Symposium: Speech of Phaedrus

Phaedrus sets the tone for the Symposium, complaining no poet praises Love. From Phaedrus, we learn Love is ancient – not the oldest – and one of the earliest gods to exist. Love has no parentage, though Love is said to have started to exist at some time. Phaedrus rests on authority in this origin myth, adding both humanity and the gods stand in awe and praise of Love.

We also learn Love is the greatest good for humans. Here, it seems Phaedrus is providing something of an argument, though as you’re no doubt aware he’s sees no reason to provide support for his claims, or consider potential counterexamples or difficulties. Rather, Phaedrus claims Love is the greatest guidance or motivator for humans, because whether lover or beloved, being shamed in a lover or beloved’s eyes is something we all seek to avoid and being admired is something we all seek. In fact, Phaedrus claims avoiding shame and seeking admiration effected through the lover-beloved pairing is a much better guidance or motivator than anything deriving from kinship, wealth, or even honor. Putting this point another way, if we are to seek to achieve great things, we require great guidance and motivation, and Love provides the best source of such guidance and motivation.

I pause here to point out the intuitive plausibility of this claim. Most of us no doubt can empathize with the sting of hearing those words from a lover “I’m disappointed in you.” Feeling that you’ve disappointed one you love – even if that love falls short of the sort of lover-beloved relationship Phaedrus has in mind here – is not enjoyable, and one feeling the sting is likely spurred to ensure they are not stung similarly in the future. In other words, the recipient will likely change their behavior to avoid disappointing their love. On the other hand, most of us likely know how good it feels to be admired by a lover, and to admire. Admiration by a lover spurs one to seek out further admiration, by achieving great things perhaps. We may even do quite drastic, perhaps unhappy, things for to acquire admiration and avoid shame. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s return to Phaedrus.

Phaedrus illustrates his understanding of Love as a great motivator with the example of the army of lovers. He claims, hyperbolically, that an army of lovers would be invincible, perhaps capable of taking over the world. I can’t help but think of Thebes’ Sacred Band, elite troops who loved, fought, and often died together, who respected one another as lovers might. They posed a considerable threat on the battlefield, from what I understand. I’m not sure which came first, the Symposium or the band. It’s not that important though. What is important is that this thought experiment seems well-motivated.

Phaedrus goes on to claim Love is the reason we are willing to make great sacrifices, with the greater sacrifice in the right context leading to the greater blessings from the gods. He provides three examples to illustrate. The first is of a lover Alcestis who sacrifices herself to save the life of her beloved – her husband. Alcestis is returned to life by the gods, a blessing provided for her great sacrifice. Note too in this example, the callback to how poorly kinship pales as a motivator for great sacrifice, as the husband’s parents are not even willing to sacrifice their lives for their son.

Contrast this with Orpheus, a lover who only caught a glimpse of his beloved, since he wasn’t willing to sacrifice himself. The gods did not praise Orpheus, but punished him with a mere image of his beloved. This is because Orpheus was unwilling to do what a lover should: sacrifice.

Where both Alcestis and Orpheus are examples of a lover sacrificing or not, Phaedrus’ third example is that of Achilles who he understands as the beloved of Patroclus. Even so, Achilles sacrificed himself by avenging the death of Patroclus by killing Hector, and consequently the gods gave him one of the highest prizes – the Isle of the Blessed. This is so even though Achilles was – as Phaedrus claims – the beloved and not the lover.

In fact the gods, Phaedrus claims, delight more with a beloved cherishes their lover, than when the lover cherishes the beloved. I suspect the point here trades on loving not being a symmetric relation. That is, just because x loves y it doesn’t follow that y loves x. Anyone can love, and one who loves may be motivated to do rather unacceptable things if that love is unrequited. This should be expected, as love is – again – a great motivator. But it seems paradigmatic cases Phaedrus has in mind of loving are those where love is symmetric, i.e. where the lover is loved in return. This is perhaps why the gods delight more with a beloved who cherishes their lover, than with a lover who cherishes the beloved. The latter may be had too easily, while the former secures a good.

Before closing his speech, Phaedrus says something rather puzzling: the lover is more like a god than the beloved. This is so because the lover is inspired by the gods. I can think of two ways to understand this passage.

