In a previous lecture I referred you to the beautiful opening and the yet more beautiful close of the “Phaedrus.” Let us turn back and refresh ourselves with that Dialogue while we learn from it, in somewhat more of detail, just what a book meant to an Athenian: how fresh a thing it was to him and how little irksome.
Phaedrus has spent his forenoon listening to a discourse by the celebrated rhetorician Lysias on the subject of Love, and is starting to cool his head with a stroll beyond the walls of the city, when he encounters Socrates, who will not let him go until he has delivered up the speech with which Lysias regaled him, or, better still, the manuscript, ’which I suspect you are carrying there in your left hand under your cloak.’ So they bend their way beside Ilissus towards a tall plane tree, seen in the distance. Having reached it, they recline.
‘By Hera,’ says Socrates, ’a fair resting-place, full of summer sounds and scents! This clearing, with the agnus castus in high bloom and fragrant, and the stream beneath the tree so gratefully cool to our feet! Judging from the ornaments and statues, I think this spot must be sacred to Acheloues and the Nymphs. And the breeze, how deliciously charged with balm! and all summer’s murmur in the air, shrilled by the chorus of the grasshoppers! But the greatest charm is this knoll of turf,—positively a pillow for the head. My dear Phaedrus, you have been a delectable guide.’
‘What an incomprehensible being you are, Socrates,’ returns Phaedrus. ’When you are in the country, as you say, you really are like some stranger led about by a guide. Upon my word, I doubt if you ever stray beyond the gates save by accident.’
’Very true, my friend: and I hope you will forgive me for the reason—which is, that I love knowledge, and my teachers are the men who dwell in the city, not the trees or country scenes. Yet I do believe you have found a spell to draw me forth, like a hungry cow before whom a bough or a bunch of fruit is waved. For only hold up before me in like manner a book, and you may lead me all round Attica and over the wide world.’
So they recline and talk, looking aloft through that famous pure sky of Attica, mile upon mile transparent; and their discourse (preserved to us) is of Love, and seems to belong to that atmosphere, so clear it is and luminously profound. It ends with the cool of the day, and the two friends arise to depart. Socrates looks about him.
’Should we not, before going, offer up a prayer to these local deities?’
‘By all means,’ Phaedrus agrees.
Socrates (praying): ’Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, grant me beauty in the inward soul, and that the outward and inward may be at one! May I esteem the wise to be the rich; and may I myself have that quantity of gold which a temperate man, and he only, can carry.... Anything more? That prayer, I think, is enough for me.’
Phaedrus. ’Ask the same for
me, Socrates. Friends, methinks,
should have all things in common.’