About St. John's College: Santa Fe
Dean's Lecture, Fall 2006
Rendering Phaedrus an Open Book
Why Reading Is at the Heart of a Liberal Education
Victoria Mora, Dean
St. John's College, Santa Fe
Opening Lecture, August 25, 2006
I would like to begin tonight's lecture by dedicating it to the freshmen in the room. In so doing, I mean to recognize the importance of this occasion for orienting the freshman toward the task that they have undertaken in coming to this college-the task of confronting questions that they have yet to imagine, and of challenging answers that they thought long settled. But by "freshmen", I don't mean only the students whose first term at St. John's is before them-though their integration into our community should be of special concern for all of us. Rather, I mean by "freshmen" all of those newcomers and novices-"fresh" men and "fresh" women-who will venture this year into books they didn't know before, or knew only as casual acquaintances, or perhaps as intimates, but in a love affair that has drifted. In short, I dedicate this lecture to all who come to this term to begin, even if it is to begin again.
But in what sense do we begin to read at St. John's? If we look to the applications of our newest freshmen at the college, we know that the one thing that they all share in common well before they get here is that they already understand themselves as lovers of books. We also know that in coming to this college, they expect to read many more books. Granted, they also expect to practice the arts of speaking and of listening at St. John's, as well as the arts of translation, demonstration, experimentation, and composition. But our conversations are focused on what we read, even as our specific tasks in the tutorials and laboratories are so focused. The books are clearly at the heart of what we do. Every other activity at the college finds its pulse through that heart.
The college seal, which I am sure you have noticed on all of our formal communications, suggests as much. The seal is comprised of three concentric circles, with the innermost encompassing seven open books-seven to represent the seven liberal arts: the trivium, consisting of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These books encircle a balance of the sort that we make in freshman lab out of yardsticks, cardboard, string, and other fancy stuff; the second outermost circle encloses 6 Latin words, themselves encompassing the innermost circle or heart of the seal. These words translate: "I make men out of children by means of books and a balance". What the balance represents, why it is at the center of the seal, and what it means to the transformation of children into adults, will have to wait for consideration at another time.
What I want us to reflect on now is the fact that the books on the seal are open books. What might this suggest? An open book first and foremost suggests a reader: A book is open to, or opened by, the searching eyes and hands of a willing reader. The open book calls attention, simultaneously, to itself and to the flesh and blood reader who turns the pages. It calls attention to what is inside of it-words, sentences, paragraphs, images, arguments, ideas-and to what it is in the reader that is fit to appreciate what is inside of it - the human intellect and imagination, and especially the desire to know, projected into the world largely through the eyes and hands.
But this brings us to a question that cuts to the heart of what we do at St. John's: Why should reading be so central to a liberal arts education? Is there any intrinsic relation between reading on the one hand, and on the other hand the human transformation toward maturation and freedom that is supposed to take place through its pursuit? After all, not all agree that the best form of education is the one focused on books and our reading of them. For example, in Herodotus' charming history of the Persian invasion of Greece there is a succinct and startling sentence in Book I that surely gives pause to anyone committed to a liberal arts education of the sort pursued at St. John's. It is startling because it presents, at least implicitly, a challenge to the centrality of reading that we take for granted. In the sentence, Herodotus remarks briefly that the Persians "train their sons from their fifth to their twentieth year in three things only: horsemanship, archery, and truth-telling." (Bk. I.136, Grene, 97) No mention of books, or reading, during the formative years of the Persian youth's transition from childhood to adulthood? No mention indeed.
What do we make of this omission of books in the education of Persian youth? Can we dismiss the Persian form of education as foreign to our own western legacy? Might we be satisfied with a quick historical explanation, to the effect that books were not widely read then? Or do we find ourselves, in taking seriously the Persian model of education, questioning our own? Can we take the activity of reading for granted and claim at the same time to be truly committed to liberal education?
In answer to this last question, I propose that we cannot. What's more, we may not even be able to become liberally educated men and women if we don't so reflect. For it seems to me that a big part of becoming adults is the ability to recognize our own childishness, even as a big part of becoming free human beings is the ability to recognize our own slavishness. Reading may very well be an activity in which these two movements are realized, for even as the child knows that learning to read is one of the first steps toward sharing the adult world, so too does the more mature reader know that books call us to question what kind of adults we are, and in what kind of world. To reflect on reading, then, is to reflect on a movement from childhood to adulthood; it is also to reflect on a movement from slavish acceptance to free determination.
I can't help but think that these movements in reading, in all of their pain and promise, sound very like the experience of falling in love. For falling in love is somehow a movement from childhood into adulthood. And whom we love, at least in the tradition of romantic love, is very much an expression of our own free determination. Plato, who inspires many lovers with his philosophical as well as poetic prose, wrote a dialogue that may help me to explain more fully what I mean when I suggest that reading and falling in love are intimately connected.
