BOOK REVIEW: Laches by Plato

LachesLaches by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

This early Socratic dialogue asks, “what is courage?” Two older gentlemen, Lysimachus and Melesias, regret that they never had their mettle tested. The seniors ask two younger men who’ve served in battle, Nicias and Laches, whether the elder men should have their sons learn the art of fighting in armor to build courage in the young men. Nicias and Laches suggest that Socrates, who showed great valor in battle, should be asked the question.

Lysimachus believes this to be a good idea because then they have a tie-breaker if the two disagree. However, Socrates leads Lysimachus to understand the folly of this approach. What if the dissenter is the only one who truly knows what courage is and how it can be pursued? Socrates admits he has no great expertise in the matter, but is willing to help determine whether Nicias or Laches is more qualified to answer the question.

Laches goes first and defines courageousness as standing one’s ground in battle. However, under Socrates’ interrogation, Laches has to admit that a man who stays in place foolishly can’t be thought more courageous than one who fights in strategic retreat.

Nicias presents a definition that is more nuanced. Nicias says that courage is knowledge of what is fearful and what is hopeful. One might expect this to please Socrates because the philosopher famously believed that ethical behavior sprang from knowing – i.e. if a man knew what was right, he would act virtuously. However, as Socrates questions Nicias a couple issues become apparent. First, Nicias admits that the courageous person must know what is fearful and hopeful in the future as well as present (and who knows that?) Second, Nicias can’t really differentiate courage from virtue as a whole.

This brief dialogue is short, focused, and well worth reading.

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