The Phaedrus has long been one of Plato’s most popular dialogs–perhaps because, like the closely associated Symposium, it ostensibly deals with the topic of Love. The dialog opens when Phaedrus, who has obtained a copy of a new speech and has been studying it, encounters Socrates outside the walls of Athens and reads the speech to him. The speech, purportedly written by the rhetorician Lysias, is intended to convince a hypothetical boy that he is better off sexually gratifying a man who is not in love with him than one who is. It is not a particularly well written speech; after Socrates points out some of its defects Phaedrus challenges him to do better. Naturally, Socrates’ speech on the same subject is considerably superior in both structure and logic. Beginning with an elaborate psychological definition of love as a form of madness, Socrates points out all the ways the boy might suffer from an affair with a mad man.
Almost as soon as he finishes the second speech, Socrates’ daemon prompts him to make a third speech (often referred to as the palinode), arguing the opposite position. This speech contains a lengthy Platonic myth about the soul, touching on such concepts as the theory of forms, the tripartite soul, and reincarnation. Basically, before being incarnated as humans, some souls have had the opportunity to witness true divine beauty. As men, these souls see a reflection of this beauty in the forms of pretty boys and attempt to experience it more closely. Those with less developed souls, once they achieve sexual gratification, will go no further. The true philosophers, however, will gratify themselves instead by educating the boy and forming a deep relationship that may even last beyond the current lifetime. To Plato this represented the ultimate and ideal scenario for erotic love.
The three speeches are about love, but they are really just examples of rhetoric. Socrates is now able to make the point that rhetoric is only valuable if the speaker truly understands both the topic and the audience and that speeches designed merely to entertain or to convince without reference to the truth are to be despised. We are reminded at this point of the passages in Gorgias that characterize all rhetoric as a form of “pandering” and contract it with true education. In fact, Plato is on his way towards the true thesis of the dialog which is that dialectic–the so called “Socratic Method” is superior to other forms of education, including lectures and books. I find I must agree. While I tend to use all three (dialectic, lecture, and written materials) in my own teaching, I can say from experience that the majority of students learn the most through dialectic.
While the speeches on love, especially the first two, are only introduced as examples, their content provokes thought on gender and sexuality in Classical Greece, particularly among the hopelite and aristocrat classes to which Socrates and his friends belonged. In these two upper classes at least three sexually active genders were implicitly acknowledged: men, boys, and women. By far the most common romantic or erotic love situation was between men and boys (typically teenagers who had not yet begun shaving). Women were objectified and mainly considered useful to making babies. They were normally restricted to the women’s section of the house and took no part in the intellectual life of the society. Of the three genders, only men were allowed to take an active sexual role, and only men were expected to enjoy sex much. Boys could benefit from a relationship with an older lover, however, through mentorship and access to the older man’s political connections. While they accepted homoeroticism, Greek society was actually much more gender-restrictive than ours, since there was no freedom for someone to move beyond their gender. The few Greek women we know who of who were educated and enjoyed a public life, such as Pericles’ companion Aspasia of Miletus, were clearly exceptional in every way and often endured high levels of scathing criticism. Likewise, a post-pubescent man who continued to behave effeminately or have sexual relationships with other grown men was greatly looked down on. Nor could teenage boy take on an active sexual role or easily avoid the attentions of grown men. And then there were female slaves, who were called “girls” regardless of age and expected to be sexually available at all times. Fourth century Greece was not a place where you could choose your gender.
It’s true that certain scholars, such as Donald Kagan, have pointed out that we may not have a complete picture of gender roles in Greek society. For one thing, gender traits and sexual mores might have been radically different among the priests and priestesses of the various gods. In face, “priestess” may have essentially been a different gender than “woman” for upper class Greeks–we don’t know enough to say. There are also, as I have mentioned in the past, a number of female mythical and historical figures who seem to have been very powerful, including at least one queen who led triremes into battle as late as the Persian wars. But all of these would have represented rare exceptions in what was, overall, a fairly gender-repressive environment.
Finally, I should mention that the Phaedrus itself is seen by some scholars as a commentary on Greek sexuality and gender repression. There are several double entendres in the dialog between Socrates and Phaedrus which can be taken either as Socratic irony, active flirtation, or both. It is generally considered that Phaedrus, at the time the dialog was set, would have been too old to be a socially acceptable sexual partner for Socrates, but that doesn’t mean that the sexual tension wasn’t there. In an often-cited article, Zelia Gregoriou argues that Phaedrus contains textual and extra-textual elements which take it to a “liminal space” which is effectively “beyond gender”. Objectively, this is probably a bit much to expect from the rather conservative Plato. Subjectively, the dialog may very well have this effect on modern readers.