In the dialogue Phaedrus, the topics of love and writing find themselves as apparently strange bedfellows whose only obvious connection is that they come together in the concerns of one very passionate reader, Phaedrus. In the dialogue, Socrates explicitly initiates Phaedrus into the mysteries of love. I propose that in so doing, Socrates is also initiating Phaedrus into the mysteries of reading. Mind you that in reading Plato with you tonight, I have no intention to give a complete account of the Phaedrus, for as you will see, it is the affair of each one of us here to find her or his own way to such a reading, and in any case, our freshmen won't be reading this dialogue until next semester. My intention tonight is only to open up the Phaedrus with the eyes and hands of one who is questioning the value of reading in a liberal education; in keeping with my dedication to the freshmen, I will do my best to orient even as I expose.
We meet Phaedrus in the city of Athens. He is preparing to take a stroll outside of the walls of the city, where he might find a place to be alone so that he can memorize a speech that he has heard numerous times before beginning to read it for himself. He is an attractive young man, and by the looks of it, deeply infatuated with a would-be lover, Lysias, who has been flattering him with every sort of attention, and especially the attention of constant discourse. It is this man's speech thathas gripped the reader Phaedrus, who considers Lysias "the ablest writer of [the] day." (228a3)
This ablest of writers has very recently filled Phaedrus with an account of love in which he describes "how a handsome boy was tempted, but not by a lover-that's the clever part of it. He maintains that surrender should be to one who is not in love rather than to one who is." (227c5-8) This speech is the first in a series of three speeches that we will read in the dialogue, all of which are on the subject of love. The second and third will be given by Socrates, whom I will introduce in a moment. But this first speech, the one written by Phaedrus' would-be lover Lysias, is a proposition for Phaedrus to render himself open to Lysias' sexual advances. Through a series of repetitions of the same argument, the case is made that insofar as Lysias is not in love with Phaedrus, a liaison between them will be an unqualified good, for it is the madness of love that complicates physical liaisons when they are red hot, as well as makes them unpleasant as a love affair cools. On the ground that he is not in love with Phaedrus, then, Lysias maintains that Phaedrus ought to surrender his sexual favors.
Now this clever sort of seduction would strike fear and fury into the heart of any parent of a college freshman-and rightly so, for as Socrates will help Phaedrus to see, it is as corrupt in its grasp of the worth of love as it is a miserable piece of rhetorical drivel! But Phaedrus, youthful and open, is initially enchanted by it. And from the looks of it, his enchantment does not make any clear distinction between the cleverness of the argument on the one hand and on the other hand its worth as a possible statement of truth about love. As a reader, what is at stake for Phaedrus is his chance to get at the truth about love, to know what love is. His failure to distinguish clearly the philosophical and rhetorical aspects of Lysias' account may very well determine what he comes to know and fail to know-about this most important subject.
But this is no mere intellectual exercise, for Lysias truly is trying to get Phaedrus to commit to a liaison. Whom Phaedrus should love, as well as how, is also at stake in his reading of Lysias. And if part of the role of the lover is to instruct the beloved with whom he is allied, as we come to understand even from Lysias' too clever attempt at seduction, Phaedrus stands to be shaped profoundly by Lysias should he enter into a relationship with him. In short, the stakes involved in Lysias' spell are high for Phaedrus, though perhaps no more so than for us every time we pick up a book to read. In this case, what Phaedrus knows about love, whom he offers himself to in love and how, and who he becomes as a result, may very well be decided by what he comes to understand of this one written document.
It falls on Socrates to break Lysias' spell, for his is the voice that acknowledges that love, indeed the god Eros, son of Aphrodite, is divine and deserves his due in both words and actions. (243c1-3) Now if our introduction to Phaedrus found this young man in the glow of youthful infatuation, our introduction to Socrates in this dialogue finds him in the ecstasy of mature love. Socrates is a lover of discourse, and it is this fact that allows him to be persuaded by Phaedrus to leave the city and share the conversation that ensues. But though it is the promise to hear all about the discourse on love that has taken place between Lysias and Phaedrus that moves Socrates, his is a different sort of interest in discourse than Lysias' preoccupation with persuasion. Socrates is a lover of wisdom, one who is beside himself-ecstatic-with the desire to bring others along in the quest for self knowledge.
This does not mean that he is above using the power of rhetoric in the service of this quest, but his aim is surely different from Lysias': Socrates is concerned with Phaedrus' soul, even as Lysias is interested in Phaedrus' body! Socrates must find a way to initiate Phaedrus into a level of philosophical awareness that will transform him, lest he give himself prematurely to Lysias-if at all. (243e3-8)
With these competing dramatic elements at play, along with the two central themes of love and rhetoric that are treated explicitly even as they are played out, Socrates offers to Phaedrus a story about the origin of writing. This story comes after the three speeches on love that I mentioned before, and I will come back around to the second and third speech a bit later. Right now, I want to focus on Socrates' story about the origin of writing, for it highlights, through an exchange between a god and a man, two different views of the value of writing and of its counterpart, reading, in the pursuit of knowledge. As such, it helps us to deepen our central question regarding reading and liberal education.
