Initial Thoughts on Plato’s Laches

In Plato’s short dialogue called the Laches we encounter the question of courage. Lysimachus and Melesias are seeking guidance from some of Athen’s older and more experienced men on the best way to raise their sons so they will become good. Both Lysimachus and Melesias are ashamed because they did not fight in battle the way their forefathers did against the Medes (i.e. the Persian War). Both men believe that a teacher must have experience in order to properly instruct the youth. Lysimachus proposes that they ask Nicias and Laches since they were both warriors. Lysimachus was told the best way to teach boys is by fighting in armor. When Lysimachus broaches the question, Laches says he is astonished that he has not asked Socrates. Laches praises Socrates for his marching at Delium during the Pelopponesian War. He praises Socrates’s courage.

When they finally include Socrates in the inquiry, Socrates asks that Laches and Nicias give an account of how they would raise the two children to be the best of men, in which Laches gives a more profound response. After their respective responses Lysimachus asks Socrates which one he plans to vote on. Lysimachus is a simple-minded democrat who is incapable of having an opinion of his own, so he hides behind the opinion of the majority, whatever it may be. In this way Socrates exposes Lysimachus’s lack of courage.

Socrates quickly rejects the democratic view of the conversation, and instead he redirects the goal of their discussion to be focused on ends rather than means. That is to say, the conversation thus becomes teleological. The end is an inquiry into the form (eidos) of the souls of young men and in order to do this they must discover the meaning of virtue. First Socrates suggests they investigate a part of virtue -first they must consider what courage is. Note the differences between the Laches and other dialogues that consider the question of virtue, such as the Meno.

Laches is the first man to take up the question of courage and perhaps the most important person in the dialogue, as it has his namesake. He sets up a conditional statement: ‘If a man remains at his post and does not run away when defending his city from the enemy then he can be called a man of courage’. In examining his argument, Socrates reframes the definition of retreat by identifying hoplites and and other soldiers who have run away in apparent retreat but returned to battle to win the day. These men certainly cannot be called uncourageous.

In his second definition, Laches identifies courage as a kind of “endurance of the soul” (192C). Socrates makes a distinction by demonstrating that there is a kind of ridiculousness, like foolhardiness, that would also fall under this definition, yet we would not call foolhardiness courage. Laches gets frustrated with his inability to express what courage is, though he believes he knows the definition.

Next Nicias is invited to the “hunt”. Nicias claims that if a man is courageous, it is clear that he is wise. Socrates restates Nicias’s claim to suggest that courage must be some kind of wisdom. Nicias says courage is the knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war. Laches and Nicias debate with one another in the Socratic fashion. Eventually, Socrates demonstrates that Nicias’s account must be incomplete. However, Lysimachus invites Socrates to help him find a good teacher for the boys. Socrates says they must search for the best possible teacher first for themselves, and then for the boys. Socrates is invited to the house of Lysimachus tomorrow to arrange for these educational plans. Socrates says he will join, god willing.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of “The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues” edited by Thomas Pangle. This translation was completed by James H. Nichols, Jr.

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