Where have you come from, my dear Phaedrus?

I just came back to my office after the first meeting of my Spring honors seminar on Nature and Human Nature. I have taught this course for over 10 years, but I never have a clue how it will go. I do not know where these students have come from, what they know, or what they believe. And so much depends on the collection of student personalities in the room. Some classes are timid and unsure of themselves. Some are snarky and unfocused. Some I would like to keep forever and others I am happy to be rid of.

The first text we will read is Plato's Phaedrus, a work I've taught dozens of times. In rereading it for tomorrow, however, I noted for the first time how the opening line actually states the dialog's dramatic question perfectly. Socrates asks, “Where have you come from, my dear Phaedrus, and where are you going?” It's a question I often find myself asking about my students. In the dialog, of course, young Phaedrus has just come from hearing the sophist Lysias advocate the idea that it is better for young people to have affairs with those who do not love them than those who do. Upon hearing this rather preposterous thesis, Socrates begs him to repeat the speech so that they might determine whether or not its argument is sound.

In essence, Lysias has advised Phaedrus to use his youth and beauty to obtain pleasure, money and power. But, as Socrates will counter argue, these are not the ultimate aims of a human life because human beings are not truly of this world. They have a soul that longs for higher truth, which can be obtained by studying philosophy or by having their souls awakened through the divine madness of love. For Socrates, to speak of love as a mere transaction made for material gain and animal pleasures is profane and unworthy.

So tomorrow I will walk into class and the work will begin. I know what I will be thinking, too: Where are you all going, my dear little Phaedruses? Who will you be? What will you live for? And where will each of you end up? After all, nothing much is at stake in Plato's dialog, except perhaps a young person's humanity.


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