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Paradox in Plato's ‘Phaedrus’

  • Mary Margaret Mackenzie (a1)


A paradox is like a pun. It is also like a Delphic oracle. For in all three cases, we escape puzzlement, or spoil the joke, when we interpret, when we follow the tracks of the words and disentangle their meaning. So paradoxes are about words - either about the relation between one word and another, or about the relation between words and the world; and the punch of the paradox is delivered by its verbal content. Thus it is characteristic of a good paradox that its verbal content is vicious: paradoxes are very often self-referential, such as ‘Please ignore this notice’.

Paradoxes may be classified according to two main types. Firstly, there are the innocuous paradoxes which tell - or point the way to - a surprising truth. The Socratic Paradoxes, for example, are paradoxical because to say ‘No-one does wrong willingly’ is to contradict the phenomena. But deeper reflection upon Socrates' moral psychology and his account of the good life, might make us concede the truth of his dictum. Certainly it is Socrates' view that we all hold beliefs that entail his thesis. Similarly Heracleitus tells the truth that we cannot step into the same (in all respects) river twice; although if we concede that the waters may flow without damaging the identity of the river, what he says is false. Thus ordinary paradoxes tend to have two faces - their initial, paradoxical one, where they appear false, and their truth, apparent upon reflection.

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1 Cf. e.g. Quine, W. V. O., ‘Ways of Paradox’, in Ways of paradox and other essays (1966), Mackie, J. L., Truth probability and paradox (1973).

2 Aristotle's reaction is, typically, to save the phenomena, and deny the paradox (E.N. 1145b27–8). Cf. Bambrough, J. R., ‘Socratic Paradox’, Ph.Q. 10 (1960) 229300.

3 The classic ψευδóμενον of Euboulides the Dialectician, Diogenes Laertius 2.108. Cf. Sedley, D. N., ‘Diodorus Cronus and Hellenistic Philosophy’, PCPS n.s. 23 (1977) 74120, on Euboulides' title; the term ‘dialectician’ will be discussed further below.

4 This is the mathematicians' favoured method of dealing with the threat of Russell's paradox: What about the class of all classes which are not members of themselves - is it a member of itself? The hypothesis generally is that there is eventually some answer, although we may not find it (cf. Bambrough, , ‘Unanswerable Questions’, Ar. Soc. Suppl. 40 (1966) 151–86). The paradoxes themselves, however, leave it open whether there is a solution, and perhaps even invite the supposition that there is not.

5 Theuth appears again at Phil. 18b, again credited with a grammatical discovery.

6 ‘Magic for the memory’? It is typical of this work that φάρμακον may mean either a beneficial drug, or a poison - and the resonance of the word is exploited within the dialogue - cf. e.g. 230d6; 242el. On the significance of such literary resonance in philosophical works; cf. Kahn, C. F., The art and thought of Heraclitus (1979) This literary aspect of philosophical analysis is particularly important in the discussion of paradox; cf. Derrida, J., ‘La Pharmacie de Platon’, in La Dissémination (1972) 79191.

7 λήθη is connected with δόξα - unreliable belief - and contrasted with αληθεια at 275a6 - there is strong epistemological stress here.

8 Cf. the ‘lazy’ argument at Meno 81d.

9 Recalled from 249d.

10 This word should pull us up short. Plato describes one formulation of the theory of Forms as ‘simple-minded’ at Phaedo 100d. The term resounds even within this passage; cf. 275c7, and compare 242d7.

11 ‘Words’? ‘Names’? ‘Sentences?’ Λόγος is a large portmanteau for anything uttered or written down - it can even mean ‘book’, as we shall see…

12 Cf. e.g. Crat. 439: there is some crude correspondence between λόγοι and what they are about - words and the world - urged in several places in late Plato. That is not to say that such an account of truth is all he has to say on the matter - cf. Fine, G., ‘Plato on Naming’, Ph.Q. 27 (1977) 289301.

13 σεμνῶς, this idea reappears at Soph. 249al to describe the obstinate immutability of the objects of knowledge Cf. σεμνός used abusively at Ar. Frogs 178: the equivalent of the ὕβρις of the ignorant who think they know?.

14 Κυλινδεῖσθαι (275e1) is used of νόμιμα in the sensible world at Rep. 479d5 and refers, apparently, to the inability of belief about the sensible world to be fixedly true or false It reappears at Theaet. 172c to describe habitual visitors to the law-courts, in contrast to philosophers - again the epistemological connotations are obvious.

15 Cf. 264c, which will be discussed further below. Compare also Phil. 39a and Pol. 277c, where the image/original motif reappears in a discussion of painting, ζωγραφια.

16 It is, I take it, standard that to be a copy is small beer compared to being the original; cf. de Vries, G. J., A commentary on the Phaedrus of Plato (1969)ad loc.

17 Cf. e.g. Thomas, J. E., Musings on the Meno (1980) 7.

18 Cf. Vlastos, G., Gnomon 35 (1963) 641–56, de Vries, , Commentary 21.

19 Cf. below on the artifice of the dialogue style.

20 Cf. Mackie, J. L., ‘Self-refutation - a Formal Analysis’, Ph.Q. 14 (1964) 193203, on pragmatically self-refuting propositions.

21 Thus it is about ‘convincing’ - cf. the ideas of learning and teaching at 275a.

22 Some comment on the chronological order of the Platonic dialogues is perhaps in order here The suggestion has recently been revived that the Phaedrus is a middle period dialogue, but earlier than Symposium (Moore, J. M., ‘The Relation between Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus’ in Moravcsik, J., Patterns in Plato's thought (1973) 5271) de Vries, , Commentary, 911, marshalls others of the learned arguments and concludes that the Phaedrus was written between the Republic and the Parmenides Since Thomas' arguments are unconvincing, such a traditional dating seems acceptable However, from the philosophical point of view, my present argument suggests that the Phaedrus leans further towards the critical period than is generally allowed.

