a writer and philosopher eager to reform society. According to Andrea Nightingale, the Phaedrus is quite exceptional among Plato’s dialogues in that “it abandons the notion that traditional genres of poetry and rhetoric are inherently ‘unphilosophical.’ ” [113] On the one hand, Plato “actively” attacks Lysias: [114] he “imposes his will upon an alien genre,” so that he “is the active party,” the alien text being “the passive victim.” [115] Thus, Lysias’ speech is delivered in full by Phaedrus only to be dismantled by Socrates. [116] On the other hand, however, Nightingale argues that elsewhere in the Phaedrus Plato “assumes a more passive stance, thus allowing the alien genre to play an active and relatively autonomous role in his text.” [117] Nightingale refers to such an attitude as a sort of “alliance” or “conspiracy,” and focuses on two important instances: the tragic story of Palamedes which provides the background to Socrates’ narration of the invention of writing, and lyric poetry as a crucial, positive element in Socrates’ palinode. As for the latter, Socrates is quite literally dealing with sources, since his whole speech is inspired by both the divine landscape and by the “streams” (namata) provided by earlier poets, who, as he says, fill his breast “like a vessel.” [118] Socrates mentions Sappho, Anacreon, Stesichorus, and Ibycus, and quotes them often, more or less explicitly, besides other sources. [119]
Except for the occasional hint of irony, Plato “respects and preserves” the voice of lyric poetry: “it is precisely by leaving the genre of love poetry—with its discourse of madness, invasion, and the destruction of the boundaries of the psyche—more or less intact that Plato is able to create one of the most extraordinary paradoxes in his entire corpus: the notion that reason and madness, at a certain level, converge.” [120] The result is a kind of philosophical discourse, which Nightingale labels as “authentic” since it is both inspired and erotic: it is inspired, though the inspiration is not divorced from rational thought; and it is erotic, but only insofar as it lovingly addresses one particular soul (in this case Phaedrus’) with the aim of triggering from within the recollection of the Forms and the creation of new speeches. [121] This is of course the background for Plato’s celebrated image of “writing in the soul”: [122] authentic logoi “enter into another person’s soul as seeds; the philosopher does not hand over knowledge that is ready-made … since knowledge can only be achieved if the student rears up the seeds himself.” [123] Ultimately, however, Nightingale concludes that “Plato does not offer a definition or even a description of philosophic discourse,” [124] so that the best we can do is single out its ingredients (both “active” and “passive”) and focus on the philosopher instead.
Apart from her skeptical conclusion, I fully endorse Nightingale’s view. Moreover, similar conclusions with regard to Plato’s ultimate endorsement of (some) poetry have been drawn recently by scholars with very different approaches and agendas, ranging from the most theoretical to the most philological. [125] This is an encouraging indication that they are probably right, and my own interpretation will, therefore, take these conclusions as its premise. Some of the issues Nightingale raises will occasionally make their appearance in the four chapters that follow. For the most part, however, we shall be traversing uncharted territory. I shall argue that the Phaedrus, when interpreted against its cultural background, yields precisely what Nightingale found to be lacking in the dialogue: a description of philosophical discourse and its role in society, conveyed through a number of metaliterary hints and undertones that were probably as obvious to Plato’s original public as they are hard to pin down for modern readers. Adjusting our eyes and ears to such tenuous clues will, needless to say, require some walking on the banks of the Ilissus.


[ back ] 1. As a result, skeptical readings have appeared, arguing that the problem allows for no single solution (cf. Long 2008).
[ back ] 2. For a good introduction to the problem, see e.g. Michelini 2003 and Ford 2008. A learned and very informative discussion of the origins of Socratic dialogue can be found in Charalabopoulos 2012:32–43.
[ back ] 3. In the ambitious Why Plato Wrote, D. Allen argues that Plato was “the western world’s first think tank activist and its first message man” (Allen 2010:4), and that writing, as opposed to Socrates’ oral philosophy, was part of his political mission. The book is clever and interesting, but there is, of course, nothing particularly original about its professedly revolutionary thesis. The very same general idea is found, say, as early as in Dicaearchus as quoted by Philodemus of Gadara (see below) and fully corresponds to Friedrich Nietzsche’s interpretation of Plato, who in 1871 described Plato “als agitatorischen Politiker, der die ganze Welt aus den Angeln heben will und unter anderem auch zu diesem Zweck Schrifsteller ist … er schreibt, um seine akademischen Gefährten zu bestäerken im Kampfe” (Nietzsche 1995:9). Gaiser 1984 and 2004 (see below), as well as Cerri 1991 (and 2008, an updated version with a different title), and Hadot 2005 make a similar case for Plato’s “sociological” approach.
[ back ] 4. Narcy 2007 rightly notes that scholars hardly ever ask the question “Che cosa è un dialogo socratico?”
