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What Phaedrus Learned about Composition

May 28, 2021

Southern’s English major will teach you much about the history of writing. What the Western world believes about writing comes mainly from Plato and other Greek and Roman teachers and philosophers. Plato (428 B.C. to 348 B.C.) wrote a series of philosophical dialogues featuring Socrates (470 B.C to 399 B.C.) as his spokesman. Expect to hear about ancient teachers in your writing classes.

The ancients were unlike we moderns who tend to specialize in various branches of knowledge. The ancients speculated about many subjects, including the art of rhetoric.

One of Plato’s dialogues was the Phaedrus (370 B.C). The dialogues often show Socrates discussing various topics with some other philosopher, who merely highlights Socrates’ brilliance rather than adding substance to the discussion.

The Phaedrus is between Socrates and Phaedrus. Socrates criticizes a speech by a speaker named Lysias.

Socrates:  Don’t you think the different parts of the speech are tossed in hit or miss?  Or is there a really cogent reason for stating his second point in the second place?  And is that the case with the rest of the speech?  As for myself, in my ignorance, I thought that the writer set down whatever happened to come into his head.  Can you explain his arrangement of the topics in the order he has adopted as the result of some principle of composition?

Phaedrus:  It’s very kind of you to think me capable of such an accurate insight into his methods.

Socrates:  But to this you will surely agree:  every discourse, like a living creature, should be so put together that it has its own body and lacks neither head nor feet, middle nor extremities, all composed in such a way that they suit both each other and the whole. [From a modern perspective, the “principles of composition,” or “thesis,” of an animal is its DNA. In fact, everything has a thesis. Rocks don’t have DNA, but they do have some principle of composition.]

Phaedrus:  Without a doubt.

Socrates:  Examine, then, your friend’s speech and see whether or not it conforms to this.  You will find that it has no real difference from the epitaph which some say was inscribed on the tomb of Midas the Phrygian.

Phaedrus:  What inscription?  And what’s wrong with it?

Socrates:  It goes like this:

A maiden of bronze am I, placed on the tomb of Midas

So long as water flows, so long as trees grow tall

Here I abide on this tomb of tears

I declare to the passer-by that HERE LIES MIDAS.

And you may perceive, I have no doubt, that it makes not the slightest difference which line comes first or last.

This passage is one of the most important statements about the art of rhetoric. Socrates shows the importance of clear purpose and logical connectedness in composition. In other words, he emphasizes the incoherent randomness of Lysias’ speech. The speech needs a thesis and some sort of logical order. Teachers of rhetoric in ancient Greece were called sophists, a word that has come, unfairly, to characterize the entire art of rhetoric as a means of making people believe anything the speaker desires.

Plato was showing that the sophists were wrong in their purpose for composition. For Plato, the purpose of rhetoric was the discovery and explanation of truth.

Though Plato was a pagan teacher, Christians have to agree with his assessment of the true art of rhetoric. Christian writers should value truth-telling above all else.