The Soul Hasn't Changed Since Plato...

by Bircan ÜNVER



Plato premised in the Phaedrus the basic principles of the art of rhetoric: its aesthetic form and content, the role of the speech writer, and an analysis of the audience's role. These all affected and formed the art of rhetoric now used in literature and in many different kinds of television programming. This paper will relate the Phaedrus to contemporary times in the areas of love, the art of rhetoric, Socrates' absolute truth, and an analysis of the audience's soul.



Plato conveys a contemporary approach in Phaedrus because it contains three love letters written by a man to another man, and Plato plans to read them in front of the audience to persuade them with its content. We first read Lysias' unambiguous love letter to a man pretending it is Lysias "who is not in love with his lover". Socrates creates a second letter which also applies to a man conveying love either as something divine or as madness. The form and content of the third letter evolved from the two previously written love letters. These three letters premised a new form of the art of rhetoric.

While I was reading Phaedrus, these love letters written to a man by another man seemed completely natural; but when I consider this subject related to this time, I come to the conclusion that it is also very natural and modern, particularly if we look at the last two centuries. For instance, the subject of the Phaedrus brought to mind the tragic lives of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Tchaikovsky (1840-1893); their tragedy was substantially a result of their homosexuality.

In various cultures it is still a significant tradition for a lover to prove his love by actions. Possibly, in this respect, the significance of presenting a love letter to a lover has changed from Plato's era. Today no one reads a love letter in front of an audience. On the one hand letter writing has become much more personalized, oriented more towards family, society and religion; on the other hand it has become a part of the popular culture: Valentine Day's, love novels, films, published love letters.

In this century gay rights is still a controversial issue in the military and in some businesses and political institutions. Thus, we see that Phaedrus is a contemporary masterpiece because it is ahead of the 20th century in subject matter as well as content.



Plato's principles of the art of rhetoric (427-347 BC.) shaped the format of today's written and oral communication. In Phaedrus, he proposed and developed a form of the art of the rhetoric through the three love letters. Plato has created a structure or body of the rhetoric with head, feet, and hands, and has given that structure content and direction: The purpose of a speech, the communicator's soul, persuasion, the role of the speech writer, all these have been used in today's print and electronic media. In our time, Plato's structure for rhetoric still shapes the media, and the media shapes us. Contemporary media, news formats, and talk shows have all been shaped by the basic form and structure of rhetoric developed by Plato. "What is going to be in the news or on the talk show?" "What is happening now and what is being shown?" "What have we just been told?" Answers to these questions form the very basic structure of television and radio news programs. They have been used in print media and most powerfully used by the electronic media. They are Plato's structure for rhetoric.



One of the major aims of rhetoric, according to Socrates, is to seek an absolute truth. However, there aren't any 'absolute truths' either in Socrates' time or now. In Phaedrus Socrates explains, "In the first place a man must know the truth about any subject that he deals with, either in speech or writing; he must be able to define it generally, and having defined it, to divide it into its various specific kinds until he reaches the limit of divisibility." (Phaedrus, p.100)

What happens when we apply Socrates' idea of 'absolute truth' to the abortion issue in today's America? Many American anti-abortion groups and some politicians believe that whatever the mother's physical, social and economic conditions, the potential mother has to give birth; she does not have any right to make a decision whether to have a baby or not. Having a baby or not is a very personal issue as well as a social, political, and religious one. There might be many persuasive points based on some truth according to each political, social and religious communicator. In particular, the abortion issue has already created the two opposing groups called "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice".

Jon Albert's documentary, "High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell" (DCTV-1994), shockingly brings out many unanswered questions related to the abortion issue. In the documentary, Brenda, the featured character, is a heavy crack addict and prostitute.
The result of her pregnancy test is positive. While she was considering abortion, she was crying and telling the doctor that she previously had an abortion under family pressure when she was a teenager. Later in the documentary when she was five months pregnant she had an appointment at the hospital to have an abortion but she didn't show up. Under these circumstances how would the"Pro-Life" group support Brenda? I think that there does not exist an absolute truth, since every issue has many layers. If we have applied Socrates's "absolute truth" philosophy on the abortion issue in today's America, it wouldn't be sufficent to convince us that, there is an "absolute truth" in relation with the obortion issue.



In Phaedrus, Socrates classifies the audience's soul in terms of how speakers persuade the audience with the content of the speech, which is very similar to the practice in this century. The politicians or the communicators merely target and try to influence a mass audience either by written or oral methods. In Socrates' words: "The function of speech is to influence the soul. It follows that the would-be speaker must know how many types of souls there are. The number is finite, and they account for the variety of individual characters. When these have been determined one must enumerate the various types of speech, a finite number also." (Phaedrus, p.91)
In our time, 'types of souls' also are finite. The main structure remains very similar to Socrates's in all variety of speech type in order to 'how to persuade an audience', or how to convince an audience'. Not only in a speech, most of television news and programming, and printed report or articles also have been structured with the very similar type of approaches to Socrates. If the soul had been changed since then, perhaps today we would have infinitive types of souls, and much more variety types of 'persuasion' and 'convincions' in today visual or written media.

The soul directly touches the human being in the "Information Age" as well as it did in Socrates and Plato's era. Everything has changed since Socrates's time. Despite this, the modern human soul did not replace something entirely different than what is was. The soul still transmits similar human values: positive-negative and good-bad. Perhaps, this century has added another perspective to it, which aims reaching the mass's soul and persuading mass's mind, rather than indivuduals.



This paper has taken the following themes from Phaedrus and related them to the 20th century: love, the art of rhetoric, Socrates' absolute truth, and an analysis of the audience's soul. We see that love has a much more modern face in Phaedrus than in this century; the art of rhetoric still continues to shape communications (even the electronic media) very effectively; the audience's soul has not changed significantly; and Plato's absolute truth does not apply to this century.

Overall, I think we have missed something relating to the human soul which is very essential as human beings: we are now led or fed by media, where the worst event is the most valuable or newsworthy story. This causes the collapse of many layers and values in the human soul. At the same time, the 20th century has added intellectualism, the art of persuading the mind rather than the soul. In order to develop rhetoric for the future, we must go back to its original form. We will rediscover rhetoric's essence and perhaps combine with it a subtle level of intellectualism. I hope this will create a new approache for the media.

Thus, in the future the media might be persuaded to shift between reporting "bad" news and reporting "good" news.


(This essay was written base on the book, "Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII" by Plato, October 1997, New York)

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@The Light Millennium magazine was created and designed
by Bircan Unver. January 2000, New York