In the story, the Egyptian god Theuth offers writing along with other gifts to the Egyptian king Thamus. In presenting it, he makes a claim about its worth that surely resonates with Phaedrus, as well as with those of us who, like him, count ourselves as committed readers. "Here, O King," Theuth pronounces, "is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom." (274e4-7) But Thamus, the king, is skeptical about this account of the written word. He answers that "if men learn this it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows." (275a3-b3)
Whom do we believe in this exchange between Thueth and Thamus? Is reading the path to wisdom, or the path to the conceit of wisdom? In pursuing reading as our central activity of learning, will we become wiser and closer to the truth, or will we become a burden to our fellow human beings-maybe even clever burdens like Lysias, but burdens nonetheless? Now as our readers further along in the program will be happy to tell our newest freshmen, memory and wisdom are both of central importance in the dialogues of Plato, and it is Socrates who does not tire of speaking of them. (See e.g., Republic VI 487 a; Republic VII 535c; Meno 81cff) In fact, Socrates suggests in his second speech on love in the Phaedrus that memory is a condition of wisdom. The lover of wisdom, the philosopher, can have no access to wisdom, except through memory. (249c1-d3)
This is not a plug for rote learning as the path to wisdom, though in learning to read Greek and French, our freshmen and juniors will certainly have to travel that road if they hope to get to the deeper experience of reading that I suspect is crucial to becoming liberally educated. Rather, the path to wisdom that Socrates describes is an inward journey into the human soul, and memory is a condition of the soul left by the soul's original vision of all that is real. (249c1-5) This, presumably, is what Thamus is meant to remind us when he links remembrance to what is "within" men, distinguishing it as he does from the merely "external" marks of reminder. In fact, in coming to Thamus' words, we have already seen this distinction played out in the Phaedrus. Just after reading Lysias' speech on love, Phaedrus has asked Socrates, "Where have you heard anything better than this?" (235c1-2) It is not clear from this question whether Phaedrus means to ask Socrates about the content of the speech or its rhetorical worth, for Phaedrus has yet to understand that distinction as a reader. But the question does clearly reveal Phaedrus' preoccupation precisely with external sources, or "marks" as Thamus calls them. Socrates' response acknowledges Phaedrus' preoccupation even as it dismisses its importance. He says, "I can't tell you offhand, but I'm sure I have heard something better, from the fair Sappho maybe, or the wise Anacreon, or perhaps some other prose writer. What ground, you may ask, have I for saying so? Good sir, there is something welling up in my breast, which makes me feel that I could find something different, and something better, to say." (235c3-c8)
That is, Socrates makes clear to Phaedrus that he has forgotten the reminder, but has retained the memory; the external marks were only important in their capacity to awaken the memory now welling up in his breast, and it is this memory that gives him confidence that Lysias has offered a mean account of love.
In only a few short lines, Socrates has offered a gentle reminder to Phaedrus that he is misguided in worrying about who has written what; it is the truth, written "within" his own soul, with which Phaedrus ought to be concerned-not with whatever words have been poured into him by external sources. The reminder, however, does not work for Phaedrus, and later on Socrates rebukes him outright for caring more about who says what than about the truth itself. Phaedrus has just dismissed Socrates' story about writing as a "made up" tale from Egypt, when Socrates replies "Oh, but the authorities of the temple of Zeus at Dodona, my friend, said that the first prophetic utterances came from an oak tree. In fact the people of those days, lacking the wisdom of you young people, were content in their simplicity to listen to trees or rocks, provided these told the truth. For you apparently it makes a difference who the speaker is, and what country he comes from; you don't merely ask whether what he says is true or false." (275b6-c3)
This time, something in Phaedrus' soul is awakened, and he responds to Socrates "I deserve your rebuke, and I agree that the man of Thebes is right in what he said about writing." (275c4-5) Phaedrus in this response has acknowledged something extremely important about the distinction between reminder and memory. Unlike the value of memory, which in Socrates' account is absolute insofar as it is the imprint of reality on our souls, the value of a reminder is predicated on its success in bringing us closer to memory and therefore to wisdom. Will Phaedrus be a different reader of Lysias when he returns to him after this rebuke from Socrates? Will he be a reader who understands that what we know is not simply a matter of the books we've read, or that have been read to us, but a matter of what goes on in our souls upon their reading? Whether he will or will not is something we may wish to discuss later. But right now, I am interested in where we are at in our struggle to understand the true worth of the written word.
