(BLSB) - On 'Lysis' by Plato

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Courtship Scene Between Youth and Boy. Attic red-figure cup by Makron, c. 480 BCE. Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, 2655.


From Plato's Socrates as Educator by Gary Alan Scott (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000). Footnotes omitted.

Lysis and Menexenus are the two characters generally thought to be Socrates’ youngest interlocutors in any dialogue. They are probably about twelve or thirteen years old. That Plato chooses to have Socrates talk to very young characters has two main effects: (1) It underscores a necessary limit to the depth of the treatment of love and friendship in the argumentation; and (2) It provides an opportunity to see how Socrates’ approach to the boys contrasts with a panderer’s such as Hippothales in conventional Greek homoerotic practices. The first implication should temper in the audience any expectation of a seasoned treatment of the dialogue’s themes. Their young age furnishes an explicit reason for the inconclusiveness of the dialogue’s argumentation, and this apparent inconclusiveness forces Plato’s audience to piece together the undeveloped strands of argument in order to discover the important philosophical problems at issue. One can expect the arguments in the Lysis to go only as far as the philosophical maturity of its young characters allows. One should not expect from this dialogue an elaborate taxonomy of friendship, though the broad outline for a more penetrating study is, I believe, finely sketched and a general, positive account of friendship can be constructed from Socrates’ refutation of the first three theses about the friend considered in the Lysis, as Section 2.c will demonstrate.

The first three theses are: (1) Like is attracted to like; (2) Only the truly good are friends; and (3) Opposites attract. Socrates exposes problems with each of these three possible accounts of friendship in the course of their conversation. He accomplishes his refutations by offering the boys extreme definitions—for example, taking the Good to mean completely good, and thereby self-sufficient—and by introducing principles that he does not actually argue for in this context, for example, the view that the wicked cannot be friends to anyone or anything. But the refutations of the extreme positions produce a final thesis—“that the intermediate alone is truly friend to the Good”—and a reorienting notion concerning what is akin (oikos). Whatever else can be positively reconstructed from the leftover pieces of these arguments will be discussed in Section 2.c.

Why does Plato select such young interlocutors for this dialogue? If older characters are necessary in order for Socrates to explore the question of philia in all of its richness, why would Plato handicap the discussion by making the philosopher talk to such young characters? One can only assume, I think, that he did not regard this choice as handicapping him at all in carrying out his objectives in this dialogue, and thus that he casts these youths here to illustrate something else. What does their youthfulness allow him to exhibit? In addition to the uncritical trust that binds the friendship between Lysis and Menexenus, the dialogue seems to have as one of its goals the exhibition of the effectiveness of Socrates’ erotic approach through a positive example of Socratic education with Lysis. Unlike the many cases in which he is not successful in teaching his interlocutors anything, unlike those cases in which he is spectacularly unable to transform another’s view of the world, the Lysis offers a dramatic enactment of a successful Socratic lesson. And Lysis’ age is essential to the result. Thus the Lysis demonstrates just how Socrates’ erotic approach to promising youths produces in them a kind of “empowerment,” while aiming at their ultimate liberation.


Socrates teaching a youth (1811) by José Aparicio Inglada. Oil on canvas, 137 × 103 cm (Castres, France: Musée Goya).

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