[ back ] 5. E.g. Moors 1978, Trabattoni 1994, Rowe 2007, Werner 2012 (which is a penetrating study of the Phaedrus). Predictably, the growing tide of studies on emotions is affecting this aspect of Platonic scholarship as well: see Henderson Collins II on dialogues as “prompts for participation” (2012, with further bibliography). Educating people can also be seen as part of Plato’s agenda: see Scott 2000.
[ back ] 6. For such a position, see e.g. Bowen 1988. “Platonism,” i.e. the effort to extract a Platonic “system” from the dialogues, is to a great extent the result of two momentous events: the discontinuation of the Academy after Sulla’s sack of Athens and the movement to oppose the skeptical interpretation of Plato. See Ferrari 2012.
[ back ] 7. See Segoloni 2012.
[ back ] 8. For a painstaking discussion of Albinus’ text against the background of other ancient treatments of dialogue as a genre, see Nuesser 1991. As Ford 2008 suggests, Albinus “was a well-trained and orthodox Platonist, and so some of the elements of the definition he proposes may date from earlier times and illuminate practices of the fourth century BCE” (34).
[ back ] 9. Section 1 in Hermann’s 1853 edition of Plato puts the question, “what is dialogue?” Section 2 explores the analogy with the theater.
[ back ] 10. Fr. 11.17 W2.
[ back ] 11. See e.g. Saïd 2007.
[ back ] 12. Examples of all these features are well known. Some of them are discussed in the next chapters. Recent scholarly trends pay much attention to muthos against logos: cf. e.g. Lincoln 1997 and Fowler 2011 (with interesting observations on Plato’s ambivalent position). As for the Phaedrus in particular, I refer the reader to the important book by D. Werner (2012, cf. in particular 19–42 for the redemption of myth as against logos). Werner provides a penetrating discussion of myth in the Phaedrus, with far-reaching implications for the whole corpus.
[ back ] 13. Sophists, too, are surely part of the picture. According to Corradi 2011, Protagoras’ ἄνθρωπος-μέτρον tenet directly challenges the traditional notion of the Muses bestowing on poets their gifts, resulting in Solon’s ἱμερτῆς σοφίης μέτρον (1.51–52 W2).
[ back ] 14. To the surprise of us moderns, the same is true of the figurative arts, which in archaic and classical Greece were not associated with the Muses. After all, painters and sculptors based their work on visible models, and they had no need for divine inspiration when they had to reproduce a beautiful body or to render in visual form the myths of the gods and the heroes. As Herodotus famously says, “Homer and Hesiod shaped the Greek pantheon (θεογονίας): they gave the gods their epithets, they allotted them their several offices and occupations, and described their forms” (2.53). Even when, in Hellenistic times, the Muses were given individual and specific functions as well as a codified iconography (cf. Cohon 1991–1992), each of them came to preside over specific literary genres, not visual arts.
[ back ] 15. Cf. Barfield 2011:32. In fact, the relationship between pre-Socratic philosophy and Muse-inspired poetry is a multifaceted phenomenon, giving rise to multiple and conflicting tendencies. See Sassi 2009, particularly chapter 5. As for Plato’s prose, Butti de Lima rightly observes that it may be difficult to pin down its musical nature, “ma se la filosofia si rappresenta come tale, nella sua armonia, è perché deve distinguersi dalla prosa della città” (de Lima 2012:42).
[ back ] 16. Heraclides Ponticus 87–88 Wehrli. Scholars hotly debate whether this testimony can be trusted. For two opposing views, see e.g. Burkert 1960 and Joly 1970.
[ back ] 17. See Boyancé 1937:233–247.
[ back ] 18. See Hardie 2013.
[ back ] 19. For a lucid account, cf. Sassi 2009:144–150.
[ back ] 20. Cf. Nonvel Pieri 2002:78–80.
[ back ] 21. 242c–d. As Adomenas 2006 points out: “The repeated reference to the mythical mode of communication shows that it applies not only to the pluralists, but likewise to the Eleatics and Heraclitus with Empedocles. Therefore, the mythical, or mythically-poetical way of communication is imputed to all ‘schools’ of the pre-Socratic philosophy” (332).
[ back ] 22. This point is nicely summarized by Büttner 2000, who presents the evidence on the Academy’s cult of the Muses and concludes that “Platon wende sich gegen eine sophistische Position, die den Menschen für … autark gegenüber den Göttern hält” (268). For an abridged English version of Büttner’s arguments, see Büttner 2011. The most recent papyrological and archaeological data regarding the Academy’s cult of the Muses are usefully collected and discussed in Caruso 2013:38–42. In the light of the new data, it must be concluded that the skepticism expressed by John Lynch (1972), who famously entered in polemic with Wilamowitz (1881) by arguing that the Academy was a wholly secular institution, was ultimately unfounded. “La centralità delle Muse sembra un dato di fatto” (Caruso 2013:41).
