Interpreting Plato's Lysis

My PhD thesis was a reading of Plato’s Lysis, the great philosopher’s exploration of friendship. And so it was exciting, to me at least, to yesterday read Martha Beck’s book, The Quest for Wisdom in Plato and Jung, and realise that the dialogue could be read in a parallel way to how I’d done, namely as a case study in analysis and individuation.

It’s set outside a palaestra, on a festival day to do with love, which sets the whole discussion in what Jungians might call a ‘libido field’, a place resonant with psychic possibility. Socrates first ‘analyses’ Hippothales, who is infatuated with Lysis (he’s identified with a projected complex, they might say), and promises to show Hippothales how to love Lysis properly. He does so by talking with Lysis as a separate individual – that is, he seeks to befriend rather than fall for him, which should show Hippothales the necessity of seeing his infatuation for what it is, at least in part. (Hippothales noticeably fails to do so.) The conversation with Lysis that follows is fascinating on a number of counts too. Socrates behaves as a midwife, of course – encouraging them to push, even when painful – which I understand is a good model for a Jungian analyst. But also for the results of their examination.

For example, there is the discussion about whether friendship is formed between individuals who are similar or dissimilar, and the suggestion that it is probably a mixture of both. This demonstrates a desire for a both/and rather than either/or conclusion – one that Aristotle, with his very unindividuated notion of the ‘excluded middle’, rejects in his discussion of friendship.

There’s also a lot in the Lysis about our ‘in between’ status as human beings. For Socrates, what we’re in between is our awareness of our ignorance of things and the unknown itself. This would mirror Jung’s idea about the desirability of a new equilibrium between the conscious and unconscious being reached with individuation.

Then there’s the aporia at the end, when Socrates confesses that though they think they’re friends, they haven’t been able to say what friendship is, which could, I guess, be interpreted as another moment of individuation – recognising the problem their encounter has thrown up, rather than simply being consumed by it. And also, more deeply, capturing something of the didactic role Socrates has played for Lysis. This, in Jungian terms, would be to act as a projection of his shadow, something Socrates did by questioning many of the assumptions Lysis has about how he belongs in the world.

Socrates leaves, remarking that he must take up the question of friendship again another time, probably with some folk of his own age, which might be thought of him moving out of midwife mode and seeking to tend to his own individuation too. Beck’s broader suggestion is that, the Socrates Plato portrays is a literary representation of an individuated individual, with the brilliant twist that by reading the dialogues, and dialoguing with them, we too may search for soul via our interaction with this extraordinary man, as indeed Plato himself had done.