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Bulletin platonicien IX
Sur un dialogue, ou un groupe de dialogues, en particulier

Mary P. Nichols, Socrates on friendship and community: reflections on Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and Lysis

Francisco Gonzalez
p. 242-249
Référence(s) :

Nichols, Mary P. Socrates on friendship and community: reflections on Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and Lysis. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. viii, 229 p. $80.00. ISBN 9780521899734.

Texte intégral

1This book sets itself an important and admirable task: demonstrating how for Socrates the experience of friendship is essential to the experience of philosophy. Specifically, Nichols suggests that the two experiences are related in the following way: “Through friendship we experience both our own as not wholly our own and another as not wholly other. It is such an experience, I argue, that characterizes philosophy” (1). Both philosophy and friendship require distancing ourselves from ourselves and finding ourselves in what is other. Since this mediation between having and not having, this belonging without possessing, is of the essence of community, this latter phenomenon can be said to be at the heart of the book’s reflections, whether in the guise of our community with others or in the guise of our community with the Forms. Such a focus results in some refreshing and illuminating readings of the Symposium and the Phaedrus. In the case of the former dialogue, for example, Nichols shows how the Socratic conception of love combines “the comic poet’s emphasis on lack and need with the tragedian’s identification of the beautiful and the good with one’s own” (60) and how this conception of love underlies both philosophical and political life: “That is, the state between poverty and resource that accounts for the pursuit of wisdom and its generation in others through questioning them also accounts for the ongoing human activities that keep political communities alive and flourishing” (69). In the case of the latter dialogue, Nichols shows, through an especially helpful account of the dialogue’s second half, how both Socratic rhetoric and Platonic writing mediate between the soul’s self-motion and its movement beyond itself to the highest beings and also transform philosophy from a private affair into a form of political life (136-149). Yet Nichols’ aim goes beyond simply providing another reading of Plato: as she makes clear from the outset, she seeks in Socratic philosophizing “an antidote to the alienating aspects of modern thought” (2). This is why the book begins with a chapter on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche: Nichols wishes to challenge both their picture of an alienated Socrates and the alienating tendencies of their own thought. Though one might certainly challenge Nichols’ characterization of these two philosophers—and some simplification of their thought appears unavoidable in this context—her desire to make Socratic philosophy speak to modern concerns can only be applauded.

2As for Nichols’ treatment of the dialogue not yet mentioned, i.e., the Lysis, it is much more ambivalent, both representing another major strength of the book and bringing to the fore its main weaknesses. On the positive side, Nichols refreshingly treats the Lysis as the culmination of Plato’s reflections on eros and philia rather than as an ‘early’ failed attempt superseded by the Phaedrus and the Symposium (155, n. 9; and see comments on the limitations of the latter two dialogues: 87-88; 118-119, 138). Furthermore, Nichols correctly identifies the important and indispensable contribution of the Lysis: its introduction into the erotic drive that characterizes the philosopher’s pursuit of wisdom of the reciprocity essential to community and friendship. Yet after this excellent set-up, Nichols’ treatment of the Lysis proves, it must be said, a surprising disappointment.

3Yet before identifying the specific inadequacies of this interpretation, we need to consider the general problem that is ultimately their source: and that has to do with Nichols’ specific thesis. As already noted, her general aim is to draw a parallel between the nature of philosophy and the nature of friendship. But as the opening of the final chapter makes clear, the specific thesis she defends regarding this parallel is that “the community expressed through friendship” serves for Plato as the model for philosophy, rather than vice versa; the idea that the philosopher should serve as the model of friendship is explicitly rejected on pp. 154 and 178. We are, in other words, to look to friendship to understand philosophy rather than look to philosophy to understand friendship. There are in my view three main problems with this thesis, the last of which is the inadequate interpretation it produces of the argument of the Lysis. These problems will now be considered one by one with the intention both of indicating the limitations of the book and, more importantly, of showing what is philosophically at stake.

  • 1 Particularly helpful on this point is the book by Antoni Bosch-Veciana, Amistat I Unitat en el Lisi (...)

