Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.11.35

T. Penner, C. Rowe, Plato's Lysis.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Pp. 366.  ISBN 0-521-79130-8.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Suzanne Obdrzalek, Claremont McKenna College (
Word count: 4878 words


Interpreters of Plato1 are typically troubled, if not repulsed, by his claim in the Lysis that we only love others insofar as they are useful to us. Consequently, they tend to fall into two camps: those who condemn Plato as a heartless egoist and those who seek to vindicate him of this charge. In their book, Plato's Lysis, Terry Penner and Christopher Rowe (henceforth P & R) assume a somewhat unusual stance--they attempt to exonerate Plato of the charge of heartlessness, while doing full justice to his psychological egoism.

P & R's book will be of primary interest to scholars of ancient philosophy, particularly those familiar with contemporary analytic debates in the philosophy of language and moral psychology. It should be noted that, though the book presents itself as a translation and commentary, it is not suitable for looking up isolated passages of the dialogue, since it offers a cumulative interpretation. The translation itself is highly literal, and hence less fluid than Lombardo's; it will be of most use for those wishing a stand-in for the Greek. P & R do not provide much discussion of textual or linguistic issues, nor do they provide socio-historical background for the dialogue. These limitations are undoubtedly due to the fact that P & R intend the work as a philosophical commentary on Plato, and in this it excels. Plato's Lysis does a splendid job of giving a sense of what it is like to read a Platonic dialogue through the eyes of two readers who are at once keenly sensitive to literary nuance and deeply philosophically engaged.

P & R offer an extremely close reading of the dialogue; though this frequently yields genuine insight, it will not be to everyone's taste. On their interpretation, core steps in Plato's argument are frequently made indirectly: for example, Socrates' claim that Hippothales is actually composing encomia to himself is taken to introduce an anti-Fregean theory of reference. It would have been helpful if P & R had provided more of an explanation of why Plato should argue in such an elusive fashion. Generally, P & R take themselves to oppose standard analytic interpretations of Plato; this comes out most clearly in their conviction that the literary and philosophical aspects of the dialogue are interdependent. P & R are exceptionally sympathetic interpreters: not only do they deny that the Lysis contains any failures of argument (298), but they also hold that the majority of its claims are defensible, if not true (198).

Plato's Lysis begins with a commentary on the dialogue; P & R then defend and expand upon some central themes, in particular the principle of real reference, Socratic intellectualism and the compatibility of egoism with love of others. They then offer a re-reading of the dialogue in light of these considerations. They conclude by responding to Vlastosian/Kantian critiques of Plato's treatment of love and by discussing the relation of the Lysis to the Symposium and Phaedrus and to Aristotle. The book ends with P & R's full translation of the dialogue. In what follows, I shall summarize their reading of the dialogue, interpolating a few critical comments, and then present my response.


P & R's reading of Socrates' initial examination of Lysis is based on the assumption that Socrates cannot be serious in concluding that Lysis' parents only love him insofar as he is useful and wise. The solution, P & R propose, is to treat the interchange as a reductio of Lysis' childish conception of happiness as being able to do whatever one wants. On this conception, the fact that Lysis' parents prevent him from doing what he wants when he lacks knowledge indicates that they only love him insofar as he is knowledgeable. However, along the way, Socrates shows Lysis that knowledge is what makes one useful and what makes things one's own--this is meant to suggest a different conception of happiness, being able to do what one wants as determined by wisdom. Thus, the explicit conclusion, that we only love others insofar as they are knowledgeable, is superseded by an implicit conclusion, which Socrates in fact holds, that to love someone is to want him to be wise. That Socrates does not endorse his seemingly harsh analysis of parental love is indicated indirectly--for example, the Great King's desire to heal his son's eye is meant to exemplify unselfish parental concern. Though P & R's reading of this passage is ingenious, it is troublesome that there is no direct evidence that Socrates is conducting a reductio; if his purpose were to disabuse Lysis of his false conception of happiness, wouldn't it be more charitable to do so explicitly? It is worth noting that while the example of the Great King is compatible with other-regarding parental affection, other examples suggest a more straightforward reading of the passage, on which parental love is conditioned by utility. The reason Lysis' mother does not let him play with her wool is surely not, as P & R would have us believe, a concern for his well-being, but rather because he would mess up the yarn.

