Socrates on Friendship

Last week in the Stoa (3/3/2019) we discussed this sentence from passage #24 in the Encheiridion: “Which would you rather have–money or a trustworthy and honorable friend?” In light of that conversation I thought this article by Donald Robertson on Socratic friendship might be of interest.

Plato’s Lysis is a notoriously messy dialogue, where concepts of love and friendship become entangled with one another, made worse by some problems of translation. If we can tolerate its ambiguities, we’ll find the main questions Socrates raises are actually quite profound and important ones, worth thinking about and discussing. As we’ve seen, Socrates liked to ask people why, if shepherds knows exactly how many sheep they have, people find it so difficult to count their friends. Friends are much more valuable than sheep so shouldn’t we be clearer about the number we have? Of course, we know what a sheep looks like but do we know what a friend looks like? Given how important it surely is, why do we have such a fuzzy concept of friendship?

At the start of the Lysis, Socrates is walking from the Academy to the Lyceum when he bumps into two young men called Hippothales, Ctesippus and a group of their friends outside a newly built palaestra, or wrestling school. Here again, he’s brought into casual conversation by others who are keen to speak to him, rather than setting himself up as a lecturer like the Sophists. Young adult men in ancient Athens often became romantically involved with teenage boys while simultaneously assuming the role of teacher to them. This is known as Greek pederasty, although that term can be somewhat misleading. These relationships between the older lover (erastes) and the teenage beloved (eromenos), usually aged between 15-17, were defined by complex social and legal conventions. I suspect that in Plato’s dialogue, incidentally, Lysis is probably one of the older boys, aged around seventeen, and Hippothales is a young adult, perhaps three or four years his senior, although we can’t really be sure. Relationships of this kind often commenced in the years prior to the beloved (eromenos) beginning training for Athenian military service, aged 18-20, but they often continued for years afterwards, sometimes into their thirties. In some cases, as in the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades, they’re portrayed as non-sexual (platonic) relationships, although characterized by expressions of intense romantic love. The line between male friendship and love, as in this dialogue, was often more blurred than we’re used to today.

Socrates begins by asking the young men who their favourite is among the boys in the wrestling school and Hippothales blushes, which Socrates takes to mean that he’s in love. His friend Ctesippus teases him saying that he’s obsessed with a boy called Lysis. There’s some banter about how Hippothales is ridiculously infatuated with Lysis, going on about him, singing his praises, so much that his friends are sick of hearing about it. Socrates tells Hippothales that praising someone in order to win their love is the wrong approach because it will just make them more vain and difficult to win over. Someone’s conceit needs to be overcome, they have to be helped to realize that they do not know as much as they believe they know, if they are to desire a teacher and mentor. This obviously resembles the way Socrates describes his philosophical method, in Plato’s Apology and elsewhere, as a sort of therapy for intellectual conceit. Hippothales seems to think this is worth a try so Socrates offers to demonstrate his method of winning over students and the group enter the palaestra, where the boys and older men are mingling to celebrate the Feast of Hermes. Hippothales clearly has a romantic infatuation with this young boy, which may or may not have been platonic in nature. As we’ll see, although Socrates also admires Lysis’ beauty, arguably Plato’s intention is to portray him as winning the boy over to the love of wisdom (philosophy) and to distinguish this from the more conventional sort of relationship that Hippothales has in mind.

Lysis is Enslaved by Ignorance

Their conversation inside the palaestra attracts the attention of Lysis who comes close to listen with his friend Menexenus. As a crowd gathers to hear the discussion, Hippothales hides behind a pillar to observe. Socrates asks the boys which one of them is the elder and Menexenus replies “That is a matter of dispute between us.” Socrates then teases them by asking which one is nobler (also in dispute) and which one is most beautiful, at which they laugh. He then says he won’t ask them which one is wealthier because “friends have all things in common” so if they’re true friends neither one will be richer than the other. This doesn’t seem to be an unusual attitude in ancient Greece, where friendships were much more cherished than is typical among us today, and so the boys agree without hesitation that friends have all things in common. Socrates was about to ask which one was wiser and which more just. This was perhaps his typical way of getting a conversation going among friends, and having them reflect on each other’s virtues. It’s obviously not meant to start an argument, the outcome would probably have been more like them competing to praise one another. That would give Socrates a good opportunity to explore how they define these virtues. However, on this occasion he’s interrupted because the gymnasiarch, the man in charge of the gymnasium, calls Menexenus away to speak with him about the sacrifices they are offering as part of the ongoing festival.

