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. Robin Herbert

    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.

    I think I get the bit about wisdom. It journey not the destination – the getting of knowledge is the heady part, not so much the having it. It is that way for me in any case – I couldn’t say that I love the knowledge and skills I already have – it is the knowledge that I don’t have but with some effort I could that I love.

    But I agree that this does not appear to translate to friendship.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robin Herbert

    Although Plato does seem to conclude, right at the end of the dialogue, that none of his arguments have come to anything:

    Today, Lysis and Menexenus, we have made ourselves ridiculous—I, an old man, as well as you. For these others will go away and tell how we believe we are friends of one another—for I count myself in with you—but what a “friend” is, we have not yet succeeded in discovering.

    Like

  3. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    Although Plato does seem to conclude, right at the end of the dialogue, that none of his arguments have come to anything

    Yes, as I’ve pointed out before, all the dialogues end in aporia (confusion, uncertainty), on purpose. But as the commentators in the book point out, it’s always possible to discern which answer Plato favors, at least tentatively, in most cases.

    Like

  4. SocraticGadfly

    The last grafs of Massimo’s piece are the most important. The remind us that, even in earlier dialogues, we can’t necessarily talk about the “philosophy of Socrates.”

    Like

  5. Robin Herbert

    Brodix

    It does seem a caricature of platonic ideals. Reductio ad absurdum

    More than of an early draft.

    Plato presents an actual reduction ad absurdum of Forms in Parmenides.

    Like

  6. Alan White

    Nuanced discussion–thanks Massimo.

    Many years ago I realized that λόγος is masculine declined, where from modern perspectives one might expect the neuter, since it is derived from λέγω, “I say” . I’m not informed enough to know about other possble feminine/neuter declensions of reason/thinking/argument terms in Attic or koine. Perhaps other Greekers here could produce examples.

    I’d also ask why there can’t be mash-ups of concepts between, say, ἔρως and αγάπη. Can’t one wish/try for erotic fulfillment for one’s beloved even if one can’t experience it? I see no contradiction in blending these in selfless eroticism.

    Like

  7. brodix

    Robin,

    Yet ideal forms have dominated western thought for thousands of years. Theism is essentially based on the ideal. Then the mathematical platonism that emerged. Spacetime, for instance, assumes the three dimensional coordinate system, along with a narrative coordinate, is the essence of space and time, not just a mapping device. Now we have multiworlds and multiverses sprouting out of it like so much fungus.

    Like

  8. Massimo Post author

    Alan,

    Can’t one wish/try for erotic fulfillment for one’s beloved even if one can’t experience it?

    Yes, that’s not what I meant. I was talking about unreciprocated eros, as in someone not loving you. Seems to me (and to Socrates, apparently) that one can have philia for one’s enemy, but not eros, unless by the latter one means unfilfilled sexual desire, which is not, I take it, what the Greeks meant.

    Like

  9. Steve Watson

    Alan White: Isn’t the medieval ideal of courtly love the kind of eros/agape combo you’re suggesting? The noble knight does heroic deeds (or in the case of a certain fellow countryman of our esteemed host, traverses Hell) for the sake of his Lady, whom he will never actually sleep with.

    Like

  10. Alan White

    Steve (if I may) that is an interesting combo of some elements of those two ideas, in the sense of conveying gallantry. My own mash-up was specifically about an asymmetric unconditioned concern for the object of one’s love but with a erotic core for that concern even though the lover cannot attain it. Maybe something like Jon Voight’s character’s love for Jane Fonda’s in in Coming Home.

    Socratic, thanks for reminding me of that. αιτία is a very important idea for the Greeks in making causal connections in both the social and more metaphysical senses (as I recall).

    Like

  11. SocraticGadfly

    Per Massimo’s last graf, it’s arguable that we do make the distinctions in English, as we translate both φιλία and ἔρως with various words other than just “love.” Massimo himself has used “friendship” for φιλία; “lust” would work for at least some uses of ἔρως. There’s also words like “affection,” “yearning,” “endearment” and more.

    Now, if one wants to make the claim that a typical modern user of American English makes poor choices from among an offered broad spectrum, I wouldn’t disagree.

    Let’s take friendship and extend that further. When is a person a “friend” vs an “acquaintance”? “Friend” vs. “close friend” … or “bosom buddy” or whatever?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Robin Herbert

    Seems to me (and to Socrates, apparently) that one can have philia for one’s enemy, but not eros, unless by the latter one means unfilfilled sexual desire, which is not, I take it, what the Greeks meant.

    Hate sex, as in consensual sex between two people who hate each other, is not common, but it happens.

    Like

  13. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    Hate sex, as in consensual sex between two people who hate each other, is not common, but it happens.

    It still wouldn’t walify as eros, which is not just sex, but comes with a particular mental attitude.

    Like

  14. Robin Herbert

    Brodix,

    If you mean that scientists unconsciously or unintentionally invoke Forms all the time (“the wave function is real”), then obviously I agree as I have said previously. However there is a very interesting discussion going on which is more relevant to the dialogue at hand, so lets put that off until Forms is more centrally the topic.

    Like

  15. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    does ἔρως necessarily entail that the parties don’t detest each other?

    How is love (not just sex) possible when the two parts detest each other?

    Like

  16. brodix

    Trying to define ideal love seems a bit like defining ideal light. While there is the essential fact, it is profoundly circumstantial, as an element of context. Ask a photographer.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    So they could not love each other in the sense of ἔρως if they did not also love each other in one or more of t he other senses?

    No, eros comes with its own moral / affection component, like all the Greek forms of love. It is never just sex.

    Like

  18. brodix

    Massimo,

    I was using light as analogy. Love is no more a form than light. It’s more a dynamic. As thousands of years of trying to pin it down would seem to show.

    Like

  19. Massimo Post author

    Brodix,

    I was using light as analogy. Love is no more a form than light

    I know you were using an analogy. A really bad one. Love is nothing like a form of light.

    Like

  20. brodix

    We have been trying to define its ideal form, from God to sex, for a long time, maybe some other method might be worth a thought to two. If it isn’t clear as a form, then maybe some kind of energy would be a better analogy.

    Most love I’ve experienced seems more like light, than any sort of form that can be defined in specific concepts. Even if it is for a form, say a particular person, situation or object, the actual feeling is more the energy connecting me to it and making us one, than a particular distinction of it.

    Like

  21. Massimo Post author

    brodix,

    We have been trying to define its ideal form, from God to sex, for a long time

    Who is “we”? Not me. and not even Plato, in the dialogues we are discussing, since he hadn’t developed his theory of Forms yet.

    Like

  22. wtc48

    Socratic: “Let’s take friendship and extend that further. When is a person a “friend” vs an “acquaintance”? “Friend” vs. “close friend” … or “bosom buddy” or whatever?”

    I think the element of time comes into play. We don’t (at least I don’t) talk of “friends at first sight” the way we do of “love at first sight.” Friendship needs time to develop, while the mating urge tends to stop you in your tracks. I’m not sure how to define “acquaintance:” if they’re worth bothering about at all, there has to be a potential of friendship, I would think. And family members can be friends, but are not necessarily so, while an erotic (or mating) urge is firmly disapproved in almost all cultures.

    Like

Comments are closed.