The most interesting section of P & R's treatment of the passage on the poets and natural philosophers (213e-216b) examines Socrates' claim that the good cannot love the good because, being self-sufficient, they cannot love at all. P & R are troubled by this: surely it is possible for a virtuous man to find himself on the rack; this man, though good, would lack self-sufficiency. P & R's solution is to propose that what Socrates really has in mind is practical self-sufficiency--maximal self-sufficiency, given the circumstances in which one finds oneself. However, to declare that the good man is self-sufficient, external circumstances aside, seems to miss the point: surely, to be self-sufficient is to be unassailable by external circumstances. I believe that P & R's difficulty stems from their taking the good man to be morally good.2 One obvious alternative would be to follow Socrates in assuming that to be good is to possess all good things; in that case, the man on the rack would fail to be maximally good, if avoidance of bodily harm is a good thing. This caveat suggests another route that P & R might have taken.3 In the early dialogues, Socrates appears to view virtue, and especially wisdom, as the only good--in that case, the virtuous man on the rack (not unlike Socrates in prison) would lack nothing of worth.

In examining the central passage of the dialogue (216c-221d), P & R address the question, what is the first friend. P & R reject minimalist readings, according to which it is whatever we happen to desire for its own sake, proposing, instead, that it is wisdom. Their evidence for this claim is highly indirect. At the end of the Menexenus interchange, Socrates professes delight at Lysis' philosophia; P & R take this to indicate that wisdom is what is truly philon. Later, Socrates connects the good to the useful (220c)--this signals a backwards reference to the Lysis discussion, where it was established that wisdom makes one useful. At the close of the dialogue, Socrates links the good with what is oikeion; again, this harkens back to the opening, where wisdom is shown to make things hêmetera. Since Plato never actually states that wisdom is the first friend, P & R are forced to rely on minute details of the text. However, these do not entirely support their case. For example, in the Lysis discussion, wisdom is what makes things useful, but is not identified with the useful (i.e. the good). Again, Socrates claims that wisdom makes things hêmetera, but the first friend is what is oikeion, not what makes things oikeia. These details suggest that wisdom is a means to the first friend and therefore not the first friend, which is the end of all desire.

At the conclusion of the dialogue, Socrates returns the discussion to inter-personal relationships. One difficulty raised by P & R is how Socrates can legitimate moving from the claim that the beloved is oikeion to the lover to the claim that the lover is oikeion to the beloved--this slide is needed to reach the conclusion that boys mustn't spurn true lovers. P & R's proposal is that if x loves y, then y is oikeion to x and is a means to x's acquisition of wisdom; in that case, x will be oikeion to y. It is difficult to see why the insertion of wisdom into this erotic equation should render philia reciprocal. P & R essentially make the lover loveable by converting him into the beloved, i.e. a means to wisdom. This reflects a general ambiguity in their treatment of philia: when discussing Socratic intellectualism, they treat it as the desire for wisdom, but, when returning to the interpersonal level, they render it the desire to make the beloved wise. The two are not the same--as all academics know, the desire to make others wise does not flow unproblematically from the desire to acquire knowledge for oneself.