Socrates therefore continues to question Lysis and, to the boy’s amusement, persuades him that he is currently enslaved by his parents. He’s not allowed to drive the chariot or even the mule cart, although the slaves are permitted to do so. His “master” (tutor) is a slave, as was the norm, and Lysis must obey him. Why is this? Lysis suggests it’s because he’s too young to be given more responsibilities. Socrates questions this, though, by pointing to counter-examples. He’s allowed to do some things but not others. His parents won’t grant him more freedom not because of a deficiency of age but because of a deficiency in knowledge. Socrates says that not only his parents but other Athenians would grant him more freedom if he proved he had the relevant knowledge. Regardless of his age, even the Great King of Persia would allow Lysis to cook his meals, if he believed that he had the most expertise in cooking, or to heal the eyes of his son, if he had the most knowledge of medicine. In doing this, Socrates seems to imply that that if we have knowledge that is of use to others they will view us as being their friend. It was commonplace in ancient Athens that a citizen would follow the advice even of slaves as long as they demonstrated specialist knowledge, such as expertise in construction, animal handling, or medicine. Many slaves were educated people, captured in warfare. If they possessed adequate knowledge or expertise they could find themselves in the role of teachers, ironically, becoming the “masters” of Athenian youths.

There are many subtle things going on here. Socrates often seems to recruit young students by questioning them in a good humoured way and showing that their knowledge is more lacking than they realize. It’s true that this is presented as a kind of seduction but apparently not a sexual one, which probably seems odd to most modern readers. Socrates wants Lysis to become one of his circle of young philosophy students. He doesn’t profess to be a teacher, though, at least not in the conventional sense. Remember, Socrates compares himself instead to a midwife. He doesn’t consider his students to be subordinate to him but rather treats them more as equals. Moreover, Socrates’ circle of students include young and old, rich and poor, Athenians and foreigners, from all walks of life.

Is the Lover or the Beloved a Friend?

Lysis is delighted and starts egging Socrates on to speak to his friend Menexenus who has now returned. Socrates agrees but says he must begin by explaining that from his childhood onward he has set his heart on one thing in particular: a passion for acquiring friends. Other people prize the best fighting birds, hunting dogs, or horses but Socrates says he would rather have a new friend than all the proverbial gold of the Great King of Persia. However, he claims to be ignorant of the ways in which a friend is acquired and to look on with admiration at the friendship between the two boys, from whom he says he hopes to learn the secret. So his question for Menexenus is this: “When one loves another is the lover or the beloved the friend?” As mentioned earlier, ancient Athenians tended to assume a greater distinction between lover and beloved than we do today. Menexenus replies with what surely seems to him the obvious answer: where one boy loves another, either may be called the friend. “Friend”, in other words, was a more vague term.

Socrates asks if he means that they would both be called each other’s friend even if only one of them loves the other, and is not loved in return. This sort of unreciprocated love seems to have been common among ancient Athenian males. We often hear about an older man becoming quite infatuated with a teenage boy who would be praised for remaining aloof and keeping him at a distance. Also, in groups of adolescent boys there typically seem to have been individual leaders who were idolized and loved by the rest of the group, such as Lysis and Charmides. Socrates pushes this question further by asking whether they would still both be called friends if one loves the other but is actually hated by him in return. He notes that in fact Athenian boys often complain that they felt despised by the ones they love. “Nothing can exceed their love”, he says, “and yet they imagine that they are not loved in return, or that they are even hated – is that not true?” The boy agrees that is very true.

So which is the friend of which, asks Socrates, if one loves and the other hates? Menexenus says that he would describe there as being no friendship at all on either side if one boy loves another but is hated in return. Already his responses are beginning to seem quite confused on this question. Socrates points out that this contradicts his previous answer, when he said that both were called friends if only one loved the other. He next asks Menexenus if he is saying that someone who does not love in return cannot truly be called our friend, to which he agrees. However, Socrates asks him whether or not we can call someone a lover of horses or birds or dogs, or even wisdom (a philosopher) whose love is not reciprocated. The poets, he says, call a man happy who loves his small children, horses, and dogs. Menexenus wants to agree that such a man’s love makes him happy, even though its not entirely reciprocated, at least not in the sense we’re talking about here.

