from "Approaching Plato: A Guide to the Early and Middle Dialogues"
The Lysis is one of the most engaging, life-like dialogues in the Platonic corpus. It is also one of least studied. The logos concerns friendship, as does the dramatic interplay of the participants. It depicts Socrates engaging the practical matter of falling in love and making friends, and in doing so it reveals how philosophic conversations about serious and beautiful things advance our universal hopes to secure friendship and love in our lives.
There is little adult supervision or conversation about erotic attraction and developing friendships in our culture today. We tend to arrange things for our children from the time they are six to ensure that they participate in school activities and after-school programs with children of similar age, and we simply assume that they will feel their way toward the inevitable business of making friends and peer socialization. Most adults feel unprepared to address or treat the insecurities of growing up, and the school system turns the matter over to guidance counselors who often find themselves addressing crises, rather than helping to foster friendships. Youthful ardor is dismissively labeled as “having a crush” or “being snowed.” If and when youthful heartbreaks occur, it was just “puppy love” after all. Something we all go through. Welcome to the human race.
Most adults and therapists don‟t want to remember, much less rehearse with children, their own disappointments and humiliations in this arena; no one helped them much, after all. What advice can they offer beyond the inadequate advice they themselves received when they were young? Erotic insecurity is something we all must accept and try to work through on our own. Buck up. You‟ll get over it. We are Polonius to Laertes, generation after generation.
By such neglect, adults pass on to children the same disappointments and frustrations they themselves encountered, as well as their own inability to converse meaningfully about this most important thread in the fabric of human life: how to make and keep friends. The self-help shelves at the bookstores are not for middle school kids. They are for adults whose youthful erotic fancies and forays were mismanaged by their elders in some deep and enduring way.
Making friends, finding acceptance, falling in love, and becoming loveable present real and lifelong challenges for human beings in every culture. The Greeks of the fifth century were more honest and intentional than we are. Friendship was a philosophic problem for them because they recognized that a man or a woman without friends, real friends, is incapable of the fullest flourishing. Such people will always just miss capturing the deepest sort of happiness. Socrates cared about the education of youth. He believed the time to address youthful eroticism was before the wounds of rejection and insecurity become lasting scars.
The Lysis begins in the dramatic present with Socrates recounting to an unnamed listener a past event. I have often wondered about this frame. Why would someone tell this story to another person?
Socrates recalls a chance encounter. He was, he says, “proceeding from the Lyceum to the Academy,” although he does not say why. We do know that he had a fixed destination, that he had somewhere to be. Here is an adult who had his own plans for that day. He describes the path he was taking as if to mark his urgency, as if it were a short cut. All of sudden, though, voices call out to him. In his path there stands a group of young boys hanging around outside a little known palaestra. They initiate the encounter with Socrates and playfully entreat him to put off his plans and to stay with them. Though he tells them he is on his way elsewhere, Socrates suddenly realizes that one of the boys is suffering. A little prying uncovers the problem.
Hippothales, blushing Hippothales, is in love with another youth, Lysis, who doesn‟t even know he exists. No, he hasn‟t even spoken to him. The very idea makes him uncomfortable. But needing to speak the name of his beloved, he has made the mistake of suffering aloud and confiding his agony to his other friends. Now he is butt of their jokes and ridicule. Because he does not know how to manage his longing, he has written poems to and paeans about Lysis and shared them with his peers; he has gotten drunk; and he has generally bored his friends to tears while making himself miserable. Erotic energy has to go somewhere.
Rather than attending to his pressing business, Socrates puts on the brakes and alters his plans. He stays; he listens. He hears the whole sorry tale and rather than comfort Hippothales, or pass it off as just one of those childhood crushes, he roundly rebukes him for a failure of will. The problem is weighty enough to address and now is the time to address it. The philosopher cares deeply about the youth who is in love.
