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Lysis

Plato

Important Quotes

Section 8: 221d–223b

Key Facts

At this [Hippothales] blushed; and I said to him, O Hippothales, thou son of Hieronymus! do not say that you are, or that you are not, in love; the confession is too late; for I see not only that you are in love, but that you are already far gone in your love. Simple and foolish as I am, the gods have given me the power of understanding these sorts of affections.

This passage has very little hard philosophical content, but it is precisely for that reason that it occupies a crucial place at the beginning of the Lysis. Socrates has just asked Hippothales who his "favorite" is and the exchange of blushes, boasts, and jests that follows this inquiry does the initial work of setting the frame for the entire dialogue. Two things in particular should be pointed out. First, by asking for Hippothales's "favorite," Socrates is asking neither about his best buddy nor about his female crush. The "favorite" is a young boy in whom Hippothales has mingled his hopes for ideal friendship, physical love, and a teacher-student relationship; this remarkable form of union was standard practice at the time, and was subject to its own rules of courtship. It is these rules (and tricks) that Socrates agrees to demonstrate for Hippothales in a conversation with Lysis, the boy Hippothales is trying miserably to court. Thus, the dialogue as a whole rests within this framework of the rational demonstration of passionate love.

Second, this quote is remarkable for its portrayal of Socrates as something quite other than a searching philosopher who sometimes cracks a joke. Specifically, Socrates's powers of emotional deduction are brought center-stage, and are implied to stem both from "the gods" and from a lifetime of experience. In this dialogue, Socrates is both a passionate thinker and a cool, calculating lover. It should also be pointed out that Benjamin Jowett's translation of the above quote is a bit too frugal: Eugene O'Conner amends "these sorts of affections" to "the (male) lover and the (male) beloved."

I can hardly suppose that you will affirm a man to be a good poet who injures himself by his poetry.

Socrates speaks this line to Hippothales by way of wrapping up his argument that Hippothales is simply flattering Lysis into inaccessibility. Socrates will argue that Hippothales should seek to humble Lysis rather than inflate him. The quote is important because it both recalls the standard Socratic elenchus and shows the unusual form the elenchus tends to take in this dialogue. Socrates's argument is standard in that he has taken Hippothales's high ideals (singing dramatic songs in praise of Lysis's family) and turned them on their head. Further, Socrates does this through a method he often uses in other dialogues: he convinces Hippothales that what he thinks is benefiting him is actually "injuring" him (in this case by making Lysis too proud to accept Hippothales's advances).

All of this is classic elenchus, in a remarkably compact form. Nonetheless, the argument is unusual in its specific elements. Socrates's argument is based almost entirely not on analytic propositions but rather on wisdom about the way people tend to behave in relationships of love. Specifically, he knows that "the more vainglorious [the beloved is], the more difficult is the capture of them." Significantly, Socrates returns to the hunting/capture analogy multiple times in the dialogue, sometimes with regard to the beloved (as here), sometimes with regard to philosophical argument, and sometimes with regard to both (as in the remarkable line that "arguments, like men, are often predators"). Socrates is almost always playful in the dialogues, even, to some degree, on his deathbed in the Crito. But here the very form of the elenchus, in both its context and its content, is fraught with questions of love and desire, and the dialogue is very playful indeed.

Then now, my dear youth, I said, you perceive that in things which we know everyone will trust us…and we may do as we please, and no one will like to interfere with us; and we are free, and masters of others; and these things will really be ours, for we will turn them to our good.

This is Socrates's conclusion to his discussion with Lysis about Lysis's "enslavement" to his parents. Again, we see a standard piece of Socratic philosophy (as interpreted, of course, by Plato) changed in important aspects by the unusual circumstances in which the Lysis takes place. The idea that freedom and the truly happy life can only be achieved through knowledge or wisdom is the central pillar in Socrates's thought. The expansion of this doctrine into a systematic theory about ideal forms and the afterlife is generally thought to Plato's own work, and the absence of these factors here is part of what indicates that the Lysis is an early dialogue. Here, however, Socrates's argument that happiness depends on knowledge is specifically geared toward the kinds of power that a teenage boy like Lysis would find exciting and appealing. Happiness is constructed specifically against the state of "slavery" in which Lysis suffers under his parents, who (like any parents) restrict his actions.

