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Topic #C29

Plato, Laches


14 November 2001
Scribes: Ian McElcheran and Nikola Danaylov


These minutes were spoken on 16 November;

for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



Professor Hutchinson began Wednesday’s lecture by pointing out that the main topic in Laches is andreia.  Though translated as courage, andreia’s ancient Greek meaning is manliness.  The ancients considered courage as something that fell within the traditionally masculine aspects of virtue.  Hutchinson indicated that courage is an important topic, examined by both Plato and Socrates.  Examples of the Socratic idea of courage can be found in Xenophon’s Memorabilia 3.IX; there, Socrates claimed that men naturally have different amounts of courage but it can still be taught.  This indicates that courage is a matter of talent, teaching and practice, just like all other subjects.  For example, even the Spartans would not be courageous with Thracian weapons and vise versa – therefore one adapts himself to his weapons available in order to be confident in battle.  Then we examined parallel ideas in Plato who saw the virtue of courage as something more than these three things.  In Meno – 70a, Plato asks “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?  Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?” (Plato. Meno, Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson. Hackett. 1997).  It turns out that for Plato courage is a result of some sort of lucky divine favor of the Gods.  Later on Aristotle criticized Socrates’ doctrine that courage is teachable.  Protagoras on the other hand thought that courage is distinctly different from the other virtues.  He claimed that on the basis that courage had the most to do with personality or emotion.  When confronted by Socrates Alcibiades admitted that he would feel shame if he were not courageous.  Thus Socrates convinced Alcibiades to turn to philosophy and be taught by him. 


              The lecture then proceeded with examples of violence or force against Socrates in the platonic dialogues.  The first example was taken from the beginning of the Republic where on his way home from Piraeus Socrates was kidnapped.  He was forced to submit to the superior numbers of people who made him engage in field that he usually avoids – politics.  This was situation that Socrates considered the wrong environment for philosophy – where no one talks the right language and asks the right questions.  The next example was from the Charmides where Socrates was assigned to teach the young man by force and against his will.  By revealing the forceful means employed by Charmides and his uncle – Critias, Plato exposed their lack of restraint and self-control, and consequently detached Socrates of the evil deeds that these two men committed.  The point that the professor made with these two examples is that Socrates knew when not to struggle and therefore he possessed the knowledge aspect of courage. 


              In the Laches Socrates examines the relationship between martial arts and manliness or courage.  This dialogue resembles the Republic in its complexity but is unlike it in scale, for Plato managed to put his ideas in smaller territory.  Hutchinson pointed out that we do not know which one of the two dialogues was written first and stressed that this dialogue has value for women as well as for men even though the topic is manliness because it covers ideas that men regard as something that they have to live up to, and what men aspire to be is something that women may desire as well. 


              The dialogue begins with a long diplomatic speech given by Lysimachus (178a-180a, Laches), parallels of which may be found in History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.  The context is the following: two fathers – Melesias and Lysimachus, with sons, named after their illustrious grandfathers, wanted to find out the best way to educate their sons in order that the sons justify the names that were given to them.  In general the problem was how could they transmit and teach virtue to their sons that they themselves do not possess. 


At the beginning of the dialogue two generals – Nicias and Laches, are being asked whether young men should learn fighting in armor or not, as a way to promote manliness.  After Socrates is brought into the discussion it turns into a typical Socratic debate.  At this point a student asked whether the grandfathers learned this martial art themselves or their high status was achieved on the basis of their natural talents.  The professor replied that this sort of martial art was new and therefore the grandfathers could not have learned it, and made clear that the grandfathers’ high status came from their deeds on the political scene rather then on the battlefield.  Then he proceeded by pointing out that both Laches and Nicias present their own arguments based upon their known characters respectively.  Laches is a virile, instinctual, non-intellectual “soldier’s soldier” whereas Nicias is philosophical and intellectual, and has no respect for the common fighter.  At the time of the dialogue both speakers were considered successful Athenian generals but later on both of them died in the Peloponnesian War.  With respect to their arguments we observe that both of them lose to Socrates, who managed to outdo both of them and represented himself as tougher than them.  This representation of Socrates, said prof. Hutchinson, depicted as being very manly, in portrayed not only in Laches but also in Alcibiades.  In these dialogues Socrates stands as best advisor, who is an expert in manliness himself.  He is respected by both Nicias and Laches for his intellect and vigor respectively.  That is the reason that he, as the central figure in the Laches, takes the responsibility of a follow up of the discussion.  Hutchinson pointed out that we may find the winning argument in between the positions of Nicias and Laches. 


              Prof. Hutchinson drew our attention at 193e where Laches got confused.  Socrates got him back into the discussion by riling him up.  This deed is similar to a commander’s turning the tide in a battle from defeat into victory.  It showed again that Socrates was manlier than Laches and was really an expert in this field.  Later in the dialogue, Socrates breathed new wisdom into Nicias in the same fashion.  In the context of his dialogue Plato employed numerous military metaphors – at 194c Socrates called Nicias in as reinforcements to the discussion.


              By outdoing both of his interlocutors, Socrates practically outdoes himself because Nicias promotes a Socratic notion of courage, namely that courage is wisdom.  Interestingly enough, Plato allows Socrates to win all of the arguments while defeating his own thesis.  The professor said that the arguments put forth by Laches and Nicias have complimentary faults.  Laches’ courage is pure emotion, “guts”.  Nichias’ courage is completely removed from emotion and is about having a grasp of what is worth fighting for and when.  In other words Nicias believes that courage is wisdom, that for Socrates is virtue.  Looking at the Republic we see that Plato’s conception of courage contains both emotion and knowledge.  Plato thinks that a true account of courage must contain knowledge of what is worth fighting for.  Therefore rashness is not courage.  This can be shown if we presuppose that courage is a good thing.  A student asked whether bungee jumping and skydiving help a person to practice courage and whether this person is not more likely to be courageous when necessary.  The professor first made a comment about these activities being perfect examples of truly pointless acts of risk taking.  He did not deny though that there is some correlation.  However, he stated that the correlation is not perfect.  He said that this proves the truth of the Platonic thesis that courage has personality to it.


              The professor then turned to his own life.  He stated that usually he does not like taking big risks.  He likes to go rock climbing but does it very safely and takes all possible precautions.  He always tries to minimize risk in his life as much as possible – for example he always buys insurance to cover him in the case of accident.  Though generally he is not interested in risking his death against bullet wounds, he thinks that for a greater good he would be able to expose himself to risks that he would not take under normal circumstances.  Thus for Hutchinson courage is – taking a risk that one would not normally take for the sake of a greater good.  Therefore knowing what is good is very important for courage and not surprisingly, true courage is possessed only by people with a particularly developed sense of the good.