[ back ] 23. Intriguingly, in late antiquity the allegorical interpretation of Plato ended up overlapping with that of Homer. See Lamberton 1992 and Heath 2013 (Chapter 5, “The Marriage of Homer and Plato”).
[ back ] 24. I shall often return to this point in the course of the current book, and especially in the Conclusion.
[ back ] 25. This tradition is thoroughly explored by Charalabopoulos 2012, ch. 4.
[ back ] 26. The relevant anecdotes are collected by Riginos 1976.
[ back ] 27. Perhaps other points may be equally relevant, such as the recent much discussed thesis of Kennedy 2011, who thinks that Plato’s dialogues were written according to a musical structure founded on Pythagorean doctrines. I am not in a position to assess the merits of Kennedy’s ambitious theory.
[ back ] 28. On this second and less obvious point see e.g. Sassi 2009:54–60, and the introduction in Guastini 2010. Poetry is seen as a vivid digest of endoxa, and as such it plays a crucially dialectical role in any practical argument. As a consequence, most of the issues discussed in Aristotle’s ethical, rhetorical, and political works can hardly be conceived of outside the frame of poetry. As Halliwell 2000 puts it: “even Aristotle, who keeps aloof from the assumption that philosophical contentions stand in need of poetic support, cites and quotes poetry regularly in his own writings in ways which indicate the influence on him of a prevailing mentality that regarded poets and philosophers as pursuers, up to a point at least, of a common wisdom” (94).
[ back ] 29. For a balanced judgment, complete with the relevant parallels and further literature, cf. Halliwell 2011b:122–132.
[ back ] 30. The evidence for this exceptional honor is discussed by Dover 1993:73–75.
[ back ] 31. Frogs 1491–1495. The loss of music is famously put down to Socrates’ influence, which probably prompted Plato’s emphasis on the “musical” quality of philosophical discourse. Cf. my Conclusion to this volume.
[ back ] 32. Lycurgus Against Leocrates 101 (Ταῦτα ὦ ἄνδρες τοὺς πατέρας ὑμῶν ἐπαίδευε).
[ back ] 33. Apology 22a–c and Laws 701a. In fact, in the latter passage the Athenian refers to “theatrocracy” with regard to music, but its implications, as is clear from what follows, affect the whole polis and its values.
[ back ] 34. Cf. Protagoras 316d–e and Allen 2010:34–35. For sophists as part of a larger wisdom tradition, see in general Tell 2011.
[ back ] 35. Undoubtedly, the myth of Er “displaces the conceptualization of the afterlife that Cephalus had first offered” and “adheres to the principles of poetic composition articulated in Books 3 and 4.” (Allen 2010:35). Even more importantly, I should add that the myth is clearly conceptualized as a morally acceptable alternative to Homer’s Nekyia, which is fiercely criticized in the first part of the Republic. For this and other “poetic” strategies in the Republic and Timaeus-Critias, see Nagy 2002 and Capra 2010a, with further bibliography.
[ back ] 36. Allen 2010:77.
[ back ] 37. See e.g. Nehamas 1990.
[ back ] 38. Ford 2008:42. Ford singles out ethopoiia as the hallmark of dialogue as opposed to rhetoric (a solution which is not incompatible with my own).
[ back ] 39. In many ways, Plato aims at restoring traditional music (see e.g. Rocconi 2012), and the musical education he puts forth in the Laws is based on very traditional reality, with a preference for Crete and Sparta (Calame 1997:222–223).
[ back ] 40. Burnyeat 1999:245. Burnyeat argues that poetry and mimêsis are meant to be pervasive in Plato’s ideal city.
[ back ] 41. 1265a12–14.
[ back ] 42. Poetics 1447a28–1447b14.
[ back ] 43. In Diogenes Laertius 3.37.
[ back ] 44. Of recent, interesting attempts have been made at reading Plato’s dialogues in the light of their dramatic dates, that is, in sequence. Zuckert 2009 has come up with a comprehensive interpretation along these lines. Stella 2006 also construes (some of) Plato’s dialogues as chapters of a philosophical novel.
[ back ] 45. I am in accord with the vast majority of critics in accepting the authenticity of Letters 6, 7, and 8. See e.g. the unsurpassed monograph by Giorgio Pasquali (1938) and, more recently, Isnardi Parente 2002.
[ back ] 46. Letter 7.341a–e. (It is, of course, the introduction of the so-called philosophical digression.)
