Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Notes on Plato's Phaedrus as Comic Inversion of Euripides' Hippolytus

Plato's Phaedrus was written to be a comic-philosophical inversion of Euripides' Hippolytus.

Hippolytus begins with speeches about love -- with the main emphasis being that love is madness and madness is bad, therefore love is bad. The nurse provides a minority view that love is rational and therefore good.

Phaedrus begins with speeches about love -- with the main emphasis being that love is madness and madness is good, therefore love is good. Lysias provides a minority view that favoring the nonlover is rational and that this is therefore good.

Hippolytus ends with a discussion of the relationship among writing, speaking, and truth, with Theseus making his decision on his belief that what is written down must be true.

Phaedrus ends with a discussion of the relationship among writing, speaking, and truth, with Socrates arguing that you learn more truth from dialogue than writing because you cannot have the writer there to question -- an observation which one can take back to Hippolytus to see Theseus' error more clearly (though the audience does know why he is wrong).

Phaedrus has the same relationship to Lysias as Hippoytus has to Artemis. Phaedrus loves the one who wrote a speech criticizing love and favoring the nonlover; Hippolytus loves a virgin goddess, with whom he can never consummate that love. This is one of those inversions because Lysias wants to have sex with the nonlover, while Artemis refuses to have sex with the lover.

On the other hand, Lysias, as a writer, is the mirror of Phaedra herself. Neither are available to be questioned about what they wrote.  Lysias thus is Phaedra/Artemis; the attainable mad lover/unattainable non-lover; this thus exposes Lysias for what he truly is (the wily character of Socrates' first speech "against" love).

The above two points also makes it clear that Phaedrus is Hippolytus, not Phaedra, as one would expect. In a certain sense Lysias, in his ideas of the rationality of the nonlover, is also an inverse of the Nurse, with her ideas of the rationality of love, and Socrates plays the anti-Phaedra/Hippolytus/Chorus in his affirmation of love as madness and madness as good.

Euripides' portrayal of Aphrodite is a decidedly negative one; she comes off as petty, spiteful, vengeful, and cruel. This, in combination with what Phaedra and Hippolytus say about Aphrodite/love and with the fact that Phaedra's love for Hippolytus results in both her and Hippolytus' deaths, portrays love in a negative light.

After Socrates gives his speech in which a character argues that the nonlover is to be preferred over the lover, he expresses concern that Aphrodite will punish him for speaking ill of her (which is what she says she is punishing Hippolytus over). He also observes that Aphrodite, being a goddess, cannot be bad in any way (contradicting Euripides' portrayal of her). Socrates then gives his speech arguing love is good (thus enacting what Hippolytus should have done to make the play un-tragic).

Socrates further argues that just because love is madness, that does not mean that love is bad; there are, after all, other forms of madness which are recognized as good, including the madness of the Muses -- who would have been understood as influencing Euripides. Since Euripides is a poet, he is made mad by the Muses; it is thus ironic that he is portraying love as bad because it is a kind of madness.

If Plato's dialogue is a philosophical response to Euripides' play, then when Socrates says that his first speech and his second speech are the same speech, one can also understand this to mean that the dialogue and the play are "the same speech," but at different levels of understanding (with the poets being 4th from the bottom and philosophers being at the top, as per his ranking in the dialogue). Plato could thus be arguing that Euripides' understanding of love is accurate to his level of understanding, but that Plato's work demonstrates an understanding of love that is the most accurate a human can attain.
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