Throughout Plato's Lysis, Socrates considers and rejects many hypotheses regarding why friends become friends. Along with his two companions Lysis and Menexenus, Socrates examines the causes of friendship. Such causes include the relationship between the good and the bad, the likenesses between friends, and whether friends can be friends for the sake of something else. Unfortunately, each path of inquiry ends in a stalemate, as each theory Socrates proposes is eventually found faulty and rejected. In the end, Socrates abandons his quest for the reason behind friendships. However, Socrates makes one important mistake--he incorrectly analyzes the role of opposites in a friendship. For the purposes of this essay, we will define "opposites" as opposing viewpoints, statuses, or personalities, in order to more fully examine whether or not opposite traits in people can create new friendships.
As a start, let us begin with a summary of Socrates's arguments. Upon rejecting the idea that like will be friends with like, Socrates remembers an old phrase: "Potter is angry with potter, poet with poet, and beggar with beggar." He expounds on this phrase, saying that, in all cases, things that are alike will be "filled with envy, contentiousness, and hatred for each other" (215d). Thus, one must look for something one lacks in one's friends; Socrates gives the examples of a sick man befriending a doctor, the poor man befriending the rich, and the weak befriending the strong. What is the underlying purpose of such friendships? Socrates states that "everything desires its opposite," whether for assistance, for enlightenment, or for self-gratification. Once again, Socrates uses examples, although these are not quite as concrete as in the first series: "Dry desires wet, cold hot, bitter sweet, sharp blunt, empty full, full empty, and so forth" (215e). At this point, Menexenus agrees that opposite is best friends to opposite.
But, as with the other theories, Socrates rejects this one after inadequate consideration. Using example after example, Socrates pokes holes in his theory until it sinks like a rock thrown into a pond. First, Socrates points out that when one person holds enmity towards the other and the other loves, then opposites are created and friendship should be formed. However, this defies both logic and one of the previous arguments, which concluded that when one person loves and another hates, there can be no friendship. Also, Socrates states that the "just" people cannot be friends with the "unjust," nor can the "good" befriend the "bad." However, he fails to give any reasoning behind this statement, and simply draws the conclusion that his earlier theories were "ridiculous," and that opposite cannot befriend opposite.
At first glance, it seems as if Socrates has dismissed too quickly the importance of opposites in friendships. After all, Lysis and Menexenus are wonderful friends, yet are completely opposite in their dispositions--while Lysis is shy and reserved, Menexenus is outgoing and talkative. The two obviously enjoy and gain from their different personalities and views. Further, upon close inspection, the "good" can certainly befriend the "bad"--for example, a priest might befriend a criminal in order to help the criminal to a better life. Moreover, the intelligent and wise Socrates befriends the two inexperienced young boys at the end of the story, another direct contradiction of Socrates' argument that opposites cannot become friends.
To expand on this point, it is apparent that opposites can indeed benefit and learn from each other. After all, what benefits can a person receive from a friend who is almost identical to that person? As Socrates states later on in the Lysis, we seek out people to fill gaps in our selves, to give us something we don't have. What better way is there to fill a gap in yourself than to find a friend who is your opposite? Moreover, such a friend can give new perspectives on a problem, or can reveal new outlooks on life. Opposites can give excellent advice and assistance, because they see the world in a completely different manner. From this standpoint, it appears not only that opposites can be a contributing factor in the creation of friendships, but that they are essential to maintaining a profitable relationship.
However, despite the seemingly endless advantages, opposites do not attract in most cases. First, it is not always possible for both sides to profit from a relationship in which opposite characteristics are involved. For instance, an intelligent man will probably not receive any new knowledge from an ignorant one, just as a rich man will probably find himself frustrated by the situation of the poor man. Further, when two opposite views collide, as they would in such a relationship, they usually result in conflict, not education. In a more modern example, a Caucasian may befriend an African-American man, yet when they express their opposing views on the OJ Simpson trial, it causes tension and turbulence in the friendship. Thus, we have reached the same conclusion as Socrates--namely, that what seems like a mutually beneficial friendship in theory has tremendous difficulty existing in the real world.
Truly, the demise of the "opposites attract" theory occurs when we try to define opposites. Up to this point, we have generally defined opposites as people with opposing ideas or personalities; yet can't opposites be formed by occupation, social status, religion, sexual orientation, or culture? Clearly, our previous definition would not hold up under intense scrutiny; in fact, the whole idea that opposite characteristics even exist is questionable, for the self is dynamic depending on the time and environment. Few would argue that people have many different moods and attitudes--a person might be timid in the classroom, yet fearless and wild on the football field. As a result, it is difficult if not impossible to "pin down" any permanent character traits about someone, and even more difficult to pair those traits with the exact opposite traits in another person. Furthermore, when so many--perhaps even an infinite number--of traits make up a person's personality, how can two people really be opposites? In real life, absolute extremes of "good" and "bad," "just" and "unjust" do not really exist; rather, each person is somewhere in between. Making such sweeping generalizations of two people as "opposites" destroys the commonly held belief that every individual is unique. To sum up, when we interact with another person, we do not look for opposite characteristics that will make that person advantageous to befriend. Instead, we look for qualities that almost anyone would see as desirable, like kindness, compassion, and a sense of humor.
In conclusion, though opposing characteristics can create some friendships, Socrates is right in throwing out the notion that truly lasting friendships are a result of opposites. In the real world, there are no exact opposites--there is no man who is completely "good" nor one who is completely "bad." On the contrary, we are each composed of numerous traits and qualities that combine to create a complex and ever-changing self. It is this fluidity in our emotions, this vigorous redefining of ourselves every day, that makes our friendships so enigmatic, but that, more importantly, makes us human.