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Rhetoric, Paideia and the Phaedrus

Powerful Essays
Rhetoric, Paideia and the Phaedrus

ABSTRACT: Some of the notorious interpretive puzzles of the Phaedrus arise from reading it in terms of a static version of mimesis; hence, the concerns about its apparent failure to enact its own norms and the status of its own self-commentaries. However, if the dialogue is read in the light of the more dynamic model of a perfectionist paideia — that is, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates as attempting to woo Phaedrus to philosophy (with only partial success) is itself a rhetorical attempt to woo the appropriate reader — then many of the puzzles fall into place as part of the rhetorical strategy. The apparent lack of formal unity arises out of Phaedrus’ own deficiencies; the written dialogue turns out precisely not to fall foul of the criticisms of writing that it contains, and its self-commentaries can be given their appropriate ironic weight. On this reading, a Platonic conception of philosophy that embodies yet transcends the dialectical is given persuasive expression.

The interpretative puzzles of the Phaedrus are notorious: from a rhetorical point of view it is far from clear that it exhibits the organic unity it apparently endorses, from a philosophical one it exhibits in partially dialectical writing a critique of dialectical writing, while its self-commentary on its own set speeches is puzzling — not least the degree of endorsement it allows to the associations between mania, eros, poetry and philosophy rhetorically presented in Socrates' second speech.

Richard Rutherford's recent discussion of these issues (1995: chap. 9) provides a helpful starting point. He plausibly argues for reading Socrates' second speech in the light of the wider dialogue — not least in the light of the Pha...

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...ch feelings in the context of one's own experience of eros that one may find one's sensibilities transformed. The wings of the soul of the appropriate reader, on this account, would be capable of being nourished into growth through the dialogue itself, standing to us as older friend in the perfectionist aspiration, a dialogue which in appropriating one may move beyond.

Works Cited:

Cavell 1990: Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, Carus Lectures 1988, Chicago and London, University of Chicago

Nietzsche 1983: Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Nussbaum 1986: Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Plato 1986: Plato, Phaedrus, ed. and tr. C.J. Rowe, Warminster, Aris & Phillips

Rutherford 1995: R.B. Rutherford, The Art of Plato, Trowbridge, Duckworth
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