Along the river Ilissus, under the plane trees, on a sunny spring day.
P: Socrates, what are you doing here? You always say that you can learn nothing from nature. You’ve told us that we must be among other human beings in the city, reasoning along with them, if we are ever going to draw near to wisdom.
S: True, my dear Phaedrus. But lately I feel a great need to be alone. And outside the walls of our city, which more and more preoccupies me. When I stand alone beside a pillar, lost in contemplation, as you know often happens, people mock me – as if meditation were idle, and bustling around the only profitable thing.
P: It’s funny you say that because I came out here myself – where we had our last talk, as you may remember – because I wanted to get away from the current uproar and try to figure some things out.
S: I’ll never forget that conversation of ours Phaedrus, because we came to several important truths about the nature of love and the way it moves speech, people, and cities – a subject I never tire of.
P: Well, that’s just the thing, Socrates. There’s almost a fistfight going on at home just now about matters of love, the gods, and the city.
S: Then I’m glad, because those are three important things human beings must come to understand.
P: They aren’t seeking much understanding just at this moment, Socrates. It all started when a woman of Lesbos, who also seems to worship a god – he’s named Buda, I think – whose teachings come from the distant lands where the sun rises, entered a shrine to another god – I think also from the East, but his followers are now in the West, the Romaioi I think they’re called – and demanded to be allowed to participate in their most sacred mysteries, which they were celebrating for her mother, who just died, and. . . .
S: Slow down, Phaedrus. You’re mixing up many things because of your passions, which young people should check, if they want to reason their way to truth. Do you realize that you just said that a woman from Lesbos who follows “Buda” demanded to be admitted to another god’s most sacred mysteries.
P: That’s exactly right. And she’s denounced a priest – who refused her – to his superiors, the high priests, demanding he be banished. The high priests are embroiled in a dispute with the city just now over their right to follow their own ways of devotion to the god. And – at least so goes the gossip – some of them really don’t like confrontation. In any case, they removed the priest.
S: My young friend, have you lost your wits? You’re saying that the high priests of the cult of one god are reprimanding one of their own because he didn’t admit a woman who worships another god to their sacred rites? The high priests are prudent and steady men. I’m sure you have things mixed up. That isn’t the least bit logical or sensible. It would only invite chaos and further conflicts.
Socrates and Phaedrus
P: I don’t know about any of that. But I do know that she is indeed demanding the priest be dismissed. And it’s the talk of the agora. Moreover, the professional gossipers are reporting that some people who claim to be followers of the Western god are saying that she’s right: anyone who deems himself worthy should be admitted to their sacred mysteries.
S: Well. Here is something new, my young friend. Why even have sacred mysteries at all, if anyone may decide to walk in and participate in them? It makes the temple like one of those food shops along the open porticoes in the agora.
P: I know, Socrates. And what’s stranger is that the high priests of the Western god apologized to her in a letter. They didn’t say, exactly, that what she wanted was okay. But somehow they seem to believe that she was wronged, that it wasn’t just a misunderstanding. And even stranger, at the same time, they’re trying to resist the current rulers of the city, who are trying to regulate the schools and agencies of the Western cult, which is arguing that it has a right to its own distinctive beliefs and practices.
S: If what you say is true, my young friend, this is not good for the city. If private citizens can demand almost anything, even from the priests, they will soon be doing the same with their fellow citizens, and the rulers themselves. And the rulers will go along because they want the people’s support, and then our beloved Athenian Constitution will be like an Egyptian parchment buried beneath sand.
P: Some scattered individuals have made that point Socrates. But the conflict grows greater and greater, with no end in sight.
S: I am not surprised. This bodes ill. To introduce quarrels among the gods into the affairs of men often leads to disaster. You have studied Homer. Troy was destroyed because of the Apple of Discord that forced Paris to choose between two goddesses. And Odysseus, poor man, had to wander for ten years because he got caught up in that dispute. And even when worshippers offend their own god, it’s no better. Some barbarian tribes, I’m told, believe that their god has made the people spend forty years in a desert for their offenses – so that a whole, evil generation would die out.
P: The gods forbid that such a fate should fall on our city.
S. May they indeed, o pious Phaedrus. And may the heavenly love that sets all other loves in divine harmony come down and powerfully show itself among us again.