41) If friendship serves as the model for philosophy rather than vice versa, from where did Plato get his model of friendship? Nichols’ answer is apparently: from his political community. Such a view makes Plato deeply ‘conservative’ in the sense of having him simply accept as his model, rather than question and challenge, the kind and understanding of community in which he found himself. Symptomatic is Nichols’ interpretation of both the beginning and the end of the Lysis. While she recognizes that in Socrates’ first discussion with Lysis “he stretches the word ‘kindred’ beyond its ordinary meaning” (164), she appears to consider this a problem since she describes the challenging of the conventional sense of ‘one’s own’ as a ‘danger’ which Socrates ‘highlights’ (165); far from ‘highlighting’ such a danger, of course, Socrates gives no indication of being worried about it. With regard to the closing scene of the Lysis, in which the pedagogues of Lysis and Menexenus break up the discussion to the protests of the boys and Socrates himself, Nichols denies that it illustrates any opposition between philosophy and the political community (190-191). She concludes that “philosophy defines itself in terms of ordinary human experience. There can be no radical separation between philosophers and others” (191-192). To reach such a conclusion is simply to ignore the details of this extraordinary scene: a scene of confrontation and implicit violence. Socrates and the boys do not react to the arrival of the pedagogues by saying, as Nichols herself does, that “they are merely doing their jobs” (191). They resist and ‘capitulate’ only to the greater strength of the pedagogues and in fear of their drunkenness (223b1). Furthermore, the emphasis is put on the foreignness of the pedagogues and their ‘barbaric’ accent (223a7). We also witness a striking change in Lysis: he has gone from someone who earlier agreed to take part in the discussion only until he had to go home (211b5) to someone who now refuses to go home. This is because, as others have pointed out,1 Socrates has formed a community with the boys that rivals their traditional community and is in tension with it. From the perspective of this traditional community, Socrates’ influence on the boys is subversive. There is therefore absolutely nothing conventional or conservative about the conception of friendship and community developed in the dialogue.

  • 2 In “The Individual as Object of Love in Plato’s Dialogues,” in Platonic Studies (Princeton Universi (...)
  • 3 It is a great merit of the book on the Lysis by Christopher Rowe and Terry Penner that it challenge (...)

52) From where does Nichols get her conception of friendship? This is a distinct question from the first because throughout the book Nichols appears to be employing a conception of friendship distinct from anything found either in Plato or in the Greek culture of his time: what one would have to call a modern, romantic conception of friendship according to which friends love each other not as good nor as means of achieving the good, but selflessly and for each other’s sake. This of course is the conception of friendship Gregory Vlastos has criticized Plato for lacking;2 Nichols only takes the other side in claiming Plato does have it. The problem with both positions is that they are reading into Plato a modern conception of friendship rather than letting Plato’s texts challenge this conception and offer an alternative.3 The principle way in which Nichols tries to introduce this romantic conception of friendship into Plato is by making a sharp distinction throughout between the ‘good’ and the ‘beautiful’, associating the former with the ‘useful’ and ‘self-love’ and the latter with what is not useful and therefore transcends self-love in ‘self-forgetting’. Since where Nichols wants to see this sharp distinction the text itself appears to make no distinction at all, she must here resort to interpretations that at best read into the text what is not there and at worst misrepresent it altogether.

6When Diotima substitutes the beautiful with the good in order to make clearer to Socrates the connection between desiring to possess beautiful/good things forever and desiring happiness (204d-205a), Nichols somehow infers that “The beautiful cannot be reduced to the good” (64). When Diotima criticizes Aristophanes for not leaving a place for the love of the good, Nichols insists: “It is not that Aristophanes does not leave a place for the love of the good [this, as anyone can see, is the objection that stands in the text!], when he defines Love as love of one’s own (205e), but that he does not leave a place for love of the beautiful” (64). There is of course at 205e no distinction between the good and the beautiful nor even any mention of the beautiful: Diotima’s objection is solely and precisely what Nichols in breathtaking defiance of the text insists it is not. When Socrates in the Lysis treats the beautiful and the good as constituting the object loved by what is neither good nor bad (216d), thus implying no distinction between them, Nichols insists that Socrates mentions the beautiful here in order to ‘qualify’ ‘the selfish component of loving’ represented by the good (177). Nichols (182) also somehow manages to find in the Lysis the view that parents “love their children when their children are not good” (which requires her to suppose, with no support in the text, that the boy who drinks hemlock in Socrates’ example [219d-e] is ‘bad’ because ‘stupid’) and to claim that Socrates takes such parents as models of friends (which does not at all follow from Socrates use of the father/son example in the passage in question and is in contradiction with Socrates’ earlier argument that Lysis’ parents, like anyone else, will not love him unless he is wise and good). Nichols’ use or misuse of this passage is especially ironic since Socrates introduces the example of the father valuing his son and therefore valuing the wine that can cure him in support of his distinction between the first philos and things that are phila only in relation to it: precisely the view that Nichols will be seen to dismiss as “not the dialogue’s deepest teaching about friendship” (180). This unfortunately is too often Nichols’ procedure: to use particular examples and phrases for her own purposes in isolation from their context.

