Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.04.04

Michael Bordt, Platon: Lysis. Übersetzung und Kommentar. Werke/Platon V.4.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998.  Pp. 264.  ISBN 3-525-30419-6.  DM 78.  

Reviewed by David Murphy, The Nightingale-Bamford School (
Word count: 2011 words

Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht continues its Works of Plato series with Michael Bordt's well-balanced and thoughtful translation of and commentary on the Lysis, Plato's dialogue about friendship. Despite its charming setting in a palaestra just after a festival of Hermes and its engaging characters -- principally Socrates, two boys, and a love-struck youth -- the Lysis can be a frustrating dialogue to study. Its often arid and confusing arguments seemingly fail to reach any conclusion, and scholars have argued for decades over whether Plato intended any positive result. Although Aristotle's discussions of friendship clearly owe something to it, the Lysis has exercised little influence over moral philosophers since. Still, the dialogue raises many important questions about the conditions that must be fulfilled if genuine friendship is to be formed. Bordt has provided a useful and stimulating aid to serious study of this enigmatic but thought-provoking dialogue.

An expansion of an Oxford dissertation, the work consists of a German translation, an introduction of 66 pages and a commentary. In the introduction, B. discusses friendship in Plato and in Greek thought, outlines his interpretation of the dialogue as it reveals "Plato's own systematic position" (p. 75), and situates it within Plato's philosophical output. The commentary proper is divided section by section according to B.'s analysis of the structure of the Lysis. It is organized into three continuously running strata: summary of the section, interpretation, and notes on particular points. A select bibliography precedes indices of passages, ancient authors, names and things.

The translation is accurate and literal enough to provide the Greekless reader of German with a good sense of how the original runs. As does English, German has difficulty in rendering Greek fil-words with equivalents taken from a single root. B. discusses in the commentary how φιλία in certain passages in Greek authors is best translated as "love" ("Liebe"), but his decision to stick to "friendship" in this dialogue, even at 217e9, where "love" might have fit better, helps the reader to divine the Greek original. Notable is the clarity achieved between different kinds of causes, as denoted by ἕνεκα, "for the sake of" ("um ... willen") and διά, "because of, as occasioned by" ("wegen") in 218-20. Some passages are a bit wordy. For example, relative clauses for participles can drone, as at 204a2, where νεωστὶ ὠικοδομημένη becomes "die erst vor kurzem fertiggestellt worden ist". Explanation can run ahead of pure translation, as when ταπεινοῦντα at 210e3 becomes conative ("versuchen, ihn zur Demut zu bringen"), or when ἀπομαντευόμενος, 216d4 is interpreted for us as "intuitiv denke ich"; it would have been better just to have explained the verb in the commentary. On the other hand, B. avoids the glosses "to them" and "to him," which Jowett and others inserted at 210c6 and c8. On the whole, the translation is a skilful job, conveying the charm and humor of the dramatic frame as well as the meanderings of Socrates' examination of the boys' beliefs about "the friendly."

It presupposes a Greek text that is largely an amalgam of Burnet's and the text that David Robinson prepared in 1961, which latter we expect to form the basis of the eventual OCT Lysis. B. has used Robinson's complete collation of MS. Vind. suppl. gr. 7 (=W), a primary witness known to Burnet only at second hand, as well as Robinson's readings from later but important MSS. In his notes, B. defends thirteen divergences from Robinson and seventeen from Burnet, against seven explicit agreements with Robinson and ten with Burnet. In these decisions B. displays more willingness than many editors to prefer the reading of the primary witnesses over conjecture, an inclination that in general, B. defends well. For example, his defense of the MSS.' abrupt insertion at 220e1 of the reminder, "wir sagten, dass jene um eines anderen Lieben willen lieb sind," and his retention of the particle δέ ("ähnelt diesen aber in nichts") find explanation in a plausible account of Socrates' conversational intentions. B. does well to reject Burnet's addition of τοῦ φίλου, 219b3, which can be inferred from context, and against Hermann's and Burnet's ἑτέρου, to keep the MSS.' dative at 220b1 and connect it to the following ῥήματι yields the sense "by a transferrence of names," as Heindorf saw. I do notagree with B.'s decision to follow Robinson and a late MS. in reading ἰατρικόν at 210a1 against ἰατρόν of the MSS. and Priscian, which is lectio difficilior. Perhaps B.'s philosophically most important textual innovation is to accept David Sedley's reading of the letters omicron-upsilon at 218b7, not as "not," but as the genitive interrogative pronoun, i.e. "we have found out what the friendly is, and of what (it is the friend)." Here, though, B. declines to accept Sedley's inference that the Lysis is not about the definition of a friend but only about who is friendly to whom, since for B. the latter question entails the former.

From this last point we can begin to see the overall thrust of B.'s interpretation, which I would characterize as mainstream. On one hand, he holds that Plato expressed systematic views across a range of dialogues, and that we can tease them out with the right tools. B. says many things like "Platon erläutert seine These" (p. 72) or "Platon behauptet" (p. 84); he does not give us a non-dogmatic Plato who hides behind his characters. On the other hand, using developmentalist assumptions to construct a relative chronology of dialogues, B. refuses to find doctrines of Plato's middle period in presumably early dialogues when they are not explicitly propounded. For example, he will not pull the Theory of Forms out of the πρῶτον φίλον and "the good" (Ly. 220b), as did Shorey and many others. B. believes that Plato intends us to work through fallacies and achieve insight by transcending the formal aporia in which the dialogue ends. He proposes three criteria for judging whether Plato means a refutation of a thesis to be materially conclusive (p. 70): 1) is the refuted thesis in agreement or opposition to other ones that are maintained or refuted in the same dialogue?; 2) is it in agreement or opposition to what Plato says without further discussion on the same theme in other dialogues?; 3) is the thesis or its refutation objectively plausible? The first criterion and, under some conditions, the second threaten to become circular, for one may deny that the other theses are themselves meant by Plato to be taken as established or refuted.1 B. to his credit lays his cards on the table.

