The Question of Courage in the Laches

The theme of the Laches is exoterically about the nature of courage (andreia, fortitude, endurance, strength in the face of uncertainty), but on much closer inspection, the question at hand is of good teaching. What is a good teacher? Two men, Lysimachus and Melesias, bring their two sons to the noted Athenian warriors, Nicias and Laches. They want for their sons to be properly instructed. Both fathers are concerned. Both men are descended from great fathers who were warriors of great renown, though they are ashamed as fathers and soft and have not taught their sons greatness in honor of their names. To Lysimachus education of greatness is equivalent with instruction in the art of arms and war, not of virtue. Melesias remains mostly silent.

Why, in the first place, is the dialogue’s title dedicated to Laches? What is Plato calling attention to with his character? Laches is a general, though less reputable than Nicias, who is a noted statesman and political competitor of Cleon. Nicias is also the reluctant leader of the failed Sicilian expedition of Alcibiades. Laches, unlike Nicias, invites Socrates into the conversation on two grounds: first, the fraternity of his deme (both Socrates and Lysimachus are from Alopece), and second, Socrates is always teaching the young men in noble pursuits. For Laches, Socrates has experience. To others Socrates pursues strange and irrelevant activities, as we see satirized in Aristophanes’s Clouds, which is the earliest known portrayal of Socrates during his lifetime. Nicias supports Laches’s suggestion not on the merits of Socrates as a teacher, but on the principle of following Laches’s word. After all, Laches has recently suggested a reputable music teacher to Nicias, but to Laches, philosophy is worth considering instead. Additionally, Laches attests to Socrates’s bravery as a soldier at the retreat of Delium. He reaffirms the common opinions of the city by persevering in the face of what is terrifying.

Lysimachus readdresses his question: is the study of fighting in honor good for the young? The conversation leads to the most interesting part in an engagement between Socrates and Laches. Socrates claims that the two fathers are really asking what virtue is, and he suggests starting with an investigation of a part of virtue. Why does Socrates merely suggest searching for a part of virtue, when in the Meno he settles for nothing less than a definition of the whole of virtue?

The part of virtue Socrates poses is courage. Eventually, Laches suggests it to be: “a sort of endurance of soul” (192C).  Though, as in the case of folly, Socrates points out it is not a universally correct statement. Nicias is also brought into the hunt, but he winds up finding all of goodness/virtue. The definitions prove to be deficient and Socrates suggests they search for a truly good teacher, for the sake of minding their own business and for the sake of the boys. Lysimachus asks Socrates to come to his home the following day to instruct him and the boys, though we have no knowledge of this meeting ever taking place.

Though this dialogue ends in aporeia, recall that in the end of the Protagoras Socrates claims that courage is not the willingness to “go toward” what a man fears, but rather the courageous man has knowledge of what is truly deserving of fear. Elsewhere, in the Republic, Socrates posits that we call a single man courageous because the spirited (thumos) part of his soul preserves through pains and pleasures and that what has been proclaimed by the speeches about that which is terrible and that which is not (442c). In explaining to Glaucon, Socrates says, “The preserving of the opinion produced by law through education about what-and what sort of thing-is terrible. And by preserving through everything I meant preserving that opinion and not casting it out in pains and pleasures and desires and fears” (428c). Perhaps this is not so different from the definition provided by Laches, though his may be incomplete. Courage is one of the criteria for the “city in speech” if it is to be perfectly good. As later thinkers would call it, courage is one of the “Cardinal Virtues” (coming from the Latin for cardo meaning “hinge”). Curiously, in the Laches dialogue, both fathers came looking for instruction in the ways of war, and both go away with Socrates, the teacher, who has made them aware of their own ignorance of the nature of courage, the central philosophic idea underlying the nature of the soldier -it is what the goal of the education of the guardians strives toward in the Republic.


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

Notes on the Trachiniae

In The Women of Trachis, also called the Trachiniae, Sophocles exposes the audience to the recollections of a domestic woman, Deianira (Greek for “destroyer of husband”), and wife of the great Heracles (Romanized as Hercules). In contract to Aeschylus’s portrayal of Clytemnestra at the end of the Trojan War in his Oresteia, the audience is compelled to sympathize with, and perhaps even pity, Deianira. Women of Trachis is a defense of Heracles’s tragic wife, Deianira.


Notes on the Story of the Women of Trachis
In her opening lines, she indirectly cites the Solon of Herodotus, and disagrees. She claims that a man’s life can be determined if good or bad before death, and that hers is “sorrowful and heavy” (1-5). She recalls the early years of marrying Heracles, but now he is rarely home, and has been gone for more than one year. She calls their son, Hyllus, to venture out after Heracles. Hyllus has heard that his father is in campaign against the city of Eurytus in Euboea. Deianira recounts a prophecy, that it is said Heracles would iether come to his life’s end or live a happy life after the end of this campaign. Upon learning of this propechy, Hyllus leaves to discover the fate of his father. Heracles has left behind a tablet detailing how he would like his estate divided upon his death. Messengers arrive and alert Deianira that Heracles has been held captive as a slave, and then turned against the city but fell under the spell of a younger woman, Iole (we recall the spell under which Odysseus was held after the Trojan War). Initially, Heracles’s messneger, Lichas, was dishonest, but another messenger appears with Iole as a captured slave and reveals the whole affair to Deianira.

