Plato and Socrates on Friendship

They say you can learn much about yourself by knowing your own history and learning from it. That is why we continue with yet another article on friendship in Ancient Greece, to understand how friendship was perceived by some of the most famous Greek philosophers. Hopefully this way, we will understand more about how we perceive friendships today, looking at this topic in a comparative manner. In this article, we will explore Socrates and Plato. 

In the article “Friendship Through the Lenses of Pythagoras and Aristotle’’ we looked at the philosophies from Greek intellectual heritage, Pythagoras and Aristotle. This time, we have chosen to elaborate more on the thoughts shared from Plato and Socrates, through the dialogues of Socrates brought to us by Plato, and through Plato’s written testimony. Their perspectives are indeed different from our times, considering that the circumstances they lived in were of a completely different kind. However, they offer us great insight and let us know that the concept of friendship had a significant role ever since the earliest of days.



 No one is a friend to his friend who does not love in return

Plato’s thoughts on friendship are often seen as rather cold and egocentric. At least this is how John Von Heyking, professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge and a researcher of political philosophy, describes it in many of his works. He states that Plato’s concept of friendship is a political one, through which Plato only took into account people who would benefit him. Nevertheless, friendship is addressed in several of Plato’s works, most significantly in his Symposium, Lysis, and Phaedrus.

Portrait of Plato
Portrait of Plato

Plato recognizes two forms of friendship: Sporadic friendship and genuine friendship. As described in Dirk Baltzly and Nick Eliopolous’s book mentioned above, Plato sees sporadic friendships as relationships “between opposites.” By opposite, he meant opposite social status, as in a friendship between the wealthy and the poor. Plato thinks that these relationships are rarely mutual, and more often terrible, as the needy are co-dependent on the wealthy, and the nature of the friendship is not purely virtuous. However, he thinks that there can be genuine friendships as long as they are formed by people who share equal social status. He mentions that the only people who can have such genuine friendships are people from the middle class. This is because, according to him, neither the rich nor the poor tended to be particularly virtuous, and friendships require virtue.

Although we can brag that the world has advanced from ancient times, we can surely say that social status still matters and that people are often discriminated against on this basis. Although strictly cold, I would say that Plato had a point. Not because people from different social classes are so utterly different from one another, because they are not. But their needs differ, and the best of friends are the ones who contemplate the same things and have the same needs to cry for. They comprehend each other!

For Plato, another fundamental virtue underlying friendship was the virtue of temper and moderation. For him, character (virtue) is the source and basis of personal friendship.



Without friendship a communication between people is of no value

There are not many writings left from Socrates; however, we can tell a lot about his perspective on friendship based on Plato’s three dialogues, which include Socrates.  Plato discusses love and friendship specifically in two dialogues, the Lysis, and the Symposium, with the Phaedrus, also adding to his perspective on philia.

Replica bust of Socrates
Replica bust of Socrates

Lysis is the dialogue through which Plato argues about the nature of friendship, with the main characters being Socrates, Lysis, and Menexenus, the boys who are friends. Another important character is Hippothales, who is in unrequited love with Lysis.

Through this dialogue, Socrates proposes four kinds of friendship, when discussing the true nature of loving friendship:

  • Friendship between people who are similar – friendship between good men
  • Friendship between men who are dissimilar
  • Friendship between men who are neither good nor bad and good men
  • Gradually emerging: friendship between those who are relatives

Of all those options, Socrates also thinks that there is no friendship without utility. Meaning, that if one person is of no use to the other, whether in the aspect of completing the other in regard to personality and virtues or in other aspects, there is no qualitative friendship. In the book The Classical Ideals of Friendship, a Socratic theme represented is that wisdom is a necessary condition for deriving benefit from anything. According to Socrates, “If friendship should be based on wisdom rather than on blood relations, then the ideal friendships will be those among people who are wise, or who are at least seeking after wisdom.”

The benefit in the friendship relations which Socrates talks about is the benefit of wisdom. Socrates cherished and appreciated the exchange of profound knowledge, on which he based the concept of ideal friendships.

These were very rare for him, that’s why he’s known for his unbothered self-sufficiency. I cannot help but include here a few paragraphs from The Classical Ideals of Friendship, related to the self-sufficiency of Socrates:

If we really cared for one another as friends, then we should make common cause in the search for wisdom and subordinate all our other efforts to this end. Few of the partners that Plato or Xenophon showed Socrates in conversation with were worthy of this form of friendship. They got distracted or discouraged. They cared about appearing foolish in the admission of their ignorance. None were worthy friends for Socrates. Socrates did not chide them or belittle them for dropping out of the race for the greatest prize of all. But neither did he slow down or stop in order to encourage them to keep running. So in the end he was a man alone, but equally a man untroubled by this fact within his solitary self-sufficiency.” – Page 29

You’re free to think that this approach to friendship is very extreme, filtering people by the level of their intellect, instead of their feelings and nature. However, this was the perspective of one of the greatest Greek philosophers, who was also Plato’s teacher.


Bottom Line

What seems to unite all the Greek philosophers of that time (including Plato and Socrates) was that through their perspectives, they all recognized the importance of friendship. That explains the fact that among the ancient Greeks, you could not be involved in political life without having friends (followers) who could protect you from your enemies when needed.

Although we no longer look up to friends to defend us from “enemies”, in the way this word was used in ancient times, we still need their support and presence to enrich our lives, and share our experiences!

If you want to read more about friendship in ancient times, we suggest you take a look into the works we have used as a point of reference in this article:

  1. The Classical Ideals of Friendship -Dirk Baltzly and Nick Eliopolous
  2. Early Greek Kinship – Emily Karen Varto
  3. Friendship, Love, and Brotherhood in Medieval Northern Europe – Lars Hermanson


Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney

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