Socrates therefore suggests that perhaps whatever is loved counts as one’s beloved, whether it loves, hates, or neither, in return. For example, new-born babies arguably do not yet love their parents. We might even say they hate their father or mother when punished by them. Yet they are beloved by their parents regardless. Arguably, in general, someone who is hated can nevertheless love the one who hates him. However, Socrates suggests that this feels counter-intuitive as the majority of men do not love their enemies and hate their friends – it’s obviously a strange notion. Socrates doesn’t say this but he perhaps wants to say that it is possible, in some sense, to love one’s enemies, despite the fact this seems to go against what most people think and feel. On the face of it, though, people do not normally love their enemies, and that much surely seems obvious to the boys.

Does Like Attract Like?

Socrates and Menexenus are left puzzled by seeming contradictions. However, Lysis is eager to take his friend’s place in the conversation. So they look to the poets for wisdom who say “God is ever drawing like towards like, and making them acquainted.” Socrates says that the natural philosophers also say that “like loves like”. Rather than love, perhaps it is the fact they possess certain similarities that makes two people friends. How does this apply to bad people who are alike, though? Surely they’re just as likely to hate one another as they are to hate others who are good? (We say, “Satan is divided against Satan.”) This is a theme in the Socratic literature. The unjust (good) generate discord and conflict even with one another whereas the just (good) create harmony. Here Socrates says something even stronger, though. Bad people are not even in harmony inwardly but they are inherently at odds with themselves, disturbed by restless passions. How can a man who is his own enemy possibly be a friend to anyone else? Can a bad man be anyone’s friend?

From this revised perspective “like loves like” seems to imply that the good are capable of loving the good whereas the bad, who are divided against themselves, are incapable of truly loving anyone. Perhaps the good then are the only true friends? However, what puzzles Socrates about this is that things that are very similar in nature often seem to be of very little use to one another. If the good cannot benefitone another, but are useless in this respect, how could they desire one another? If they don’t desire one another then there’s surely no love between them. The good, insofar as it is good, is self-sufficient, by definition, and does not need or desire any other good. This is similar to the paradox of Plato’s Symposium whereby Eros (Love personified) cannot be good precisely because he desires what is good. If he was perfect, in other words, he would have no desire for anything else and so consciousness of our imperfection, of something lacking, seems to be essential to both love and desire.

Do Opposites Attract?

Now Socrates wonders if they’ve got things completely back to front by saying that like attracts like. He quotes another poet, Hesiod, who appears to say that similarity is the source of enmity, that those who are alike hate one another, and that in nature opposites attract: the dry desires the moist, the cold draws heat to itself, etc. Socrates seems to be playing with the notion that the sayings of the poets, like proverbial wisdom in general, often appear contradictory on closer inspection. Menexenus wants to join the conversation again and says that “the greatest friendship is of opposites”. However, Socrates draws their attention to the fact this would mean the good man is naturally the friend of the bad, and vice versa, which they agree to be monstrously absurd. So they conclude that neither likeness or unlikeness, by themselves, can explain the love between friends.

Friends as Remedies for Evil

Now Socrates suggests to Menexenus the paradoxical-sounding definition that the friend of the good is something neither good nor bad. There are good, bad, and neutral things, things which are neither good nor bad. Perhaps the good and the neutral are friends? He gives the example that the body is neither good nor bad but neutral, whereas medicine is good and disease is an evil. When the body is diseased, metaphorically speaking, medicine is the body’s friend. This leads to a more complicated definition of friendship: the good is a friend to the neutral when that neutral is in the presence of evil but not yet corrupted by it. He adds the last part, qualifying the statement to emphasise that something evil is afflicting the lover but they are not themselves evil and still retain their essential character. Neither the genuinely wise nor the wilfully ignorant (perhaps the conceited) could be lovers of wisdom (philosophers), he says, but only those who are involuntarilyignorant, presumably those who have recognized their own ignorance for what it is. The wise is good, the wilfully ignorant is evil, but the involuntarily ignorant is neutral, though afflicted by the evil of ignorance. Those who are involuntarily ignorant can learn to love wisdom, which serves as a paradigm for friendship. Not like attracts like or opposites attract but the beloved as one who offers to remedy some affliction, such as ignorance, which the lover wants cured.

