Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 4, the Lysis and the nature of friendship

Achilles and Patroclus: philia, eros, or both?

The ancient Greeks had a number of words that translate to the modern English “love,” and rightly so, since there are different manifestations and nuances of the concept. The Lysis deals with one particular kind, rendered in the original as “philia,” which refers to fond affection, as distinct, for instance, from the kind of passionate love that goes under the term “eros” (the latter is the subject of one of the best Platonic dialogues, the Symposium, which I will not cover in this series).

Interestingly, the main characters in the dialogue are related by a complex web of philia and eros: the young Hippothales is in love with the title character, Lysis, and that love is definitely (homo) erotic (if, at the moment of the action, unreciprocated by Lysis). Indeed, Hippothales is explicitly referred to as the (would be) eron, or sexually active partner, because he is older, while Lysis would be the eromenos, or sexually passive one, since he is younger. Lysis, meanwhile feels philia toward another boy, Menexenus, and Socrates is also in a relationship of philia, toward all three boys.

Moreover, the dialogue connects philia and paideia, or education, because philia means you want to make someone happy, and education makes people happy — in the Socratic scheme of things — because it allows people to choose and then pursue what they want. This may sound strange, but remember that knowledge, for Socrates, is always knowledge of the good, even outside the strictly moral context. So a condition for happiness is to know what is good for you (as well as what is bed, and therefore to be avoided). As a generalization of this, then, everyone will feel philia for the wise person, and vice versa, a conclusion that later led the Stoics to imagine that in their ideal Republic (inhabited by wise people) everyone would naturally love everyone else, the perfection of the notion of cosmopolitanism.

Unfortunately, the dialogue is rather confusing, because of “Plato’s failure to distinguish between philia as a loving human relationship and philia as the pursuit of a loved object [in the abstract]. These are essentially separate questions, but Plato treats them as if they were the same [for a reason, as we shall see]. He starts off by investigating the former, moves without warning to considering the second, and then abruptly embraces the first again.” (p. 115)

It’s also noteworthy, in this dialogue, that although Menexenus is supposed to represent the sophists (and he is characterized as a “formidable opponent in debate”) we actually see Socrates himself engage in a bit of sophistry, as when he argues for one answer to the question at hand (what is friendship?), and then for its opposite. Despite its limitations, the scene setting and characters are captivating, and the eristics throughout the dialogue are dazzling, so the Lysis is certainly worth reading in its entirety.

The dialogue begins by setting the scene and then introducing the distinction between unreciprocated eros (between Hipothales and Lysis) and reciprocated philia (between Lysis and Menexenus). Just to give you a flavor, here is how Hippothales answers Socrates when the latter asks him what he and his friends are doing:

‘We spend our time there,’ he went on, ‘and we’re not the only ones. Lots and lots of other young men do too, handsome young men.’ ‘What is this place? What do you do here?’ ‘It’s a wrestling-school,’ he said, ‘built not long ago. We spend most of our time there having discussions. We’d be glad to have you join us in them.’

That’s no gym I’ve ever gone too… A little later, Socrates says to Hippothales:

‘I may not know much else, I may be useless at other things, but somehow God’s given me the power to recognize in an instant a man in love and the boy he’s in love with.’

So much for the notion of the philosopher lost in the clouds! Socrates goes on giving a veritable lesson on love to Hippothales, putting forth philia as a superior kind of love (and friendship), because one is concerned with the happiness of the other person, and wish to educate him in order to help him (remember that Hippothales is older than Lysis, and of course Socrates is older than both). Indeed, we even get some idea of how to conduct good parenting, also based on philia: we want to educate our children (in the broad sense of making them wise, not just giving them formal schooling) so that they will have the opportunity to pursue what they want, thus achieving happiness (eudaimonia). Moreover, knowledge in this broad sense makes one both useful and good, and therefore universally sought after as a philos, a friend.

