The setting of Laches: Athens at the tipping point
Laches is a play written in Athens after its great defeat, after its few
months fall into bloody tyranny, after its public humiliation and
execution of Socrates, the great asker of hard questions. The author is
a friend and admirer of Socrates and a bitter critic of the policies that
drove Athens’ wild growth in the middle of the 400’s BCE and that
prepared the way for a 25 year war and a crushing defeat.
Imagine that Hitler won World War II and that the United States
hanged George Marshall in revenge. Imagine the plays that would be
written, reflecting back on what went wrong.
The dialogues enter the history of Athens before the defeat, during the
life of Socrates, at various points, sometimes early, sometimes late.
This dialogue enters that history at 423 BCE, someplace close to the
tipping point, the point at which the ascent of Athens reaches its peak
and the city-state begins to decline. Here are some important
dimensions of this “tip:”
1. The occasion on which all of these people are gathered: two
grown sons of very famous fathers have come to realize that
they are quite mediocre, and they are seeking advice about how
to make their sons better than they are. (Think of the
comparable move in our own time: the book, The Greatest
Generation, about the folks who lived through World War II. The
title implies that present people can’t live up to the example set
by our grandparents. That’s what these Athenian parents are
afraid of also, in a comparable situation: our World War II is
similar to their battle with the Persians early in the 400s BCE.)
The sense is that Athens has risen to greatness but that people
are having real doubts about whether the next generation can
continue the progress or even hold what has been achieved.
2. The two experts called in to advise the clueless parents are
generals at or near the height of their fame. They have had
military and political success; a peace treaty will soon be
negotiated, temporarily ending hostilities with Sparta and its
allies. The person reading this play, after the fall of Athens,
knows that these generals go on to make decisions that
contribute to major Athenian defeats: Laches at Mantinea, Nicias
at Syracuse. Their misjudgments are part of a pattern of bad
decisions that squander Athenian advantages and lose them the
war. One might, in that connection, think of this play as a
meditation on what went wrong and on what might have made a
difference, in the way Athenian history turned out. In this
dialogue, Socrates offers two general who made huge mistakes
an opportunity – way before the crisis – to think about a
fundamental question of human life and of military strategy:
“What is the nature of courage, of excellence in difficult
situations?” It is fascinating to think about whether their limited
views in this conversation correspond to the mistakes they made
in their military campaigns. Had they pursued the questions that
Socrates raises for them, could they have avoided disaster and
3. In this dialogue, Socrates is a respected soldier and intellectual,
someone whose counsel is valued. He is in teaching competition
with technical teachers, teachers who are concerned to show
people how to do things, rather than helping them to ask
questions about what they should do. Some such teachers
appear in this dialogue. At the historical date of this dialogue, it
is still possible that Socrates’ deep probing of Athenian motives
and fundamental assumptions might have an important effect on
public policy. The great men of Athens listen to him and respect
him. The reader, looking backwards, knows that Socrates’
approach did not prevail, that many people ultimately pursued
technical competence (competence in public speaking, in fighting
in armor, in poetic discourse) without asking very deeply the
hard questions: “What is all this good for?” “What purpose does
my accomplishment properly serve?” Socrates implied
suggestion for bringing the youth of Athens up to the standard
of their grandfathers – “Teach them to question everybody’s
lives” -- was not widely accepted.
Some Approaches to the Laches
1. Laches illustrates Socrates’ method of ethical investigation, a
starting point for thinking ethically. This method is called
elenchus, a particular kind of question and answer. We see the
method employed in conversation in the dialogue; it can just as
well be employed in solitary thought, in writing or in thinking.
This is one of several starting points, methods that we will
consider in this course, in order to accomplish our goal of
learning new ways to think about our lives. The Laches contains
a usable model.
2. Laches gives us important information about Socrates’ project in
Athens – at least as Plato understood that project. Like
Confucius, he seems to have some concern to save the public
life around him, though his method is far different.
An outline of the dialogue
One way to begin reading dialogues is to follow them with an
outline at one’s elbow, presenting a bare-bones treatment of the
basic moves in the argument. This approach will flatten out the
dramatic complexity of the work, but it will help to give an
Laches: an outline of the arguments
Note: This dialogue progresses as Laches and Nicias take account of
the problems with each of their definitions of courage, attempting to
patch the hole revealed by criticism in the next, revised definition
Definition: courage is holding one’s ground, not running away.
1. The strategy for cavalry fighting and for some styles of hoplite
(foot soldier) fighting makes use of strategic retreat.
2. Those who retreat strategically are not less courageous than
those who hold their ground.
Thus, (3) courage cannot be just “holding one’s ground.”
1. One can be courageous in one’s dealings with desire or pain – in
many contexts in which there is no obvious ground to hold, no
obvious counterpart to “running away.”
Thus, (2) courage cannot be holding one’s ground, not running
Definition: courage is “a sort of endurance of the soul.”
I think this is intended as an improvement on the earlier definition just
in that the soul of the person who retreats strategically is not cowed
by the enemy, though he or she acts in a way that a frightened person
would act. He or she hold the “inner” ground while giving up the outer
ground. Also, the person who endures pain or poverty with dignity is
doing something like the soldier does when the soldier will not
surrender a piece of ground, but again in an inward, invisible way.
