Laches is an aporetic dialogue composed by Plato in his early period. It inquires into the definition of courage (andreia).

Scenery, characters, dramatic time and place

The dialogue plays out in a public space of the Athenian Agora, where an exhibition of armour fighting has just come to an end. The discussants are the prominent Athenians: Lysimachus, son of Aristides 'the Just', Melesias, son of the oligarch politician Thukydides, two Athenian politicians and generals, Nicias and Laches, and Socrates. They engage in a discussion about the right way to bring up the young sons of Lysimachus and Melesias (who also attend the discussion).The discussion narrows down to an attempt at defining the meaning of courage. The date is 424 B.C. Socrates has returned from the battle of Delium, where he stood out especially for his courage.

He is around 45 years of age at that time, and his interlocutors are older. The text allows to understand that Socrates is already an acclaimed personality by the youth. It is also worth noting that Aristophanes' Clouds (Nephelai), a play figuring a caricature of Socrates, was staged at 423.

Laches is considered a typical example of Plato's early authorship. It is carried out in direct speech; it pursues the definition of an important moral notion; dialogical form is dominant; Socrates performs the elenchus, and the conclusion is aporetic. Furthermore, it is presented in a wrought form, the arguments bear weight, and it puts forward points that will be used again in Plato's works of maturity (in that it resembles the Eythyphro).

Content

The occasion of the dialogue is provided by Lysimachus and Melesias who invite the prominent Athenians Nicias and Laches to a performance of armour fighting (178a). The two parents are intent on asking the generals' advice about the appropriateness of such spectacles for the education of their children. Asked to join the discussion is Socrates, who -not by chance- frequented places were young men spent their time (180c-d).

Supposing that the subject of the dialogue is exclusively the definition of courage, we must concede that the introduction to the subject takes up half of the work, because the question on courage proper is discussed only after the middle of the work (190d). That said, we should bear in mind that, as it is the case with other platonic dialogues, the extensive preliminary exchange allows Plato to broach important parameters of the particular topic he intends to analyse. Thus, the introductory part of Laches points out that the problem of courage is subsumed under the general problem of virtue: in particular, the division of virtue, its unity, andwhether it is instructible or not (the latter being a problem that Plato will also examine in Protagoras, Meno, and the Republic). The question if virtue can be taught or not is opportune for Socrates' ironic assault against the Sophists.He stands against their irresponsible proclamation to teach virtue, their avarice, and their privileged relations with the ruling class of Athens. Along the same lines, Plato gives us the encomium of Socrates through the praising words of Nicias and Laches.

NICIAS: You don’t appear to me to know that whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and associates with him in conversation must necessarily, even if he began by conversing about something quite different in the first place, keep on being led about by the man’s arguments until he submits to answering questions about himself concerning both his present manner of life and the life he has lived hitherto (Laches 187e).

Eventually, courage is picked out as the subject of the investigation, for analysis of virtue in general is too convoluted a task to be met for the time being (190d). The typical Socratic question that follows: "what courage is?" (190e) receives three answers (two by Laches, and one by Nicias) - all declined by Socrates. The dialogue ends without a definite answer.

1st definition: courageous is the man who fights the enemy while remaining at his post without running away. Refutation: even if this definition applies to the way the hoplites fight, it is irrelevant for other types of battle, or for altogether different human affairs (190e-191e). What is surveyed is the common element in every case of courage (191e).

2nd definition: courage is a sort of endurance of the soul (192b), and, in particular, an endurance accompanied by wisdom (192c). Refutation: in most cases courage is attributed to the daring man and not the one who endures (192c-193e). Laches is all too ready to accept the elenchus of his definition.

3rd definition: Nicias suggests that courage is a kind of wisdom, "the knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful in war and in every other situation" (195a). Refutation: fearful and hopeful things are anticipations of things that might take place in the future, whereas courage, as part of virtue, should also apply to the present and the past (198a-199e). Even though the elenchus is weak, Nicias submits to it. The discussion concludes in everybody's wish to find the best instructor in virtue.

Appraisal

The arguments laid out in Laches are basically sound. The definitions of virtue are plausible, and the criticism levelled against them applicable (save for the third) - a comparison with the definitions put forward in the Charmides verifies this assessment. Furthermore, the ideas proffered in the dialogue adumbrate similar theses found in Plato's work of maturity. Thus, the connection of courage with temperance and wisdom is carried onto the mature argumentation of the Republic - where temperance, courage and wisdom are the essential virtues of the soul's three parts. In the same vain, even Nicias' definition -that courage is the knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful- could be affirmed by Plato.

At any rate, Laches includes significant elements that add up to Plato's political views. His choice to pick out eponymous and prominent figures as partners of Socrates cannot go unnoticed. Moreover, it is hard for anyone without knowledge of the political history of the Peloponnesian War to appreciate the full extent of their arguments. From this angle, Laches can be read as a comment on Thukydides' History, as well as a foreteller of the platonic Gorgias.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Benitez, E. "Laches." Press, G. ed. The Continuum Companion to Plato. Lonndon, 2012.
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Kahn, C, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, The philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge, 1996.
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