Laches (dialogue)

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The Laches ( /ˈlækz/ ; Greek: Λάχης) is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato. Participants in the discourse present competing definitions of the concept of courage.

Ancient Greek Version of the Greek language used from roughly the 9th century BCE to the 6th century CE

The Ancient Greek language includes the forms of Greek used in Ancient Greece and the ancient world from around the 9th century BCE to the 6th century CE. It is often roughly divided into the Archaic period, Classical period, and Hellenistic period. It is antedated in the second millennium BCE by Mycenaean Greek and succeeded by medieval Greek.

Plato Classical Greek philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

Courage quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, or pain

Courage is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Physical courage is bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship, death or threat of death, while moral courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, discouragement, or personal loss.



Socrates classical Greek Athenian philosopher

Socrates was a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, and as being the first moral philosopher, of the Western ethical tradition of thought. An enigmatic figure, he made no writings, and is known chiefly through the accounts of classical writers writing after his lifetime, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon. Other sources include the contemporaneous Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Aeschines of Sphettos. Aristophanes, a playwright, is the main contemporary author to have written plays mentioning Socrates during Socrates' lifetime, though a fragment of Ion of Chios' Travel Journal provides important information about Socrates' youth.

Aristides Athenian general and statesman

Aristides was an ancient Athenian statesman. Nicknamed "the Just", he flourished in the early quarter of Athens' Classical period and is remembered for his generalship in the Persian War. The ancient historian Herodotus cited him as "the best and most honourable man in Athens", and he received similarly reverent treatment in Plato's Socratic dialogues.

Nicias Athenian politician and general

Nicias, was an Athenian politician and general during the period of the Peloponnesian War. Nicias was a member of the Athenian aristocracy and had inherited a large fortune from his father, which was invested in the silver mines around Attica's Mt. Laurium. Following the death of Pericles in 429 BC, he became the principal rival of Cleon and the democrats in the struggle for the political leadership of the Athenian state. He was a moderate in his political views and opposed the aggressive imperialism of the democrats. His principal aim was to conclude a peace with Sparta as soon as it could be obtained on terms favourable to Athens.


Education and the value of military training

Has military education a place in higher education? [178a–180a]

Lysimachus, son of Aristides, and Melesias, son of Thucydides (not the historian Thucydides), request advice from Laches and Nicias on whether or not they should have their sons (who are named after their famous grandfathers) trained to fight in armor. After each gives their opinion, Nicias for and Laches against, they seek Socrates for counsel.

Thucydides Greek historian and Athenian general

Thucydides was an Athenian historian and general. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the fifth-century BC war between Sparta and Athens until the year 411 BC. Thucydides has been dubbed the father of "scientific history" by those who accept his claims to have applied strict standards of impartiality and evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect, without reference to intervention by the deities, as outlined in his introduction to his work.

Laches introduces Socrates to the discussion [180a–181d]

Socrates questions what the initial purpose of the training is meant to instill in the children. Once they determine that the purpose is to instill virtue, and more specifically courage, Socrates discusses with Laches and Nicias what exactly courage is. The bulk of the dialogue is then the three men (Laches, Nicias and Socrates) debating various definitions of courage.

Virtue Positive trait or quality deemed to be morally good

Virtue is moral excellence. A virtue is a trait or quality that is deemed to be morally good and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness. In other words, it is a behavior that shows high moral standards. Doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. The opposite of virtue is vice.

Nicias on the advantages of fighting in armour [181e–182d]

Nicias argues in favor of an education in fighting in armour for young men. He mentions that it promotes physical fitness, prepares a man for military duties, gives an advantage over untrained opponents, helps one understand military strategy, makes one braver, and gives one a martial appearance.

Laches on the futility of fighting in armour [182e–184c]

Laches argues against the need for fighting in armour by claiming that the Spartans do not practice it; the instructors that Laches has seen are not brave soldiers and so have not benefitted from this knowledge; and it causes cowards to take foolish and damaging military risks.

The need for expert advice: are the generals qualified to speak about education? [184d–187d]

Melesias and Lysimachus ask Socrates to decide which side is correct. Socrates begins by trying to clarify what the actual topic is. He determines that the issue is the care of young men's character and asks if there are qualified teachers for this. Socrates confesses not to be skilled in this and assumes that Laches and Nicias are either versed in character building or else know of experts in that field. Socrates proposes to question them about this to see if they have qualified expertise.

