30 November 2010

Phaedrus [1]

After a recent discussion in which I was challenged to distinguish between sophistry and philosophic dialectic, I found myself compelled to reread Plato's Phaedrus.  The following are some reflections that I had upon reading the dialogue.

The fundamental Socratic distinction between what seems to be and what is is mirrored in the difference between sophistry and dialectic.  What is immediately suggestive of their relation is that sophistry and dialectic seem almost identical to the untrained ear.  Lysias' lying speech that one ought to favour the one who does not love you reaches what appears to be precisely the sort of bizarre conclusion that philosophers are popularly thought to reach.  Both proceed through linguistic inquiry that appears to start from basic and generally accepted principles.  But sophistry is not dialectic--it is its diabolical double.  Dialectic attempts to clarify the principle under discussion, moving upward like the freed prisoner in the allegory towards an apprehension of the beautiful.  As such, the purpose of philosophy is to bring us into a loving relationship with the "transcendental" ideals.

The sophist also feels drawn to the beautiful, but instead of undertaking the purifying process of dialectic, he seeks to master the beautiful.  Language for the philosopher is not a tool to be used to catch the elusive creature wisdom; language, rather, is the gift in which the revelation of the beautiful takes place.  The sophist tries to use language (which is of course ultimately impossible, though often temporarily quite successful) for the purposes of acquiring power.  Of course, the sophist must understand in his heart that this whole enterprise is as useless as it is self-destructive; Socrates observes the deception inherent in sophistry when he states that the "cunning" sophistical rhetor is attempting to persuade the youth that he does not love him, though "he really loved him all the same."  The philosopher also often seems dishonest, but this dishonesty is always resulting from the dishonesty of the situation in which he has been placed and undertaken expressly to dispel the underlying lie.  Socrates (masked) imitates Lysias' speech precisely precisely to show how flawed it is...

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