Words, Madness

Strange it is to be reading a text of Socrates' dialogues wherein he criticizes the inferiority of the written text to the spoken word. He says (275d): "Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing."
The written word, Socrates says (275d-e), cannot defend itself and as a text available to any audience, as opposed to a speech delivered to a chosen few, it is easily taken out of context by those who do not understand: abused and reviled. Hadot writes of similar concerns other schools of ancient philosophy, whose teachings were guarded against the uninitiated, so often not written, or if so, disguised in all manner of allegory. One asks the creatures that stand in the paintings that we do have: help.
Socrates says (276b): there is much that is playful in the written word (the creatures are not to be taken literally or to carry one away) and that it is to remind us of what we know. We are to seek words "really written in a soul" by speakers who have lived justice, beauty, the good, and who have that word in themselves, talking to instruct, to germinate the word in others. Here, we cannot ask Socrates any questions. His words stand undefended, and yet we return to the start of this part of his speech: the written word is playful, to remind us of what we already know. We cannot expect all of what he says to be the right rhetorical medicine for our specific situation...
Socrates is no dogmatist, in his metaphor of the charioteer, he recognizes that there are people at various levels of development and purity, the lowest relying on direction from their opinions, not from the truth; those who try to grow but are weaker are not damned. Socrates says (277d-e): "For whether one be awake or asleep, ignorance of right and wrong and good and bad is in truth inevitably a disgrace, even if the whole mob applaud it."
The successful human charioteer, given one good horse and an ambiguous one, fights against the latter to strive towards that which is good: when reminded of beauty, the wings charioteers had before they fell from heaven begin to grow back. Man is not to take beauty literally and fall for the weakness of beautiful flesh, but see said beauty as a symbol.

Yet the star-gazing philosopher, who understands the other half of the symbol lies in heaven, is rebuked by the more terrestrial - and thence begins Socrates' discussion of madness, "which comes from god, is superior to sanity, which is of human origin" (244b on). He lists prophecy, relief from present ills to offset an ancient disease of guilt through prayer and sacrifice, poetry, and philosophy, adding these are but some of its forms. While poetry was oral, not written, it is worthwhile to note how Socrates views the poet: "by adorning countless deeds of the ancients [he] educates later generations". This segues to the metaphor of the charioteer, with a caveat (245b), "let us not be afraid on that point, and let no one disturb and frighten us by saying that the reasonable friend should be preferred to him who is in a frenzy."
What a fascinating idea in this age of the institutionalization of the "mad" who are now referred to through euphemisms. Of course, one could argue about the many differences in lifestyle apparent in Phaedrus, such as frequent mention of men with their boy lovers. But Socrates says: these are painted creatures - the task of the seeker is to find those lasting values and ideas - which cannot be agreed upon because "the whole mob" may in fact be following opinion, not truth.
Thence the reason why Socrates argues in favour of speech - the hermeneutic discourse defended in the modern age by Gadamer, so beautifully explained in Phaedrus as a natural, noble process that may bring fruit in the minds of others as well as in the mind of the speaker (re.,276b; nb., he suffered from his own daemon, so is this by way of apology, or an illustration of how familial troubles keeps some of the family sane as they avoid the mania of hubris that will be hinted at below?). In other words: we are to engage in the process of trying to figure out truth with ever more clarity: the attempt is ours, the wisdom belongs to god (misplaced passage no.).
The lover of wisdom may be rebuked by others who possess not the need to look behind the appearance of things so remain in the realm of deception. The idea that Socrates calls this pursuit of clarity "madness" is fascinating in that indeed, from the terrestrial perspective where people shove each other aside in a "frenzy" to obtain transient fame and worldly riches, it is madness: forfeiting a station on the social ladder - for what? Inner happiness, essentially invisible.

This "mad" pursuit of wisdom or the song of poetry is picked up on in texts as diverse as Kahlil Gibran's Madman; Baudelaire's "j'ai senti passer sur moi le vent de l'aile de l'imbécillité"; Dickinson's "Much madness is divinest sense" to list the first that come to mind.
Indeed, μανία can mean inspired, if usually inspired frenzy. But Socrates gives his own etymology, calling upon the mantic (μαντικός) art of seeing: mania is not shameful, he says, it denoted the noble and ancient art of prophecy. While we cannot deny that μανίη is the word used in tragedy to denote a character's unwillingness to listen to reason, or the legal attempt to do something beyond one's power, as Joel Mann points out, he also observes that this same word is used to denote those critics of doctors who do not realise that sometimes there is nothing to be done for a patient, not because the doctor is unlearned, but because the doctor knows that there is no known cure. So μανίη may also be taken to denote those who see not the limits of their knowledge: those who feel self-satisfied and the mania of hubris mentioned above. The kind of thinker who thinks they have reached wisdom, whatever the brand. 
An opposite view is that there is something beyond man that he is to strive for but which will always be larger than he is. Hymn CXXV Vāk. of the Rig Veda is about the word - that requires worship, which is only natural due to its greatness in proportion to man. It is "the gatherer-up of treasures, most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship ... through me alone all eat the food that feeds them ... I make the man I love ... a sage ... I breathe a strong breath like the ... tempest, the while I hold together all existence."
Socrates' due humility is woven throughout Phaedrus: he appologises to the gods for the previous speeches he deemed misled, and when he swears, for instance, he uses a minced oath (influenced by Cretan king Rhadamanthus?) and swears by a plane-tree, not the gods. In this "mad" universe, the painted creatures of his words are measured, even as I light a fire beneath them with my questions and watch them dance - like how Herzog imagined the  - allegorical? - caves at Chauvet.


  1. I don't know how it is, but somehow in relation to reading E.'s Hippolytus it seemed that for several perhaps distinct reasons, the Phaedrus is highly relevant - the charioteer, of course, and the written text. Reading this seems almost uncanny, and of course foregrounds the mania. Soc. swears on a plane tree that is also a platanos, I think?

  2. Indeed - I kept thinking of the similarities myself; one is glad that one has not arrived at a false analogy...
    As for the plane tree, I did not read the P. in Greek (my progress is almost non-existent) but as for the English, and this I had to check, it's the Platanus family; that said, how suitable it is what you wrote, and pardon if you meant I immediately understand: to swear, that's bananas! That is wonderfully amusing.


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