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The Lysis on Loving One's Own

  • David K. Glidden (a1)


Cicero, Lucullus 38: ‘…non potest animal ullum non adpetere id quod accommodatum ad naturam adpareat (Graeci id οỉκεῖον appellant)…’

From earliest childhood every man wants to possess something. One man collects horses. Another wants gold. Socrates has a passion for companions. He would rather have a good friend than a quail or a rooster. In this way, Socrates begins his interrogation of Menexenus. He then congratulates Menexenus and Lysis for each having what he himself still does not possess. How is it that one gets a friend, Socrates asks?

Since the nineteenth century many who have read these lines have found them repulsive. Scholars have damned the Lysis for its selfish egoism, for regarding persons as personal belongings. At the turn of the century some sought to discredit the dialogue as a forgery and a calumny. Others debated the dating of the dialogue as Socratic or Platonic, seeking whom to blame rather than whom to credit. And those who have regarded the dialogue as Platonic have tried to redeem it by detecting hints of Plato's theory of Forms. A few have attempted to salvage reputations by understanding the argument of the Lysis as a reductio of egoism, or else by invoking the loyalty of Socrates' friends and the history of Plato's friendship for Dion of Syracuse to speak up for their defence. Guthrie has condemned the dialogue as a failure of method and presentation (‘even Plato can nod’), and Vlastos has pronounced it a failure of love: ‘The lover Socrates has in view seems positively incapable of loving others for their own sake, else why must he feel no affection for anyone whose good-producing qualities he did not happen to need?’

The Lysis appears to make no positive contribution to the Greek tradition on friendship when compared to the Symposium or the Phaedrus. And in the subsequent tradition, whatever Aristotle might have borrowed from the dialogue he uses for his own purposes. Aristotle too is quite critical of specific points raised in the Lysis. Now it might seem that Aristotle made a place for the selfish love of the Lysis in his own theory, as an inferior grade of utility love. But even this cannot be so, if we are to agree with recent studies of Aristotle's ethics. According to Aristotle, if a client is friendly to his benefactor because of the latter's usefulness, this utilitarian motive must accompany a genuine concern (εὔνοια) for the benefactor's own interest in that relation, if they are to be friends. Inferior and genuine friendship may differ in purpose but not in regard for the well-being of the beloved. This respect for the object of one's love has no parallel in the Lysis, according to the standard reading of the dialogue.



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