At the beginning of one of Plato’s dialogues, its namesake, Phaedrus, lures Socrates outside of the city with the claim that he will try to recount, in his own words, a speech he has just heard from Lysias – a speech that claims that it is better to “give one’s favours” to a non-lover than a lover. Socrates, who has glimpsed the shape of a scroll in Phaedrus’s pocket, knows better and calls him out. Socrates is not content to let Phaedrus pretend that Lysias’s ideas are his own. As Socrates puts it, “though I love you dearly, I’ll never, as long as Lysias himself is present, allow you to practice your own speechmaking on me”(228e).
At first, Socrates’s point seems pedantic, for, regardless of whether Phaedrus pretends it’s his own speech or not, Socrates will still hear the same thing. As the dialogue proceeds, Socrates point becomes clear. After hearing why a non-lover is a better “lover” than a lover, Socrates is forced to give a similar speech of his own. For, he notes, Lysias left many important points out. Before beginning, Socrates covers his head, pretending he’s embarrassed to be seen competing with such a great rhetorician as Lysias. He then metaphorically covers his head again and further distances himself from what he is about to say with prefacing remarks that indicate that the speech he will give takes place in a particular, seemingly fictitious, situation.
Socrates notes that there was once a young man with many suitors and one of them, who loved him no less than the others, thought that the way to win his heart would be to tell hm a speech that would mark him out as different and thus superior to the rest. The suitor, Socrates says, asserted that he in fact was a non-lover, and, if the boy was smart, he would follow him rather than any of the others, for his lack of love would allow him to guide the young man best. In other words, Socrates reveals that the non-lover in the speech is actually a lover who lies about his identity to win an upper hand. We, of course, realize that the lover in the speech was is Lysias and the young man he is attempting to woo is Phaedrus. Similarly, we might think that Phaedrus was trying to do the same, for by pretending Lysias’s words were his own, Phaedrus was hoping to win Socrates’s admiration.
Given all the games played in the early stages of love (and war), this one seems relatively benign. A prior moment in the dialogue provides some insight to its importance. As Socrates and Phaedrus make their way down the river to the point where they will eventually lay down, Phaedrus asks Socrates if he believes in the myth that details the abduction of a beautiful young woman by Boreas, the north wind. Socrates says he doesn’t have time to worry about such things. Directed by the Delphic oracle to “know himself,” Socrates cannot think of other things until this first quest, a quest that might show him to be a strange and complicated beast, is completed. Further complicating things, a few moments earlier, Socrates had teased Phaedrus by saying, “If I don’t know my Phaedrus, I must be forgetting who I myself am – and neither is the case”(228a).
Socrates reveals himself, and all humans, to be very strange beasts, indeed – beasts whose whose self-knowledge is intricately connected to their knowledge of those who they love and are loved by in turn. If this is true, then Socrates’s insistence that Phaedrus not pretend to be anyone else beings to make sense. For if Phaedrus were to pretend that Lysias’s words were his own, if he were to present himself as Lysias, then whatever Socrates might learn of himself would also somehow be false.
In what way might this be true? One way to think it through is to think about ourselves in relation to our loved ones. What is it about them that we love? If you were to answer, I love their beautiful face, then you also know something about yourself. You are a lover of physical beauty. If that’s the only thing you can think of that attracts you to your beloved, then you might conclude, perhaps unsettlingly, that you are a somewhat superficial person. If you, however, to dig a little deeper and say that you love that your beloved is kind or generous. Then you could conclude that you love kindness, and, in knowing this, might strive to become more kind yourself. Now imagine that the person you loved only pretended to be kind, but was really quite nasty. Your understanding of kindness might be tainted. In fact, you might become quite cynical about kindness. Thinking of your previous self as rather naïve, you might strive to harden your heart against others so as not to be deceived again.
We can correspondingly understand why Socrates must bag his head when he pretends to be a non-lover. Knowledge, Plato suggests, is dependent on the presence of love. First, we know that we are only moved to learn about things that interest us or the things that we desire to know. A second component, however, is also necessary. The object we seek to know must be disclosed to us. While inanimate objects seem to merely “appear” for our investigation, animate being, particularly other people, have the ability to dissemble, in the way of Lysias, even disappear in the face of our desire, as Socrates tries to tie when he hides his face. To know the person we love, and to know ourselves in turn, the other person must reciprocate our desire and willingly reveal themselves and the nature of their love.
Self-knowledge, and perhaps all of understanding, is shown to be akin to both love and justice. It requires the presence of others who reciprocate your desire, disclosing themselves so that you might know yourself just as they come to know themselves in turn.