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Abstract

Plato’s Lysis is a dialogue thematically structured around the notion of transitions. Yet, despite these structural features, the theme of transitions has rarely been mentioned in discussion of the dialogue’s dramatic and philosophical content. When the term ‘transition’ has arisen at all, it has either been with reference to the Lysis’ place within in the larger Platonic corpus as a ‘transitional’ or so-called ‘Socratic’ dialogue, or even more often, in connection with its odd status within this subset of Plato’s works. To be sure, the Lysis has much in common with these other transitional or Socratic dialogues. Yet unlike these dialogues, the Lysis seems uniquely burdened with the unfortunate distinction of having a ‘transitional problem’. It appears to be caught, or ‘lost in transition’ as it were, between two subject matters: ἔρως (erotic love) and φιλία (friendship).,In recent years, a reevaluation of the Lysis has yielded fresh attempts to discern a unified line of argument from what appears, on the surface, a series of failed attempts to define who, or what, is a φίλος (friend). Yet these renewed efforts to unveil the coherence of the Lysis have done little to dull its reputation for intractability. Even among Plato’s works, over which interpretative disagreement is of course nothing new, the Lysis nevertheless stands out. Few dialogues, if any, have yielded such diametrically opposing interpretations. What can account for this predicament? In large part, I argue, it stems from a lack of clarity over the background against which Socrates is arguing in the dialogue. Despite the extensive scholarship devoted to the subject area over the past thirty-plus years, conventional ancient Greek views of ἔρως and φιλία remain thorny issues. Did the classical Greeks understand familial relations as a form of φιλία? To what extent did the notions of the useful (τὸ χρήσιμον) and beneficial (τὸ ὠφἐλιμον) play a role, either implicitly or explicitly, in their ordinary understandings of erotic and friendly love? And how exactly did they understand the relation between ἔρως and φιλία?,However we are supposed to understand the answers to these and related questions, one thing that is evident is that the dialogue itself clearly seems meant as an attempt to resolve some problem or problems concerning ἔρως, φιλία, or both. The one  and perhaps only  thing commentators have unanimously agreed upon is that it can hardly be an accident that, in addition to referring to the dialogue’s namesake, ‘Lysis’ means ‘solution’, which in turn derives from the verb λύω or ‘to loosen’. Most readings have taken this title to signify the dialogue’s dramatization of Socrates’ attempt to ‘loosen’ or liberate his youthful interlocutors from conventional conceptions of erotic, familial, and friendly relations that are revealed to be problematic. Yet, while this sense of ‘loosening’ as liberation is no doubt an important theme in the Lysis, the shared shortcoming of these readings, I will contend, lies in their failure to take account of deeper sense in which the dialogue’s title signifies a ‘loosening’. Exactly how the youths are liberated from these conventional conceptions can only be understood as a consequence of the dialogue’s even more basic attempt to ‘loosen’ the conventional notions of ἔρως and φιλία themselves; a sense of ‘loosening’ that involves a blurring of the lines between these two notions. ,I argue that the dialogue’s dramatic details and the primary sense of ‘loosening’ that they invoke indicate a unifying argumentative structure underlying the Lysis. What this structure suggests is that more than merely a ‘transitional dialogue’, the Lysis is in fact a dialogue about transitions; in particular, those transitions that mark the emergence of both ἔρως and φιλία, the problems posed by these relations in their conventional forms, and the conceptual transformations necessary to overcome these problems.

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