Socrates’s Failure In The Lysis

Plato’s Lysis dialogue is unique for several reasons. It is one of the shortest Platonic dialogues and it is recounted by Socrates to an unknown individual or individuals after the fact. The dialogue explores the question of friendship and it ends inconclusively with an insufficient definition of friendship.

It begins with Socrates in a hurry to get from the Academy to the Lycaeum, the gymnasium in Athens. He was walking along the outer wall of Athens when a young man, Hippothales beckoned him over with other young, beautiful people at the palaestra, a wrestling school. Socrates soon discovers that Hippothales has love for the very young Lysis, well-known for his good looks and gentlemanly character. The dialogue is, appropriately, the precursor to the Phaedrus and the Symposium.

Socrates goes over to the young boys who are friends, Menexenus and Lysis, and he engages them in a line of questioning. He begins with an inquiry into whether or not it is better to be a slave or to be free. Then Socrates asks them if they, as children, are truly free under their parents rulership. Lysis, during the conversation, defends his parents rulership over him, as an appropriate gentleman. Socrates tries to find the boundary for when parents can control their child, and when they allow agency to the child. Socrates also notes that the children are led around and guided by their family slaves. In doing so, he seems to encourage rebellion against their families (perhaps akin to Aristophanes’s portrayal of Socrates turning sons against fathers in The Clouds).

The remainder of the dialogue engages the question of human imperfection and what should be desired in friendship: complete goodness, badness, or neither goodness nor badness? The question is thought to be resolved when they agree that friends are ideal if they are neither completely good nor bad, but Socrates notes a problem with this line of thinking and the question is never resolved.

However, at the conclusion of the dialogue there is a minor rebellion by the very young children, Lysis and others, against their slave attendants. This is perhaps the strongest example that gives credence to Socrates’s accusation in his trial. Recall that he was sentenced to death on two counts: 1) a kind of atheism that introduces new gods to the city and also 2) corruption of the youth. The Lysis is a demonstration of the latter.

For this reading I used Plato’s Dialogue on Friendship: An Interpretation of the “Lysis’, with a New Translation (Agora Edition) as translated by David Bolotin.

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