Socrates is pretty pleased with his demonstration to Hyppothales of how to talk to the young Lysis, but he refrains from embarrassing his interlocutor:

“I looked at Hippothales and almost put my foot in it. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, ‘There, Hippothales, that’s how one ought to talk to one’s boy, making him humble and unaffected, not, as you do, making him conceited and spoiled.’ Well, I noticed he was squirming with embarrassment at what we’d been saying and I remembered that, though he was standing near by, he wanted to avoid being seen by Lysis, so I checked myself and said nothing.”

The next section in the Lysis is where the confusion begins, because Plato alternates between the masculine (philos) and the neutral (philon) versions of the central term. Moreover, Socrates begins by asking “how does a person become a friend of another?” but then immediately switches to “when someone loves someone else, which is the friend of which?” After a complex series of steps, some leading to paradoxical answers that are rightly rejected (e.g., (i) I love wine; (ii) wine cannot love me in return; (iii) therefore, wine is not dear to me), Socrates gets to the important point: philia does not need to be reciprocated, which means that one can love one’s enemy, as counterintuitive as that may sound. Notice that this cannot be the case for eros, which cannot be fulfilled if not reciprocated.

‘Then, Menexenus, it would appear that what is loved is dear to what loves it whether it loves what loves it or whether it actually hates it. For example, some newly born children do not yet love, while others actually hate their mother or father when they are punished by them. None the less they are most dear to their parents at the time they actually hate them.’

Socrates then engages in a convoluted discussion aimed at determining whether friendship is something that happens between people that are “like” or “unlike” (meaning similar or opposites), and concludes by rejecting both possibilities (though not exactly in an airtight fashion). Where is he going? We get the answer when he concludes what a friend is by way of an analogy with philosophy (of course), i.e., with love of wisdom:

“The example of philosophy, the love of wisdom, is used to illustrate and summarize the results: (i) those who are already wise no longer love wisdom: like (good) is not friend to like (good); there is no presence of bad. (ii) those who are so ignorant that they are bad do not love wisdom: opposite (bad) is not friend to opposite (good); (iii) those who possess ignorance (a bad thing), but have not yet been rendered stupid (bad) by it (i.e. those who are neither good nor bad), do love wisdom: what is neither good nor bad is the friend of the good because of the presence of bad. Socrates concludes that (iii) gives the answer to the question of what a friend is.” (p. 142)

If you find yourself perplexed and unconvinced by this, you are not alone. I mean, I can sort of see the reasoning as far as love of wisdom is concerned (though even there, why wouldn’t the wise person keep loving wisdom even after she has achieved it?), but I doubt anything of substance follows about the nature of friendship. Again, this is because Plato confuses different questions and distinct possible objects of philia.

It doesn’t help that Plato, near the end of the dialogue, uses yet another analogy, this time with medicine: “what is neither good nor bad (the body) is the friend of the good (medicine) because of the bad (disease) for the sake of (another) good (health).” (p. 144) Sure, but the sort of “love” we may feel for abstract concepts (like philosophy, health) is not the same sort of love we feel for our friends, or our children. Yet, there is a reason why Plato is going about it this way: he is presumably beginning to explore notions that will be fully developed in the Republic, and particularly the notion of the Forms, where he explicitly does connect the ideal world outside the cave with its pale reflection that we perceive while stuck inside. In that sense, then, it is understandable why he is ambiguous about his objective throughout the Lysis. Remember, this is one of the early dialogues, in which Socratic philosophy is dominant, and yet in which Plato is beginning to articulate his own ideas, ideas that will become fully formed and better laid out in the middle and later dialogues.

What are we to make of all this? I think the best parts of the dialogue are the early ones, before Plato begins to equivocate in a more or less conscious pursuit of his own agendas. There is, indeed, more than one kind of love, and even the same kind (e.g., philia) can manifest itself in different ways (e.g., between parents and offspring, or friends of different ages, or mentor and student). Our modern vocabulary is poorer for not making those distinctions, which may even constrain people’s thoughts and limiting their imagination and understanding of that broad phenomenon we call “love.”

