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Lysis

Plato

Section 2: 205b–206d

Section 1: 203a–205b

Section 3: 206e–210e

Summary

Ctessipus begins a witty, rapid-fire account of Hippothales's sappy songs and recitations about Lysis, with which Hippothales has been plaguing his friends. Most of his poems concern the legends and achievements of Lysis's family (his family's athletic victories, the wealth of Lysis's father, Democrates, his distant kinship with Hercules, and so on). Ctessipus classes them all as "old wives's tales."

Socrates now accuses Hippothales of composing these songs and poems in praise not of Lysis, but of his own (Hippothales's) "victory" in wooing Lysis; furthermore, Socrates says that Hippothales is praising himself before he's even won Lysis's love. Hippothales objects that the songs are indeed for Lysis, not for himself. Socrates explains that in building-up his love-object to such a degree, Hippothales is only praising himself as the eventual possessor of that love-object. This is a rash thing to do, Socrates points out, because, if Lysis is not won, Hippothales will look all the more foolish for having lost such a valuable beloved.

There is another problem with excessive praise of the beloved, Socrates continues: by inflating the beloved's ego, the pursuer only makes the beloved more vain and thus harder to win over. Socrates is implying that Hippothales's poems only serve to hinder his aims. Socrates continues, "I can hardly suppose that you would affirm a man to be a good poet who injures himself by his poetry."

Hippothales gets the point, and asks Socrates to counsel him in how he should pursue Lysis. Socrates says that this is difficult to determine without meeting the boy himself, and so the group decides to go inside where the feast of Hermes (the Hermaea) is being celebrated; there is "no separation between the men and the boys" at such a feast, and Lysis will probably be in attendance. If Lysis is not there, Ctessipus says that a close friend of Lysis will go and fetch him.

Analysis

After Hippothales's initial embarrassment concerning his overflowing crush on Lysis, Socrates enters into a kind of dialogue that at least partially resembles his usual method, the elenchus. Through a series of questions that seem clear enough to his interlocutor, that interlocutor is maneuvered into a position that is the opposite of where he was before the elenchus began. In this case, Socrates convinces a bewildered Hippothales that he is signing his love songs in praise of himself rather than Lysis, and also that Hippothales's love songs are making his success with Lysis less likely rather than helping him succeed.

Again, however, the Lysis deals with love and desire more than it does with abstractions like knowledge or goodness, and the elenchus takes a correspondingly unusual form and tone. It is worth noting that the philosophical and the socially-accepted conceptions of the same terms are always discussed in the Socratic dialogues; it is the aim of many of those dialogues to distinguish between the two. Socrates's interlocutors generally feel that they know exactly what honor or goodness (or whatever ideal is under consideration) consists of: such ideals are defined according to the deeply embedded social customs of the Greek aristocracy. Socrates's usual approach, then, is to show that such customary descriptions of ideals are not consistent as universal definitions (in fact, it is Socrates's great achievement to have invented the process of making "definitions").

In the Lysis, this shift from the social to the philosophical, or from the personal to the universal, is brought to the foreground: the initial elenchus performed upon Hippothales details the unusually strong hold that personal desire has over Socrates's philosophical method in this dialogue. Strikingly, this first formal conversation finds Socrates arguing on the primary basis of his understanding of the ways of love and lovers—"the more vainglorious [the beloved is], the more difficult is the capture of them."

Perhaps the most significant development at this point, however, is that the elenchus has a most unusual and somewhat un-philosophical goal: how does one win one's beloved? Further, it is not just any beloved (the universal beloved) that gets the whole investigation rolling here; it is specifically Lysis. This has two major implications. The first is that Socrates may be less interested here (at least initially) in pursuing an ideal definition of love or of the beloved than he is in gazing upon and conversing with a boy whose beauty is almost legendary, a boy who has made Hippothales's head spin. Second, replacing the concept of ideal love with the love of Lysis in particular means that the solution to the problem posed here cannot be answered just by talking; Lysis himself is required. Therefore, we hear Socrates proceed in his investigations with a method most peculiar among Plato's dialogues. Socrates say, "[how to win Lysis] is not easy to determine…:but if you will bring your love to me…I may perhaps be able to show you how to converse with him, instead of singing and reciting in the fashion of which you are accused."

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