P & R propose that the principle of real reference (henceforth PORR) is one of the most central features of Platonism (210); it serves as the theoretical foundation for their interpretation. PORR is, broadly, the claim that the reference of a statement is not determined, as on Fregean theories, by its meaning, but rather by the speaker's intention to refer to the real nature of things. This is best illustrated by example. At Gorgias 474b, Socrates claims that Polus thinks that injustice is bad, even though Polus doesn't think he thinks this. How can this be? According to PORR, what Polus has in mind to refer to by "injustice" is not determined by linguistic convention, nor by the totality of Polus' beliefs about injustice; it is determined by the actual nature of injustice. This is ensured by an intention on Polus' part to refer to injustice, whatever it turns out to be. As a result, in thinking about what injustice really is, unbeknownst to himself, Polus is actually thinking that injustice is bad. This account of belief reflects a general realism concerning the reference of psychological states. Thus, the universal desire for the good ensures that no one desires anything bad, even unknowingly, as the bad object would not be the real reference of his desire.

This brings us to P & R's treatment of Socratic intellectualism. According to P & R, Socratic intellectualism is a theory of action involving the following theses: all voluntary acts conform to the agent's beliefs at the moment regarding what is best; acts only count as voluntary if in fact they turn out to be for the best. Socrates' broad explanation of action invokes a desire on the part of all agents to maximize their good; when combined with beliefs regarding the role of particular acts in maximizing the good, this generates executive desires to perform these acts. According to P & R, the Socratic model can account for brute appetites, such as thirst: though these appear to generate action without the mediating role of deliberation regarding the good, in fact they function on the belief-side of the agent's practical reasoning, raising considerations of how to maximize the good. Aristotle and other post-Platonic philosophers tend to hold that even when the agent's reasoning regarding the good is false, the ensuing action is still voluntary; all that matters is that the agent act on whatever he believes the good to be. Not so for Socrates, argue P & R. In such cases, the agent fails to do what he wants (given PORR) and hence acts involuntarily. How, then, is action generated in such cases, if the agent is not acting upon his desires? Penner proposes that the agent is acting on an incoherent desire, the desire to do, at once, this particular action and whatever will maximize the good; such an act is non-existent, hence the incoherence of the agent's desire. Plato's intellectualism infects his account of philia, which P & R treat as a species of desire. It is impossible to love someone bad; if our beloved turns out, unbeknownst to us, to be bad, then we never really loved him.

P & R offer an extensive response to Vlastos' Kantian critique of Plato's theory of love in the Lysis.4 Vlastos' central argument is that by definition, one who loves must view the good of his beloved as an end in itself and desire it independently of his own good; Platonic philia therefore fails to count as love. P & R respond that psychological egoism can do full justice to our intuitions regarding parental love, so long as the parent's happiness is bound up in that of his child. Thus, though much of the Lysis ties love to utility, utility must be broadly construed: parental love is not conditioned by, say, a child's usefulness in producing income, but rather by the role he plays in the parent's happiness.


To move to the critical portion of this review, I will begin with a few words on P & R's claim that the first friend is wisdom. As I mentioned earlier, the textual evidence for this claim is highly indirect and supports the claim that wisdom is a means to the first friend and not an end. P & R, in fact, allow that wisdom is a means to happiness and that the two are not identical; nonetheless, they hold that both can count as the first friend, since means and ends must always be specified in terms of one another. The first friend is wisdom qua means to happiness, or, alternately, happiness, to be achieved via wisdom. Suppose for the moment that the inter-specifiability claim is correct. Shouldn't it follow, on P & R's analysis, that all means to happiness are identifiable with the first friend? P & R might respond that wisdom is the only necessary means, but it is hard to see how this is relevant. At any rate, it is not clear why the purported fact that means and ends must be specified in terms of one another entails that they are interchangeable, which they must be if both are the first friend. More generally, P & R's position is completely at odds with Plato's insistence that the first friend is whatever is not desired for the sake of anything else and, further, that anything desired for the sake of something else does not even count as a friend (220b). The solution to P & R's predicament is to insist that wisdom is the first friend, but qua end, not means. On their treatment, by contrast, wisdom's value lies in its making other conditional goods reliably good; this drives a wedge between wisdom and the good. Treating wisdom as an end would have the added benefit of solving P & R's problem of self-sufficiency: the wise man on the rack is self-sufficient, because he possesses all that really matters.