(next: the Charmides, on the nature of self-knowledge)

38 thoughts on “Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 4, the Lysis and the nature of friendship

  1. brodix


    I guess I shouldn’t interject the last few thousand years of pop culture into a philosophy debate.

    It does seem though, when we are trying to figure out how the Greeks were using these terms, the actual physical aspects might be worth considering. Say when our our minds wander, our eyes bug out, we melt at the sound of a voice, our hearts started beating faster, our private parts start to swell, etc, it seems likely something fairly similar happened to the ancients as well. So I am just trying to make the point that in trying to understand feelings, positive and negative, the energies flowing through our bodies and brains would be a useful clue.


  2. Robin Herbert

    If by “like light” Brodix means that love and friendship come in many shades, tones and colours each blending into the other, each good or bad in its own way, and if by “we have been searching for forms” he means that the human race in general try to fit this fine variation into neat categories, then I more or less agree.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Massimo Post author


    I find the analogy entirely enlightening. If anything, love is like light because it has a dual wave-particle nature. Call it the love boson.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ejwinner

    Let me try out an earthier interpretation here.

    In Athens, which had been engaged in military adventures and defenses for some time, it was traditional for young men to learn the military arts (hence the Laches), but it was also expected of them, as preparation for military service, to take a male lover, who could then presumably be depended on absolutely on the battlefield (as well as relieving certain tensions during a long campaign). Indeed, the Spartans at the time mandated this among their own soldiers. There is evidence that Socrates admired the Spartan in this, as in other matters, but there is evidence in the Dialogues that he favored sublimating the sexual camaraderie, and appears to lean toward celibacy in the matter. So, is there some way to redirect the homo-erotic into a companionship that was not finally realized sexually, but could provide the same sort of social glue that a homosexual relationship might? This question recurs in the Charmides, and of course finds its fullest consideration in the Symposium.

    At any rate, much of the Lysis sounds a bit odd, even confusing, until we take some such supposition as a baseline, as Massimo rightly does in his second paragraph here. But this is not just a starting point, it is (nearly) the whole story. For the ‘friendship’ Socrates discusses here, isn’t really what we would call friendship (and lacks important dimensions of Aristotle’s discussion of friendship in the Nichomachean Ethics, which is much closer to our own understanding of friendship – and in some ways ahead of our own understanding). We have to begin here by recognizing that Socrates simply is discussing the ‘proper’ homosexual relationship, and not just ‘friendship’ per se. And part of the play on the differing terms for friendship and desire, etc., possibly derives from Socrates’ own ambivalence concerning sexuality per se.

    Nonetheless, some things one can say about the ‘proper’ homosexual relationship to seek, after reading the dialogue, include: It must be between social equals. Having a sexual relationship with someone of a lower class won’t do, because it risks linking the like with the unlike, perhaps even the good with the bad.

    It must not be only about sexual attraction, because the loved one may initially respond receptively (especially on those long hot Mediterranean nights), but may turn on one eventually. No, one doesn’t quite seek a ‘marriage’ here, but after the glow wears off the companionship ought to remain.

    It could be a relationship inspired by admiration for the loved one’s character, for instance his grasp of wisdom or his experience, which would mean seeking a relationship with an older man; but that carries a risk of misjudgment, since one’s admiration for a wiser man demands that one first have a sense of wisdom to admire.

    It ought not be seen as a challenge (and this is an oblique but undeniable sub-theme of the dialogue), because we are often challenged by exactly what we should not possess.

    Should it be a possession at all? Here Socrates has a problem, because sexual relations are possessive by nature, for good or ill (and they are useful as well, which also causes problems, but that’s not addressed in the present dialogue). And it may be this problem that will ultimately lead to a later Platonic preference (which at last achieves solid discussion in Aristotle) of friendship as a meeting of minds or, if one wills, souls.

    But the Lysis is all about sex, and only somewhat about friendship, which we should keep well in mind.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Massimo Post author


    For my part I have always found love a very difficult thing to categorise.

    Indeed. If it were easy, there would be little point in doing philosophy about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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