Lysis (dialogue)

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Lysis (/ˈlsɪs/; Greek: Λύσις, genitive case Λύσιδος, showing the stem Λύσιδ-, from which the infrequent translation Lysides), is a dialogue of Plato which discusses the nature of philia (φιλία), often translated as friendship, while the word's original content was of a much larger and more intimate bond.[1] It is generally classified as an early dialogue.

The main characters are Socrates, the boys Lysis and Menexenus who are friends, as well as Hippothales, who is in unrequited love with Lysis and therefore, after the initial conversation, hides himself behind the surrounding listeners. Socrates proposes four possible notions regarding the true nature of loving friendship as:

  1. Friendship between people who are similar, interpreted by Socrates as friendship between good men.
  2. Friendship between men who are dissimilar.
  3. Friendship between men who are neither good nor bad and good men.
  4. Gradually emerging: friendship between those who are relatives (οἰκεῖοι "not kindred") by the nature of their souls.

Of all those options, Socrates thinks that the only logical possibility is the friendship between men who are good and men who are neither good nor bad.

In the end, Socrates seems to discard all these ideas as wrong, although his para-logical refutations have strong hints of irony about them.


  • Socrates
  • Ctesippus - Cousin of Menexenus. Also appears in the Euthydemus.
  • Hippothales - Of approximately the same age of Ctesippus.
  • Lysis - Eldest son of Democrates I of Aexone, in his early teens.
  • Menexenus - Son of Demophon, of the same age as Lysis. Probable namesake of the Menexenus.


Socrates finds himself in a wrestling school frequented by young men who, between their classes, like to discuss on various topics. Among them is one called Hippothales, who Socrates can tell right away that he is deeply in love with another boy. Upon hearing this, the young men that are present jump in to confirm Socrates' impression, adding that Hippothales is so madly in love (μαίνεται), that his singing for the unrequited love has beaten the drums of those around (204d-205a). The object of Hippothales' desires is a boy called Lysis, from whom the dialogue took its name, and Socrates asks for permission to go and speak with him directly. Hippothales accepts, and tells Socrates that all he needs to attract Lysis is to start discussing with someone, so great is the boy's interest in debates. Socrates does exactly that and Lysis approaches together with his friend Menexenus. He begins by asking Lysis, who is obviously underage, whether his parents allow him to do whatever he wishes (207d). Lysis replies that no, his parents forbid him certain things that even slaves are allowed, like driving the chariot for example. Through his method of dialectics, Socrates forces upon Lysis the conclusion that his parent's behaviour cannot simply be due to his age, as they surely trust the boy with other important things, like transcribing a document for instance. Their denials must therefore be related to his wisdom, or lack thereof (210a-210d). At this point, Socrates thinks of making a friendly pass to Hippothales, by suggesting that Lysis could learn a lot if he were to associate with him, but refrains at the last minute, seeing how timidly Hippothales was looking at them (210e).

Deciding not to expose Hippothales, Socrates diverges into what will become the dialogue's main theme: the nature of a loving friendship. The exact word in the Greek text is philia (φιλία),[2] which in the context of its time was more than just "friendship", and referred to an intimate love that developed between free men, a love that in certain cases could include the erotic.[1] Keeping in mind this "desirous" aspect of philia is important in understanding the argument that follows, as it would probably not apply to friendship as we know it today. Because turning his questioning towards Menexenus (211d), Socrates concludes that philia is asymmetrical, and that one can love someone who does not love him in return, in contrast with animals who always requite the love of their masters (212d).