We see how B. uses the three criteria when he uses them to draw inferences from the argument in 214b-3 that evil persons, although like each other, cannot be friends (p. 165-66). B. concludes that Plato probably held this thesis "auf der Sachebene," i.e. on the material or objective level: 1) it is maintained also at 216d9 and leads to no difficulties elsewhere in the Lysis; 2) it agrees with what Plato says at Grg. 507e1-6 and Rep. 351c7-352d3 (B. cites as additional authorities Aristotle, Cicero and the Stoics); 3) it is objectively compelling, for the unjust lack loyalty and concern for others, virtues on which friendship depends. He goes on to infer that Plato probably held the converse, that true friends can only be the good (pp. 167-71). On the level of the dialogue, this thesis is refuted in 214e-215a -- the good do not need each others' help and thus do not value each other -- but with help of the three criteria, we realize that the refutation is not valid: 1) that like can be friend of like is presupposed in 218d-220b; 2) the same is presupposed in many other dialogues; 3) reflection shows that friends' shared likenesses are not of personal characteristics but of values and goals. B. makes some of his most penetrating comments when he locates the argument's fault in its failure to show in what respect the friends should be alike. Humans are good insofar as they, creatures lying between good and evil, strive for the good (cf. 220d5-6). True friends therefore need and love each other as partners in that striving, and in this they are alike.

This account of friendship as joint striving for the good is not stated in the dialogue; it is B.'s attempt to show how we may combine the argument's disparate assertions into a theory that will account for what it is that people desire in friendship: A and B become friends because they both strive for some good, C. Plato does not identify C but only shows the direction in which to look for it, i.e. to some unity of the good, the πρῶτον φίλον and the "akin," οἰκεῖον. According to B., Plato wants us to think about how their shared love of this final object can make two people love each other. It is here that I think B.'s analysis can go deeper. He makes a good case that Gregory Vlastos' attack on love in the Lysis as egoistical was a poorly nuanced one.2 Yet, B. does not confront Vlastos' central criticism, that Plato's developed theory of love is not, in the end, about love of whole persons: we love another person not for his own sake but as an image of the ideal good or beautiful, which is instantiated in him. Once B. allows that a person has only one πρῶτον φίλον (p. 203-204), then "already" in the Lysis, friends are not true ethical ends, whom we love for their sakes, since we can have more than one friend. The beloved son of 219d-e is not said to be his father's πρῶτον φίλον; he is only an image of it. Perhaps B. would agree with this; the point in any case merits closer scrutiny as part of an attempt to understand the direction of Plato's thought.

B. does use the dialogue as a springboard for reflections of his own about how friends can help us to live the good life if we treat them as ends. He has wise things to say about how Hippothales exemplifies false friendship; the besotted youth really loves his own emotional states (cf. 205e1 "these songs really apply to yourself"), for experience of which Lysis merely provides the occasion, rather than loves the boy in himself, or indeed any rationally chosen good. B. points out that the practical difficulties which many people encounter in relationships result in large measure from the unreflective expectations that they impose on the other person, and he urges that philosophy can help them achieve truer friendships as they understand more deeply the ethical values that cement friendship (pp. 46-49). B. dips into Aristotle for further clues as to why we need friends to help us lead the good life; for example, friends with opposite excesses and defects of character can temper each other toward the mean. B. has caught the Socratic conviction that philosophy is the art of living well, even though he draws from the Lysis more precepts about friendship than I think Plato was concerned to put there.

I have a few complaints about secondary matters. The length of many sections in the running commentary could have been reduced by half, while various historical (e.g. the deme Aixone) and linguistic details (e.g. on κρονικώτερα, 205c6, or meaning of πρεσβύτερος at 207c1) need further explication. As always with studies of Plato, one can fault the bibliography for missing items, as e.g. Andrea Wilson Nightingale's criticisms of stylistic dating, or Valentin Schoplick's commentary, which, although often quoted, seems to have fallen out of the bibliography and index. I do not fathom the basis of B.'s assertion that the title cannot be Plato's. Allusions to the dialogue in the indirect tradition are much more numerous than B. supposes.3 Occasional repetitions of the same typographical errors bespeak careless editing of computer-pasted text portions. But these sorts of oversights do not diminish the considerable benefit that a student of the Lysis will derive from this book. B.'s unified and powerful interpretation provides stimulus to readers of many different theoretical approaches.


1.   Christopher Rowe voiced this objection during discussion of the paper that B. delivered on the Lysis at the Vth Symposium of the International Plato Society in Toronto. B.'s paper will appear in the volume of selected papers to be edited by Thomas M. Robinson and Luc Brisson.
2.   Cf. Gregory Vlastos, "The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato," Platonic Studies, 2nd ed. (Princeton 1981) 3-42.
3.   Cf. Stefano Martinelli-Tempesta, La tradizione testuale del Liside di Platone (Florence 1997) 227-48.

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