7But matters get worse, as Nichols does not hesitate simply to rewrite the text when necessary. Towards the end of the book she refers to Symposium 205b. In this passage Diotima asks Socrates why we don’t say that everyone is in love since they all love the same thing, i.e., having good things forever. Socrates responds: “I wonder about that myself”, i.e., I too wonder why we don’t call everyone a lover. Diotima responds that there is nothing to wonder at: as with the word ‘poetry’, the word ‘love’ is used to refer to one special class of love when it “really belong[s] to the whole of it” (205d). Now consider how Nichols represents this text: “So too he [Socrates] wonders when Diotima decribes all human beings as lovers (205b). Here his wonder arises out of his awareness that love of beauty cannot be reduced to a desire to possess good things for oneself, as would be the case if all were lovers. He is aware that love includes an element that brings one outside oneself, and even leads to sacrifice oneself for another” (210). What can one say in response to such a ‘reading’? Socrates does not wonder at Diotima’s description of all human beings as lovers but rather at the common practice of restricting the word ‘lover’ to a particular class of people. He is certainly nowhere objecting to Diotima’s insistence that the designation of ‘lover’ really belongs to everyone. Furthermore, there is no question whatsoever in the passage or its immediate context of some opposition between love of beauty and love of the good; the current argument begins with the ‘good’ being substituted for the ‘beautiful’ (204e). As for Nichols’ final sentence in the above citation, what can one say except that she just makes it up out of thin air. Since Socrates never says anything like what she wants him to say, she reads into his mind (“He is aware . . .”) her own view of love. If this kind of ‘reading’ of a text is permissible, then what is not?

8Against such distortions and misreadings, what we find in Plato’s texts is not an attempt to transcend self-love and the good, but rather an attempt to better understand the nature of the good we pursue and thus to transform and enlighten our self-love (where such an enlightened self-love can be the basis of a genuine friendship). It is revealing that in her reading of the Phaedrus Nichols, in again opposing the beautiful to the good, identifies the latter with “the cold, calculating rhetoric of Lysias’ speech” (94). Only such a reductive and unPlatonic conception of the good could justify its opposition to the beautiful.

93) We are now in a position to confront Nichols’ baffling treatment of the Lysis. The main problem, in sum, is that she rushes through the very complex latter half of the argument, largely misrepresenting and confusing its key final steps, then quickly dismisses the whole thing, and concludes with her own musings on friendship loosely connected to the dramatic action of the dialogue (see 188-189). The reason for Nichols’ impatience with the argument is now not hard to see: she interprets its conclusion as identifying friendship with a selfish desire for what is good/useful and therefore as not fitting the conception of friendship she herself wants to advance. As she revealingly objects on p. 181, the dialogue’s argument ‘suppresses’ the option “that we love our friend for his own sake”.

10 Let us consider now some of the specific confusions and errors. On p. 181 Nichols tells us that “Socrates strangely slips in the phrase that we love our friends ‘for the sake of an enemy’ (220e).” But this is neither strange nor slipped in: it is a logical step in the argument. Asked why we love the ‘proton philon’, we cannot answer, “For the sake of something else that is philos” since in that case the first philos would cease to be first and the question would repeat itself. The only option therefore appears to be that we love the proton philon not for the sake of some other, higher philos but for the sake of something hated that we wish to eliminate by obtaining the proton philon (220b-e). In the next step of the argument this suggestion is refuted with the observation that desire does not depend on the existence of something bad or hated. But this logic is not followed at all by Nichols.