Socrates triumphantly declares to the boys, “we have discovered the nature of friendship: there can be no doubt of that.” He feels like a hunter whose prey is just within his grasp. (A metaphor for the love of wisdom itself.) However, his sense of victory is short-lived as he soon begins to suspect that something is amiss. He feels their conclusion is no more than a “shadow” of the truth. “Arguments, like men, are often predators”, he says, which seems a remark laden with meaning. Is he insinuating that some would-be “friends” are predators? Hippothales, of course, is still hiding in the shadows watching to learn how Socrates seduces teenage boys. Plato doesn’t say this but I think it’s possible to read the dialogue as being about Socrates tricking Hippothales into letting him steal the boy away from him by converting him to the study of philosophy.

Friendship as What is Congenial

Socrates now says that friendship has a motive and he questions whether it is the motive or purpose of their friendship that makes someone a friend. He drops this idea because it confuses Menexenus. (What are the motives of Hippothales and those of Socrates?) Socrates therefore reprises his earlier analogy and says that the physician and his medicine are friends to the body when it’s diseased because their purpose is to bring health. This perhaps suggests that friendship is not love of the good but love of someone whose purpose is to do us good. However, Socrates ties himself in knots immediately by wondering if medicine is loved for the sake of health whether health might be loved for the sake of something else. Where does this regress stop? Remember, though, that in the Euthydemus and elsewhere he says that health and other such goods are indifferent, neutral, and only become good or bad insofar we use them wisely. What he may be implying is the view that a friend is someone whose purpose is to help us attain wisdom and virtue, if that’s the only thing that’s truly good in life. (If so, the obvious candidate for becoming Lysis’ best friend would be Socrates himself.)

Socrates next denies that evil can be the cause of friendship, which was part of his earlier definition. Surely even if evil were completely removed friendship and desire for the good would still exist? Even if the body were free from disease, and completely neutral, surely it would still desire what’s good? Socrates begins looking for another cause of friendship. He wants to say that the desire for friendship isn’t just motivated by the desire to remedy something bad but that it continues even when we’re in a more neutral state. I think, in part, what he’s driving at is the notion that we can desire something, such as a friend, either as a means to something else or as an end in itself. True friendship seems to value the friend in themselves not just as a means to some other end. Otherwise we’d abandon our friends once we’d benefitted from them, which is what we call a mere “fair-weather” friendship. That can also take two forms: either valuing a friend because they help us to get rid of something bad or because they help us to get something else that’s good. Here Socrates is saying there must be a reason to keep loving our friends even when the “disease”, or whatever was bad, has gone and we don’t really need their help anymore. So his current definition, which basically says that friendship is a desire for someone good as a means to remove something bad, is insufficient. If we refer back to the analogy mentioned above that would mean that someone who is involuntarily ignorant loves wisdom, or the wise, because they want to be cured of their ignorance, which they recognize as an evil, but surely they must still continue to love wisdom long after this.

Finally Socrates proposes a another definition: that friends are “congenial” to one another. He means that they’re friends not because they’re alike or unalike but insofar as they somehow have complementary qualities to one another. So each would desire in the other what he lacks himself because it’s inherently beneficial, not just as a means to cure some evil. However, Socrates is troubled that the good is presumably congenial to the good, which means we’ve slipped back into the definition that “like loves like” that was rejected earlier.

It’s typically observed that Socrates appears to dismiss this definition somewhat prematurely. He could perhaps have said that true friendship is the love of what is good in others (wisdom and virtue) insofar as we lack goodness ourselves, being mortal and imperfect, and desire to benefit by acquiring (learning) it from them. I’m not sure if that’s exactly what he has in mind but it’s presumably something along those lines. In any case, they’re all left in confusion for a few moments… Then suddenly the boys’ tutors appear and drag them off noisily. Socrates muses aloud to the boys as they’re hustled away that though they have been unable to define what a friend is, nevertheless, they and Socrates appear to view each other as friends. And thus ends one of the more confusing and inconclusive Socratic dialogues. Nevertheless, some important concepts relating to friendship have been brought into the discussion.