Socrates continues by passing through a series of definitions on the nature of friendship, which he negates himself, even though his listeners are convinced every single time. First he supposes regarding friendship, that “like attracts like”, just as Homer said, and so good men will always be attracted to other good men, while bad to the bad. The problem however is that bad men cannot be friends with anyone, not even themselves, while the good are so self-fulfilled that there is nothing they need to look for in another person (214e). It must be therefore that opposites attract each other (215e), as Hesiod said, but Socrates refutes it again. So if attraction happens neither between things that are alike, nor things that are opposites, there might be something in-between the good and bad, and it's those who fall in this category that are actually the ones most likely to be attracted by the good in loving friendship (216e). These intermediaries are pushed, Socrates says, by the fear of evil, and seek the good to save themselves, just like a human body, which in itself is neither good nor bad, seeks the "friendship" of a doctor when sick (217b).

Menexenus finds this last definition complete, but Socrates, upon reflection, cries in despair that both of them had been led astray (218c). First, and on a minor point, once this intermediary thing becomes a friend of the good, and considering that friendship works only among equals, then the two, good and in-between, have both become equals, which means that Socrates' definition has slipped back to the initial "like attracts like" which they have already refuted. Most importantly however, and since philia assumes the goal of betterment, the person who seeks the loving friendship of another is actually moved by the love of a certain virtue he can attain through this other (219c-d). There definition then leads to an infinite recursion, by which friendship is always towards something for the sake of another friendship, achievable through the first (ἕνεκα ἑτέρου φίλου φίλα ἔφαμεν εἶναι ἐκεῖνα (220e)). Socrates says their definition is like chasing ghosts (εἴδωλα). Socrates ends by admitting that for all their discussion, a proper definition is still elusive. And yet, Socrates says that he considers the two boys, Lysis and Menexenus, as friends, even though he failed to define it properly.

Although Socrates managed to refute all of his definitions, there are reasons to believe that his last, the one where loving friendship exists between one who is good and one who is in-between, is what Plato intended as true,[1] a definition consistent with the one Socrates gives of eros in the Symposium.

Main Themes[edit]

Lysis, as portrayed in the lekythos for his son Timokleides (4th century BC).

Depiction of simple eros (sexual love) and philia (friendship) [203a–207d][edit]

Hippothales is accused by Ctesippus, that he still presents annoying praises of his beloved person before the others. He is then asked by Socrates to show his usual behavior in this situation. He admits his love for Lysis, but refuses, that he behaves by the manner depicted by the others. According to Ctesippus it is possible only by his absolute madness, because how would the others know about the love otherwise?

Hippothales composes verses on his own honor[edit]

The victory is a real gain of such love, about which Hippothales sings. He is aroused by denied access to such love and encourages only himself in a fear from possible difficulties.

The perspective of possible future relationship is spoiled[edit]

The beloved person, who otherwise has not lost his self-criticism, can be conquered by his own pride. The lack of wit, surplus of emotions in behavior, does not create reverence and respect and makes impossible to conquer somebody, gaining his sympathy. The one, who should rule in the measure which makes him a part of the relationship, instead of it hurts himself.

The following Socrates' dialogue with Lysis implies, that loved by his parents he on the other hand is limited in the most of that what he would wish. Lysis is forced to let the others decide about him (compare with a rental coachman when he is carrying his family). His abilities are not subject of a blind faith.

The conclusion is, that friendship must be the opposite of hypocrisy, which sometimes emerges from the surplus of flattering...

Knowledge is the source of happiness [207d–210e][edit]

Another important conclusion from the dialogue with Lysis is that, although his parents wish his complete happiness, they forbid him to do anything about which he has insufficient knowledge. He is allowed to do something only when his parents are sure that he can do it successfully. He is able to please his parents and make them happy when he is better at doing something than other boys are.

Reciprocal and non-reciprocal friendship [211a–213d][edit]

The dialogue continues with Lysis only as a listener. Socrates is trying to find out what is friendship. He claims, that friendship is always reciprocal. The friendship of the lover is sufficient to it. But he can obtain back even the hatred. And it is not true, that the one who is hated or who perhaps hates is a friend. That is in contradiction with the mentioned thesis, that friendship is reciprocal. The opposite must be true then. Friendship is non-reciprocal. Otherwise the lover cannot be happy. For example, of his child, which does not obey him and even hate him. The conclusion is that people are loved by their enemies (parents) and hated by their friends (children). Then it is not valid every time, that lover has in loved his friend. This is in contradiction with the premise saying, that friendship can be non-reciprocal.