11Next, in her attempt to discredit an argument we have already noted she does not like, Nichols writes (183): “In introducing this prospect that our friends are only phantom friends, Socrates addresses both boys by name: ‘Woe is me, Lysis and Menexenus, I’m afraid that . . . we have come across some false arguments about the friend’ (218c-d).” But the objection Socrates goes on to make is the problem of the infinite regress generated if we love everything good for the sake of something else good; the distinction between the proton philon or ‘first friend’, i.e., the ‘friend’ not loved for the sake of any other ‘friend’, and the ‘phantom friends’, i.e., ‘friends’ loved for the sake of the ‘first friend’, is introduced at 219d as its solution. Furthermore, what Socrates at 219d describes as deceiving them is not the thesis of there being phantom friends, but the phantom friends themselves when they present themselves as the ‘first friend’.

12When it comes to the final suggestion that we desire the good as our own, Nichols identifies this position with that of Aristophanes (184) criticized in the Symposium. But Aristophanes’ mistake was to identify the object of love with what is one’s own instead of with the good. That is why Diotima qualifies her critique with a suggestion Nichols chooses to ignore: “I don’t think an individual takes joy in what belongs to him personally unless by ‘belonging to me’ he means ‘good’ and by ‘belonging to another’ he means ‘bad’” (205e; my emphasis). This identification of one’s own with the good is precisely the view defended at the end of the Lysis. And this view does not reduce the good to what we possess since, as Nichols also chooses to overlook, the Lysis identifies what is our own with what we have been deprived of and thus lack (221e). The argument does not ‘reduce the good to what we desire’ but rather explains desire by characterizing the good as both belonging to us and lacked by us.

13But all the above pales in comparison to the following breathtaking sentence: “Socrates claims that it is ‘ridiculous’ to ask what would be the case if the bad ceases to be (221a), and in short order demolishes the argument that the kindred are friends” (185). What Socrates claims to be ridiculous is asking what the world would be like if the bad were abolished. But far from this leading to some demolition of the argument, Socrates proceeds to argue that desire, as in itself neither good nor bad, will continue to exist even if the bad is abolished (221b). This then leads to the positive conclusion that the proton philon is loved not for the sake of the bad but rather as an object of desire, i.e., as what is both our own and lacked by us (221c-e). To say that Nichols’ sentence is misleading in passing over all of this is evidently an understatement.

  • 4 I follow here the translation of Stanley Lombardo.

14Of course, Socrates does present an objection to this final suggestion, but Nichols says nothing about it nor therefore makes an effort to assess it. The objection is that the characterization of friends as kindred is a return to the refuted thesis that friendship is between like and like “if belonging and being like turn out to be the same thing” (222b-d, my emphasis).4 But as many have pointed out, we are clearly meant to follow Socrates’ explicit alternative to this final objection: “that if there is some difference between belonging and being like, then we might have something to say about what a friend is” (222b). If we have been following the argument, we must see that what is good has been concluded to be akin to what is neither good nor bad in the sense of belonging to and being lacked by it; in this case the good and the neither-good-nor-bad are clearly akin without being either ‘like’ or ‘opposite’. This is why Socrates’ concluding summary of the dialogue’s refuted proposals leaves out the suggestion that friendship occurs between the neither-good-nor-bad and the good (222e): we are meant to see that it still holds the answer. But Nichols is oblivious to all of this, either intentionally or unintentionally.

15This is unfortunate because if she had been willing to take the argument more seriously, she could have found in it both support for her general thesis concerning the connection between philosophy and friendship and an alternative to the opposition she assumes throughout between a good that can be possessed as our own and something that transcends this good. For Nichols, the way in which friendship serves as a model for philosophy is that friends belong to each other without possessing each other while the wisdom philosophy seeks belongs to it without being possessed by it. By taking friendship as the model, however, Nichols can provide only a purely conventional (or anachronistic) account of how friends belong to each other without possessing each other. What the argument of the Lysis does is the reverse: it characterizes the good that we pursue as both belonging to us and yet lacked by us; it then uses this account of our relation to the good as the model and basis for the reciprocal relation between friends. Friends belong to each other without possessing each other in the sense that they pursue together a good that neither possesses but that belongs to both.

