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The Greek title Erastai is the plural form of the term erastēs, which refers to the older partner in a pederastic relationship. Since in Classical Greek terms such a relationship consists of an erastēs and an erōmenos, the title Lovers, sometimes used for this dialogue, makes sense only if understood in the technical sense of "lover" versus "beloved" but is misleading if taken to refer to two people in a love relationship. Ancient manuscript marginalia suggest that the title might have been Anterastai (Ἀντερασταί), which specifically means "Rival erastai." This term, used in the dialogue itself (132c5, 133b3), is mentioned as the dialogue's title (together with a subtitle, On Philosophy) in Diogenes Laertius' listing of the Thrasyllan tetralogies (3.59). The Latin translations Amatores and Rivales have also been used as the dialogue's title.
The rival erastai of the title are a devotee of wrestling and athletics, who disparages philosophy as shameful nonsense, and a young man who cultivates mousikē (a term embracing music, poetry, and philosophy). As the dialogue opens, they are quarrelling, at a grammarian's school in the presence of the boy they love and of other boys and young men, over the question whether philosophizing is noble and admirable (kalon).
Socrates inserts himself into the quarrel. When he begins by questioning the musical rival's claim to know what philosophizing is, he gets the answer that philosophy is polymathy. With the help of the athletic rival, who knows that the good of exercise depends on being done in the right amount (not the maximum amount), Socrates points out that the same is true of most good things, and turns to asking what kind of things the one who philosophizes (loves wisdom) ought to learn, if the object is not simply to know all or many things (135a). The musical rival suggests that the philosopher, while not needing to bother himself with the hands-on practicalities (cheirourgia, 135b), should aspire to a level of understanding in all the arts (technai) such that he is second only to the expert in that particular field—still a kind of polymathy. Socrates challenges this suggestion by forcing the would-be philosopher to admit that, in any conceivable particular circumstance, the philosopher would be useless in comparison to a true expert on the matter (e.g., a physician or a ship's pilot).
Accordingly, Socrates develops an alternative account of the philosopher's proper interest, based on the premise that goodness (which the interlocutors have agreed in ascribing to philosophy) depends critically on the knowledge how to make good and to tell good from bad, which is also the knowledge needed to deal out punishments. This knowledge, the musical rival agrees, is the knowledge of the one who serves as judge (hē dikastikē epistēmē, 137d). Socrates goes on to argue that this knowledge can be identified with justice, self-control, and self-knowledge, and with the arts practiced by the statesman, the king (or tyrant), and the head of a household (or master). The conclusion is that these are all in fact just one art (138c), one of paramount importance, in which the philosopher must be supreme.
When Socrates first met the rival lovers, he put little hope in conversation with the athletics enthusiast, who professed experience "in deeds (erga) and not in words (logoi)" (132d). But at the end he wins the crowd's applause by having shut up the "wiser" young man, so that it is the athletic rival who agrees with Socrates' conclusions (139a).
The entire story of the discussion is told in the first person by Socrates, without any interruption or indication what audience he addresses. At just over seven Stephanus pages, Lovers is one of the shortest dialogues in the Thrasyllan canon of Plato's works (about the same length as Hipparchus, with only Clitophon being shorter).
Question of authenticity
It is generally agreed that the dialogue was written in the second half of the fourth century BC and expresses the philosophical views, if not of Plato, then at least of an Academic writer of this period.
Stallbaum's verdict is typical of a long-held scholarly consensus: the language and style are irreproachable and worthy of Plato or Xenophon, but the material is not developed in a way worthy of Plato's philosophical mind. Gerard Ledger's stylometric analysis of Plato's works did not find the expected statistical similarities between the Greek of Lovers and that of Plato's acknowledged works, instead showing a closer statistical match between this dialogue (as also Hippias Minor) and the works of Xenophon. If the dialogue is post-Platonic, then perhaps it argues against Aristotle's insistence that the kinds of authority wielded by a king, a politician, and a master are multiple and essentially separate from each other. (On the other hand, it is possible that Aristotle refers in his works to Lovers).
In a 1985 article, Julia Annas made a notable defense of the dialogue's possible value as an authentically Platonic production. Annas disagrees that the burden of proof need be on the proponent of the work's authenticity and proceeds from the premise that Lovers "contain[s] no decisive indications either for or against authenticity" and that the most any investigation can accomplish is to "make it plausible that the Lovers is an early work by Plato." Her several arguments that this is plausible center on the claim that, if Lovers and First Alcibiades are genuine, they provide an otherwise missing background in Plato's thinking against which to understand his treatment of self-knowledge in Charmides.
- Henri Estienne (ed.), Platonis opera quae extant omnia, Vol. 1, 1578, p. 132.
- Stallbaum, p. 265. For recent objections in this vein, see Annas, p. 112 n. 4, with references.
- Gerard R. Ledger, Re-counting Plato: A Computer Analysis of Plato's Style, as reported by Charles M. Young, "Plato and Computer Dating," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 12 (1994), pp. 227-50, repr. Nicholas D. Smith (ed.), Plato: Critical Assessments 1 (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 35f.
- Hutchinson, p. 618.
- Annas, p. 117 n. 23.
- Annas, pp. 111–112.
- Julia Annas, "Self-knowledge in Early Plato." In Platonic Investigations, ed. Dominic J. O'Meara, pp. 111–138. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1985.
- D.S. Hutchinson, introduction to Rival Lovers. In Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, pp. 618–619. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
- Gottfried Stallbaum, "Prolegomena in Rivales." In Platonis opera omnia, vol. 6, sect. 2, pp. 265–267. Gotha and Erfurt: Hennings, 1836.