Plato´s Dialogue Lysis - about friendship (philia)


Horst Peters, Platons Dialog Lysis. Ein unlösbares Rätsel?

Frankfurt/M., Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien , 2001. Prismata. Beiträge zur Altertumswissenschaft; Bd. 11. 

Translation of the title: Plato's Dialogue Lysis. An unsolvable Riddle?


Summary © Horst Peters

A comprehensive interpretation based on profound phenomenological investigation clears the interwoven problems of structure, contents and chronology. If one carefully studies the so-called early dialogue Lysis without presuppositions, one may find out its surprising singularity in relation to the early dialogues. The Lysis is a masterpiece of Plato following the Politeia as part of the trilogy Phaidros - Lysis - Euthydemos.

The explicit subject of Lysis is friendship (philia), but the question from the beginning how a lover can get friend of the beloved one, is touched again at the end of the dialogue and therefore is tacitly underlying the whole of the dialogue.

The main partners of Socrates are the two friends Lysis and Menexenus, besides the unfortunate lover Hippothales, who, after the initial conversation, hides himself behind the surrounding listeners. A subsidiary figure is Ctesippus with some dramatic comments especially in the beginning of the dialogue.

Four main theses. Unusually Socrates proposes every of the four main theses: 1. The similar/like is friend to the similar/like. As Socrates "proves" that the similar/like is identical with the good, the good is friend to the good. 2. The dissimilar/unlike/opposite is friend to the dissimilar/unlike/opposite. 3. The neither-good-nor-bad man is friend to the good (e.g. physician, medicine) because of the presence of the bad (illness) and - supplementary - for the sake of the good (health, finally the first beloved proton philon). 4. Friend is the relative (oikeion) in general and especially the person who is relative by the nature of its soul. - As every thesis is refuted, the dialogue seems to end in aporia (not knowing any way further). But above all the play with equivocal words, the unnoticed change from limited to unlimited concepts and the hints of irony indicate that Plato has consciously refuted the four main theses of Lysis by paralogical arguments. Therefore the final aporia is not necessary, but is artificially provoked - as has often been noticed by scholars.

The intention of Plato. The phenomenological investigation reveals the interconnected structures of the artistical composition and the philosophical thought  and leads to the immanent intention of Plato - releasing the interpretation from subjective projections and chronological prejudices. The artistical composition of the four main theses (see above) is one of the keys to Plato's hidden thoughts. The first two arguments are based on contrary concepts: similar/like-dissimilar/unlike, good-bad, contrary sensory qualities (dry-wet, cold-hot etc.), friendly-hostile, just-unjust, self-controlled-unrestraint. The following two arguments are based on threefold-dialectic concepts. First, the intermediate neither-good-nor-bad is added to the contrary concepts good - bad. Second, the neither good nor bad desires are distinguished from desire usefully and desire badly. This announces already a progress of concepts. Furthermore a special accent is given to the first and the third one of these four theses, as an artistical chain of motifs is common to both of them. The third thesis, however, - the neither-good-nor-bad is friend of the good because of the bad - is prominent not only by its length, but also by the dramatic unfolding of the motifs of the artistic chain. Moreover the third thesis is emphasized, when it is personalized by Socrates relating it to himself and the friends as being intermediate between the contrary qualities (metaxy ontes, Lys. 220d4-7) and at the same time gets the most concentrated form of its logical problems. These and other observations - especially the initial and final remaining on the way in space and time - suggest the leading intention of Plato that friendship between the neither-good-nor-bad is the problem to be solved. But the immanent interpretation is not sufficient to do so - even if one detects the artistical composition of the whole dialogue with two interlocked structures, the thematic and the protreptic ones.

Difference from early dialogues. In spite of some remarkable traits, like the scene of the palaistra and the young-aged partners of Socrates, the singularity of the Lysis in relation to the early dialogues is obvious: The Lysis does not try to define one of the Platonic cardinal virtues. Therefore it cannot be called a dialogue of virtue in a Platonic sense.- Besides, it is not at all a dialogue of definition in a strict sense, as the discussion of philia begins with the question how one gets friend to another one; only in the end of the dialogue the precise question of definition is formulated: what is the friend?- As for the aporia, Lysis is very different from Charmides: Charmides and Critias are succesively forced to confess their ignorance, each of them after an extended discussion, and then the dialogue is closed with the final aporia. In Lysis three preluding discussions already compel the interlocutors Hippothales, Lysis and Menexenus to confess their ignorance one after another. The following main discussion offers also an unusual play with the aporia. After the refutation of the first two main theses Socrates transitionally brings in the term aporia (more like a literary figure, topos) while ironically introducing the third main thesis by divination. In the end of the dialogue the last two main theses are also refuted. Socrates seems unable to give a solution, if none of the recapitulated theses is right. The aporia seems to be complete, although the word is not used and there is some reservation in the conditional sentence of Socrates.- It is singular that Socrates himself introduces the four main theses, and at two times seems to accept a positive result together with Lysis or the friends.- While Plato in Charmides performs his play with the problem of hypotheses without revealing his method of hypothesis, in Lysis he especially plays with the dialectic of categories, the method of his later period. That enables him to create remarkably short and concentrated arguments and to produce a deceptive appearance of dialectical progress (Lys. 211c9 ambiguous dialekteon). The following passage will add singular traits in relation to the Politeia.