Turning to PORR, I should emphasize that in raising objections against it, I am not arguing against Socrates, so much as against P & R, since they endorse PORR as an alternative to contemporary approaches to reference. I'll begin with two of P & R's examples. Hippothales, they claim, in saying "The songs I sing are in praise of Lysis," means the same as "The songs I sing are in praise of myself," even though he denies the latter. Polus, despite appearing to hold that committing injustice is better than suffering it, really believes the opposite. What determines what one is saying on PORR? Not the speaker's avowed intentions, not how he'd describe the object if asked, and not standard usage or conventional views. What, then? P & R propose at one point that what we are saying is determined by a complex background of things we take for granted (286-7), but they don't spell out which things constitute the appropriate background and which are irrelevant (in Polus' case, his avowed beliefs). This seems like a non-answer. Perhaps what we must appeal to is the speaker's intention to refer to, say, justice, whatever it turns out to be. However, most agents are aware of no such intention and might even deny it. Thrasymachus, for example, a rather stubborn and disputatious type, might deny that he intends to refer to justice whatever it turns out to be--what he wants to talk about is justice, conceived of as the advantage of the stronger (contra P & R, 210, n. 23). In response, P & R might reiterate their denial of first-person authority; Thrasymachus is committed to PORR, like it or not. But if we deny first-person authority, are there any limits to the intentions P & R can attribute to Thrasymachus? Furthermore, are P & R not susceptible to the very critique which they raise against transparent readings of psychological states (206, n. 20)? Such readings, they object, postulate a psychological relation between a subject and an object, even though the subject might have no attitude whatsoever to that object. Ditto for PORR--unless, that is, P & R can demonstrate that every subject is committed to PORR, and this in a manner not similarly susceptible to the objection to transparency.

One substantial strength of PORR is that it explains how people, such as Socrates and Polus, can argue about the same object, though they do not agree on its nature. However, PORR preserves how people can disagree about the same thing, only by giving up any meaningful sense in which they disagree. Socrates and Polus, we learn, were saying the same thing all along. This belies an obvious difference between the two: Socrates gets it right and Polus is in error. To maintain that what Polus is saying is determined by his intention to get it right is absurd; this is like claiming that when I sing the Queen of the Night aria, I hit a high f3. The only recourse would be to claim that Polus, Hippothales and Thrasymachus get it wrong because they aren't saying what they think they are saying. P & R appear to suggest such a distinction at points (e.g. 206). However, this would entail, implausibly, that thoughts, but not statements, desires or even beliefs, fail to be governed by PORR.

Whatever one makes of PORR, it should be noted that it is brought in on tenuous grounds; after all, the Lysis is, to all appearances, a dialogue about love, not reference. Presumably, P & R introduce PORR to provide a foundation for Socratic intellectualism. This is unnecessary. It is entirely possible to advocate intellectualism without PORR: I can hold that what you say is determined by what you mean but deny that what you desire is determined by what you say your desire.