[ back ] 47. To be sure, some scholars do read Plato’s dialogues purely as drama: Arieti 1992 is an extreme and well-known example. However, it should be kept in mind that tragedies deal with the words and deeds of heroes, whereas the dialogues have a self-referential quality that is lacking in drama: they consist, in fact, of people engaged in dialogue, that is, philosophical works involving philosophical characters. On the contrary, only occasionally, and then only in comedies, do playwrights include playwrights among their characters. Blondell 2002 makes much of this interesting distinction in her Chapter 2. More recent discussion includes Rossetti 2008 and Vassallo 2012, who emphasize, to different degrees, the discontinuity between the dialogue and drama.
[ back ] 48. Needless to say, other aspects of Plato’s dialogues point to tragedy. As Clay 2000 remarks, “Socrates is a tragic figure in the two senses of the word now familiar: Socrates offered Plato a serious and noble object of representation, a human who contains within his satyr’s exterior ‘images of divinity’; and, as Plato came to adopt the irony of the tragic poet, Socrates emerged as a character whose full career was well known to Plato’s audience. Because Plato invested his dialogues in historical settings and because he composed his dialogues after the death of Socrates, the dialogues also resemble Attic tragedies” (143).
[ back ] 49. Cf. Euripides Electra 524–537 and Phoenician Women 734–753. Some scholars do not agree with this interpretation (e.g. Ieranò 2006 agrees that the latter passage rests on Aeschylus’ subtext, but favors a Homeric subtext in the case of the former). However, the general principle seems to be a long-established and widely accepted one.
[ back ] 50. Halliwell 2011a:241–242. The references to “the greatest music” and “the finest and best tragedy” are to Phaedo 61a, Phaedrus 248d and 259d, and Laws 817b.
[ back ] 51. This does not detract from the overall originality of Halliwell’s analysis, which focuses on the Republic and thus covers an area that Gaiser merely hints at.
[ back ] 52. Gaiser 1984 and 1959, respectively. A German version of Gaiser 1984 is integrated into Gaiser 2004 (Platon als philosophischer Schrifsteller, pp. 3–72).
[ back ] 53. The book received a number of substantial reviews by distinguished Platonists such as Joachim Dalfen, Michael Erler, and Gabriele Giannantoni (Dalfen 1987, Erler 1987b, Giannantoni 1985) but, alarmingly, its English reception was limited to a very brief and ultimately uninformative notice by Julia Annas. Though not unsympathetic, her notice is seriously misleading, as she claims that the book “restate[s] in a clear and unencumbered way G’s basic approach to the Plato of the dialogues” (Annas 1985:401). This is simply not true: compared to previous scholarship (including Gaiser’s own earlier work), the book contains important new insights, and it is a pity that Annas fails to mention, let alone discuss them. Gaiser 1959, likewise, received no reviews in English, which clearly hindered its worldwide reception. Finally, no English review of Gaiser 2004 discusses Gaiser’s work on “self-consciousness,” i.e. Platon als philosophischer Schrifsteller, 3–72.
[ back ] 54. Nikulin 2012 is a recent attempt to bring “the other Plato” to the fore of Anglo-American scholarship.
[ back ] 55. This is not to say, of course, that Gaiser did not endorse it (after all, he tried hard to reconstruct it, cf. Gaiser 1968). At least to a certain extent, the same is true for the work of Thomas Szlezák, who is in many ways Gaiser’s heir and was the editor of Gaiser’s collected works (Gaiser 2004). Both Szlezák 1985 (an unmatched examination of Plato’s Aussparungstellen in the early and middle dialogues) and Szlezák 1991 (an excellent introduction to the interpretation of Plato’s writings) endorse and promote the unwritten doctrines hypothesis. But Szlezák’s fresh and penetrating examination of the dialogues is of extreme interest to the “unaffiliated” as well, and is largely compatible with the alternative idea that philosophy, in the eyes of Plato, is first and foremost a “dialogical” affair (cf. Trabattoni 1994, who takes advantage of both Gaiser’s and Szlezák’s readings only to argue argue that the superiority of oral dialogue over fixed speech—whether written or spoken—has nothing to do with the allegedly secret doctrines advocated by the “Tübingen school”).
[ back ] 56. Gonzalez 1998:ix.
[ back ] 57. Notably Themistius Speech 23.395c–d and Xenophon Memorabilia 1.4.1. Cf. Plato Cleitophon 408c–409a (Gaiser 1984:41–42). Another interesting piece of information is a fragment of the middle comedy playwright Ophelion, where reference is made to a βιβλίον Πλάτωνος in what seems to be an everyday context (3 PCG), possibly poking fun at the ψυχρότης of Plato’s writings (as Gaiser 1974 convincingly suggests). Surprisingly, H. Thesleff, in a paper devoted to “Plato and his Public,” resorts to this fragment in an argument designed to argue that Plato “was very much in favor of ‘narrowcasting’ instead of broadcasting” (Thesleff 2009:549).