Relation to the Politeia. Lysis and Politeia are strongly connected by structures common to both of them. It is remarkable that only in Lysis and Politeia Socrates reports the dialogue without addressing any listener. One may adduce the form of the beginning and the end of the dialogues with common motifs (way, interruption by invitation, feast, transformation of the way-motif in the end); further the starting point of the main discussion (introduction and destruction of the authority of the poets), the final aim of the speculative way upwards and the return to empirical reality; finally the characters of the three main partners of Socrates stylized according to the Platonic concept of the soul. There is another hint to Plato's concept of the soul by two very similar enumerations: philoinoi, philogymnastai, philosophoi (Lys.212d5-7), philoinoi, philotimoi, philosophoi (Politeia 457a5-b9).- Therefore some specific terms without substantial definition (ekeino ho estin, ekeino auto, philon to onti, parousia, eidola) may be understood as allusions to the sphere of Platonic ideas. And when the first beloved is addressed as beginning (Lys. 219c6) and end (Lys. 220b3. 220d8), one can understand it as an allusion to the Politeia - to the unconditional beginning and the end of the way of cognition upwards to the Idea of the Good. There is some reason to perceive the Idea of the Good as one of the principles of the unwritten dogmata, Plato's principle of the One. In Lysis one can observe the extreme concentration of wide-spread motifs of the Politeia and the superior play with the difficult philosophical problem of unselfish friendship fundamentally developed in relation to the first beloved=first good=Idea of the Good. Thus the results of careful investigation point to the chronological sequence Politeia - Lysis. On the other hand one may fundamentally criticize the methodological basis of stylometry (particularly statistics of specific formules of answering) and its chronological conclusions. Accordingly the chronological scope is wide enough to accept the sequence Politeia-Lysis. And thereby one obtains a wider range for synoptic reading,

Synoptic reading. If one remembers that the Platonic philosopher has to be capable of synoptic thinking (synoptikos), one is justified to combine the carefully analysed elements by synoptic reading. The third main thesis suggests an unselfish relation to the first beloved=first good. As for the philia-relation between the neither-good-nor-bad, one can form the ideal of an unselfish friendship: Both of the friends estimate and love the other one for his own sake and try to benefit him. So each of them gets benefits without using his friend as an instrument for his own happiness. But in fact Plato points to a dialectic concept of philia, i.e., to a realistic-idealistic one. The true friends are similar to each other as related to the Good = One by origin (relatives, oikeioi) and striving of their natures. But as they are neither good nor bad, i.e., only partaking of wisdom, health and their opposites, friendship begins with the desire for a specific complement. If the friends strive to love the first beloved for its own sake they can be open-minded to the ideal of an unselfish behavior towards each other and thus develop themselves towards the ideal (genesis eis ousian, Philebos 26d7-9).

Differentiation. As the idealistic development is a matter of individual insight and free will, the individual friendship differs from political philia which is organized from above by the ruling philosopher, and it differs from cosmical philia which is ordered by the creator of the world. In Lysis personal philia remains an individual task with respect to the causes "because" and "for the sake of". At last, the friends, as relatives by the nature of their souls, are distinguished from relatives of kindred.

Trilogy. The uncertain place of Lysis after Politeia may be determined by an unconventional, but well founded proposal, the trilogy Phaidros - Lysis - Euthydemos. By this trilogy Plato, the wise dialectician, forms three fundamental situations of a protreptic dialogue (recommending philosophy) which are suggested by the unwritten dogmata, the principles of the Hen and the Polloi which provoke numerous forms of intermediate (metaxy). The Lysis is formed as the dialogue of the intermediate - as a whole with significant details.

© HORST PETERS, D - 79585 STEINEN, SCHEFFELSTR. 1,  e-mail:                              220609