In responding to P & R's treatment of intellectualism, my reply again is directed at the plausibility of the position itself, given P & R's endorsement thereof. The main thing to note concerning intellectualism is how very much it forces us to give up. First, we must abandon the claim that thirst is a desire; instead, it emerges as a belief concerning the good. This entirely ignores the phenomenological difference between believing that it would be good to drink and feeling thirsty; thirst just feels desiderative. Second, we must give up the way in which action often appears to be generated automatically. When I am overcome by thirst and immediately drink, I am not aware of any deliberation regarding the good; this deliberation occurs nonetheless, on the intellectualist model. Third, we are forced to deny the possibility of loving those who are bad--this just turns out to be false-love. But if I discover that my lover is a cad, this doesn't mean that I never loved him, only that it would have been better for me if I hadn't. Fourth, we turn out to love people we think we dislike (59). Suppose that I take myself to love Tom and dislike Jack. Unbeknownst to me, Jack is outstandingly brilliant and morally upright while Tom is merely mediocre. In that case, it will turn out that I love Jack more than Tom, as he better fulfills the description, means to the first friend, i.e. wisdom. Fifth, on the intellectualist model, we must always desire the good and cannot desire the bad. But, as Stocker argues in his seminal paper "Desiring the Bad,"5 there are many cases in which agents fail to desire the good and even desire the bad. For example, someone could be so downtrodden by life that he might see that a particular course of action would contribute to his good but be unmotivated to pursue it. Sixth, we are forced to account for actions which fail to maximize the good via a convoluted account of incoherent desire. Incoherent desire is desire aimed at a non-existent act--say, the act of eating this cake--and doing whatever will maximize my overall good. But the action which ensues from this desire is not the imaginary act, but rather the act of eating the cake. Thus, my action is motivated by a desire that does not match up with it; I desire one thing and do another. Isn't it simpler to maintain that I eat the cake because I want to?

To sum up, on P & R's intellectualist theory of desire, people can have desires of which they have no awareness, which they would deny having and which do not cause them to act; at the same time, they can fail to have the desires they feel themselves having, claim they are having and act upon. In what sense, then, does P & R-style-desire still count as desire? P & R-desire can be causally inert and experientially absent. It would seem that P & R are ignoring one of the standard senses of desire--what contemporary moral psychologists refer to as directed-attention--and supplanting it with what cannot even be called a general pro-attitude, but, rather, with something like a prudential consideration.

Let us turn, finally, to P & R's attempt to integrate other-regarding love, particularly parental love, with Socratic egoism. According to P & R, the reconciliation of these two is Plato's central project in the dialogue. P & R's solution begins with the proposal that the unstated conclusion of the Lysis discussion is that loving someone is wanting him to be wise (33); this is grounded in the broad view that loving someone is seeing your happiness as dependent upon his. The difficulty is that the evidence for attributing this position to Socrates is slim; neither of the above-stated conclusions is explicitly made. Indeed, if this reconciliation of egoism and other-regarding love is the central project of the Lysis, why is it never broached directly; why does the dialogue appear to focus instead upon a discussion of the relation of utility to love? The only evidence which directly suggests the above-stated view of love is at 207d, when Socrates elicits from Lysis the claim that his parents love him and therefore want him to be happy. However, that claim is made during the opening of an elenchos. It is possible that Socrates is just extracting from Lysis a view that Lysis is committed to; at the conclusion of the same discussion, it is implied that Lysis' parents, in fact, do not love him very much.

Why do P & R feel compelled to pursue this line of interpretation? The reason is that, according to P & R, allowing for other-regarding parental love is a precondition for any successful interpretation of the dialogue (33, n. 53). It seems that there are only two possible reasons why allowing for other-regarding parental love should be an interpretative requirement, neither of which is entirely satisfactory. The first is that parents simply do care for the happiness of their children; we ought not to attribute to Socrates a theory that flies in the face of such an obvious empirical fact. This empirical claim, however, is open to doubt. It is a matter of debate to what degree parental love was conditioned by narrow utility in Classical Athens.6 Fathers had the right to expose their infants (a practice which Socrates endorses at Tht. 161a), and females were more frequently exposed than males, presumably because of the cost of their dowries and lack of eventual economic return.7 Parents were entitled to financial support in old age and could even prosecute their sons for negligence, but this was conditional upon their having taught their sons a skill.8 Aristotle compares the relation of son to father to that of a debtor to creditor; while a father can disown his son, a son cannot do the reverse, since his debt can never fully be repaid (EN 1163b 15). Finally, as Golden notes, the word for child, tokos, also refers to the interest on a loan, a pun Plato occasionally exploits.9 What all of this suggests is that it would not be out of the question for Plato, given his place and time, to claim that parental love is based upon the projected utility of a child. The second reason for maintaining that Socrates could not possibly hold that parental love is conditional upon narrow utility is that the view is somehow philosophically unacceptable, perhaps because it is morally repugnant. But this is a view that P & R never argue for. At any rate, it does not seem to involve the sort of conceptual confusion which would make it uncharitable to attribute to Plato; after all, Plato unquestionably advances many views which his later readers have found morally questionable.

