Among the Boys and Young Men: Philosophy and Masculinity in Plato’s Lysis

Ancient Philosophy (forthcoming)
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Near the middle of his first discussion with Lysis, Socrates asks an odd question—he asks if Lysis’ mother lets him play with her loom or touch her woolworking tools (208d1-e2). It is one of many odd questions, of course, but it is odd nonetheless. Odd, and also funny: it is the one of just two comments in the book that makes Lysis laugh. This question, I argue, reveals the profound depth of Socrates’ inquiry about Lysis’ views about himself and his loved ones. Indeed, the challenge is so profound that at first the only response is laughter. One aspect is a challenge to certain ideals of masculinity, and so I briefly discuss Athenian conceptions of gender and masculinity, along with some Platonic questioning of these conceptions. Reading the Lysis through the lens of gender reveals not only the continued relevance of such a lens, but also the intensity of Socrates’ work, which calls into question basic social structures and markers of identity, like gender, in its pursuit of a liberatory turn to philosophy. We gain insight into his challenge to Athenian understanding of masculinity by observing the way that Socrates’ argumentation undermines much of it, and we more fully appreciate Socrates’ arguments if we see that they intend to subvert gendered expectations. The setting of the dialogue, the questions Socrates asks, and the responses from Lysis all reinforce that what is at stake in the text is Lysis’ character, including his masculinity.

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Yancy Dominick
Seattle University


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