Heracles has sent this woman home to be wife, and share his marriage with Deianira. Furious, Deianira, recalls a gift from a centaur -the dying hairy-chested Nessus, ferrier of the river of Evenus, who tried to force himself on Deianira, but Heracles had shot him with an arrow from afar. While he lay dying, he gave Deianira his tunic, dipped in his blood, and told Deianira this tunic with his blood would compel Heracles to love no other woman but her. She had hidden it in a copper urn for years, until the moment when her feelings of jealousy for Ione were aroused.

After sending Heracles’s messenger away with the urn with the robe in it, instructing him that no man nor the light of the sun may touch the tunic, Lichas departs. However, Deianira accidentally spills some of the blood on the ground and it burns through the wood of her house, and she discovers the centaur meant it was poison for Heracles. Suddenyl, Hyllus comes in laments what his mother has done to Heracles. Heracles had just finished sacking Eurytus and in celebration, wore the robe from Deianira, and it began to consume him, causing him spasms of pain. The Chorus then reveals to the audience that Deianira retires to her bed chamber and cuts herself open in suicide. Moments later Heracles arrives by boat to his homeland

This story of the demise of Heracles is also recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book IX. The villainous centaur also appears in Dante’s Inferno as the river guide for Virgil and Dante across the river Phlegethon. Recall in the Odyssey, that Odysseus encounters the phantom of Heracles in Hades. This encounter posed problems in the classical world, as Heracles was considered part of the pantheon of demigods on Mount Olympus, however a close inspection of the Homeric text reveals that Odysseus merely ‘perceived’ or ‘conceived of’ Heracles, he did not in actuality ‘see’ Heracles in the Underworld. Herodotus thought Heracles lived about 900 years before himself.


Background on Heracles
Heracles was hated from birth by Hera, as he was the illicit son of Zeus and his affair with a mortal, Alcmene (pronounced Allk-may-nay). Zeus came down to Thebes and disguised himself as Alkmene’s husband, Amphitryon, and consummated with Alkmene. Shortly thereafter, Amphitryon returned from battle and also consummated with his wife, yielding twins in her belly. These were hetero-paternal twins, a rare condition whereby a woman conceives of two separate twins by different men. Heracles’s twin brother was Iphicles. On the eve of the birth of Heracles, Hera persuaded Zeus to declare the child born this day in the line of Perseus was to rule over all men. She did this knowing that Eurystheus was also to be born. She delayed the birth of Heracles and prematurely forced the birth of Eurystheus. Eventually, Heracles was unknowingly raised by Hera, but his bite on her teat was so strong and it caused her such agony that she threw him down, but the milk from her breast sprayed across the heavens, creating the Milky Way. He was originally given the name, Alcides, by his parents. At one point Hera sent large serpents into the children’s bed. While Heracles’s twin, Iphicles shrunk in fear, Heracles strangled them both and played with them as if they were toys. In astonishment Amphitryon sent for Tiresias, the blind seer, who prophesied many monsters to be vanquished by the young boy.

He was known for his courage and strength. There are many various mythological accounts of delays in Alcmene’s delivery of Heracles. In his youth, Heracles killed his music teacher with his Lyre in anger. He as then sent away to tend cattle on a mountain, and per Xenophon, Heracles was visited by both Vice and Virtue. He was offered an easy but forgettable life, or a strenuous but glorious life (recall the choice offered to Achilles), and Heracles chose the latter. He went back to Thebes and married Megara, but was soon given a fit of madness by Hera and killed all of his children by her. When he realized what he had done he fled to the Oracle of Delphi, under the control of Hera, who convinced him to go to Eurystheus, where Heracles served him for ten years. Eurystheus initially developed ten labors for Heracles to win his freedom, however he cheated Heracles and included two more, leading to the famous twelve labors of Heracles.

Other adventures are recounted in the Argonautica in the search for the golden fleece and the Bibliotecha, most clearly outlined by Apollodorus. He also sacked Troy before the Iliad, as was alluded to in several passages by Homer. Both Hesiod and Aeschylus recount the tale of Heracles shooting and killing the eagle tormenting Prometheus, and Heracles freed the titan from his bondage. His tragic end is most memorably recounted in Sophocles’s Women of Trachis.


For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore and David Grene edition with a translation by Michael Jameson.

A Brief Note on Aeschylean Tragedy

In his day, Aeschylus had published and produced more than ninety plays. Today, seven have survived. We are the fortunate beneficiaries of the complete Oresteia trilogy, telling the story of Orestes in avenging the blood of his father, and ending in Athena/Zeus declaring the predominance of law, over vengeance. This theme of the emergence, and protection of the law, is a consistent theme throughout Aeschylean tragedy. Many feature the question of nomos among and between nations, and how conflicts between customs can lead to war.

