Learned by heart : pederastic reading and writing practices in Plato's Phaedrus

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2016-05

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Rather than reiterating the ways in which Phaedrus may be seen as Plato's positive reformulation of rhetoric, this paper focuses on reading the pederastic dynamic between the dialogue's interlocutors (and, by extension, it argues, between Plato and his contemporary audience as well as the text and future readers). Viewed thus, Phaedrus may be less invested than is generally supposed in settling whether rhetoric belongs more properly to the realm of doxa versus episteme or whether there is a clear and steadfast division between a "philosophical method" and a "rhetorical method" of teaching. Closer attention to Plato's pederastic language not only reunites the Phaedrus with its originally stated subject (i.e., the prospective benefits and detriments of the lover versus the nonlover, of mania versus sophrosune), it also clarifies the ways in which Plato contributed to contemporary debates over the Athenian paideia and highlights the ideal relationship between author, written word, and reader that his dialogues sought to foster. The paper begins with a brief description of pederastic practices and pederasty as an aristocratic phenomenon in 5th and 4th-century Athens, drawing on the constructionist approaches of Kenneth Dover and Michel Foucault. It then turns to the Phaedrus itself, reading the dialogue's dramatic setting, the intensifying erotic and poetic force of its three speeches, and its denouement with the so-called Myth of Theuth. The matter at hand is twofold: Why pederasty and how pederasty? Why does the dialogue include various references to rape, trickery, or force and how does Plato advocate particular reading and writing practices via the extended pederastic play of Phaedrus? These questions lead to an abbreviated survey of sophistic approaches to rhetorical education in 4th-century Athens, touching on the expanded sense of paideia and the rivalry between Plato and Isocrates. The paper's conclusion carries Phaedrus into the 21st-century classroom, ultimately proposing that learning Plato's dialogue, in more ways than one, may serve as a propaedeutic to rhetorical studies in the digital humanities and adjacent fields.

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