[ back ] 58. See Chapter 2 in this volume.
[ back ] 59. Watts 2007:108 (on Epicrates fr. 5 PCG). Once again, this does not require that we endorse the “unwritten doctrines” hypothesis. Rather, the sources Gaiser discusses, together with the many problems that arise from a reading of the dialogues, “convey the belief that contact with the author of these dialogues in the Academy would supply whatever was found wanting in his written dialogues” (Clay 2000:xi).
[ back ] 60. It is through Gaiser’s own “genial conjectures and supplements,” as Jonathan Barnes puts it, that the text is now, to a great extent, “luminously clear and intelligible” (Barnes 1989:142). For Gaiser’s contribution, see Gaiser 1983 and 1988. By and large, Dorandi’s edition (1991) espouses Gaiser’s reconstructions, though he differs on a number of points that are irrelevant to my present discussion. Very recently, Del Mastro 2012 has published a hitherto unidentified fragment of Philodemus’ work, from the same papyrus and also from the life of Plato. Among other things, Plato is described as a man of peace.
[ back ] 61. As Gaiser 1983 notes, Dicaearchus is a reliable source. He had access to firsthand information and had no reason to distort the facts.
[ back ] 62. According to Barnes 1989: “The construe is surely wrong. First, Dicaearchus is not talking about Plato’s intentions at all: he is talking about the effects of the dialogues. He may have thought that Plato intended his dialogues to have a protreptic force; but he does not say so. Secondly, and more importantly, Dicaearchus does not state or imply that Plato’s sole intention in writing the dialogues was protreptic” (147). Barnes’s objections are, in my view, of limited relevance. First, Dicaearchus uses a middle form (προετρέψατο) in a sentence of which Plato (and not the dialogues) is the subject: this is sound evidence that Dicaearchus is clearly highlighting Plato’s intentions. This also affects Barnes’s otherwise convincing second point. For even if Dicaearchus’ Plato had other goals, the emphasis is clearly on “protreptic force.” This is all the more evident in the light of what follows, as Dicaearchus quickly moves on to life at the Academy: the implication seems to be that those who were exposed to the protreptic force of the dialogues opted for philosophy as a way of life and attended the Academy (note that this is precisely what Themistius Speech 23.395c–d maintains).
[ back ] 63. This is not to deny the existence of “many intertextual connections, both linguistic and intellectual, that link the dialogues into a loosely built but mutually supportive network” (Michelini 2003:4).
[ back ] 64. Clay 2000:x.
[ back ] 65. This celebrated quotation, which in full reads “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” is taken from Whitehead 1929 (Part II, Chapter 1, Section 1).
[ back ] 66. The few exceptions are either elusive (the Timaeus does not evoke the Republic proper, but a number of points that have a very loose and even contradictory relation with the Republic as we know it) or apparent, in that they create a link between two dialogues that are in fact one and the same work built in the form of a diptych (Timaeus-Critias; Sophist-Politicus). Cf. e.g. Haslam 1976.
[ back ] 67. As for the former (cf. e.g. Charmides 175a–176b; Menexenus 80a–b; Phaedo 77e–78a; Theaetetus 149c–d and 157c; Crito 54d; Symposium 215c–e; Republic 608a), Gaiser builds on the work of Marignac 1951 and Belfiore 1980. His argument is further developed, with the Charmides as their particular focus, by Erler 1987a:332–340 and Tulli 1996. The latter aptly points out the nuances, both literary and medical, of the term epôidê in this dialogue. On this point, Gaiser, like most scholars, interprets Sophist 230b–e as a description of the katharsis induced by Socratic elenchus.
[ back ] 68. Belfiore 1980:135.
[ back ] 69. Vlastos 1991:45–81 (Chapter 2, “Socrates contra Socrates in Plato”). Vlastos’s book continues to fuel discussion, often resulting in opposite, and equally radical reconstructions (cf. e.g. the strongly unitarian interpretation provided by Peterson 2011).
[ back ] 70. For instance, one could object that the boundaries are much more blurred than Vlastos would have them: sometimes the two Socrateses appear in one and the same dialogue, and the method of one can be seen to be complementary to, rather than incompatible with, the other. One thinks of the Symposium for example in which Socrates both refutes (i.e. purifies) and instructs (i.e. enchants) Agathon and Alcibiades.
[ back ] 71. As Belfiore notes, elenchus is also an emotional procedure, which one could argue is related to both thumos and reason (Belfiore 1980:132). Among other passages, Sophist 229b–230e is discussed in connection with Republic 440b and Laws 646e–650b.
[ back ] 72. With “followed by,” I mean that “purification” is a preliminary stage to “incantation.” From another point of view, however, “incantation” came first, since Plato was fully aware that “purification,” in the Socratic sense, was a recent invention, as opposed to more traditional forms of paideia that are largely based on incantation.