Like is friend to like [213e–215c][edit]

Bad men do not tend neither towards other bad men nor the good ones. The former can be harmful and the latter would probably refuse the disharmony. On the other hand, the good men can have only no differences to be good and have therefore no profit from each other. They are perfect and can be in love only to the extent to which they feel insufficiency, therefore to no extent.

Unlike is friend to unlike [215c–216b][edit]

The opposites attract one another. For example, the full needs the empty and empty needs the full. But this is not right in the case of human beings. For example, good vs. evil, just vs. unjust...

The presence of bad is the cause of love (philia) [216c–218c][edit]

Searching continues in an attempt to determine the first principle of friendship. The friendship must consists only in itself. Perhaps it is the good itself. But it would not be for itself the everything unless the evil is present.

The possession of good is the goal of love (philia) [216d–219b][edit]

The friendship must not lead us to something else (like to the evil). Must be itself only thanks to its own opposite. The opposite is therefore not only bad, but also useful. But there are situations, in which can be viewed the opposite for example of the good — like hunger or thirst — with disgrace. It is possible that even in not presence of the opposite, the elements of friendship can somewhere exist, which is in contradiction with that, that they consist in their opposite. The possession of the good by definition of friendship is therefore retained along for a while.

The first thing that is loved [219c–220e][edit]

So far it was successful to grasp only a shadow of the real nature of friendship. We tend to the good to escape the evil, to the health to escape the illness, to the certain friend (doctor) to escape the enemy. We do not know the first thing, that is loved.

Desire is the cause of love [221a–221d][edit]

The friendship can have another reason, than a way to the good (escaping the evil). It can be desire, longing for a something. By such way is responded to insufficiency, to our limitation in something. Insufficiency is that which makes us to be close each other. The friendship is therefore something inevitable for us. We are loved by something, we cannot be without it, which we ask by our nature. It is therefore impossible to distinguish object of friendship from us.

What is akin is friend to what is akin: aporia [159e–223a][edit]

An attempt is possible to distinguish the insufficiency from the mere unlikeness. The evil is insufficiency for everything, the good the sufficiency. For themselves are good and evil alike sufficient; however, they cannot be friends the ones who are akin to themselves. From the point of view of the first principle of friendship the distinguishing the insufficiency from the unlikeness was not successful.

In popular culture[edit]

Greek text[edit]

  • Plato: Lysis, Symposium, Gorgias. Greek with translation by W. R. M. Lamb. Loeb Classical Library 166. Harvard Univ. Press (originally published 1925). ISBN 978-0674991842 HUP listing
  • Platonis opera, ed. John Burnet, Tom. III, Oxford 1903


Secondary literature[edit]

  • Bolotin, David. Plato's Dialogue on Friendship: An Interpretation of the Lysis with a New Translation. Ithaca/London 1979
  • Bordt, Michael. Platon, Lysis. Übersetzung und Kommentar. Göttingen 1998
  • Garnett, Andrew. Friendship in Plato's Lysis. CUA Press 2012
  • Krämer, Hans, and Maria Lualdi. Platone. Liside. Milano 1998. (Greek text with an Italian translation, introduction and comment)
  • Peters, Horst. Platons Dialog Lysis. Ein unlösbares Rätsel? Frankfurt am Main 2001
  • Seech, C. P. Plato's Lysis as Drama and Philosophy. Diss. San Diego 1979


  1. ^ a b c Hoerber, Robert G. “Plato's ‘Lysis.’” Phronesis, vol. 4, no. 1, 1959, pp. 15–28. JSTOR
  2. ^ Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus: φιλία

External links[edit]