Suppose, though, we concede that it is an interpretive imperative to render Platonic philia compatible with contemporary intuitions regarding parental love. P & R do not succeed in this reconciliation project. They do show that Platonic philia is compatible with other-regarding parental love. However, they do not establish that it is incompatible with cold, selfish and anti-social behaviour; in fact, in some cases, such behaviour is demanded by the Platonic model. An account of love which does not rule out such selfish cases of love fails to mesh with our intuitions. P & R, in defending parental love, claim that on Socrates' account one's feelings for his children and for his stereo are not the same, because his children, and not his stereo, are a high-level means, almost invariably involved in deliberation concerning his happiness. This isn't obvious; it is possible that for a certain individual, listening to records is more integral to his happiness than changing diapers. At this point, P & R would surely rely upon their objectivism: the stereo-lover is engaged in false-love, as his children are the truer means to the good. Whatever we may think, what we really love and desire is the good and, secondarily, whatever is most conducive to acquiring the good. The question that we must press is, what is this good? P & R's frequent proposal is that the good either is wisdom or is to be gained via wisdom. In that case, we love our children because they make us wise. But on this theory, if there were some better means to attaining wisdom, then, whatever I think, I love that more than my children. Thus, if an unscrupulous bookseller should offer me the sole remaining copy of Plato's dialogues in exchange for my only son, I ought to make the trade, for the sake of love. After all, it is a dubious prospect whether my child will ever have much to teach me, and, even if he will, it may take many years; Plato, on the other hand, is a very good philosopher.

In pushing this example, I have done no more than to reiterate Vlastos' challenge, that if human love-objects are treated as mere means, and not as ends in themselves, then they will always be replaceable. This is what violates a core way in which we think about love. More generally, there is a certain oddity which emerges from speaking interchangeably of love for the dialogues and love for a child; this is unavoidable if, like P & R, we wish for the Lysis to offer, at the same time, a general treatment of human motivation and an account of inter-personal love. For what it's worth, I believe that the view I have sketched above is Plato's position; in the Symposium, for example, beloved boys are later called steps (epanabasmoi) on the way to wisdom (211c). My difficulty is not with P & R's depiction of Plato's position, so much as with their conviction that it is reconcilable with contemporary intuitions concerning interpersonal love


Though Plato's Lysis offers a subtle interpretation of the Lysis, it goes beyond this, proposing a broad philosophical program for the early dialogues. In so doing, it succeeds admirably in making the case for the philosophical significance of the Lysis, a dialogue which has suffered from dismissal and neglect. As the criticisms I have raised against P & R should suggest, their book is philosophically provocative and engaging. It will be of vital interest to all scholars of Plato; parts of it will also be of substantial use for philosophers working on moral psychology and, in particular, on love.


1.   I shall refer to Plato and Socrates interchangeably in what follows, assuming that the views of Plato do not differ from those of Socrates within the dialogue--here I follow P & R (195, n. 2).
2.   See, e.g., 88, though at 93, they concede that this is not how Socrates understands goodness.
3.   They hint at this at 120, n. 63.
4.   "The Individual as Object of Love in Plato," Platonic Studies, Princeton, 1973, 3-42.
5.   The Journal of Philosophy, 1979, 738-53.
6.   See, e.g. M. Golden, Childhood in Classical Athens, Johns Hopkins, 1990, 82-3, 92-3.
7.   R. Garland, The Greek Way of Life, Cornell, 1990, 86.
8.   Golden, 92.
9.   E.g. Rep. 506e-7a, 555e.

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