The Phaedrus is among Plato's deepest and most moving dialogues. It is full of myth, poetry, insight and thought. Even more than is the case with most of Plato, it is difficult to pin this work down to consider it as a treatise on a single subject matter. The dialogue form and Plato's own thinking do not allow such reduction. Broadly speaking, the dialogue deals with the nature of love with this question threaded in with a discussion of the nature of speech and writing and their respective roles in thinking about important questions (such as the nature of love.) The main body of the dialogue consists of three speeches, one a written speech by Lysias, and two oral speeches by Socrates. The speech by Lysias and the first speech of Socrates argue that it is more advangateous for a young person to be wooed by a person who does not love him. Socrates second speech, the pivotal portion of the dialogue, strongly takes issue with this in a discussion of the nature of love, passion (madness), the human soul, and the world of Platonic form.
Graeme Nicholson is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a fellow of Trinity College. His book is a study of the Phaedrus prepared as part of a series of Purdue University Press' History of Philosophy Series, each volume of which is devoted to a detailed consideration of a specific philosophical text. The Phaedrus has received such consideration in other studies (by Charles Griswold, Luc Brisson, Seth Bernadette, among other scholars), but the work is inexhaustible and well deserves the extended treatment it receives here. Nicholson, properly and commendably, philosophizes with Plato. He sees the ancient character of the texts but does not stop there. He tries to show how the Phaedrus, with all its antiquity, addresses problems of modern readers in an important an elucidating way.
Nicholson's focus is on the nature of love. Many readers understand Plato to argue that eros is a step on the way to a broader, rationalistic understanding of the ideas. But Nicholson argues well that the Phaedrus reverses this pattern. Plato here sees eros and passion - a commitment to study and to understanding and a fire within one -- as a precondition to any serious endeavor, philosophical or otherwise. Nicholson proceeds to show how this understanding of eros allows Plato in the Phaedrus to take a broader view of the nature of myth, poetry, rhetoric, and music as themselves contributing to and enabling the process of philosophical understanding. I find this a valuable insight into the Phaedrus.
Nicholson also has challenging things to say about Plato's concept of being (or of being-beyond-being). He sees this as a spritual and valuable concept, to simplify broadly, and as an important and, with current explanations and explications, viable antidote to much of the scientism and materialism in contemporary thought and in the assumptions of many people. This too is a valuable and thoughtful way of approaching the Phaedrus.
The core of Professor Nicholson's study is Socrates's great speech on love which he presents in Part II of the book in a fresh translation. This translation is followed by a long, careful, exploration in Part III of the various themes of the book. Part I of the book gives backround on Plato and on the Phaedrus's relationship to Plato's body of work. There are introductory chapters on myth, rhetoric, dialectic, and writing. All these themes are important to the Phaedrus and they are developed with good use of authority to other Platonic and Greek texts, and to the work of modern philosophers and scholars.
The book suffers somewhat but ignoring Plato's own order of presentation. There is this a lack of attention to the dramatic development -- to the manner in which Plato tries to show the interrelationship of the themes of the Phaedrus -- how one leads into another. This is no small task. Thus in the early sections of the book, Professor Nicholson discusses themes that Plato reserves for the end of the dialogue -- such as the nature of dialectic and the relative merits of writing and discussion. (The story of the god Theuth and his gift of writing to the King of Egypt is discussed early in Nicholson, for example, but it appears only at the end of the Phaedrus.) The presentation thus misses some of the opportunities to discuss how Plato and the reader should view the development of the themes in the dialogue.
It is good to read the Phaedrus -- or to reread it as the case may be -- in the context of reading and studying this book. I thought the book helped me understand and appreciate the Phaedrus and Plato. This great ancient philsopher has much to teach us.