Plato’s Lysis takes on the issue of friendship and what, in essence, makes one a friend. Socrates encounters a group of boys who lead him to begin the discussion, in the effort to show Hippothales how he might act toward his beloved, Lysis, so as not to drive him away but rather to draw him closer. It is clear in this dialogue Socrates is seen as a wise, old man who the younger generations generally look upon for answers, and it is clear that these boys respect him enough to stop him on his way and ask of his opinion regarding several matters.
The matter at heart of this dialogue asks, “What is a friend?” Here Plato is attempting to get at the essence of friendship, and he uses the innocence of youthful boys as a springboard for the conversation. The boys are themselves friends with each other, and it is appropriate that Socrates would converse with them about the nature of friendship in general.
The dialogue begins with Hippothales asking Socrates for help regarding his beloved Lysis, the object of affection who is not within reach. Hippothales’ way, Socrates makes known, of loudly praising that which is not yet in his possession, is equivalent to a “hunter…who scares away his prey as he hunts” (Plato 21). After Hippothales makes known his method of showing his love for someone with whom he is not yet acquainted, he asks Socrates to show how he might converse properly with the object of his affection so that they can be friends, rather than scaring Lysis off and incurring loathing instead.
Luring Lysis into a conversation with his friend Menexenus, Socrates begins to illustrate to Hippothales how to charm someone, “by humbling him and drawing in his sails instead of puffing him up and spoiling him” (Plato 29). Here the dialogue takes a turn away from the initial premise, and Hippothales more and more fades into the background as the dialogue progresses.
By this Plato is suggesting what Socrates the character will later state, that opposites attract; Lysis and Menexenus are opposite of Socrates in that he is old and wise and they are young and naïve. In this they benefit from each other, as Socrates is able to impart his methodic wisdom to the boys, and the boys in turn learn from him. This is one of the main points in the conversation as the interlocutors attempt to get the essence of friendship.
Another of the main points is that of proficient knowledge in a particular subject, such as cooking or tending to a herd, a discussion that serves to illustrate further that the boys are less knowledgeable than their elders, and thus is why there are limitations on their actions. Comparing the difference between a slave and a free person, Socrates shows Lysis that he is very similar to a slave in that he has many limitations imposed on his actions despite the fact that his parents love him dearly. Yet Socrates is able to get Lysis to admit the reason behind these limitations, “because I understand the one, and not the other” (Plato 27).
By getting Lysis to admit that he is not proficient in many things, and therefore his parents set limitations upon him out of love, Socrates is showing all the boys the difference between slavery and limitations. He is also making the boys come to realize the base value of love behind setting such limitations, which is the base value in friendship. Limiting one to their knowledge does not necessarily equal complete master over one like a slave.
Socrates slowly builds on the main points so that the interlocutors can agree on the basics, which include the attraction of opposites, the attraction of likes to likes, limitations versus mastery (slavery), proficiency in knowledge of particular subject matters, and the variations in which one can love and either be loved or be hated by the beloved. He must show these boys how it is possible to love someone who hates the lover—for the beloved to hate his lover—in order to get to the essence of friendship.
The beloved who hates his lover is not necessarily a friend to his lover, but that does not negate the love the lover holds for his beloved, and therefore the possibility of friendship does not necessarily follow. This is important to the way the dialogue ends because it will illustrate precisely what Socrates means here. Such a distinction is possibly the closest Plato comes to getting at the essence of friendship. To love despite being hated is what makes a good friend possible.
One more point is the argument Socrates brings to light regarding the possibility of good and bad people being friends. This is an interesting sidetrack because it raises some excellent questions, such as, “Is it possible for thieves and liars to be friends?” Here Plato is able to elaborate on the idea of the good inherent in all of his dialogues. Socrates brings up a good example of bodily health, desired in and of itself and therefore good.
Disease is conversely considered evil because it aims to destroy bodily health. By association, the “medical arts” align with the good because it aims to restore bodily health. But without disease, there would be no medicine, and bodily health would be no issue and result in being neither good nor bad. Bodily health would just be. Similarly, without bad people there would be no good people, and there would just be people. The question of friendship would itself never arise.
Plate takes aims to insure that the subject of his dialogue is relevant, and he seeks to prove its relevancy by showing how it is so. Such a sidetrack is important here especially for the youthful boys conversing with Socrates, for it allows them to distinguish why such questions are important. Plato stakes the importance of philosophy as a whole in this sidetrack, the undercurrent driving the conversation.
The dialogue ends with Socrates and the boys no closer to the essence of friendship than they were at the beginning of the discussion. “For these fellows will say, as they go away, that we suppose we’re one another’s friends…but what he who is a friend is we have not yet been able to discover” (Plato 52). Such ends all of Plato’s dialogues, but this one ends peculiarly to topic at hand.
The attendants of Lysis and Menexenus uproariously and seemingly disrespectfully interrupt the conversation to tell the boys that it is late and they must get home. Socrates speculates that they are drunk because they are so boisterous, and stubborn to the crowd gathered around Socrates’ urging the attendants to leave them be, “and we broke up our group” (Plato 52). After the whole discussion regarding the nature of friendship and what makes one a friend, the boys and the attendants are at odds with each other.
The reader must then recall what Socrates mentioned earlier about the nature of slavery versus that of limitations, and how limitations are set because of the boys’ lack of proficient knowledge in general. The lack is the reason why the boys have attendants at all. The dialogue takes full circle in this way, while ending as it began. And yet they and even Socrates seem to forget the reason why the attendants are yelling at all. The group heeded the attendants only when the attendants refused to go away at the goading of the boys, Socrates included.
Socrates sought to show the boys, first Hippothales and then Menexenus and Lysis, what it takes to make a friendship with someone. The dialogue turns into looking for what a friend, at its essence, really is. In dealing with friendship, it seems that the dialogue might have ended less aggressively, except that Plato made certain to state that though like may be resistant to like, like is more resistant to what is opposed to it. The attendants were the “others” while the group discussing friendship was a unit engaged in something they all found time worthy. For the attendants to disrupt the conversation in such a beastly way was to the group a signal that the attendants were opposed to the group, and therefore despite the reason for the attendants, the group felt a solidarity that was threatened by the attendants.
Despite seeming like a terrible influence on the boys, Socrates actually was able to get the group to display friendship at its finest—they wished to stay together to continue talking about the virtue of friendship. Though the boys were, at bottom, resisting the attendants’ orders, they were, more importantly, displaying the nature of friendship Socrates was unable to articulate. It would not have been possible to show this without first going through the ideas of proficient knowledge, opposites and likes, and whether bad people can be friends.
Plato. “Lysis.” Plato’s Dialogue on Friendship. Trans. David Bolotin. Cornell: Ithaca, 1979.