23 M. F. Burnyeat, ‘The Passion of Reason in Plato's Phaedrus’, (unpublished) argues that the Phaedrus myth solves problems set in the Republic It is important for the interpretation that I offer here, that the myth is an allegory, as Burnyeat stresses. Moreover, it is striking that here the myth comes towards the beginning of the dialogue, instead of being the coda characteristic of other middle period works, Gorgias, Phaedo, Republic.

24 Cf. Hackforth, R., Plato's Phaedrus (1952) 134–7.

25 Lysias is the fall-guy here; cf. e.g. 234e; 266d.

26 Though cf. Moore, ‘Relation’ here.

27 Socrates is stopped in his tracks by the δαιμόνιον which he interprets (as if he were a soothsayer, μάντιά, 242c) as telling him he is blasphemous, treating love as an evil, which it cannot be if it is a god.

28 Cf. e.g. 227c, Socrates is an expert in erotics But beware, this too is a paradox, that Socrates the satyr-face could be an expert in erotics.

29 Hence the etymological connection between madness, μαντι, and prophecy, μαντική. This etymology was not, apparently, an invention of Plato; cf. Euripides, , Bacchae 299 That the prophets and prophetesses are mere instruments of the gods presumably accounts for their low ranking in the choice of lives at 248d. Fontenrose, J., The Delphic oracle (1978) 204 points out that the inspired prophets need not be raving.

30 This is confirmed at 265a.

31 248b4; the mysterious nature of some knowledge, 248a; the wingedness of the soul, 249c-d - cf. again that locus classicus of madness, Euripides' Bacchae (332).

32 Contrast the dim view taken of madness at Meno 99d-e.

33 Cf. above, n. 11 - surely we have a significant equivocation between ‘word’ and ‘argument’ here.

34 Zeno is not mentioned by name, and it has been contended (by Friedländer; cf. de Vries Commentary ad loc. ) that Parmenides is meant here However, the explicit association of Zeno with άντιλογια at Parm. 127e seems to confirm that he is the Eleatic referred to here.

35 Prof. G. E. L. Owen reminded me that Zeno's use of the sorites effect is, at best, dubious.

36 Echoes of Meno's paradox; and see Theaet. 188a ff.

37 Cf. e.g. Euthyphro 11a; Meno 72a–e.

38 Here again, antilogic is presented as neutral - its purpose loads the dice.

39 Cf. Owen, G.E. L., ‘Dialectic and Eristic in the Treatment of the Forms’ in Owen, (ed ), Aristotle on dialectic (1968) 103–24.

40 Cf. e.g. Cornford, F. M., Plato's theory of knowledge (1960) 184–7.

41 Hence its derivation from διαλέγεσθαι.

42 This view, that we can somehow divine ‘what Plato really meant’, that we can discover doctrines behind all the άποριαι, is over-psychologising It is as mistaken as supposing that we can know the intentions of the author of a piece of literature from the work itself Cf. Vlastos, G., ‘An Ambiguity in the Sophist’ in Platonic studies (1973) 283.

43 Soph. El. 169b123–25.

44 Metaphysics 1004b25.

45 Met. 1004b26 Tentativeness is the connecting link between Aristotle's two senses of peirastic (pace Ryle, G., Plato's progress (1966) 107, who sees only one).

46 That the conversation occurs between Plato and us lessens the likelihood that he might practise eristic on us (as opposed to on the apparent interlocutors) since, by his own admission, a written work is defenceless and scrutable.

47 Rep. 534b; cf. Arist. Met. 1003a20.

48 Cf. Trevaskis, J. R., ‘Division and its relation to Dialectic and Ontology in Plato’, Phron. 12 (1967) 118–29.

49 Cf. eg Moravcsik, , ‘Plato's Method of Division’ in Patterns 158–80, Ryle, , Plato's progress 136 Does the method analyse biological kinds, or classes, or meaning?.

50 Cf. e.g. Soph. 253d5–el; Pol. 262e2–263a4; 278b6–c6.

51 Cf. e.g. Soph. 253b11. Compare Barnes, J., ‘Aristotle's Theory of Demonstration’ in Barnes, J., Schofield, M., Sorabji, R. (eds ), Articles on Aristotle I (1975) 6587.

52 They do indeed need tracking and interpreting - cf. Parm. 128c1; Pol. 263b1; cf. ones and manies without collection and division at Parm. 129d-e.

53 Cf. e.g. Pol. 281a12.

54 Cf. Soph. 219, collection and division is the means to an end.

55 Cf. Meno. 80a.

56 Hence the prominence of the problem of falsehood in the late period - we must understand what it is to be deceived.

57 See my ‘Education, Empiricism and Paradox’ in G. Simmons (ed) Plato's theory of education (Paideia special volume; forthcoming) There I discuss the function of paradox in the Parmenides.

58 Cf. the theme of life, mantic and manic at Phdr. 274; the mad love of the philosopher, Phdr. 278d, 266b, Phil. 16b, the use of deception and falsehood in the elenchus; Daidalus at Euth. 15b; the sting-ray (pathological) at Meno 79, the τερας of paradox at Parm. 129b; the irrationality and irresistibility of childish play, Phdr. 265c; Soph. 249; the tracking of the word written in play Phdr. 276d; and the close relation of seriousness and play, Phdr. 276d–e. In short, serious dialectic and play may be two sides of the same coin contrast the bastard and the true, 276a.

59 See my Parmenides' dilemma’, Phronesis 27 (1982) 113.

Paradox in Plato's ‘Phaedrus’

  • Mary Margaret Mackenzie (a1)


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