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Laches

Plato

Part Eight (197c–201c)

Part Seven (194b–197c)

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Following the disagreement and conflict between Laches and Nicias, Socrates attempts to refocus the search for the meaning of courage one last time. He says that they initially spoke of courage as related to virtue. Socrates goes on to say that they considered that courage was just a part of virtue. Other separate parts of virtue exist, such as justice and temperance, making up the whole of virtue. Having established this concept of virtue, Socrates turns back to Nicias's definition of courage as knowledge of grounds for hope and fear. Socrates states that the terrible and the hopeful are things that do or do not create fear. Furthermore, this hope or fear is not of the present or of the past, but is always of future evil or expected goodness.

Then, Socrates attacks Nicias's definition of courage as being an incomplete one. Socrates claims that for any science of knowledge, there is not one science of the past, nor one of the present, nor of the future. He believes that just as there is one knowledge or science of medicine which is concerned with health at all times, past, present, and future, and just as there is one science of husbandry which is concerned with the production of the earth at all times, courage should not be limited merely to the fearful and the hopeful alone, for they are only concerned with the future. Socrates says that Nicias is only talking about one part of courage, not courage as a whole.

At this point, Nicias agrees that he will extend his definition of courage to include not just knowledge of future good and evil—the hopeful and fearful—but also to include knowledge of all good and evil without reference to time. However, at this point Socrates notes that if a man knew all good and evil, how they are, have been and will be produced, then this man would be perfect and wanting in no virtue, whether justice, temperance, or holiness. Socrates argues that according to Nicias's revised definition, courage would not be a part of virtue, but would be all of virtue, which we know it is not. Therefore Nicias's new definition is proven incorrect or at least inadequate.

Following this final failure, Laches and Nicias continue to criticize each other before both claiming complete ignorance concerning the nature of courage. However, even though none of the men succeeded in explaining the nature of courage, both Laches and Nicias recommend that Socrates be the man chosen to instruct the children of Lysimachus and Melesias. Socrates of course denies that he knows anything more about courage than the other two men and humorously suggests that all of them go to school with the boys so as to finally learn the true nature of courage.

Analysis

This final section of the Laches contains the most complicated elenchus in the dialogue. Socrates ties together several of the different premises throughout the dialogue to prove that Nicias's conception of courage is flawed. First, Socrates recalls the seemingly insignificant premise that courage is a part of virtue. Then, Socrates forces Nicias to admit that his definition of courage must account for knowledge of the past and present as well as future good and evil. Once Socrates manages to convince Nicias to say this much he simply points out to him that such a man would have all of the virtues, which, of course, is impossible since courage is only one out of several virtues.

More important than any particular argument or elenchus within the dialogue is the ultimate conclusion. Not one of the men succeeds in adequately explaining the nature of courage, a quality that all of them, as warriors, thought they knew so well. Socrates sarcastically states at the conclusion of the dialogue that the men should all go seek further schooling despite the fact that he believes that there is nothing out there to learn. Many of the dialogues, especially the early ones, end in the same state of uncertainty about a thing, which beforehand everybody assumed that they understood. Known in Greek as "aporia," this uncertain state signifies for Socrates the impossibility of positive knowledge.

However, one might interpret the men's failure to come to an understanding as signifying more than merely the impossibility of knowledge. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that courage is not the kind of thing that can be taken by itself and defined in isolation. One might learn from the Laches dialogue that "courage" is a property that a person can have rather than an existing independent entity. It is difficult to imagine what use a word like courage could have if there existed no courageous people to which it applied. And even if we cannot give a satisfactory definition of courage we might just say that it is the kind of thing known when you experience it, much like the property of beauty or ugliness. In line 190b Socrates wonders, "must we not first know the nature of virtue" before it may be taught to children. Perhaps what Socrates and his friends have discovered about virtue in the Laches is that it is not something a person can know in the way one knows an idea or a belief. It seems that in this dialogue as in many others, Socrates has not discerned a way that virtue should be imparted to children but rather a way that it should not.

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