Socrates insists to the group that there is a conversational art and skill to making friends. Although he admits he cannot tell Hippothales what to say, he thinks he can show him by demonstration how he ought to behave when approaching one‟s love interest for the first time. They decide to ease themselves into the palaestra where Lysis is likely to be so that Socrates can show Hippothales and the other boys how one ought to approach one‟s heart‟s desire.
On one level of the dialogue, then, all that follows is a Socratic demonstration that is meant to redirect erotic energies and educate Hippothales and his friends. Learning to converse philosophically is a cure for erotic agony. If Hippothales cannot learn to converse with Lysis, he will never make him his friend. If we cannot learn to converse with others, we will never have real friends. If adults are too busy to take a hand in such matters when they can, the youth will suffer. They will grow up, reenact the same ineptitude with their own kids, and spend their time browsing the self-help stacks of bookstores. The message is clear: philosophers are adults who should care about youths and their ability to channel eros to its proper end: making friends.
The second level of the dialogue is less obvious, but just as important. Socrates converses with Lysis for Hippothales‟ benefit. During the course of this conversation, while Hippothales hides but remains just within earshot, a new friendship takes root and sprouts among Socrates, Lysis, and Lysis‟ cousin Menexenus. These three spend a wonderful afternoon talking about friendship, about how it arises, about what governs its growth and flowering, and how little the highly regarded poets are able to inform us of the true origins of friendship. So even though on one level the conversation instructs Hippothales, on another level it engenders affection among the participants. The closing lines of dialogue bear this out. Socrates knows he has become friends with his dialectical partners that afternoon. No earnest conversation is merely a demonstration. It is always an opportunity to develop deeper connections with others.
Now, why should Socrates tell someone about this engagement? I think his unnamed listener has asked him a question. What question? “Socrates, how did you become friends with Lysis?” And this dialogue is Socrates‟ answer to that question. In answering it, Socrates reveals for his listener the sort of man he is. The candor of Socrates‟ account is likely to help ensure that he and his auditor become better friends as well. For Socrates discloses four important character traits about himself: First, Socrates has certain priorities which may call for sudden changes of plan. Second, Socrates is not above practicing a little deception in the furtherance of erotic attachments—Lysis and Menexenus, after all, have no idea that the impetus for their afternoon conversation with Socrates was Hippothales‟ education. Third, Socrates knows that there is no ready formula or recipe for conversation—He can‟t tell another what to say to make friends; he can only show him, by topic and tone, the comportment one must have to succeed. Finally, strengthening friendship is something one can accomplish by telling someone how one first made friends with another. For Socrates‟ confession surely reveals him to his auditor in an endearing way. The fact that the trio failed to discover the origin of friendship does not entail their failure to become friends. Philosophy can fail on one level and succeed on another. This is one reason that Socrates cannot tell Hippothales what to say. Philosophy is an activity, not a topic.
The logos or spoken discussion the participants engage in concerns the origin of friendship. The participants first examine what poets and others have taught to be the basis of friendship. “Birds of feather flock together” and “opposites attract” were as common in Athens as they are today. “The beautiful as friend” and “Kin as friend” are less familiar proverbs to our ears, but they are certainly borne out in real life. They might have said, as we do: “It is chemistry,” if they had ever heard of chemistry. But Socrates is not interested in these types or instances of friendship. He is looking for the origin of all the species of friendship. As in other aporetic dialogues, Socrates is searching for the Form of Friendship that unifies all its disparate instances. He investigates proverbs bequeathed by the poets. Aristotle noted that there are typically three types of friendship: benefit, pleasure, and virtue friendship (Nicomachean Ethics, 8.3). But however poets or philosophers classify the varieties of friendship, making friends and participating in friendships requires that we reveal ourselves to others in discourse and allow them to reveal themselves to us as well.
The Lysis is a multi-layered demonstration of the power adults can exercise on behalf of youth in the matter of friendship. In it Socrates helps educate Hippothales. He has a crazy conversation and in the process he makes new friends of Lysis and his cousin. All in all, the time flew by and he had a great day. To hell with going to the Lyceum.