BMCR 2012.07.55

Plato: Phaedrus. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics

, Plato: Phaedrus. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. x, 270. ISBN 9780521612593. $34.99 (pb).


Harvey Yunis has published a wonderful commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus, now the best available. Both the thirty-page introduction and the 165-page notes are dense, serious, accurate, and insightful. Yunis has a coherent, well-defended, and thoroughly argued thesis about the dialogue. He displays great sensitivity to the linguistic resources available to Plato for depicting irony and playfulness, and shows a vivid appreciation for Socrates’ commitments and Phaedrus’s character. The commentary is strongest on linguistic, rhetorical, literary, and historical matters; reconstruction or analysis of the dialogue’s arguments is given obliquely or incompletely. It often does not signal scholarly controversy; what is gained in clarity of presentation is partially offset by its silence about some of the dialogue’s interpretative puzzles. All the same, philosophers, philologists, and rhetoricians concerned with the Phaedrus, classical Greek thought about erôs, and the goodness of speech now have an excellent guide.

Yunis’s view is that the dialogue depicts Socrates turning Phaedrus away from sophistic rhetoric and Lysias and toward philosophy and himself. Everything Socrates says in the conversation goes toward that end. The so-called “unity” problem, presented in terms of “logographic necessity” or “organic unity,” is thereby resolved. Much of Yunis’s analysis explains why Socrates must speak to Phaedrus in some particular way at some particular time, whether “in friendly and ironic conversation, in allegories and myths, in didactic argument, [or] in studied artificial language.” Socrates maneuvers constantly. This maneuvering is successful; Yunis shows the extent to which Socrates gains the beauty- and speech-loving Phaedrus’s attention, concern, and commitment. (Whether Phaedrus came to live a wholly philosophical life “is beyond Plato’s concern in the dialogue.”)

The Introduction gives a synopsis of the dialogue’s dramatic action, Socrates’ “ psychagôgic ” project. It is remarkable for its precision and narrative insight. Phaedrus is said to “ha[ve] a native passion for what is beautiful and fine”; “his aptitude for philosophy becomes apparent only under Socrates’ tutelage”; and “though Phaedrus is younger than Socrates, he is … far from being a potential erômenos to [anyone]; Phaedrus is a potential erastês,” “an adult discipline of [Socrates’] art of discourse-composition.” Surveying all the evidence, the Introduction argues for a dramatic date of the “last ten or fifteen years” of the fifth century, and a composition date of 370-355. It observes significant allusion to the Gorgias, consistent with the author’s argument in Taming Democracy (Cornell, 1996), saying that the two dialogues present complementary arguments against sophistic rhetoric. It claims that the Phaedrus “fundamentally influenced Aristotle’s Rhetoric,” and efficiently charts its further reception through antiquity and the twentieth century. It gives a thesaurus of Plato’s excellent variety of language, and throughout the commentary pays close attention to the role particles play in vivifying speech. The apparatus is severe, reporting only cases when “(1) the adopted reading is one of two or more variants in the primary manuscripts… none of [which] variants is obviously correct, and a decision among [them] affects what Plato means; [or] (2) the adopted reading departs from all primary manuscripts,” but this criterion still leaves 91 reports.

The book—used either as a research tool or a text read straight through—provides hundreds of pleasures and revelations. Included among them are Yunis’s analysis of Socrates’ first criticism, that Lysias’s speech should “write that favors are due to the poor, etc.”; his gloss of more than a dozen instances of sexual slang; a measured discussion of the non-urban setting of the dialogue (avoiding strained claims about Socrates’ infrequent journeying beyond the city walls); his perception of the “annoying jingling quality” of part of Lysias’s speech (which he argues to be Plato’s invention); and a great explication of Socrates’ claim to have focused on the “rhetorical aspect” of Lysias’s speech, this aspect being, as he shows, the rational argument (a point among many not discussed in Christopher Rowe’s Aris & Phillips commentary). There is a nice explanation for Socrates’ shrouding himself for his first speech; a distinction between the three (or four) audiences of Socrates’ palinode, with a great summary of the argument of the palinode; a shrewd articulation of the supposed attack on Lysias’s speechwriting at 257c6; and an explanation for Sophocles’ and Euripides’ markedly gentle speech in their hypothetical talk with a budding playwright. Throughout his discussion Yunis specifies ambiguous pronouns and translates long, convoluted sentences; he is also always identifying the evidence for what a reader may have or may not have suspected about Socrates’ attitude toward the dialogue’s set-piece speeches.

The charms and value of this work will be obvious to anyone who opens the handsome text (which includes two helpful maps, a judicious bibliography, intuitive Greek and English indexes, and a fifty-line synopsis). The remainder of this review will note some of the commentary’s few weaknesses, doing so in the spirit of gratitude for the strengths of the rest.

Take Yunis’s analysis of 229c5-230a6, where Socrates explains that he avoids myth-rectification because seeking self-knowledge takes too much time. Yunis’s thesis is sound: “By warning Phaedrus away from analyzing myth and reducing it to what is ‘probable,’ Socrates encourages Phaedrus… to maintain an openness to myth and its imaginative power that he will exploit in his palinode.” But Yunis does not acknowledge the difficulties in this passage. He does not work out Socrates’ claim that the myth-rectifier is “excessively clever” ( lian deinou 229d3), and while he rightly defines epanorthousthai as “to rectify” he is silent about its other normative sense of “to restore.” More importantly, he says that Delphi’s gnothi sauton means only “know your limits,” not acknowledging the variety of other possible meanings (per Wilkins’s ‘Know Thyself’ in Greek and Latin Literature), and he asserts that, for Socrates, self-knowledge is “knowledge not about himself qua unique individual, but about himself qua human being, hence applicable to all human beings.” Neither of these claims is argued or given evidence, even though one might reasonably disagree about this issue central to the dialogue (and in Platonic literature generally).

