Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Plato's Phaedrus: Beware of Bullshit

PhaedrusPhaedrus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Spoiler alert: This book is not about a "philosophy of love" as many reviewers seem to believe. As every dream has its manifest content (a storyline) that masks a latent content (the suppressed, unconscious emotions that bubble into our semi-conscious REM sleep), Socrates' discourse on the nature of love thinly masks the true subject of this dialogue: bullshit, how to produce it, and how to recognize it. For the reader, his dialectical approach gives us a hint about how to resist it.

With self-deprecating charm -- true to form -- Socrates schools beautiful young Phaedrus on his own susceptibility to bullshit, alternately praising Phaedrus's current object of infatuation, the silver-tongued rhetor Lysias, and ruthlessly dismantling the rhetorical artifices of Lysias' manufacture.

This excellent translation by Christopher Rowe is not only accessible to the reader not familiar (or terribly comfortable) with the Socratic dialogs, but manages, too, to emphasize Socrates' sharp wit, good humor, and gentleness of pedagogy. Rowe's scholarly introduction provides context and background making clear the significance of this work.

It is a testament to Plato -- an early generation child and devotee of alphabetic literacy -- that he takes pains to accurately convey to us Socrates' belief that writing would sap the intelligence of the Athenian youth, making them both less knowledgeable about the universal precepts of logic, and less inclined to engage in a dialectic with thought externalized and made permanent.

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