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Plato's Lysis (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 45, Number 2, April 2007
pp. 321-322 | 10.1353/hph.2007.0024

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Part I of this book is a running commentary on Plato's Lysis. Part II is an explanation and defense of the authors' theory that the dialogue "provides a systematic and coherent, if incomplete, account of a special theory about, and special explanation of, human desire and action." The authors include their own translation of the dialogue that is quite good. This book is an important contribution to Plato scholarship and will have to be taken into consideration by anyone who studies the Lysis in particular, or Plato in general.

Especially noteworthy are three controversial theses defended by the authors. The first is that the Lysis is not an inept or poorly-argued dialogue. The second thesis is that the Lysis reaches the following conclusion:

What it is for x to love y = for the neither good nor bad to love (a) a certain unique and ultimate good, the 'first friend', for its own sake or in itself, not because of the bad, but simply (b) because of desire. In addition, (c) the other things we say we love (even if for the sake of something else) are not loved for their own sakes or in themselves, and so are not true or real friends. But (d) we can in given circumstances love a friend, a child, a dog, quails, wine or wisdom, namely, when they are in fact means to the 'first friend' which we love for its own sake or in itself.


The third thesis defended by the authors is that the "first friend" can properly be said to be knowledge of the good, wisdom, happiness or the Form of the Good (275–79). The explanations of these theses are philosophically sophisticated and well-grounded not only in the text of the Lysis, but also in other relevant dialogues. For example, the authors use Gorgias 466a–468e and Euthydemus 278e–281e to support their view that, when Socrates talks about loving people and things for their own sakes, he is relying not on a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goods, but on a distinction between loving things which always make us happy and loving things which only sometimes make us happy.

This book is the second in the series, "Cambridge Studies in the Dialogues of Plato," whose goal is not to interpret Plato "piecemeal—by analyzing the arguments, by espousing or rejecting the theories," or by searching for "Platonic views across dialogues, selecting passages from throughout the Platonic corpus," but to read each dialogue as a "unified whole [which is] more than the sum of its parts" (ii). Fortunately, the authors fail to achieve this goal; would that their failure had been more complete.

An attempt to interpret the Lysis as a whole would require more than footnotes to discuss the issue of alleged Socratic irony (4–5 n. 7), or the complex relations between Plato, Socrates, and the character of Socrates in Plato's dialogues (195 n. 2). Among other things, it would require attending to the literary aspects of the dialogue, such as why a dialogue on friendship or love focuses on a character, Lysis, whose name means separation, refutation, or redemption. There are also problems in the exposition of the text. For example, the demonstration in Part I of how the dialogue serves the theory of human action that the authors attribute to Plato makes their "re-reading" of the Lysis in Part II redundant. In a long footnote on page 7, the authors squeeze in a discussion of the distinction between (a) the meaning of a sentence, and (b) what the speaker intends by speaking the sentence, even though they go over the same ground again in chapters 10–11. Second, despite their efforts in Part I to show how the dialogue serves the theory, they issue numerous promissory notes when it comes to explaining the significance of various passages in Part II. For example, at Lysis 210d, Socrates draws the surprising conclusion that Lysis' parents do not love Lysis if he is not useful to them. The authors canvass some possible ways to understand this, but postpone deciding among them until they explain the theory of human motivation in Part II. Presumably...

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