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Laches

Plato

Part Six (192b–194b)

Part Five (189d–192b)

Part Seven (194b–197c)

Summary

Laches attempts to provide Socrates with his complete definition of courage by stating that all cases of courage are "a sort of endurance of the soul." Socrates, however, responds that not every kind of endurance seems to be courage. To further his point, Socrates asks Laches if he would consider courage to be a noble quality, to which Laches replies that he would. Socrates then asks Laches if he would consider a wise endurance to be good and noble, to which Laches replies that he would. Socrates then asks Laches what he would say of a foolish endurance and whether that would not be regarded as evil and hurtful. Laches agrees with Socrates that such endurance would be evil and hurtful.

With this distinction in mind, Laches revises his definition of courage to include only the wise endurance of the soul and not the foolish endurance. In response, however, Socrates questions the notion of wise. He asks Laches whether it would be an example of courage if a man were to show endurance by spending his money wisely, knowing that by spending, he will acquire more in the end. Socrates similarly asks if it would be considered a case of courage if a person in battle calculated that the forces of his own army had outnumbered the other forces and that therefore he would have little chance of getting injured. Socrates continues to ask who would seem to be the more courageous one, the soldier who wisely calculates his superior position and then endures, or the soldier who enters the battle foolishly and then endures against all odds. To this question, Laches naturally answers that the soldier who enters battle foolishly is the more courageous of the two.

Having established that in this case a foolish endurance is more courageous than a wise endurance, Socrates goes on to further contradict Laches's theory—that courage is a wise endurance of the soul—by citing other examples in which a foolish endurance seems more courageous than a wise endurance. Socrates remarks how a soldier who fights on horses having no knowledge of them seems more courageous than the trained cavalryman who fights with wisdom of horses. A person who attempts to use a sling or a bow in battle having no knowledge of the craft seems more courageous than a person who uses such weapons with knowledge of them. A person who descends a well in diving and cannot swim is obviously more courageous than a person who descends a well and can swim.

Thus, Socrates fully contradicts Laches's theory that courage is only a wise endurance of the soul. Having done so, however, Socrates continues to explore the paradoxes of this result. Socrates states that before he and Laches had assumed that foolish endurance was base and hurtful to them. Since courage was considered to be a noble quality, they assumed that it could not be base and hurtful and therefore not foolish. But now Socrates states, "on the contrary we are saying that the foolish endurance, which was before held in dishonor, is courage." At this point, Socrates notes that their words and their deeds are most severely out of tune with one another in the way that Laches fears. To try to focus their discussion, Socrates suggests that they practice what they are speaking of. Namely, he wishes that he and Laches would themselves practice courage and endurance in their search for the meaning of those words. Despite Socrates's optimism, however, Laches is in despair at not being able to express the meaning of courage especially since, as a great warrior, he has experienced so much of it.

Analysis

This section begins and ends with Laches's failed attempts to define the meaning of courage in a most universal and abstract way. Socrates's basic methodology in the section is to make Laches state what seems to be an obvious fact about courage, only to show how it fails to cover every case of what might be considered courage. Socrates then forces Laches to make a statement about courage that covers the new situation, but more often then not this new statement about courage is contradictory with the old one.

Socrates first asks if Laches considers courage to be a noble quality and Laches replies positively. Since courage is a part of virtue, which is always noble, it is fundamental to the definition of courage that it also be a noble quality. Having established that courage is noble, Socrates asks Laches if even a foolish endurance, which is evil and hurtful, is also courageous. It has been stated that courage is a noble quality. It has also been stated that foolish endurance is evil and hurtful. Since nothing that is evil and hurtful can be noble, then nothing that is evil and foolish can exemplify courage. And since nothing that is evil and hurtful can be courage, then foolish endurance cannot be courage. Thus, Socrates with pointed questions whittles down the definition of courage to a mere wise endurance.

Next Socrates proceeds to show that Laches's definition is not only inadequate, but how in many cases courageous action is the exact opposite of a wise endurance. He takes the cases of the cavalryman, the diver, and the fighter with bow or sling and in each case shows that the person who endures without wisdom is more courageous than the person who endures with wisdom. Thus, Socrates has drawn out of Laches two separate premises that unfortunately contradict one another. The first premise is that a person is courageous if he or she endures with wisdom. The second is that a person who endures foolishly is more courageous than a person who endures with wisdom. Socrates points out this contradiction in Laches's search for a definition of courage and concludes that the two of them are not speaking in tune.

By stating that he and Laches are not speaking in tune, Socrates does not mean merely to discourage Laches or emphasize his lack of knowledge (although he does that too). Socrates considers speaking out of tune to mean that one's words do not line up with his deeds. It is a strange fact, not to be lost upon readers, that even a great courageous general seems to be unable to put into words what he believes courage to be. One may interpret this failure in either of two ways. It may seem that Socrates wishes to impress upon Laches that it is impossible to have any sort of knowledge of courage at all since according to Socrates the only genuine piece of knowledge a person can have is that he knows nothing. However, it seems that there must be a difference between an extremely courageous person such as Laches and an ordinary coward. Since there seems to be no one who knows enough about courage to speak of it, perhaps one ought to consider Laches's continuously courageous behavior as a kind of knowledge. One might conclude that knowledge of a virtue such as courage is not known in the way a normal art form is or in the way that instructors in the art of fighting with armor pretend to know what it is. Rather than being the kind of thing that is known consciously and spoken in words, courage may be considered to be the kind of thing only embodied. A person who could speak for hours about the subject of courage, but who behaved cowardly in battle, seems to have little real knowledge of what most people consider "courage." This focus on embodiment rather than on spoken knowledge is re-emphasized again by Socrates when he asks Laches to try to embody the very courage and endurance he seeks in his investigation.

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