Soul-Leading in Plato's Phaedrus and the Iconic Character of Being

Dissertation, Boston College (2021)
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Since antiquity, scholars have observed a structural tension within Plato’s Phaedrus. The dialogue demands order in every linguistic composition, yet it presents itself as a disordered composition. Accordingly, one of the key problems of the Phaedrus is determining which—if any—aspect of the dialogue can supply a unifying thread for the dialogue’s major themes (love, rhetoric, writing, myth, philosophy, etc.). My dissertation argues that “soul-leading” (psuchagōgia)—a rare and ambiguous term used to define the innate power of words—resolves the dialogue’s structural tension. I clarify the conceptual and dramatic features of soul-leading by focusing on the dialogue’s uniquely prevalent use of the semantic network of “leading” and “following.” By continuing to foreground the language and drama of leading and following, I offer a new interpretation of the dialogue as a whole: the Phaedrus is Plato’s articulation of how the soul can be led into communion with reality. Chapter 1 discusses scholarly disputes about the unity of the Phaedrus and proposes that soul-leading adequately satisfies the criteria put forward for what would count as a unifying element. I argue that soul-leading unifies the dialogue both thematically and non-thematically; moreover, soul-leading is a theme capacious enough to account for the other principal contenders for unity put forward. Chapter 2 develops the ambiguous character of soul-leading by examining how the dialogue showcases dangerous forms thereof. Love and language are dangerous when they lead the soul toward goods which can never truly fulfill it. In order to clarify how love and language can mislead the soul, Socrates develops a set of accounts of how the soul is led, both internally and externally, in the three speeches on love. If the soul is to be led into communion with reality (the proper end of soul-leading), it must be led internally by the right part of the soul and externally by the right object of desire. Chapter 3 argues that all souls can, in principle, be harmonized and directed in the way that Chapter 2 requires. I show that Plato’s view of philosophy is neither elitist (i.e., some are intrinsically incapable of philosophy) nor naively essentialist. All can come into communion with reality because all are by nature equipped to do so. While Plato recognizes that there are forces which tend to prohibit one from exercising one’s capability of being rightly led, none of them are intrinsic to human nature. Chapter 4 argues that successful soul-leading require neither the leader nor the follower to be already well-disposed to what’s ultimate in order for the pair to come to a communion with what’s ultimate. Plato’s depiction of soul-leading love shows that love can itself promote the formation needed for both leader and follower to come into contact with reality. Love can do so because it is always already bound up reality in its responsiveness to beauty. Beauty itself calls the lover to itself by shining through the beautiful beloved, who acts as a reminder of transcendent Beauty. The lover mediates this same experience for the beloved. Each comes to desire the other as well as Beauty itself. Chapter 5 argues that the drama of the lovers’ formation mythically depicted in the Palinode (Chapter 4) is written into the drama of the dialogue as a whole. In the relationship between Socrates and Phaedrus, we see an enactment of love’s formative role. Likewise, in the relationship between Phaedrus and Lysias, we see an enactment of the dangerous soul-leading discussed in Chapter 2. My focus on leading and following also allows me to show the thematic significance of the drama’s setting. Chapter 6 articulates the metaphysical conditions under which one can be led into communion with reality. Transcendent Beauty invites us into communion with itself and makes possible our ascent by providing us with divine guides and images which can transport us from our ordinary experiences to the true beings. Beauty accomplishes its work—leading us in a “divine dance” where we follow the gods up to Beauty and back down to each other—through images. When we handle images of reality rightly, they lead our souls into communion with reality. Further, when we have come into communion, we’ll be inspired to be co-workers of Beauty’s soul-leading work. When we articulate reality in language, we create new images that can serve to lead others toward reality.

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Ryan M. Brown
Boston College (PhD)


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