As readers of the Phaedrus, where are we left on the question of why reading might be at the heart of a liberal education? After all, as our freshmen will soon discover, it is never just obvious with whom in Plato's dialogues we ought to ally ourselves. It is also never just obvious when Socrates is being straightforward, and when he is engaging in various rhetorical devices of his own-devices like irony and maybe even a little baiting or flattery. In reading Socrates' story about the origin of writing, do we believe the god's assessment of his gift, insofar as he speaks with the voice of divinity and with a voice that justifies our central activity at St. John's? Is it so important that he does not distinguish between memory and reminder, even if this distinction is at the heart of Socrates' rebuke of Phaedrus? Or do we find wisdom in Thamus' response, as Phaedrus comes to do?
Thamus presses us with his direct criticism of the god. He says "…to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect." (Phaedrus 274 e 5 ff) Socrates, in introducing this story, has already alerted us to the difference between the truth we find in ourselves, which is divine, and the common opinions of humankind. (274c1-4) Where, then, is the divine insight with regard to writing? Are we too quick to side with Theuth on account of his divinity? Are we too precious about the written word because we readers spend a great deal of time caring for it, even as Theuth is accused of regarding too tenderly his offspring? If the divine insight is with Thamus, then don't we have to take seriously the possibility that reliance on the written word indeed jeopardizes memory? And if this is true, then does writing also jeopardize the possibility that the reader can attain wisdom through the act of reading? Indeed, might the very act of reading preclude the most important end of the written word articulated by Theuth?
The dangers in writing identified by Thamus stand as a challenge to the importance of reading. Unless there is something essential in reading that mitigates its danger to memory and therefore to wisdom, Thamus' challenge may very well stand. Socrates, however, does not give Thamus the last word on writing. Thamus' criticism of writing stresses its danger insofar as readers might become passive in their reliance upon it. For Socrates, writing finds its proper dignity precisely on the condition that the writer himself knows the true worth of his writing. Socrates puts it this way: the writer must have done his work "with a knowledge of the truth," he must be able to "defend his statements when challenged," and he must be willing to "demonstrate the inferiority of his writings out of his own mouth." (279c5-7) We will pass over Plato's playful irony in having Socrates, a man who purportedly never wrote a word in his life, offer an apology for just the sort of artful writing that one might argue characterizes Plato's dialogues.
Instead, let us turn our attention to a question. What would it take to fulfill the conditions for truly artful writing that Socrates has put before us?
The answer is woven throughout the dialogue, and it falls to us, Plato's readers, to look for it. In order to do his work with knowledge of the truth, the writer must have pursued memory in the service of wisdom, for it is only through memory that he can hope to know the truth; in short, the writer has to have examined his own soul. This is a precondition for being able to defend his statements when challenged, for only a true argument-not one founded on clever rhetoric, but one founded on the truth that each of us knows in her or his own breast-can answer a critical charge. It is only in knowing the truth, and in being able to defend it, that the writer will recognize his words for what they are, reminders of the truth but not the truth itself.
But even as we were moved to ask how those apparently strange bedfellows, love and writing, happened to find themselves in the same dialogue, we are also moved to ask whether the conditions for artful writing have anything in common beyond belonging to the same list. I think that they do. Each of these conditions carries within it the elements of struggle. To know the truth, one must struggle to distinguish appearances from reality; to defend one's statements when challenged, one must struggle to acquire the art ofdialectic and then figure out how to practice it with the right people in the right way; todemonstrate the inferiority of one's own writings is to care more about the truth thanabout one's own ego, as well as to know when and how each is operating in one's motivations, which for Plato's characters no less than for ourselves is a struggle of thefirst magnitude.
With a view toward breaking Lysias' spell, Socrates challenges Phaedrus to mirror the struggle of the true writer in his reading. Or, what amounts to the same thing, he initiatesPhaedrus into becoming a true reader. He invites him tostruggle in his reading of Lysias in an attempt to find out the truth about love. He does this by calling on Phaedrus to make judgments of his own about Lysias' speech, before committing it to memory just because it has been written down. In short, Socrates calls for Phaedrus to abandon his passive infatuation in favor of a struggle that just might put him at odds with that wouldbe lover, famous writer though he may be.
And so even before we have read Socrates' two speeches on love, which challenge Lysias' account and Phaedrus' infatuation with it, and long before we have read the story about writing that offers competing views of its worth in the pursuit of knowledge, Plato has put before us the importance of struggle-and specifically the struggle of a reader. Why might struggle be so important for the would-be reader? Might it be the antidote to memory loss, and therefore the elixir to awaken wisdom? Might struggle, ironically, offer relief to the reader who has been stung by Thamus' criticism of writing-or even better, protection against it?
