Menexenus returns from his duties and sits down again. Lysis whispers to Socrates, "in a childish and affectionate manner," that Socrates should tell Menexenus what he's just been telling Lysis. Socrates suggests Lysis tell Menexenus himself. Lysis agrees, but says he will tell him later; right now Lysis just wants Socrates to debate with Menexenus, who is Ctessipus's pupil and who is very "pugnacious" and needs to be "put down." Ctessipus then breaks up the whispering, and Socrates and Menexenus begin talking.
Socrates opens the discussion with a lengthy assertion that he prefers a good friend to any material possessions such as horses, dogs, or all the gold of Persia. He remarks on the great friendship between Lysis and Menexenus for such friendship is rare in young boys. He claims to be so impressed by this relationship that he no longer feels he even knows "in what way a friend is acquired," and must ask the two boys for advice.
Socrates's first question is "when one loves another, is the lover or the beloved the friend?" Menexenus replies that either could be the friend. Socrates argues that this cannot be the case, since sometimes love is not returned; sometimes love is even met with hatred, and we cannot say that someone is the friend of someone they hate. Therefore, Socrates concludes, "no one is a friend to his friend who does not love in return."
Socrates then points out that things like horses or, sometimes, even children do not love those who love them. This seems to indicate that they cannot be loved, but this is not the case. Thus, it now seems that the beloved can be loved regardless of whether the love is returned, and similarly, the one who is hated can still be loved by the person he hates.
But then, Socrates argues, we must conclude that many men love their enemies and hate their friends, which seems to be "an impossibility." We seem to be in a fix with regard to the initial question about friendship, since neither the lover nor the beloved can be said always to be a friend: "Whom are we to call friends to one and other?"
Socrates's arguments here seem somewhat Sophistic: he seems to be using wordplay to work his audience into a hopeless paradox. This is an important issue, since Plato is generally eager to differentiate Socrates from the Sophists, who taught young men flashy but empty rhetorical skills for a fee. Again, Plato was concerned to some extent with exonerating Socrates from accusations that he was merely a nitpicky gadfly whose main effect on young men was to confuse them into amoral corruption (a charge for which Socrates was ultimately executed). However, a few of Socrates's arguments in Plato's Socratic dialogues do seem to depend more on words rather than on the arguments that they serve. But here there are a number of mitigating factors to consider. First, there is again the question of youth: this dialogue will consistently be something less than deadly serious, because Socrates must make it a bit flashy for his younger audience. Second, Socrates's audience has changed, and he speaks differently to Menexenus than he does to Lysis. Menexenus is supposedly "pugnacious" and a stubborn debater, and, moreover, Lysis has specifically asked that Menexenus be taken down a notch. In this light, Socrates uses his wordplay to obey Lysis's command, because, ultimately, Lysis is the one Socrates is wooing.
Moreover, Socrates's word play can be seen as genuine, for there really is a blurry line between love and friendship, and a sense of paradox or contradiction to human relationships. Socrates's constructions are occasionally bizarre, and perhaps the oddest of all is the founding question of this exchange, "when one loves another, is the lover or the beloved the friend?" But odd questions like this aim to understand what is odd in love and friendship, to attempt to find some sort of consistency in a world where love, friendship, and even hatred seem to obey no rules. (It should also be said that the translation of the various Greek terms concerning love, friendship, and fondness is often problematic; see the Terms list for some details.) Thus, we as readers are in the rather remarkable position of seeing the Socratic elenchus—which is so often deployed against received notions of high ideals—here deployed against the tangled mess of love and friendship.
The basic question here has to do with the nature (the definition) of friendship in the context of love (the two terms are really not so distinct here). Specifically, the concern seems to be that the beloved does not necessarily return the love of the lover, and that this possibility indicates that mutual love (or fondness) is necessary for anyone to be called a "friend." Yet we love all sorts of things that do not love us back: this is why we can be said to be friends to our children even when they hate us for punishing them, or a friend to wisdom. But if friendship can be defined neither as mutual nor as unidirectional, what is its nature? With such a blurry model, who can tell when they have actually found a friend?