Yunis’s attitude toward the arguments at 245c5-246a2, about the soul’s immortality, and at 261e5-262c3, about the necessity for knowledge in rhetorical success, is indeterminate. On the one hand, Yunis seems to validate the immortality argument. He says it goes about “demonstrating that souls are immortal” (15) and is “a formal proof” that “establishes” its conclusion (129) and “accomplishes this task” (135). He also that its “serious purpose guarantees that, as far as S. is concerned, it is true” (15). On the other hand, however, he distances himself from the argument. His very brief and charitable reconstruction does not link text to his proposed chain of inferences, and while the reconstruction is valid, it is not obvious that Socrates’ argument itself is. Seemingly sharing this skepticism, Yunis remarks that “the argument is highly condensed, which jeopardizes its coherence,” and that “there is an ambiguity that remains unresolved between the immortal ‘all soul’ of the proof and the immortal soul that individual human beings possess and that forms the subject of the myth” (136; cf. 139, 246c1n). Yunis unfortunately does not develop this criticism. He cites R. Bett’s “Immortality and the nature of the soul in the Phaedrus ” and D. Blyth’s “The ever-moving soul in Plato’s Phaedrus ” for analysis of the argument, but not their conclusions. In Bett’s case it is that Socrates argues fallaciously; in Blyth’s, that Socrates argues validly but does not there substantiate some of his assumption and intends for his argument to appear fallacious. (Yunis excludes from his text’s apparatus the OCT reading, depending on Philoponus, that these authors discuss.)

His remarks about the argument on knowledge and persuasive success are equally confusing. Referring to it, he speaks of “no lack of dense argument and abstruse detail” (5); an “abstract argument” that has to be relieved with examples (6); “a dense, abstract argument that makes good on his claim” (12, and again at 187), and a “highly condensed, abstract argument” (189). He notes that Aristotle also believed that one had to be knowledgeable to be a successful persuader (26-7). (He does not note that Aristotle does not use the Phaedrean argument.) Given all this density, its very surprising conclusion, and its central role in the dialogue’s argument about “true rhetoric,” it is disappointing that Yunis does not give a detailed assessment. In fact he does in places, if rather glancingly, call the argument’s validity into question. He calls it a “ tour de force of psychagôgia ” (178), having already spoken of psychagôgia as concerned with success rather than validity, and refers to the “slippery manner in which Socrates… sometimes argues for the sake of acquiring his interlocutor’s agreement” (187). In the introduction he wrote that “Plato made a strategic decision to structure the Phaedrus in such a way that he offers not a philosophical or dialectical defense of the priority of philosophy but merely a rhetorical one” (14). And in the analogy to medicine, Socrates uses a “deceptive, gradually shifting, psychagogic form of argument” (208). A reader might wonder whether this “dense” argument is supposed to appear dense while not actually being good.

Yunis may believe that all that matters is that Socrates succeeds at turning Phaedrus in the direction he wants. But it worth considering whether a proper statement of Socrates’ methods must involve investigating whether Socrates ever sacrifices validity for efficacy. (Yunis does provide such an analysis to great effect on the argument at 257e1-2, the paradox that “the proudest politicians love most of all speechwriting and leaving written compositions behind.”)

A last complaint is about Yunis’s analysis of psychagôgia (defined on p. 183), in particular in contrast to persuasion ( peithô). Yunis’s basic analysis is that regular persuasion cannot change an audience-member’s views very much:

A sophistic speaker, ignorant of the subject of his discourse but schooled in his auditor’s beliefs about the subject, can do no more than persuade the auditor to accept something that, by virtue of his existing beliefs, he is already inclined to accept from the start (as in the horse-and-donkey vignette). Psychagôgia is a more demanding persuasive task. It requires the speaker to be able to replace the auditor’s current beliefs, which are likely to be conventional, with entirely new ones, for example, beliefs that could be sufficiently transformative to make possible an attachment to philosophy. (12-13)

But it is not clear why psychagôgia in not simply sequential persuasion of the standard variety, as it is in many of the arguments Yunis claims to be psychagôgic (some of which are mentioned above). At some points, Yunis does present a very different kind of psychagôgia, one connected with vivid imagery and liberation from rational inference. In talking about the profit divine erôs would bring, Yunis writes that “it would be impossible to exaggerate the degree to which this set of benefits departs from the conventional values of a young Athenian man. … Plato foregoes an argument based on expediency…. Such an argument, no matter how cogent, would fail to convince, because from the perspective of the auditor the conclusion is so radical that no argument could convince. … Instead, Plato utilizes the affective properties of mimetic art to excite desire in the soul of the auditor” (128). But elsewhere he does not, and anyway it is likely that sophistic orators did use stories and imagery, and so it is hard to know what he takes the innovation of psychagôgia really to be. Nevertheless, Yunis’s eye for instantiations of psychagôgia makes his commentary the starting-point for any further inquiry into the issue.