If so, it is an odd sort of struggle-and perhaps an even odder sort of protection. This is due to the nature of the written word, which Phaedrus comes to suggest is "dead discourse." (276a8) Unlike its fraternal twin, living discourse, written language is fixed. It speaks only once, though we may certainly question it. In bringing Phaedrus to his
insight into the written word as dead discourse, Socrates explains that written words "seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever." (275d8-10) This is tantamount to saying that at the very moment that we begin to actively question what we read, the words on the page fall into a deathly silence. What is worse, Socrates continues, the written word, found as it is in the material world, "drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong." (275e1-2)
Like death, the written word is theultimate expression of equal opportunity; it makes no distinction between one reader and another when it presents itself. Socrates is noticing that in our attempt to understand the written word, we are offered a semaphore that signals the importance of the reader. Any attempt at understanding that semaphore-that tomb that bears a sign, from the Greek words sema and phoros-falls firmly on the reader. The written word, whether on its own or arranged grammatically and rhetorically with a view toward some aim, confronts us with a kind of indifference, one that deflects attention away from itself and toward the reader, whoever the reader may be.
If in reading Lysias' speech Phaedrus has yet to become the sort of reader who can bridge the gap between the written word and the instruction that he has yet to seek within himself, it is Socrates' living discourse with Phaedrus that holds out the possibility for his learning to read well, even as I hope that our seminars, with their emphasis on conversation, deepen our experience as readers. Socrates guesses that after hearing Lysias recite his speech again and again, Phaedrus has spent the whole morning "poring" over the speech, reading it over and over again. (228b2-7) Phaedrus does not challenge Socrates' account, and yet, in all of his poring over the writing of Lysias so that he almost knows it by heart, Phaedrus has failed to make any headway in understanding it. After Phaedrus extols the speech as "extraordinarily fine, especially in point of language" (234c9-10), and then as both "fine" and "exhaustive" in its treatment of the subject of love (234e2-3), Socrates replies as a jealous lover might respond to the praise of his beloved directed toward a third party, especially an unworthy one. He responds both with fondness, and with impatience. "What? Are you and I required to extol the speech not merely on the score of its author's lucidity and terseness of expression, and his consistently precise and well-polished vocabulary, but also for his having said what he ought? If we are, we shall have to allow it only on your account, for my feeble intelligence failed to appreciate it; I was only attending to it as a piece of rhetoric, and as such I couldn't think that even Lysias himself would deem it adequate." (234e4-235a3)
Socrates' response is decidedly not laboring under the illusions that feed infatuation. In a few short lines, Socrates manages to perform a kind of autopsy on Lysias' speech, distinguishing at least three aspects that seem to have been altogether lost on Phaedrus: its grammar, its truth value with respect to the subject of love, and its rhetoric. In so doing, Socrates has begun to show Phaedrus that while the written word may only repeat itself in the manner of dead discourse, Phaedrus can do more than render himself an urn, waiting to be filled up by it; rather, by approaching it livingly, probingly, the written word may become meaningful through Phaedrus' efforts. In a funny way, Phaedrus' infatuation with the written word, such that he wants to have it whole within his memory, has rendered him not only unable to use his intellect to tease apart the discrete elements in Lysias' speech; it has also rendered him unable to imagine a better account of love.
In approaching Lysias' speech by making distinctions, Socrates has pointed out Phaedrus' passivity as a reader. Phaedrus hasn't struggled to confront Lysias' words on the page, either intellectually or imaginatively, though he has pored over them. The result is that what Phaedrus thought to be familiar through his ardent attentions, turns out to have eluded him altogether. The text has done nothing more than repeat itself, or, what is tantamount, it has fallen silent; it has refused to answer the young man who shares with Socrates a deep desire for intercourse. Indeed, the indifference of the lover toward the beloved that Lysias extolled in his speech is played out in the indifference of the written word to the reader whom it seduces! Phaedrus is infatuated with the written word, but the written word has offered nothing more than an indifferent seduction-at least as long as Phaedrus remains passive. Unless he struggles with what he reads, Phaedrus is unlikely to see either through, or into, that seduction.
It is perhaps to the end of interior struggle, and the possibility for truth that it holds out, that Socrates poses his most pressing questions to Phaedrus. In this way, Phaedrus' memory may be ripe when Socrates finally delivers his own two speeches on love. Has Lysias offered a definition of love? (263d8-9) Does Lysias offer cogent reasons for the points he makes about love? (264b4) Is there any cogent principle of composition operating in Lysias' speech? (264b7) These are apparently questions about Lysias' writing, but Phaedrus' response is telling: "You flatter me in supposing that I am competent to see into his mind with all that accuracy." (264b9-c1) Phaedrus has taken Socrates' questions personally, even defensively. He has understood that in being challenged to speak for what Lysias has written, he is being challenged to speak for himself.