[ back ] 73. In her 2010 discussion of Plato’s Republic, Allen rightly observes that “There are, on the one hand, shadows or eidôla, which are what poets produce. Socrates repudiates these. But there are also useful and valuable images, which he endorses. Socrates refers to the latter with terms like: theoretical models (paradeigma logôi, 472c), paradigms (paradeigmata, 361b, 472c), types (tupos, 443c), images (eikones, 487e, 488a, 588a, 588b–c), paintings (zôigraphiai, 472d, 488a, 501a–b), sculptures (andriantopoioi, 540c, also 420c–d), patterns after the divine pattern (paradeigmata en ouranôi, 592b), and diagrams (diagrammata 529d–e)” (Allen 2010:29; cf. also Appendix 1, 148–153). Allen’s well-argued thesis is that “Socrates offers a defense of the kinds of images or word-pictures he himself makes … this distinction between epistemologically worthy and epistemologically unworthy symbols (and particularly images), combined with his account of their social and psychological importance, provides the basis for an explanation of why philosophers may and should write” (Allen 2010:30).
[ back ] 74. Gaiser himself calls them “autotestimonianze.” Sharp 2008 expresses a similar idea through the phrase “inside views,” although his main focus is Socrates rather than Plato.
[ back ] 75. Halliwell 2011b:184–207. On Socrates’ reluctance to abandon poetry (607e–608b), cf. Brancacci 2012.
[ back ] 76. Nightingale 1995:73. The Gorgias also voices Socrates’ criticism of tragedy as flattery (502b–503b). But, as Trivigno 2011 has argued, this should be understood in relative terms, since the Antiope might have been introduced as an example of good tragedy.
[ back ] 77. “Dunque Callicle, nobile, convinto erede di Zeto, nel mettere fra le mani di Socrate la lira di Anfione, offre una conferma del rapporto fra filosofia e poesia, centrale nelle opere di Platone già nella prima fase. La vita speculativa che respinge non è che la forma nuova di una vita nel segno della poesia” (Tulli 2007b:76). A previous article (Tulli 1996) reads the Charmides along similar lines.
[ back ] 78. See Nagy 2002 and Regali 2012:12–43.
[ back ] 79. See Capra 2010a and Regali 2012:71–78.
[ back ] 80. Lysis 221d. The way the previous discussion is referred to (ὕθλος τις ἦν, ὥσπερ ποίημα κρόνιον, according to the text established by Martinelli Tempesta 2003a) is designed to sound like a reply to Ctesippus’ scathing criticism of poetry (cf. 205c κρονικώτερα). Cf. Capra 2004. The case of the Lysis is especially significant in that it shows how the pattern is discernible in purely elenchic and “early” dialogues too, thus countering a possible objection that Gaiser himself preemptively raises. A weaker version of Gaiser’s own argument suggests that Plato’s construing of the dialogues as a form of poetry might have been a later development and is, therefore, relevant only for the mature/non-elenchic dialogues. Dalfen 1974 has espoused this weaker version (cf. also Clay 2000:147, on the Laws: “Plato is less guarded here than he had been earlier in his career. He characterizes his dialogues as a new form of tragedy”).
[ back ] 81. For a detailed, up-to-date reconstruction of the landscape (including the banks of the Ilissus and its relevant cults), see Greco 2011:476–494, whose new multi-volume topography of Athens is finally superseding Travlos 1971.
[ back ] 82. Motte 1963:470.
[ back ] 83. Gottfried 1993.
[ back ] 84. Plutarch Dialogue on Love 749a.
[ back ] 85. The Phaedrus and its landscape take center stage in R. Hunter’s perceptive study of the literary reception of Plato’s dialogues in ancient times (Hunter 2012). Needless to say, there are innumerable discussions of Plato’s influential locus amoenus and its literary precedents. For a good introduction, see e.g. Thesleff 1981. On the actual topography, which seems to be accurate as well as meaningful, see e.g. Nelson 2000.
[ back ] 86. πᾶσα ἡ περὶ τὴν πλάτανον διατριβὴ τὴν ἀμφιλαφῆ τε καὶ ὑψηλήν (Themistius To Constantine the Emperor 32b–c).
[ back ] 87. See Clayman 2009:108, with further bibliography.
[ back ] 88. Cf. fr. 19 and 20 Di Marco. A similar pun on a “Platonic” fish is found in Lucian Fisherman 49. Lucian probably had Timon in mind (cf. Clayman 2009:107).
[ back ] 89. Cf. Di Marco 1989 ad loc.
[ back ] 90. See Chapter 3 in the current volume.