Thus, knowledge will not lead simply to a happy, peaceful life for Lysis, but specifically to a kind of ultimate freedom involving boyhood fantasies of power and unrestricted agency. Left out almost entirely is the usual assertion that knowledge will make us act wisely in everything. This is no doubt implied, but the specific words Socrates uses almost suggest more of a tyrannical model: "we may do as we please…." This issue of the subtle warping of the standard Socratic method is central to the Lysis, and is loaded with a tension that stems from Plato's wrestling with the charge that Socrates "corrupted the youth of Athens" with his philosophical debates. The Lysis tackles this question by imagining how Socrates might explain his teachings to boys.

[P]eople really mean, as I suppose, that the good are like one another, and friends to on another; and that the bad, as is often said of them, are never at unity with one another or with themselves, but are passionate and restless: and that which is at variance and enmity with itself is not likely to be in union or harmony with any other thing.

Here we find Socrates speaking both for himself and for Plato; although it is far from clear just where we might draw the line between the two, this formulation about identity and harmony almost certainly includes elements proper to each of them. The harmony of the soul, and the relationship between this harmony and happy living, appear in many of the Socratic dialogues, reaching their most elaborate treatment in Plato's Republic (a work in which Socrates seems primarily to be a mouthpiece for Plato's own ideas). Here, the context is the discussion of friendship, and specifically the suggestion that friendship is based on likeness. Although it will be concluded soon after this passage that neither the good nor likeness can be the cause of friendship, here those possibilities are still valid. The question is, how do we exclude evil people from the argument that likeness is the basis of friendship (since, presumably, the evil person can be a friend to no one)? Socrates's answer incorporates the idea of the soul as harmonious or dissonant, and puts this idea into play with theories about identity and difference. In a sense, bad people cannot be "like" anyone else because they are not even "like" themselves; whatever harmony draws like to like must first be at work within the single person. Thus, inter-subjective identity (one model of friendship) is prevented by a failure of the evil person to be identical with themselves.

May not the truth be that, as we were saying, desire is the cause of friendship; for that which desires is dear to that which is desired at the time of desire? And may not the other theory have been just a long story about nothing?

This quote sums up the Lysis as well as any other. The conversation has ranged through a number of possibilities for the cause of friendship (the beloved, the lover, the good, the like, the unlike, and even evil), and found none of them to be satisfying. By the end of the dialogue only a few pages after this quote, Socrates will simply give up the chase: "I know not what remains to be said." There is a sense, in the Lysis, that desire is uncontrollable, or rather just barely controllable with such slippery tools as emotional deduction, poetic inspiration, and argumentative intoxication; in any case, philosophical analysis doesn't seem to help much. Though a number of important abstract ideas are raised over the course of the conversation, it is notable that the last real resting place of the argument is simply that desire, somehow or other, causes friendship.

The "other theory" that Socrates suspects of being "a long story about nothing" is in fact the longest analysis in the dialogue, and it yields the most complex and unwieldy argument: friendship depends on that which is neither good nor bad befriending the good in order to avoid evil. Besides its awkwardness, this theory has the perverse consequence of positing evil as the immediate cause of friendship. Socrates rejects this argument by freeing desire from any association with evil. Desire, he argues, is in itself neither good nor bad; thus, even if all evil were eliminated, desire (and therefore friendship) would still be around. In the end, then, we don't learn much about desire from the philosophy of the Lysis, even though desire marks the final resting place of the troubled discussion. Desire remains an enigma, a necessary factor that cannot be described in its qualities or its cause beyond an assertion that it is, by itself, neither good nor evil. In closing, we might note that significantly more can be learned about desire from the characters and behavior of the participants in the dialogue than from the philosophical content of the dialogue.

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