Phaedrus has reached a crisis. This crisis would seem to be located in the struggle between his attraction for Lysias and his attraction for Socrates. Each is a kind of authority outside of himself whom he has passively trusted to instruct him on the nature of love. Yet each is pulling him in a different direction. His only recourse is to turn inward, to make a judgment for himself, which Socrates' questions press him to do. Through the art of questioning-something we tutors struggle with each time we enter a seminar-Socrates is asking Phaedrus to become the author of his own ideas rather than rely on the authority of others. But this will require a reversal of sorts, asking as it does that Phaedrus become the master of his own reading, rather than a slave to the writing of Lysias or even the stories of Socrates. This reversal is a frightening prospect for Phaedrus, for it forces the struggle between Lysias and Socrates for the privilege to initiate him into the mysteries of love, right into the soul of Phaedrus himself. Phaedrus must struggle to find, within himself, what love is.
Phaedrus is at this stage in that unenviable twilight zone between the glow of infatuation and the humiliation of recognizing that the object of his infatuation is unworthy. And he is of course irritated with that spell-breaker Socrates for forcing him into this undesirable position, his attraction to Socrates and to discourse notwithstanding. Phaedrus comes out fighting, with a desire to do a kind of violence to Socrates. He challenges Socrates to do better by love than the would-be lover Lysias. But by "doing better", we must remember that Phaedrus only means for Socrates to offer a speech on love that is better rhetorically.
He hasn't even begun to see that Lysias' speech fails philosophically as well. Socrates reads the edge in Phaedrus' challenge, and responds by simultaneously making light of it and provoking it. "Have you taken me seriously, Phaedrus, for teasing you with an attack on your darling Lysias? Can you possibly suppose that I shall make a real attempt to rival his cleverness with something more ornate?" (236b5-8)
Phaedrus gives as good as he gets, and maybe better. For his response to Socrates heralds a shift in Phaedrus from the passive love object to whom we were introduced earlier, infatuated as he was with the advances of Lysias, to a would-be lover in his own rightonly in this case, one whose erotic desire is all mixed up with shame and violence. "No," he begins-something we couldn't have imagined him saying to that voice of authority, Lysias-"make up your mind that we're not going to leave this spot until you have delivered yourself of what you told me you had within your breast. We are by ourselves in a lonely place, and I am stronger and younger than you, for all which reasons 'mistake not thou my bidding' and please don't make me use force to open your lips." (236c5-10)
This brings us to the second speech on love in Plato's dialogue. In this, Socrates' first speech, Socrates satisfies Phaedrus' desire to hear a rhetorically superior speech, while leaving intact the essence of the speech by Lysias. But in so doing, Socrates covers his head so as not to look at Phaedrus (237a4)-a gesture of shame at his passive role in fulfilling a desire that is as threatening as it is shameful. But in the course of that base satisfaction-base because its only object is to satisfy Phaedrus' desire to hear a rhetorically superior speech, without concerning itself with the truth about love-he also manages to redirect that desire, thus guiding Phaedrus away from the slavery of his violent passion to a state of mind that will make him a better reader, of words and men.
This move is doubly masterful to watch, for in coming out fighting Phaedrus has shown his first sign of potential for mastery. This potential is rooted in desire, specifically his desire to defend his would-be lover, and his desire to challenge the one who has already succeeded in breaking that would-be lover's spell. To quash this desire would be to return Phaedrus to the slavish passivity that made him such a poor reader of Lysias in the first place-even if this time it would be passivity receptive to the advances of a lover of wisdom rather than to a non-lover. Socrates' response is to truly honor Phaedrus' desire by simultaneously giving to Phaedrus what he wants, a speech on love that is better rhetorically, even while stripping that desire of its baseness by introducing both a definition of love and a philosophical distinction that directs it to more worthy places than its own immediate gratification. This distinction is the one between temperance and wantonness in the fulfillment of desire. (237d3-238a3) It is a necessary distinction if Phaedrus is to be a proper vessel for Socrates' second attempt at intercourse on the subject of love. A proper vessel, that is, insofar as it can give as good as it gets-not insofar as it can be filled up by dead discourse.
Socrates' second speech on love, his palinode, is the third speech on love in the dialogue, and is an attempt that means to be both rhetorically and philosophically worthy. This is an improvement on Socrates' first speech, which was rhetorically clever, but not the whole truth about love, (even though its definition and distinction provide the key to getting to that truth), and on Lysias' speech, which was corrupt both rhetorically and philosophically. It is an account of love that means to acknowledge its divinity and restore it from the baseness to which Lysias speech had reduced it. In this speech, Socrates takes to task both Lysias' rejection of the lover's madness as well as its preference for the cool-headed, business approach of the non-lover. (230e8ff.) For Socrates traces the lover's madness precisely back to its divine origin in the human soul. (244a6-9) His first move, then, is to argue that madness is not invariably an evil. Indeed, it is a gift from the gods that makes possible prophecy, purification, and poetic inspiration. (244c1-245b2) Most important, the madness of love is a gift of the gods that makes it possible for the immortal soul, dragged down by its brother the body and the weight of earthly desire, to sprout wings and fly toward the beauty that has imprinted itself in memory when the soul dwelled among the gods.