  1. The implication here is that the beloved is not inspired by the gods. I think this is a problematic reading of the passage. If the lover is inspired by the gods, while the beloved is not, but the gods delight and bestow more honors on the beloved, then it seems the gods praise something more than what they inspire. More concretely, the gods praise Achilles the beloved for his sacrifice more than they praise Alcestis the lover for hers, though they make similar sacrifices. But Alcestis was inspired by the gods in her sacrifice, since she was a lover. There seems tension here, since this seems to imply that the gods praise something as greater than themselves. I take this consequence to speak against reading the passage as having the implication that the beloved is not inspired by the gods.
  2. But we can mitigate by claiming the beloved is not directly inspired by the gods, though the beloved is indirectly inspired. Achilles – after the death of Patroclus – acts as a lover would act, and so acts as if he’s inspired by a god. Because Achilles sacrifices himself, the way a lover would despite the fact that he is not a lover, he is more praiseworthy than Alcestis. Note: on this reading it is important only to claim Achilles acts as a lover. We can’t, for instance, go so far as to say Achilles – in acting as he does – becomes a lover. This is because if Achilles becomes a lover through his action, then Alcestis – who was already a lover – should receive just as much praise. Since she doesn’t, according to Phaedrus, we seem limited to saying Achilles acts as a lover would, but is not himself a lover. Ultimately then, the implication from the passage should be that the beloved is not inspired directly by the gods, but is inspired indirectly.

Summary aside, there are patent worries one should have about Phaedrus’ characterization of Love. Most clearly, Phaedrus simply assumes that Love guides lovers towards things that are good. This is not obviously true. We can illustrate the point in several ways.

  1. Consider first a lover who is not cherished by his beloved. It is easy to imagine a lover doing all sorts of terrible things for the sake of the beloved, because they aren’t cherished or perhaps because the beloved cherishes someone else.
  2. Consider second Phaedrus’ army of lovers not directed at admirable ends, but instead, say, genocide in the name of racial purity. Put another way, were Nazi’s lovers, I’d hope Phaedrus is incorrect about whether the resulting force was “invincible.” An army of lovers may achieve great things, but pure motivation need not be directed at a good end. 
  3. Consider third Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles seemed motivated by wrath and revenge rather than love. Indeed, it seems his love was an instrument for his wrath rather than the other way around, i.e. love was the justification but vengeance was the end. I take Achilles’ desecration of Hector’s body after killing him – parading him in view of his family and Troy – illustrates this point. Perhaps more telling is the fact that the gods had to intercede to force Achilles to stop, i.e. give Hector’s body to his father Priam for proper burial. Surely then the gods did not find this action praiseworthy. This again illustrates that Love understood by Phaedrus has no valence, it’s directed – but not much more.

Objections aside, I think Phaedrus’ speech is valuable for three reasons.

  1. First, Phaedrus provides Love a motivational character, which is taken up by subsequent speakers in the Symposium.
  2. Second, Phaedrus seems to play the role of a foil for later speakers. This is particularly apparent with the subsequent speech of Pausanias who begins his speech by making a philosophical distinction, something Phaedrus noticeably does not do throughout his speech. Phaedrus instead prefers to make claims, rely on myth, and basically play the role of a rhetorician. Pausanias doesn’t merely show Phaedrus as being a mere rhetorician by making philosophical distinctions where Phaedrus didn’t, but also tells by distinguishing between two sorts of love: one better than the other. I take this to be Pausanias picking up on the lack of direction towards the good that Phaedrus’ account of Love employs. In that, I think Pausanias is correct to make this distinction, as Love perhaps should be more than pure motivation; it should be directed towards something good.
  3. Third, Phaedrus’s speech isn’t merely a foil, but is a natural starting point for discussion to follow. Phaedrus’ account is wrong, but it’s by virtue of realizing his mistakes that we make progress towards the truth. Isn’t it plausible masses of people can be moved by mere rhetoric of the sort exhibited by Phaedrus – without reflecting much on its content? Of course. This is common enough in our lives today. It is common enough now, and likely was common enough then, to be worthy of being addressed directly. Phaedrus provides a case to dispute, but in doing so provides our base camp from where we begin our ascent towards understanding the nature of Love. It’s a starting point for dissent, which is a starting point for ascent.