“[Living] for love in singleness of purpose …

… with the aid of philosophical discourse.”

Sounds Christian, doesn’t it? These are the words of Socrates in the Platonic dialogue Phaedrus. (257b)

In his leisurely conversation with his friend Phaedrus, Socrates attacks the sophist Lysias for the latter’s willingness to contractualize or to commodotize erotic relationships.

To Socrates’ mind (much of this is explained in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing) this is an irresponsible cop-out, a failure to grapple with the human tension between the desire for pleasure and the desire for “what is best,” i.e., “the good.”

At one point while reacting against Lysius, Socrates begins to lapse into the opposite extreme: he begins to extol the virtues of mere self-control. To quote Pickstock:

“Socrates then abruptly breaks off his speech in horror at his own attack [not, now, on Lysius, but] on the higher eros, as opposed to purely human and parsimonious modes of self-control.”

Socrates then pursues wisdom first in the form of a myth of the soul (where the soul is a chariot pulled by the two horses of desire and the good) and then in an extended theoretical description of philosophic love.

What intrigues me, however, is that in the Phaedrus Socrates’ attempt to reconcile desire with the good, first is shot through with awe before mystery (why else does he interrupt his discourse to pray to the gods?), and second, is characterized by a refusal simply to react to the inherently nihilistic sophists by going to the other extreme. Instead he seeks a completely different route.

What is that route? Good question.

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