This sprouting of wings is not easy, and Socrates compares it to the pain of a child cutting teeth. (251c1-3) But painful though it is, the sprouting of wings by the soul is its access to the highest goods, including the form of beauty, which is finally what we are yearning for when we fall in love with an earthly being. (250dff.) The problem is that for earthly beings such as ourselves, the soul isn't one in its response to its beloved. It is a divided soul, with competing interests and the struggle that those competing interests entail. Thus, in justifying the madness of love that Lysias exploits to his own end, Socrates offers a lesson on the nature of the human soul and on the struggle that is at the very heart of our being.
To capture this struggle, Socrates offers an image that has elements of the shame and violence in the drama sequence between Phaedrus and himself, but which offers the solution for rising above those elements as well. Regarding the nature of the soul, he says, "a god alone could tell it, but what it resembles, that a man might tell in briefer compass. Let this therefore be our manner of discourse. Let it be likened to the union of powers in a team of winged steeds and their winged charioteer. Now all the gods' steeds and all their charioteers are good, and of good stock, but with other beings it is not wholly so. With us men, in the first place, it is a pair of steeds that the charioteer controls; moreover one of them is noble and good, and of good stock, while the other has the opposite character, and his stock is opposite. Hence the task of our charioteer is difficult and troublesome." (246a3-246b5)
But if the charioteer's task is difficult andtroublesome, it is not necessarily violent and shameful. Here that distinction between temperance and wantonness, introduced in Socrates' first speech, comes to fruition, for the good steed becomes identified with temperance, and the opposite one with wantonness. "Now of the steeds, so we declare, one is good and the other is not, but we have not described the excellence of the one nor the badness of the other, and that is what must now be done. He that is on the more honorable side is upright and clean-limbed, carrying his neck high, with something of a hooked nose; in color he is white, with black eyes; a lover of glory, but with temperance and modesty; one that consorts with genuine renown, and needs no whip, being driven by the word of command alone. The other is crooked of frame, a massive jumble of a creature, with thick short neck, snub nose, black skin, and gray eyes; hot-blooded, consorting with wantonness and vainglory; shaggy of ear, deaf, and hard to control with whip and goad." (253d-e8)
Now lest we accept too quickly this black and white distinction between one horse and another, I propose that Socrates is calling Phaedrus to struggle with the images he has presented, even as Plato is calling us to do so; for even as the steeds struggle and strain against one another, these two accounts of them don't work together simply either. The two horses are yoked together in the service of the charioteer; the success in getting them to pull together is of utmost importance, lest the charioteer find himself toppled by the strain of one against the other. Further, the charioteer knows which way he means to go, but the wanton horse is very powerful; the timid and temperate horse is in fact moved by it, perhaps at times even more forcefully than it is moved by the command of the charioteer. Yet the very powerful horse is "declared" to be bad. He is ugly, he has bad form, and he doesn't take direction well.
In short, the charioteer finds himself in the unenviable position of needing the very horse that causes him difficulty. Thus, the madness of love that we see in the world is the frenzied attempt by the charioteer not to subdue the wanton horse-for then he would have only half a team-but to direct its desire to nobler objects so that its temperate fellow can come along. Our two horses don't seem to carry with them an absolute value after all, but only one determined in their coordination toward the right aims. And this coordination comes at the hands of the active charioteer, who must keep firmly in mind where he wants to go and how.
Finally, those bedfellows in Plato's Phaedrus, writing and love, do not seem so strange after all. Nor do they seem only incidentally related through the character of that passionate reader, Phaedrus. For the written word, like love, holds out the potential for slavery or mastery, for passivity or activity, and it is our struggle on both counts that will determine to whom we give our affections and how, as well as who we become in the process. Plato challenges his reader throughout the dialogue to see, through a struggle with the arguments about love and the drama in which love is represented, that it is the struggle that is divine and that ennobles lover and reader alike. Like the charioteer in the human soul, the reader is called to actively engage that struggle.
At the heart of this struggle is the dark horse of desire. For Phaedrus' infatuation and excitement, his curiosity and concern, his anger and his shame, all come from his desire to know about love and to love in his own right. Without that desire, Phaedrus may never have moved from his passive acceptance of Lysias' account of love. Indeed, Plato offers a clue to the importance of that dark horse in his description of it, for even as Socrates is described in Plato's dialogues by various characters as "snub-nosed", unattractive, and perhaps even a little unruly, so too does Socrates describe the dark horse of desire.
Perhaps we ought to pause at Socrates' rhetorically heavy handed declaration that one horse is simply "good" and the other "bad". Without desire, there is no impetus to spur us on; we cannot afford to break it. But if we don't learn to harness desire, we may very well find ourselves thrown or even crushed by it in loving the wrong things in the wrong way. Hence Socrates' masterful attempt to both inflame and satisfy Phaedrus' desire, offering it new avenues for expression that go beyond base self-gratification toward what is truly worthy in himself and in others.
