PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – OTHERS – FRIENDSHIP – PART III

Friends have all things in common.” – Pythagoras, quoted by Diogenes Laertius.

Moving forward chronologically in our literary search to locate friendship as purpose in the meaningful life, we leave ancient Mesopotomia and arrive in the fourth century BCE at a lesser known dialogue by Plato called Lysis (or Friendship).1 There Socrates struggles to identify the defining characteristics of friendship, but nonetheless offers eternal wisdom for would be friends.

The crux of the work is a Socratic dialectic on the metaphysical nature of friendship conducted with four young men (one of whom is the amiable, yet shy Lysis). First he notes friendship must be mutual as it seems illogical for you to be friends with someone who does not consider you his friend as well. His second proposition is that friends must be good individuals as evil persons repulse others and hence are denied friendship. Moreover friendship between good persons is a good in itself. But a paradox looms – the good have no need for friends as they are self-sufficient in being good. Similarly through a typical but maddening Socratic process of question and answering, he demonstrates that friendship cannot be between the like and/or the unlike, seemingly making friendship impossible. A similar inconsistency occurs when one considers the possibility of friendship being a relationship of congenial persons. The dialogue ends unsatisfactorily on the conclusion that they are unable to discover what makes friendship possible.

Nevertheless, Socrates offers many insights in his analysis. First friendship is a true ideal. Second like Pythagoras (see epigram above), friends have all things in common so neither can be richer than the other. In addition a friend must be useful or wise. Friendship does not develop out of servile praise and self-deprecation. “The friend is a friend for the sake of the friend…”2 and a friend is invaluable, even preferable to “all the gold of Darius.”3

I think the take home message of the dialogue is that defining and explaining the existence of friendship is difficult, even impossible. Still we recognize its existence much as we recognize the reality of beauty or the divine. It is not explained or caused by predictable factors, but seems to be accidental or emergent, although virtue is a prerequisite. Whatever its origin, friendship is a priceless good worthy of immense respect and effort.

Next time we look at the most systematic philosophy on friendship ever described, the thoughts of Aristotle recorded in the Nicomachean Ethics.

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1Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), The Dialogues of Plato. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 7, pages 14-25.

2Ibid., Page 23.

3Ibid., Page 18.

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