The other Aeschylean plays are only fragments -that is, they are not complete parts of the larger trilogies and tetralogies for which they were once written: The Suppliant MaidensThe PersiansThe Seven Against Thebes (a highly obscure play written as a listing of heroes featuring Oedipus and Anigone), and Prometheus Bound. Later, in Aristophanes, we find a profound defense of Aeschylus in The Frogs.

Plato’s Republic Book II (Part I): Glaucon and Adeimantus

Glaucon and Adeimantus, both brothers and Athenians (brothers of Plato), make up the bulk of the remainder of the Republic. Both brothers are praised by Socrates for their noble actions as soldiers at Megara and also for their aristocratic lineage, descending from Ariston (meaning “excellence”). The Battle of Megara was a crucial victory for the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta.

Socrates begins the next section thinking he has freed himself from argument, but he acknowledges that the acts of Book I seems to have only been a “prelude” (357a). While Thrasymachus, the foreign tyrant, has been tamed in Book I, his exchange with Socrates has appeared to be little more than a joke that had taken the virtue of justice lightly. Thrasymachus takes his sophisticated art seriously, but not the question of justice.

At any rate, the inquiry into the nature of justice has now passed beyond the three claims of Book I, with each definition falling short, and the discussion has now passed to the more refined Athenian brothers. Together, they both launch an inauthentic attack on justice, in order to hear Socrates make a substantial praise of justice. Glaucon claims that there are three kinds of goods 1) that which is good for its own sake, 2) that which is good for its own sake and for another, 3) and that which is good for another sake. When asked, Socrates supposes that justice is the second kind of good which occurs for its own sake, as well as another sake. Glaucon defends Thrasymachus’s thesis that injustice is preferable to justice, but only in order to receive a proper praise of justice by Socrates.

First, Glaucon gives an account of the origin of justice. According to this argument, people commit justice unwillingly. They are always and everywhere seeking to commit acts of injustice for their own seeming profit, and to minimize their own suffering of injustice. It is the base, or slave, morality of Nietzsche laid out in the Genealogy of Morals. When it cannot be avoided, people look to make compacts with others but not to commit injustice nor to suffer it. The great masses of weak men commit wanton acts of injustice toward one another. Each man commits injustice and fears receiving acts of injustice toward themselves. Therefore, born of fear, men make compacts with one another in attempt to enforce justice. In contradistinction to Thrasymachus, Glaucon claims that justice is the advantage of the weaker. The perfectly just man and the perfectly unjust man are what Glaucon is concerned with. His conception of both is entirely divorced from art and nature, unlike Thrasymachus. However, like Thrasymachus he holds fast to the claim that the good life is fundamentally tyrannical. The paradox of honor and justice is that they both presuppose and also precede life in importance. Once he has completed this account of the origins of justice, Glaucon defers to the poets.

Here, Glaucon is given recourse to recount the famous story of Gyges, the Lydian shepherd. Recall Herodotus’s story of Gyges’s who looks upon the king’s wife at the king’s suggestion and must either kill himself or else kill the king and thereby become king himself, the latter of which he chooses (at the urging of the king’s wife). In Socrates’s tale in the Republic, a great thunderstorm and an earthquake occurs, opening a chasm in the ground which Gyges first sees, wonders at, and then goes “down” (perhaps not unlike the down-going of Socrates to the Piraeus at the start of the Republic). Gyges sees many marvelous things, one of which is a hollow bronze horse with windows and upon looking in he sees a larger than life corpse. It has no clothes, save for a gold ring which Gyges slips off. When it is time for the shepherds to give their regular report of the flocks to the king, Gyges turns the collett of the ring inward towards his hand and he becomes invisible. Using this power, he then becomes a messenger for the king. Upon arriving, he commits adultery with the king’s wife and kills the king in order to become ruler. Socrates’s account differs in unique ways from Herodotus.

Lastly, building on his two prior key points, Glaucon considers the perfectly just and the perfectly unjust man. The former may appear to be just to the masses and so he gains power, while the latter undergoes much suffering in the name of justice. The key distinction Glaucon makes is between seeming to be just, and actually being just. That is, between opinion and truth. Recall that Glaucon is the reason Socrates remains in the Piraeus and he is also responsible for much of the remaining dialogue in the Republic. At any rate, Socrates must defend the just man who leads a mostly miserable life, according to Glaucon.

Before Socrates can respond in “delight,” Adeimantus comes to a strong defense of his brother. He adds that parents extoll the virtues of justice to their children not for its own sake, but for the praise and reputation one receives for being just. For this argument he cites the authority of Homer and Hesiod, the poets. He also adds that Socrates’s genuine praise of justice must exclude divine rewards and punishments, along with not relying upon the authority of the poets. Glaucon’s defense is characterized by his manliness and impetuosity, while Adeimantus is moderate and quiet. Adeimantus is interested in justice as pleasantness and easiness.

The demands from the two brothers on Socrates can be summarized as follows: Socrates must praise justice as choiceworthy for its own sake -that justice is a pleasant option to choose, and also that justice will make a man happy, even in the midst of extreme suffering. According to these demands, we must judge Socrates’s defense of justice throughout the remainder of the Republic and also in light of his treatment of the poets and the gods.


For this reading I used Allan Bloom’s essential translation of Plato’s Republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s The City and Man and his lectures.