[ back ] 91. See Pliny Natural History 12.9 and cf. Aristophanes Clouds 1005–1008, as well as Plutarch Life of Cimon 13.7, with Arrigoni 1969–1970:359. (Arrigoni discusses comparative evidence and concludes that the trees planted by Cimon in the Academy were most certainly planes.) Athena’s olive-trees (μορίαι), too, were integral to the Academy’s landscape from an earlier time. Besides Clouds 1005–1008, cf. Pausanias 1.30.2 and Anaxandrides fr. 20 PCG (which, however, simply suggests that Plato was fond of olives, cf. Diogenes Laertius 6.25). A famous mosaic from Torre Annunziata (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Inv. Nr. 124545), which possibly represents Platon and his followers in the Academy, includes a tree which is more likely to be an olive-tree than a plane-tree, although the latter interpretation has also been put forward. Cf. Gaiser 1980:65, who opts for an olive-tree on iconographic and chromatic grounds.
[ back ] 92. See e.g. Görler 1988, Hardie 1997, Repath 2010, González Rendón 2010, and Capra 2013.
[ back ] 93. For the nickname Platon, which is said to have replaced his real name, Aristocles, cf. Diogenes Laertius 3.4 with Swift Riginos 1976:35–38.
[ back ] 94. Zaslavsky 1981 argues that the mention of the plane-tree in the Phaedrus is meant to be a pun on Plato’s (nick)name. Similar puns, especially in the Republic, are the subject of de Boo 2001.
[ back ] 95. On the Phaedrus as Plato’s earliest dialogue, cf. Diogenes Laertius 3.38. Schleiermacher famously shared this view and construed the Phaedrus as a kind of introduction to the dialogues (cf. Lafrance 1992).
[ back ] 96. Kahn 1996 provides a rich list and concludes as follows: “I doubt whether there is any other dialogue that shows a comparable density of self-referential reminiscences” (374).
[ back ] 97. Born in 436 BCE, Isocrates was Plato’s principal rival on the Athenian educational scene. The reference to him in the Phaedrus (278e) is the only time he is explicitly mentioned in the entire Platonic corpus, and for Plato’s original readers it probably amounted to a quasi-anachronism, one that “removes” them “from the dramatic frame of the dialogue (the fifth century [BCE]) and repositions them back in the actual context of the day (the fourth century [BCE])” (Werner 2012:227). The Phaedrus certainly evokes Isocrates’ fourth-century works. Thus, Plato’s Athens, and the rivalry between the Academy and Isocrates’ school, make their presence felt in some way in the fifth-century setting of the dialogue (ca. 416–410 BCE). As Michelini 2003 notes: “Isocrates is, aside from a few Socratics who appear as characters in the dialogues, the only contemporary mentioned by name in any Platonic dialogue” (5).
[ back ] 98. Cf. 278b. On the Academy’s mouseion, cf. Chapter 4 in the current volume.
[ back ] 99. The Phaedrus is the only dialogue in the entire corpus where we find clear and sustained criticism of writing. Fixed discourse is inadequate to expressing the full potential of philosophy, and writings always risk ending up in the wrong hands. Even though the terms of the relationship are debatable (and debated: cf. e.g. Gill 1992), no other dialogue resonates so closely with what Plato states in his own voice in Letter 7: philosophy as such cannot be written, and Plato expresses his disappointment that allegedly “Platonic” writings might have been circulated beyond his control (cf. 341b–e and 344a–e).
[ back ] 100. At 250b, Socrates recalls the moment “when with a happy company they saw a blessed sight before them—ourselves (ἡμεῖς) following with Zeus, others with different gods—and were celebrated.” Ancient and modern commentators have taken this striking, emphatic switch to the first person plural as a self-reference on Plato’s part (cf. e.g. Hermias p. 186.3–4 Lucarini-Moreshini and de Vries 1969 ad loc.). This impression is reinforced by the way Socrates, a few pages later, expands the point (252e): “And so those who belong to Zeus seek that the one they love should be someone like Zeus” (Διὸς δῖόν τινα εἶναι ζητοῦσι). Wilamowitz 1920:537 suggested that this must be a kind of señal, pointing to Plato’s beloved Dion. The point is further developed by Nussbaum 1986:229, who notes that Dion’s name resonates with Phaedrus’, since “both mean ‘brilliant’ or ‘sparkling.’ ” At first this may seem very speculative, but there is another important passage to be taken into account. At Timaeus 41a Plato borrows a very similar pun on Zeus’ name from Hesiod (Works and Days 2), as Regali 2010 has shown. It may be worth mentioning that the famous epigram to Dion (Palatine Anthology 7.99), quite possibly the only authentic one among those ascribed to Plato (see Bowra 1938 and Ludwig 1963), refers to Plato’s madness as a result of his longing for Dion.
