(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.

Implicit in this interpretation of the Lysis will be the contention that the choice to feature a main character named Lysis—whose name means “loosing” or “setting free”—for this dialogue is not accidental: “loosing” names the critical result of Socrates’ appeal, the outcome of his encounter with Lysis; and the nickname Lusi, by which Socrates fondly refers to the boy, is a stem used to form many compound words connected to such a setting free. This name supplies a word for the act of releasing—in a dual sense of freeing and of turning around—which is the first step of the learning process. The process of psychagogia involves the turning around of the whole person, the turning around Plato depicts allegorically in the Cave story in Republic VII. The buildup to Socrates’ meeting with this youth, in which the erotic philosopher agrees to position himself as a panderer in order to show Hippothales how to speak effectively to a beautiful beloved, is coupled with the boy’s name to engender the expectation that this conversation will exhibit dramatically a successful example of the Socratic approach, and thereby illuminate an emancipatory function within his kind of paideusis.

Socrates will attempt to set Lysis free in two ways: he will “loose” in Lysis a desire to improve himself, and he will disclose to him what he needs to do to complete his self-improvement. But beyond the knowledge of his limits and the heightened desire to possess good sense he gains from Socrates, Lysis receives another unexpected benefit from the encounter when he is shown the path to his freedom. It may turn out that the greatest benefit Socrates gives to others is less a formulaic, transferable set of information, or even a “method” or set of procedures for obtaining knowledge, that something such as empowerment, since the philosopher’s approach seems to be designed to impel youths like these toward their freedom. Now any discussion of ethical issues, and all prescriptions for right action, must necessarily presuppose freedom, since without the presumption of choice, it would make no sense for Socrates to speak of what one ought to do or not do. Without choice, there can be no ethics. Hence there is a fundamental sense in which a concern for freedom must precede any discussion of ethical matters. It is the cornerstone of Plato’s portrait of him that Socrates believes he is carrying out the god’s command by making it his vocation to exhort people to lead examined lives and to become as good and just as possible. So it should not be surprising that Socrates also will have much to say about freedom in these conversations.


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

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