Note: The Lysis takes the form of a dialogue recounted by Socrates. In this SparkNote's summaries, it will impossible to maintain a sense of the dialogue form; keep in mind that much of what Socrates says is phrased as a series of propositions, with which his young interlocutors simply (and briefly) agree for the most part. In addition, it will be extremely useful to read the brief material on Greek love and friendship in the "Terms" and "Themes" sections, as these are relevant throughout the text. K.J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality is also a good resource (see "Suggestions for Further Reading"). Finally, remember that this is, of course, originally a text in Greek. The "Terms" section gives notes on a few relevant Greek terms, but there will inevitably be some important differences between the translation on which this note is based and other translations. The text used herein is based on the translation by Benjamin Jowett, with a few changes by Eugene O'Connor (see "Suggestions for Further Reading").
The Lysis opens with Socrates on his way "from the Academy straight to the Lyceum." By the fountain of Panops at one of the city's gates, he meets Hippothales and Ctesippus, two young men whom Socrates does not recognize. When they ask where he is headed, Socrates repeats that he is going "from the Academy straight to the Lyceum." The two men have other ideas, though, and urge Socrates to accompany them to a new Palaestra nearby, where they have a "goodly company." Socrates immediately asks if there are any teachers present there, and is told that Miccus, Socrates's "old friend and admirer," is in attendance.
Socrates is willing to come along, but wants two questions answered first: what is expected of him, and who among the company is "the favorite" (i.e., the most beautiful). Hippothales does not address the first question and is equivocal on the second question, answering that different people have different opinions. Socrates picks up on this equivocation immediately, and pounces, asking Hippothales who his favorite is. Hippothales just blushes, which Socrates takes as a sure sign that Hippothales is, in fact, in love.
Ctessipus points out the overly "refined" nature of Hippothales's silent blush in the presence of Socrates, given that he proclaims his love of Lysis to his friends so often, so loudly, and with such bad poetry and voice that he "literally deafens us." It's odd, then, that here he would hesitate even to mention Lysis's name. Socrates probes a bit as to who exactly this Lysis is; it turns out that he is a young son of Democrates, a prominent local personage.
Socrates, now understanding who the boy in question is, comments that Hippothales has found a truly noble love-object, and asks to hear some of the love poetry with which Hippothales has allegedly harangued all listeners. Hippothales denies having done this at all, at which Ctessipus again insists that he has. Socrates backs down in his demand to hear the songs themselves, asking instead for a general account of how Hippothales "approaches" Lysis with his love. Hippothales replies that Ctessipus should be able to describe this himself, if it's really true that Hippothales is constantly going on about his crush. Ctessipus says that this is indeed the case, and begins a mocking account of the matter.
The Lysis, as a somewhat informal dialogue on relatively minor, social themes, gives us a prime opportunity to focus on the linguistic and rhetorical detail Plato uses in portraying Socrates, his mission, and his human interaction with his interlocutors. The opening pages of the dialogue remind us that more is often going on in Platonic dialogues than the rigorous interrogation of lofty ideals; Plato is also engaged in lovingly (and carefully) describing Socrates, the man who walks (see below) and questions, as well as the vibrant Athens in which Socrates walked.
Walking, in fact, opens this dialogue, with Socrates on an errand that is at once undefined and heavy with respectability. Socrates repeats twice, in exactly the same terms, that he is headed "straight" from the Academy to the Lyceum, placing him on a direct shuttle-route between high learning and good religious citizenship. By insisting on this frame for Socrates's encounter with his interlocutors, Plato seems to be making an effort to mitigate the danger posed by his usual portrayal of the wandering philosopher, which more commonly finds Socrates just sort of hanging around. After all, part of what Plato probably felt to be his debt to Socrates involved correcting the idea that Socrates was a moral degeneracy (Socrates was executed in part for "corrupting the youth of Athens").
Here, then, Socrates is distracted from his civic commitment in a fairly aggressive manner. He doesn't just fall in with Hippothales and Ctessipus, but is amiably accosted; Moreover, even after he has confirmed that there is a respected teacher involved, Socrates demands to know who these youths are and "what is expected" of him if he joins their company. The two young men, on the other hand, are clearly carefree and don't have much to do: they argue simply that Socrates "may as well" join them.
In any case, Socrates's purposeful route never compromises his curiosity and eagerness to speak to the learned (in this case, Miccus), or at least to people committed to some ideal (as Hippothales is to his love for Lysis). This eagerness is clearly depicted in all the dialogues. Here, Socrates is drawn to Hippothales because Hippothales is (or is rumored to be) someone who is in love, and thus someone who may know how love might be defined in the abstract. At the very least, Hippothales can, by the standard Socratic interrogation, be made to realize that he doesn't really know anything about love.
But Socrates's curiosity is piqued by more than possible knowledge. There is an urge to gossip, sparked by Ctessipus's insistent talk of the depth of Hippothales's obsession with Lysis. This brings out a side of Socrates that is very different from his usual status as a wily debater who claims to know nothing: here, Socrates begins to take the role of a worldly-wise love councilor who in fact knows a great deal. "As foolish as I am," he says, "the gods have given the power of understanding these sorts of affections."
This surprising claim is made as Socrates reads the blush that rises on Hippothales's face with the first mention of a "favorite" among the friends. The blush is a truly remarkable twist on the Socratic interrogation: rather than taking a statement made by his interlocutor and systematically dismantling it with rational tools, Socrates is here reading an expression and answering it with a claim to his understanding of emotions. Thus, these first few pages are a picture of Socrates as something more than a philosopher: we see Socrates in motion, and then we see him halted and engaged by a blush that reminds him of his own experience with the love of boys.
The opening section of the text seems to set an intriguing problem for the rest of it: a philosophical dialogue about love cannot remain entirely philosophical. The mixing of purposefulness with a casual encounter in Socrates's route, and the mixture of philosophical and emotional judgment in his first exchanges with the two young men, mark out the special province of the Lysis.