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Topic #C29

Plato, Laches


14 November 2001

Scribes: Craig Killen and Adam Mazurick


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



Professor Hutchinson began Wednesday’s lecture by discussing Plato’s dialogue Laches.  The subject of this dialogue, as the Professor pointed out was andreia or manliness.  The Professor referred to the text, and it’s definition of manliness as a personal quality of wide scope, covering all the sorts of unwavering active leadership.  Also, connecting to this issue of manliness, is Xenophon’s text, citing 3.9 as a reference.  The Professor stated that in this text the topic is courage, and how courage itself stands as one of the three cardinal virtues.  The first question that Xenophon concerns himself with is whether courage is learned.  Xenophon believed that courage was not innate, he thought that talent, teaching and practice all contributed to developing courage.


Moving along to another thinker, the Professor mentioned Meno (another work by Plato).  Plato claims that virtue is developed through talent, technique and practice.  Socrates was criticised heavily by Aristotle because Socrates implied that courage was teachable somehow, whereas Aristotle had a very different view from that of Socrates and Plato, he believed that courage was innate.  Aristotle also claims that courage is the strongest and most important of the virtues.  This is also a view shared by Protagoras, who believed that courage stands out from any other virtue.  In Plato’s Alcibides, Alcibides admits to shame at the thought of cowardice, citing courage as something he values higher than any other virtue.


Courage is a reoccurring theme in Plato’s work.  At the beginning of The Republic, Socrates is confronted, then kidnapped by a group of people who wish to have Socrates attend their party.  Professor Hutchinson mentioned that it is valuable to “know which battles are worth fighting” and Socrates exemplifies this by not putting up a fight.


Before discussing the text itself, Professor Hutchinson compared Laches to The Republic.  He stated that Laches is unlike The Republic in scale.  Laches is much more condensed, while still containing a lot of information and philosophical thinking. 


The Laches dialogue is about masculinity.  Interestingly, the Professor mentioned that the females in the class tended to avoid this dialogue when doing position papers, perhaps because they did not seem interested in a topic that in no way included a female perspective.  The Professor also noted that masculinity is an ideal by which men tend to identify themselves.


The dialogue starts out with a speech by Lysimachus, a diplomatic speaker to a council of men.  Professor Hutchinson stated that this was a standard opening in discussions at that time, a formal speech in which speakers are asked to speak to men who are in a position to transmit virtue to their sons.  It was believed in that time that it was important for grandfathers to share their knowledge with fathers, and fathers to their sons.


The council are discussing what would be the best way to teach the virtue of courage to young boys.  The council discusses the possibility of teaching them martial arts in order to increase their masculinity.  Professor Hutchinson pointed out that this is a method practised worldwide, young boys are encouraged to learn martial arts or boxing in order to increase their masculinity.


At this point in the lecture a student asked how grandfathers got their status as warriors, as they are referred to as such in the text.  The professor, in answering this question stated that their status was primarily a political one.


The Professor then went on to talk about Nicias and Laches, two of the free citizens among those who are part of the council.  The Professor mentioned that both were generals, though only Laches had the respect of the soldiers beneath him.  This was because Laches was a virile, instinctual, non-intellectual leader, whereas Nicias was the opposite, an intellectual leader or “hairy fairy” leader as the Professor jokingly put it.  Professor Hutchinson pointed out that the two could be seen as representations of two different types of courage; on the one hand we have emotional, instinctual courage, and on the other we have intellectual courage, meaning courage that consists of thinking through possible consequences and considering what is worth confronting on a larger scale.


Both Nicias and Laches had respect for Socrates, but for slightly different reasons.  Socrates had a good reputation for he had distinguished himself in battle, something that both had respect for, particularly Laches.  Nicias respected Socrates for this but his respect was more concerned with Socrates intellectual abilities.  Both were willing to listen to Socrates as a result, and as the Professor stated, Socrates was an ideal educator for both.


Socrates intellectual abilities soon turned him into a central figure in this council.  He managed to go from being an outsider to an important figure in this discussion. At 194b Socrates defines courage as a form of wisdom.  Laches definition of courage is having the guts to stand up against what is fearful to you, whereas Nicias’ definition is having the grasp of knowing what is worth fighting for.  Interestingly, Plato believes that courage has both emotional and intellectual elements.


Socrates is able to bring Nicias and Laches into a discussion together at 198b when he discusses what fear is:

Socrates: Because fear is the expectation of a future evil – or isn’t this your opinion too, Laches?

Laches: Very much so, Socrates.

Socrates: You hear what we have to say, Nicias: that fearful things are future evils, and the ones inspiring hope are either future non-evils or future goods.  Do you agree with this or have you some other view on the subject?

Nicias: I agree with this one.


A student then asked if Plato would reject the act of bunjee jumping as a form of courage, even though the student believed that a person who bunjee jumps would also be more likely to show courage in other situations.  The Professor believes that some of what the student was saying is true, there would be a correlation in that respect.  However he would say there will be weaknesses in that as people who wouldn’t take part in activities such as bunjee jumping would still display acts of courage when it was something important.


              The Professor then cited himself as an example.  He reflected back to his rock-climbing days and said he never took big risks by instead he took lots of small risks as opposed to large-scale risks.  Rock-climbing could be considered a big risk but the Professor was quick to point out that he always surrounded himself with the best people he knew in that field so as to feel like he was taking less of a risk.  The Professor said that in equating what was a risk he would ask himself “if I can manage the outcome, then what’s the point in avoiding it?”


In concluding the lecture on Laches, the Professor stated that courage is exposing one’s self to something (that would normally be avoided) willingly for the greater good. So having knowledge of the good is important to all virtues, and that includes courage.  Courage itself has a temporal connection to the future, that is why we talk of “facing risks” that are ahead of us.


The Professor said that there is no way we can know the particular order the dialogues were written in.  One reoccurring theme in many of these Socratic dialogues is the mystery of the immaterial.  There is a general importance in them to having knowledge of the good.