Phaedrus

51gpvpv8xgl

Phaedrus
by Plato
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Whenever I think of Plato’s Phaedrus I am reminded of this scene from chapter seven of E. M. Forster’s Maurice:

“They attended the Dean’s translation class, and when one of the men was forging quietly ahead Mr Cornwallis observed in a flat toneless voice: ‘Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.’ Durham observed afterwards that he ought to lose his fellowship for such hypocrisy.”

Such was and often still is the attitude directed toward many classical Greek texts, the Phaedrus prominent among them. But to attempt to divorce this dialogue from its homosexual and pederastic themes is almost comical. Socrates and Phaedrus flirt outrageously throughout their conversation, and Socrates’ speeches on love, which make up the bulk of the dialogue, are explicitly about love between an older man and younger boy. Historically, some translations have attempted to suppress this dimension of the text. This is nothing less than an act of erasure, one which stems complaints like those found in Forster’s Maurice and Gide’s Corydon.

As mentioned above, the Phaedrus consists of several speeches on love, followed by a discussion of rhetoric and its proper use. While on a walk, Plato encounters Phaedrus, who has just returned after hearing a speech on love given by Lysias, a famous Greek orator. Socrates asks him to repeat the speech and observes that Phaedrus is carrying a copy of it. Phaedrus reluctantly agrees, and the two find shade under a tree to discuss it. Their conversation is wide ranging, touching on sexual and non-sexual love, madness, the soul, art, and the ethics of rhetoric.

This is one of Plato’s more accessible texts as everything is communicated through a simple and direct conversation between the characters without the convoluted framing devices found in his other dialogues. You do not need a background in philosophy to read, think about, and appreciate the Phaedrus. Even older translations are fairly easy to approach, and the text contains something for everyone. But besides that, The Phaedrus is simply a classic, a foundational work of western philosophy and one which was hugely influential to many gay writers. Also, it’s really short!

Fun fact: Mary Renault’s The Charioteer takes its name from this text, and the Phaedrus itself is featured quite prominently in it.