1. Courage is a fine thing.
2. Endurance is sometimes a fine thing: (3) endurance combined with
wisdom is a fine thing; (4) endurance combined with folly is not a
Thus, (5) courage is not the same as endurance.
Definition: courage is “a sort of wise endurance”
Critical argument 1:
1. A person could endure wisely in spending money or in refusing a
patient’s requests for things that are not good for him.
2. Wise endurance in spending or in medicine is not courage.
Thus, (3) courage is not a sort of wise endurance.
Critical argument 2:
1. A person who knows that his position on the battlefield is soon to
be reinforced endures more wisely than one who fights without
2. A person who knows that his position on the battlefield is soon to
be reinforced endures less courageously than one who fights
without such knowledge.
Thus, (3) courage is not a sort of wise endurance.
Variant of critical argument 2:
1. A person who endures in a cavalry attack and has knowledge of
horsemanship endures more wisely than one who endures without
2. A person who endures in a cavalry attack and has knowledge of
horsemanship endures less courageously than one who endures
without such knowledge.
Thus, (3) courage is not a sort of wise endurance.
Thus, possibly, (4) courage is endurance combined with folly (just the
opposite of what we said earlier).
Note: At this point, Laches gives up as the primary participant in the
discussion, acknowledging that this argument has thrown him into
confusion. He knows that courage isn’t “foolish endurance,” but that
seems to be what the argument has come up with, and he cannot see
how to get out of that conclusion. Nicias makes a fresh start by
proposing a new definition.
Definition (Nicias’ fresh start): courage is “knowledge of the
fearful and the hopeful in war and in every other situation.”
Note: I think the way that this is supposed to be progress over the
last definition is just that the criticisms of the last definition suggested
that some kinds of knowledge (for example, knowledge that
reinforcements will soon arrive), added to endurance, would make the
endurance less courageous than the absence of those kinds of
knowledge. So, this move is to try to define some particular kind of
knowledge that, combined with endurance, equals courage reliably
Objection 1: “That would make doctors and craftspeople the most
courageous of men, in their areas of expertise.” Answer: “Doctors and
craftspeople know what will happen in various circumstances, but not
necessarily whether what will happen is hopeful or fearful. They know
how likely someone is to die but not whether that person’s death is
good or bad.”
Objection 2: “That would make seers (people who magically foretell
the future) courageous.” Answer: “Seers foresee what will happen,
sometimes, but they do not see whether what will happen is hopeful or
Objection 3: “On that definition, it is impossible that animals should
be courageous. But animals behave in courageous ways.” Answer:
“Animals are not courageous. They have something that looks like
courage, rashness, but rashness is not courage.”
Socrates’ Argument: from the definition of courage as
“knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful in war and in every
other situation” to the unity of the virtues.
1. To know what is fearful and hopeful is to be able to distinguish evils
from non-evils or goods in the future.
2. If one is able to distinguish evils from non-evils or goods in the
future, then one is able to distinguish them in the past and present
So, (3) courage is the knowledge of, the ability to distinguish between,
goods and evils.
But, (4) the person who knows goods and evils of all sorts has all the
So, (5) the courageous person is also virtuous in every other way.
Note: This is presented in the dialogue as creating a problem for
Nicias, who proposes it, just because Nicias has initially asserted – and
is not quite ready to let go of – the claim that courage is a part of
virtue and not the whole of virtue. Thus, at the end of the dialogue,
both Laches and Nicias have been defeated by the argument. This
leads to the recommendation that Socrates, rather than they, be
brought on as advisors in raising the young sons of the hosts. Socrates
sensibly points out that he hasn’t discovered anything; he has merely
pointed out the deficiencies of the accounts given by others.
Try to familiarize yourself with this progress, so that you can retrace it
in your mind.
Two ways of entering the field of questions addressed by the
When reading a Platonic dialogue, it is useful to think along with it
both by following the text and also by tracing out similar lines of
thought in discussions that are happening today.
1. One public discussion seems to me of particular interest. Just after
9/11, Bill Maher of The Daily Show made a comment about the
terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. Here’s an account of
what he said, from a website that hosts a threaded discussion about
Dinesh D'Souza, a panelist on Monday's show, quibbled with a
reference made by President George W. Bush that the suicide
bombers were cowards, noting that they gave up their lives for
whatever may be their cause.
"These are warriors," D'Souza said, "and we have to realize that
the principles of our way of life are in conflict with people in the
"We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000
miles away," said Bill Maher, the host of Politically Incorrect.
"That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building,
say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
There is a long thread discussing this at:
Look at this forum, and think about the different definitions
of courage at work here.
2. Review in your mind the stories about courage that you have heard
or the instances of courage that you have experienced. Do all of those
stories fit under the definitions given in the Laches? Which stories fit
best? Which stories seem to be outside of these definitions?
Bibliographic Note: I have been helped in thinking about the
historical context of the Laches by Walter Schmid’s On Manly Courage:
A Study of Plato’s Laches (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1992) and by Paul Woodruff’s article online in
the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia is
a good place to begin one’s investigations of this work; a search on
“Laches” will turn up several articles of interest.