Socratic dialogue. It discusses the object of love, the dear (φίλον), but it has also been maintained that it discusses friendship or, according to others, Love.

Setting

Lysis has the form of a continual narration of Socrates to an unknown person. Socrates goes from the Academy to the Lyceum, following the external perimeter of the walls of Athens and, in front of a palestra, he meets some youths and among them two of his acquaintances, Ippothales and Ktesippus. Conversing with them, he is informed on the love of Ippothales for a younger adolescent, Lysis and on Ippothales’ efforts to win Lysis’ affection. Socrates shows to Ippothales that the way he has adopted is ineffective and he undertakes to show him in practice how he could effectively seduce Lysis (203a–207b). From then on, the dialogue takes place within the palestra, between Socrates, Lysis and Lysis’ friend Menexenus. Although Socrates achieves to seduce Lysis rather quickly, the conversation goes on for quite some time, until the slaves that supervise the adolescents (παιδαγωγοί), interrupt it.

Two of the persons of the dialogue, Ktesippus and Menexenus are encountered also in other platonic dialogues (Euthydemus, Menexenus and Phaedo). Lysis is a real historical person, contemporary to Plato. The conversation takes place on the day of Hermaea (beginning of spring), probably around 409B.C.

Structure and content

The main discussion deals with an issue akin to the issue of the definition, namely, to the question “who is φίλος?” The question is ambiguous, because of the range of meanings of the ancient word, which includes the friend in the contemporary meanings of the word, but also the dear person and even (in the neutral: φίλον), any object of liking. Socrates exploits artfully and fully the ambivalence. The discussion consists in various attempts to provide an answer that can be divided to two main circles:

In a first circle (203a-207b) Socrates persuades Lysis that people are lovable if they are useful and they are useful if they have knowledge, if they are wise. Since Lysis’ knowledge is very limited, it follows that, at least for the time being, Lysis is not particularly useful and loved, not even by his relatives. Lysis realizes that the conclusion is humiliating, but, at the same time, he is fascinated and charmed by Socrates.

Although it seems that the question “who is φίλος?” has been answered, a second circle of discussion begins, that comprises four attempts to answer the question and all of them lead to an impasse. First (211a-213d), φίλος is approached as subject or/and object of the verb φιλώ (love). All the eventual answers are rejected, either for the reason that they do not apply in cases of inanimate things or as inadequate in the cases that the object of love is a person. Next, likeness and contrariety are examined as the essential features of the friends (213e-216b), criteria that refer to the cosmological doctrines. Likeness is refuted by introducing the features of the good and the bad: bad persons harm each other, while good persons are useless to each other. Contrariety is refuted logically, by pointing that the friend cannot be friend with its contrary, i.e., the enemy. The next approach (213e-216b) is based on the supposition that there is something which is neither good nor bad and it is examined whether this can be friend with the good. The cause of such a friendship is supposed to be the bad, which threatens the “neither good nor bad” and hence this seeks the good. In relation to this two considerations occur: (1) the various goods are “friends” as means for the attainment of further goods and, hence, in view of the danger of an infinite series of friends, (2) we have to accept the existence of a primary good, a “first friend” for whose sake the other goods are lovable. This is of course loved because of the threat of the bad. But this cause is, in turn, refuted by the introduction of the notion of desire and the consideration that various objects are desirable and consequently lovable independently of any threat by something bad (220b-221d). Thus a new cause is adopted, that which belongs to us (but currently we are deprived of), as the object of desire, friendship and love (221d-222b). But the young conversers of Socrates are unable to distinguish what belongs to us from the like (see text 1) and thus the new approach faces the impasse of the approach based on likeness. At this point Socrates intends to continue the discussion with older members of the audience, but the meeting ends abruptly with the invasion of the boys’ guardians.

1. “So are you prepared,’ I said, ‘since we ‘re intoxicated with our argument, that we should agree to say that belonging is something different from being like?’ ‘Yes, absolutely.’ ‘Shall we then also lay it down that the good belongs [is oikeion] to everyone and the bad is alien [sc. to everyone]? Or [shall we lay it down] that the bad belongs to the bad, to the good the good, and to the neither good nor bad the neither good nor bad?’ They both said it seemed to them like this, that each belongs to each. ‘In that case,’ I said, ‘we ‘ve fallen back into things said about friendship that we discarded the first time round;” (Lysis 222c-d, trans. Penner & Row.)
Interpretation of the dialogue

What is the object of Lysis? Is Lysis an aporetic dialogue or it presents a positive theory? A key for answering both questions is provided by the perspective that remains open at the end of the conversation. Although the dialogue typically leads to an impasse, it is very obvious that an important option remains unexamined: the thesis that what belongs to us (who are neither entirely good, nor entirely bad) is the good. In this way comes to the fore again the approach of the love of the “neither good nor bad” for the good. But now the cause of the love is not any longer the threat of the bad, but the good itself, as something that we lack. Thus, we can soundly assume that this is the approach that the boys cannot discern and Socrates intends to discuss with more mature persons. Nonetheless, Plato instead, chooses to give a dramatic end to the dialogue and to leave the issue suspended [to suspend the examination]. His choice denotes that he considers that at this point a circle of inquiry has come to an end and that the requirements of new immerging circle are so different, that it is preferable to be treated in a literarily independent work.

How should we determine the unity of the circle that Lysis constitutes? First, we can infer that Plato refuses to construe a theory of friendship (in the current meaning of the word). A theory of friendship makes sense only if some sort of reciprocity (mutual response, mutual recognition etc.) determines the form on love or concern that the friends have for one another. Plato, in contrast, by leading the examination towards the good as the object of love, seeks a non-reciprocal relation, since, obviously, the good does not respond. Should we, then (insisting on prominent dramatic features of the dialogue), consider that Love is the object of dialogue? In such a case Lysis should be interpreted as a research which is finally completed in the Symposium and the Phaedrus. This is true in some degree, but it seems that in the Lysis a wider research is undertaken, a research that is not merely a preparatory work in view of these dialogues: taking as a point of departure the experiences of Love and friendship, Lysis constitutes a systematic, analytic investigation of the attraction of whatever is an object of love, insisting on the notions of usefulness, likeness and contrariety, the good and the belonging to someone. The investigation is clearly orientated towards the platonic metaphysic, but it consciously stops at its doorstep, the moment that further examination requires the determination of the nature of the good, on the one hand, and of human nature, on the other, in order to explain in what way the good constitutes the object of human desire.

Date of composition

The Lysis is usually considered as a dialogue of Plato’s first period because of its aporetic form, the focus on human relations and the fact that the research constitutes, more or less, a quest of a definition. But its clear orientation towards platonic metaphysics and to dialogues of Plato’s middle period invites us to place it in between these two periods.

Author: Spyros Benetatos
  • Rowe, C., Penner, T. Plato’s Lysis. Cambridge, 2005.
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