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Rhetoric in Phaedrus

May 25, 2013

Speech writing and rhetoric were important to well educated Athenian men. It formed the basis of Athenian politics and was key a element of democracy.

The importance of a well written speech and being knowledgeable about the subject that you were talking about is demonstrated by Plato in Phaedrus:

‘Someone has to know the truth of every matter he’s speaking or writing about, which is to say that he has to be capable of defining a whole as it is in itself and then know how to divide it up class by class until he reaches something indivisible’ (Plato Phaedrus 277b).

Phaedrus an Athenian Aristocrat is one of the central characters in Plato’s dialogue, with the other being Socrates. I believe that this section of Phaedrus indicates Plato’s belief in the importance of knowledge in the formulation of an argument, regardless of whether it is written or spoken. However, Waterfield (2002:xlviii) believes that Plato considers a true rhetorician is one who is able to make speeches in the heat of the moment. This is contrary to Jowett’s view who believes that Plato in Phaedrus is suggesting speech is superior to writing. However he notes that Plato is trying to compare two concepts which cannot be comparable in the way that he has argued. I agree with Jowett’s view that speech and writing have ‘different functions; the one being transitory…the other is more permanent.’ Therefore, due to their differences speech and writing cannot be compared.

I certainly agree that in the dialogue of Phaedrus Plato is representing the superiority of speech; this is demonstrated through Plato having Socrates recount speeches without writing anything down. However, through this argument I believe that Plato more importantly demonstrates the importance of understanding what you are arguing about and in doing so the superiority of speech gives way to the importance of knowledge.

It is impossible to discuss Phaedrus in full in a few paragraphs. I would highly recommend reading the dialogue and the views of Waterfield and Jowett. Details of the works are in the bibliography below.


Plato The Essential Plato Translated by Jowett, B. TSP, 1999.

Plato Phaedrus Translated by Waterfield, R. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.


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