The generals agree to cooperate with Socrates and put Their expertise to the test [187e–189d]

Nicias warns about Socrates' philosophical methods of getting the interlocuter to examine their own conscience. Laches states that he likes to hear discussions that are "musical", when a person's discourse is in tune with their actions. Paraphrasing Solon, Laches agrees to participate in Socrates' inquiry because he likes to learn from good men.

Solon 7th and 6th-century BC Athenian statesman and lawgiver

Solon was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet. He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in archaic Athens. His reforms failed in the short-term, yet he is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy. He wrote poetry for pleasure, as patriotic propaganda, and in defence of his constitutional reforms.

An inquiry into the nature of bravery

The need to define bravery [189d–190d]

Socrates uses a medical analogy to help define goodness: If eyes can be improved by adding sight to them, then a boys' character can be improved by adding goodness to it. As knowledge of what sight is is necessary before it can be considered as an improvement, so too it is necessary to have knowledge of what good is before it is used to improve a character. Rather than try to define what the whole of goodness is, Socrates thinks it would be easier to define an aspect of goodness that is relevant to the question: bravery.

Laches' first definition: to be brave is to stand and fight [190e–192b]

Laches advances that to be brave is to be a soldier who can hold his position in combat without running away. Socrates explains that his definition is very specific to military infantry and what he was really looking for is a notion of bravery that pertains to all military situations and extends to all situations in life.

Laches' second definition: bravery is endurance [192b–193d]

Laches offers an opinion that courage is "a certain perseverance of the soul". However, Socrates challenges this idea by arguing that there are many instances in battle when the prudent thing to do is to withdraw or flee. Since courage is a virtue, Socrates argues, it cannot contradict prudence, and therefore the idea that courage always demands perseverance must be false. Laches is forced to admit this contradiction.

Impasse: Nicias is asked to help [193e–194c]

Socrates expresses his perplexity in trying to account for bravery. Laches wishes to pursue the conversation, saying that he has a sense of what bravery is, but is not able to express it properly. Socrates states that like a good huntsman pursuing a trail, they must persevere in the search for their quarry. They invite Nicias to give his definition of bravery.

Nicias' definition: bravery is a special kind of knowledge [194d–196c]

Nicias then offers another definition. He suggests that courage is "knowledge of what is to be feared and hoped for both in war and in all other matters".

Implications of Nicias' definition: can animals and children be brave? [196d–197e]

Since bravery is the knowledge of what is fearful and encouraging, Socrates asks if a pig could be brave. Nicias denies that animals can be brave as he believes that a certain amount of wisdom is necessary for bravery and that very few people can be considered brave. Socrates playfully suggest that Nicias is being influenced by a sophist named Damon and offers to respond to Nicias' assertion.

Nicias has defined goodness, not bravery [198a–199e]

Nicias agrees that something 'fearful' is the expectation of a future evil and something 'hopeful' is the expectation of a future good. Socrates then argues that full knowledge of any subject involves an understanding not only of future matters, but also of past and present. Thus if courage is the knowledge of future evils and goods, it must also necessarily be the knowledge of those of the present and past too. He then asserts that Nicias' definition actually amounts to a definition of all virtue (since it implies knowledge of all good and evil) and therefore, since courage is in fact only a part of virtue, a contradiction arises and the definition must be false.

The discussion breaks up: Socrates suggests they all have much to learn [200a–201a]

And so, in the end, Socrates finds both his companions' theories to be unsatisfactory, and the dialogue ends in aporia, an English term derived from the ancient Greek ἀπορία meaning "philosophical confusion".

In philosophy, Aporia is a puzzle or state of puzzlement. In rhetoric, it is a useful expression of doubt.

Critical commentary

There are many different interpretations as to why the dialogue ends in aporia. Certain commentators, such as Iain Lane, view the Socratic method of elenchus as an end in itself; that debate is the central premise and function of the dialogue[ citation needed ]. Others, such as Gregory Vlastos, see the dialogue ending because of the specific deficiencies of the characters' definitions.

See also

Further reading

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