  • 5 In “Plato’s Lysis: An Enactment of Philosophical Kinship,” Ancient Philosophy 15 (1995): 69-90.
  • 6 See, for example, M. Bordt, Plato: Lysis (Göttingen, 1998) and Louis-André Dorion, Platon: Charmide (...)
  • 7 “Socrates on Loving One’s Own: A Traditional Conception of ΦΙΛΙΑ Radically Transformed,” Classical (...)

16Oddly, Nichols cites in a note (p. 186, n.48) my own defense of this interpretation,5 referring to it as ‘another understanding’ but not in the least engaging it. This is not, however, only my interpretation: in the most recent work on the Lysis it has become almost a consensus interpretation.6 Yet Nichols cites none of this recent literature. She does not even cite the book-length study on the Lysis by Christopher Rowe and Terry Penner published in 2005 by the press that published her own book and cited above. Of my own studies of the Lysis she cites only the earliest one (1995) and not any of the later ones, including one in which I attempt to demonstrate the way in which the Lysis radically challenges and reinterprets the traditional sense of kinship and community in Ancient Greece.7 It must be noted here that the book’s scholarship is as a whole woefully inadequate: the bibliography is extremely dated and partial even when one ignores everything not written in English, as the author does.

17 If these criticisms are worth making here, that is because Nichols’ project is such a worthy and promising one. Her attempt to carry out this project, furthermore, is far from being a simple failure; as already noted, it results in some illuminating readings and important insights. One can only agree with her insightful observations that “Friendship itself cultivates both awareness of lack and belonging” (190) and that “If there is no middle between emptiness and fullness, love can be only subjection and domination. There is no space for reciprocity. Only in-betweens can love (see Lysis 40d-e)” (76). But then we must ask why she gives such short shrift to an argument that seeks to show how the good can be simultaneously our own and lacked by us, how the truth pursued by the philosopher is a good simultaneously his own and transcendent (rather than just one or the other, as Nichols assumes: 179). We must ask why she fails to take seriously the suggestion of the Lysis that it is our pursuit of the good that “cultivates both awareness of lack and belonging” and that can therefore inform a genuine friendship, rather than the other way around. There appears to be only one answer to these questions: that, as we have seen, the conception of friendship to which Nichols is herself committed is simply different from the conception in Plato, despite the superficial similarity. The book thus leaves us desiring not only more rigorous philology but also more radical philosophical questioning.

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1 Particularly helpful on this point is the book by Antoni Bosch-Veciana, Amistat I Unitat en el Lisis de Plató: El Lisis com a narració d’una συνουσία dialogal socrática (Barcelona: 2003). While the language (Catalan) unfortunately makes the book inaccessible to some, one can consult my detailed review in Ancient Philosophy 25 (2005): 173-179.

2 In “The Individual as Object of Love in Plato’s Dialogues,” in Platonic Studies (Princeton University Press, 1973), 1-34.

3 It is a great merit of the book on the Lysis by Christopher Rowe and Terry Penner that it challenges this modern altruistic conception of love and finds a more plausible and attractive alternative in Plato’s conception: Plato’s Lysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 280-296. See my review in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 89 (2007): 79-87.

4 I follow here the translation of Stanley Lombardo.

5 In “Plato’s Lysis: An Enactment of Philosophical Kinship,” Ancient Philosophy 15 (1995): 69-90.

6 See, for example, M. Bordt, Plato: Lysis (Göttingen, 1998) and Louis-André Dorion, Platon: Charmide, Lysis (Paris: Flammarion, 2004), in addition to the book by Bosch-Veciana cited above. Other literature can be found in my articles cited below.

7 “Socrates on Loving One’s Own: A Traditional Conception of ΦΙΛΙΑ Radically Transformed,” Classical Philology 95, n. 4 (2000): 379-398. The other article is: “How to Read a Platonic Prologue: Lysis 203a-207d,” in Plato as Author, Ann N. Michelini (ed.), Leiden: Brill, 2003, 15-44.

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Francisco Gonzalez, « Mary P. Nichols, Socrates on friendship and community: reflections on Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and Lysis », Études platoniciennes, 7 | 2010, 242-249.

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Francisco Gonzalez, « Mary P. Nichols, Socrates on friendship and community: reflections on Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and Lysis », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 7 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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