It would seem that in rendering Phaedrus an open book, Socrates has helped him to beginto unlock the mysteries of love even while Plato has helped us to begin to unlock the mysteries of those open books at the heart of our own college seal. For Phaedrus the lover turns out to be one and the same with Phaedrus the reader, and in initiating him into the mysteries of love, Socrates has simultaneously initiated him into the mysteries of reading. Whether Phaedrus proves to be a worthy initiate remains a question for me, even as I hope that it has become one for you. But whether or not Phaedrus has truly learned to read through Socrates' instruction, we have been given that opportunity through Plato's writing.
Open books invite us to find, through the searching eyes and hands of a lover, what is of true worth. But the fact that they are open to us is no guarantee that they will be easily available. Like Phaedrus we may find ourselves attracted to the words on the page with a passion that truly takes us outside of the city, outside of the daily concerns of the larger social and political life within which we normally operate. But also like Phaedrus, we may find that these "ablest of writers", who populate our program and quicken our intellects and imagination, inflame our desire to know even as they remain indifferent to the struggle that we undergo in order to understand them, in order to make them our own.
In coming to comprehend that indifference and the responsibility that it places on us as readers, we may suffer as Phaedrus did the pain of shame and anger that come from recognizing our own slavish passivity-be it to conventional wisdom or to some established tradition of reading or to the authority of a trusted teacher or friend. This pain would seem to be the locus of Phaedrus' defensiveness, and the violent response that it engenders. But we should not be too quick to condemn him for it. If we do not come to such a critical moment in the reading of these books when writing our lectures or our seminar essays or our enabling and senior essays, we are either blissfully self-possessed or blithely self-deluded: these books require the kind of deep reading that almost certainly steeps one in doubt-hence the prevalence of questions in our classes, rather than answers. But even as Phaedrus' pains are "growing pains" of the sort that the soul experiences in Socrates' myth when its wings begin to grow, ours too hold out the possibility of lifting us up, out of childishness and slavishness, into maturity and freedom.
There is no guarantee, with any one book or would-be lover, that our amorous infatuations will be enough to carry us into a deep and lasting understanding. Indeed our infatuation may blossom into love for some, and decay into disappointment with others. We may find ourselves alternately elated and deflated, satisfied and frustrated, emboldened and ashamed, timid and angry, in coming to know books and lovers alike. But it is only when we know ourselves well enough to recognize these reversals, suffered
when we read books and would-be lovers, that we begin to become lovers ourselves amateurs in the true sense, which, contrary to the conventional reading of this word, is actually something quite grand, for the first definition of an amateur in the Oxford English Dictionary is "one who loves or is fond of", and the second definition, "one who has a taste for anything.".
What is a liberal education if not the opportunity to find out what we love, and to develop our tastes in all of their openness and searching? If in approaching the many books that we read-books of philosophy, and literature and poetry; books of politics, and history, and drama; books of mathematics and natural science; the book of nature itself; books of language and music; books of psychology and physics-if in approaching these we do not come out specialists with the accompanying status that expertise brings, at least we come out lovers with a taste for what is true and good. At least we come out alive, to ourselves and to others, so that we are no longer at the mercy of those who would seduce us to settle for what is merely clever or conventional. And while this living struggle may bring us to crises at times, especially in class where there is no "covering our heads", no hiding from one another when both our strengths and our weaknesses are in full play as we undertake the art of learning to read together, at least we can be prepared for those crises with both love and taste on our side.
The divine insight into the written word is neither with Theuth nor with Thamus, but within the reader who struggles to become a lover who is active. If reading holds out the potential for slavishness, the condition in which we first encountered Phaedrus, and in which we may encounter ourselves as we begin to read again, it also holds out the potential for liberation through an initiation into its mysteries. Reading doesn't necessarily pose a danger to memory and to wisdom, any more than Lysias necessarily poses a danger to Phaedrus. It is Phaedrus the reader and Phaedrus the lover who will determine how each of his love affairs will turn out, slavish or free. His preparation for this, and ours, takes place in the daily struggle within our souls that determines the objects to which we will direct the energy of desire. It is to this struggle that we commit ourselves each time that we begin to read again. It is this struggle that renders Phaedrus an open book to our searching eyes and hands, and that justifies the place of reading at the heart of an education that seeks to make out of children free men and women.
Special thanks to colleagues John Cornell, Barry Goldfarb, and Claudia Honeywell, and to my husband Tomas Fernandez, for their thoughtful insights into early drafts of this lecture. And warmest thanks to my young children, Marisol and Alejandro, for showing me daily the intimate connection between love and reading.
This lecture is available in PDF format