[ back ] 101. Cf. Phaedrus 249e, προθυμούμενος ἀναπτέσθαιὄρνιθος δίκην βλέπων ἄνω). An extraordinarily close parallel is provided by a passage from Letter 7, in which Plato describes his captivity in Syracuse in an unusually emotional tone (cf. Brisson 1993:45): he is like a caged bird, gazing out and yearning to fly away (348a, ἐγὼ μὲν βλέπων ἔξω; καθάπερ ὄρνις ποθῶν ποθὲν ἀναπτέσθαι). Remarkably, in the Phaedo Socrates compares himself, as a servant of Apollo, to the god’s dying swans (84e–85b), and the association between Plato and Apollo’s birds was later to become proverbial (cf. Swift Riginos 1976:9–32).
[ back ] 102. Cf. 278b–e. I develop this point in Chapter 4 and in the Conclusion.
[ back ] 103. Cf. 244a–245c, where Socrates discusses mantikê, telestikê, and poiêsis and hints at love, the fourth kind of madness that is amply discussed in the following pages. Telestikê is described only briefly and is not mentioned specifically until much later in the dialogue (249d).
[ back ] 104. Cf. e.g. 247c, 257a–b, 262d.
[ back ] 105. 279b. For nympholepsy, cf. 238c–d with 241e. Also cf. Carter 1967, who argues that “Plato paints a portrait of Socrates as possessing in himself all four types of divine madness” (118).
[ back ] 106. See Schörner and Rupprecht Goette 2004 for a full discussion of the relevant material and Chapter 2 of Pache 2011 for a more concise presentation.
[ back ] 107. Connor 1988:58. On nympholepsy, see also Pache 2011. Calasso 2005 provides an illuminating, if idiosyncratic, discussion of the literary sources, and Caillois 1987 provides fascinating comparisons with modern lore. Görgemanns 1993 rightly points to a number of passages in which the Phaedrus presupposes nympholepsy.
[ back ] 108. Cf. e.g. Ebert 1993.
[ back ] 109. Derrida 1972. In a similar fashion, the Phaedrus has also encouraged the kind of self-contained scholarship one finds in a well-known and pleasant book such as Ferrari 1987, in which the author avoids straightforward argumentation, philological engagement with the text, and historical contextualization in an attempt to “live for a while within the environment of a single dialogue” and “to sit on the grass and breathe its special atmosphere” (Ferrari 1987:ix).
[ back ] 110. Norden 1923:112.
[ back ] 111. I am referring to the lively exchange between C. Rowe and M. Heath that took place in the 1980s. See Rowe 1986 and 1989, and Heath 1989.
[ back ] 112. For a recent account, cf. e.g. Giannopoulou 2010 and Werner 2007. I expressed my own views on the unity problem in Capra 2000. Among works specifically devoted to this problem, the most recent one I am aware of argues that the Phaedrus’ “two parts consider two methods of soul-leading, love and rhetoric, and the dialogue as a whole asks how either or both can be successful in directing the soul towards truth and the good life” (Moss 2012:3).
[ back ] 113. Nightingale 1995:133.
[ back ] 114. And possibly Isocrates, as Nightingale argues. The mention of Isocrates at the end of the Phaedrus (278e), however, can be interpreted in a more favorable light. See e.g. Tulli 1990 and Fermani 2000.
[ back ] 115. Nightingale 1995:149.
[ back ] 116. In Bakhtin’s terms, as adopted by Nightingale, this amounts to quite a lot of “active double-voiced discourse” (Nightingale 1995:148).
[ back ] 117. Nightingale 1995:149.
[ back ] 118. 235d. Both as a physical presence and as a symbol, water takes center stage throughout the Phaedrus.
[ back ] 119. Heitsch 1993:248–253, provides a useful, if not exhaustive, list of such sources. See now Cairns 2013:240n13.
[ back ] 120. Nightingale 1995:161.
[ back ] 121. Cf. Chapter 2.
[ back ] 122. 276e–277a. Interestingly, the image is also found in Antisthenes fr. 188 Decleva Caizzi (ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ αὐτὰ καὶ μὴ ἐν τοῖς χαρτίοις καταγράφειν). Cf. also Chrysippus fr. 83.3–5 Arnim. Mesturini 2001 points out that “il verbo γράφειν nel Fedro copre, dunque, una nozione positiva solo quando sia usato metaforicamente, nella locuzione ‘scrivere nell’anima,’ dove lo ‘scrivere’ paradossalmente è chiamato in realtà a indicare il suo esatto contrario, il ‘non scrivere,’ ossia un insegnamento condotto dal filosofo per mezzo dell’arte dialettica e basato essenzialmente sull’oralità” (117).
[ back ] 123. Nightingale 1995:167.
[ back ] 124. Nightingale 1995:166.
[ back ] 125. Cf. e.g. Giuliano 2005 and Gonzalez 2011.