Laches

Summary

Part Seven (194b–197c)

Summary Part Seven (194b–197c)

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.