Plato Project #9: Laches

[Up Next: Lysis]

The subject of “Laches” is courage – it begins with two military men – Lysimachus and Melesias – fretting over what to teach their sons.  They both confess to having failed to learn what courage is for themselves, and for their sons, they want better.  Their sons, we learn, are both named after their grandfathers, Aristides and Thucydides.

I don’t know if this Thucydides has anything to do with Thucydides the historian (he was also a general in the Peloponnesian War besides having authored a book about it).  Aristides is the name of a well-reputed Athenian statesman – “Aristides the Great.”  Assuming both of these names are in fact allusions (even if the characters aren’t supposed to be grandchildren of those actual figures) to their famous namesakes (a big assumption, one I’ve put zero research into, but even so), then somehow this dialogue begins on a note of nostalgia.  Lysimachus and Melesias are bemoaning their own generation’s laziness and wishing that their sons can return to the virtue and manliness of the earlier one (4th century Greek equivalent of “the greatest generation”?).  That earlier one, assuming Plato wrote this dialogue in the first part of the 4th century BCE, was the generation that fought the Peloponnesian wars.  My guess about what I’ve just said is that it’s either obvious common sense or completely wrong-headed.

Anyhow, the dialogue’s argument really begins when Laches and Nicias quarrel over what this younger Aristides and Thucydides need to learn.  Nicias (his name also is the same as a generals from the Peloponnesian war, the Athenian general who helped a [failed] peace treaty get written midway through the war, and also pleaded with the assembly against the disastrous Sicilian expedition) gives an answer that seems to favor skills required for land warfare.  Laches’ answer favors sea-battle.  Laches, also I think, is the name of someone who fought on the Spartan side in the wars, but I don’t quite remember.

Socrates is asked to break the tie, and cast a vote either for Laches or Nicias. PRedictably, Socrates refuses to do so, showing everyone  they’re missing the point, trying to put their trust in a simple majority vote rather than in seeking real understanding of the underlying issues.  As Socrates takes over the questioning, still Laches and Nicias two keep quibbling and making random personal attacks throughout the dialogue, and I found this repartee amusing, and Socrates basically allows it to go on, even though is does distract from the thread of his argument.

The main argument Laches presents is that courage has something to do with endurance.  Socrates finds the problem here is that endurance has a lot of non-courage-related contexts, and vice-versa.  The main argument Nicias makes is that courage has something to do with judging when one should fear and when one should hope (i.e., know when to hold ’em, no when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run).  Socrates main problem with this argument is that since it has to do with knowledge/wisdom, one would need to answer the whole of that question prior to being able to possess courage.

This seems to be developing into something of a theme in these early dialogues: Socrates shows his interlocutors that something they think of as a specialized form of knowledge is actually dependent on answers to non-specialized types of questions – on other words one can’t avoid philosophical speculation, even if they’re really good at their job.  At least that’s how Socrates feels about it.

The dialogue ends on an amiable note, as all the interlocutors agree to meet at a later time and discuss the matter further.  I don’t know if that conversation is included in another dialogue or not.

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