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Laches

Plato

Part Seven (194b–197c)

Part Six (192b–194b)

Part Eight (197c–201c)

Summary

Having exhausted Laches with his elenchus, Socrates invites Nicias to join in the debate with them. Nicias quickly replies that he believes Socrates to have been going about trying to define courage the wrong way. Nicias begins by quoting a phrase that he once heard from the mouth of Socrates, "every man is good in that which he is wise, and bad in that in which he is unwise." Nicias continues that if the courageous man is good, then he is also wise and that therefore all courageous men are wise. Nicias moves from this point to say that courage itself is neither foolish nor wise but is itself a kind of wisdom.

Socrates proceeds to question Nicias about the kind of wisdom he believes courage to be. He first asks if it is the kind of wisdom that "plays the lyre." Nicias responds that it is not, but rather that "courage is the knowledge of that which inspires fear or confidence in war or in anything." Laches, however, objects to Nicias, claiming that certainly there is a difference between courage and wisdom. Laches, in an effort to disprove the point made by Nicias examines several analogies. Laches states that physicians study the dangers of disease and husbandmen study the dangers of husbandry. However, just because such people have knowledge of that which inspires them with confidence or fear in their own arts, they are not more courageous for this fact alone.

Nicias responds to Laches that he is confused in thinking that the physician's knowledge of illness extends beyond the nature of health and disease. He claims that Laches is falsely assuming that a physician has knowledge of whether health or illness is more terrible to a person or whether life is always better than death. The only person who has knowledge of such things according to Nicias is the man who is skilled in the grounds of fear and hope, and that man, Nicias says, is courageous.

At this point, Laches retorts that Nicias is equating the courageous man with the soothsayer. Laches argues that it is a soothsayer who best knows the grounds of hope and fear since soothsayers must know best in a given situation whether it is better to live or to die. In response to this, Nicias claims that soothsayers are not courageous for they do not know the grounds of fear and hope. Soothsayers, according to Nicias "ought only to know the signs of things that are about to come to pass." That is to say, soothsayers may only predict if something is going to pass. Nicias claims that only the courageous, who know the grounds of fear and hope would be qualified to say whether it is better to suffer or not to suffer once the situation is at hand.

Laches aptly criticizes Nicias for being as confusing as possible. Socrates then steps in to resolve the debate between the two men. Socrates restates Nicias's argument that since courage is the knowledge of the grounds of hope and fear, neither the soothsayer nor the physician possesses such a skill. Furthermore, if neither a physician nor a soothsayer is capable of having such knowledge, Socrates argues, then there is also no wild animal wise enough to have such knowledge. Socrates goes on to say that according to Nicias's doctrine of courage, he cannot admit that any wild beast, whether a lion, leopard, or boar, is courageous. Socrates claims that upon this view one cannot say that a lion or bull is any more courageous than a stag or a monkey.

Nicias, however, embraces this criticism of Socrates, claiming that he would not wish to describe any animal as courageous. Nicias proceeds to draw a distinction between what he calls "fearlessness" and courage. Nicias states that animals have no fear of danger because they lack understanding. To him, they are only "fearless and senseless." Nicias says no sooner would he call an animal courageous than he would call courageous an unknowing child stumbling into battle. Nicias believes that the thoughtful quality of courage is possessed by the few thinking men who have the wisdom and knowledge of the grounds of fear and hope. For this exclusivity, Laches accuses Nicias of dressing himself up in words "while seeking to deprive of the honor of courage those whom all the world acknowledges to be courageous."

Analysis

In this late passage, Nicias attempts to circumvent Laches's problem concerning whether courage is wise or foolish by simply defining courage as a part of wisdom. Nicias accomplishes this simply enough by claiming that every good man is wise and every courageous man is good. Thus, by the transitive property, every courageous man is also wise. Nicias doesn't leave his definition as simple as "wisdoom = courage," but he defines the type of wisdom represented by courage as "the knowledge of that which inspires fear or confidence in war or in anything."

Laches's objection at this point, that wisdom and courage are two separate things shows that he does not understand the point that Nicias is attempting to draw here. Nicias wished to define courage as a type of special knowledge or wisdom, not in order to equate it with all knowledge or wisdom. Such misunderstandings are scattered throughout all of Plato's dialogues. The simplest example of such a misunderstanding might be to imagine a math teacher trying to define and describe a square to his class. The teacher might say logically enough that a square is a rectangle. This teacher would most likely be shocked if one of his students screamed out that the teacher was a fool and that a square and a rectangle are clearly different things since a square always has all equal sides and a rectangle doesn't have such a requirement. While this is true, it is also true that a square is a kind of rectangle and describing it as such is perfectly reasonable.

Nicias's counter-argument, that physicians study medicine but not the courageous aspects of medicine seems reasonable enough, but he never defines exactly what the "grounds of hope and fear" are. Readers should not be discouraged if they do not follow the exact strands of Nicias's argument for his very vagueness and inconsistency is a key part of the dialogue. In order for Nicias to defend himself from Laches's apt criticism that within his definition of courage soothsayers are the wisest, Nicias is forced to make miniscule distinctions between words. He claims that soothsayers do not know the grounds of hope and fear but that they only know the signs of what is to become either hopeful or fearful. It is at this time that Laches accuses Nicias of shuffling about among words so as to avoid the inconsistency that he and Socrates reached concerning foolish and wise endurance.

Socrates's argument concerning the courage of animals and Nicias's response are both quite logical and seemingly correct in their form. Socrates's wish that a definition of courage be able to discriminate between a ferocious animal and a tame one seems correct. On the surface it does appear that a lion is more courageous than a squirrel without being wiser. One might also wish to say that a bear is more courageous around cubs yet is no more wise. However, Nicias's distinction between unthinking fearlessness and thoughtful courage also seems appropriate. One might take the example to an extreme by imagining a robot who had no fear but who would certainly not be called courageous.

In his remarks, Laches makes a criticism that foreshadows a great deal of the philosophy of the twentieth century. Laches accuses Nicias of "seeking to deprive of the honor of courage those whom all the world acknowledges to be courageous." One of the largest movements of philosophy in the twentieth- century was the return to what was deemed "ordinary-language philosophy." This movement sought to abolish the over-philosophizing of everyday words and returning to the way in which the words were actually used by everyday people. In this section, it seems as though Nicias has abstracted the term courage so far from its original meaning, that people or things that we would normally describe as courageous no longer fit with his definition. An ordinary-language philosopher would look at "those whom all the world acknowledges to be courageous" and would construct a definition around the way the word courage is ordinarily used, rather than using abstract concepts to try to understand a word.

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