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Lund argues that Socrates pits the generals Laches and Nicias against each other in the hopes of getting Lysimachus and Melesias to allow him access to their sons. The dialogue thus offers a good occasion to reflect on Socrates’ motives, especially since his treatment of Laches and Nicias suggests that he is unmoved by civic obligation. Lund finds clues in the dialogue that indicate that Socrates’ interest in the young is to secure useful interlocutors for his continued inquiry into moral and divine phenomena.
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I would like to thank Paul Diduch and Michael Harding for their encouragement and invitation, and for helping me see how integral the question of motivation is to the Platonic corpus. Also, I would like to thank David Clinton, Shane Gassaway, Mary Nichols, and Anne-Marie Schultz for a number of helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter. Most of the arguments here were developed in conversation with Elizabeth Lund to whom I am especially grateful. I would like to offer special thanks to Tim Burns for reading a number of drafts and saving me from many errors with his astute comments and suggestions. Despite the help of all of these brilliant people, errors in understanding remain.
Plato, Laches 180c. All subsequent references to the Laches will be in text citations by Stephanus pages to the translation by Nichols found in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, edited by Thomas Pangle (Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), 269–280. Occasional emendations to the translation will be made according to the Greek edition of Chris J. Emlyn-Jones, Plato: Laches (London: Bristol Classical, 1996).
Thucydides, War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians 1.1.1.
As Seth Benardete, “Plato’s Laches: A Question of Definition,” in The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy, ed. Ronna Burger and Michael Davis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) points out, “The Laches … represents an occasion on which the philosopher might have had an effect on the politics and life of his own city” (264).
Plato, Apology of Socrates 21b–c.
Plato, Apology of Socrates 21e.
See Linda R. Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006), 29. Additionally, if we compare the conversation in the Laches with the discussion found at the end of the Meno between Socrates and Anytus (89e–95a, 99d–100a), we discover that it may be that Socrates is capable of choosing during a conversation whether his interlocutor becomes angry or not. That suggests in turn that Socrates could choose when his trial took place.
See Aristide Tessitore, “Courage and Comedy in Plato’s Laches,” in The Journal of Politics 56.01 (1994), as a whole for a detailed account of the comic dimensions of the dialogue, including some intriguing similarities between the Laches and Aristophanes’ Clouds.
For an excellent analysis of this passage see Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, 30–32.
Chris Emlyn-Jones, “Dramatic Structure and Cultural Context in Plato’s Laches,” The Classical Quarterly 49.01 (1999), claims that Lysimachus resembles Cephalus from Plato’s Republic. There is something to this, as both Cephalus and Lysimachus demand that Socrates come to them more often, and it is not altogether clear that grounds exist that justify their demands. However, while Cephalus does want Socrates to spend time with the young men, Cephalus is also interested in his own pleasure as much or more. Further, Cephalus is a metic, and was therefore no demesman of Socrates. The core difference between Lysimachus and Cephalus is Lysimachus’ more explicitly moral intent, and his knowing Socrates’ father Sophroniscus, even if in a limited way.
See Apology of Socrates 24e; Gorgias 449d; Hippias Major 287a, 291e; Theaetetus 154d; and Phaedrus 230b. On this particular oath, see Kirk R. Sanders, “Swearing by Hera,” Mnemosyne, 68, 121–126 (2015), who argues against contextual readings that suggest the oath has anything to do with unmanliness, but, is rather an oath that was idiosyncratic to Socrates’ deme of Alopeke. Even if Sanders is right about the oath being characteristic of a particular deme, it does not thereby mean that Plato could not also at the same time utilize the word as a double entendre; as we will see later in this chapter, Plato is more than willing to make significant puns on peoples’ names.
On this point and what immediately follows see Christopher Bruell, On the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 52.
See Republic 505d for Socrates’ discussion of how contested humans’ notions of the good are.
See Bruell, Socratic Education, 56; Charles Griswold, “Philosophy, Education, and Courage in Plato’s Laches,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy May and September 14.2–3 (1986), 184; and Stewart Umphrey, “On the Theme of Plato’s Laches,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Fall 6.1 (1976), 9.
Plato, Apology of Socrates 23c.
Plato, Apology 23e.
On this point and what immediately follows, my analysis has profited from Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, 50–53.
Richard Foley, “The Better Part of Valor: The Role of Wisdom in Plato’s ‘Laches,’” History of Philosophy Quarterly 26.3 (2009), 219 claims that Socrates “forces” Laches to accept a definition of courage that is not his own in order to push Laches to eventually adopt a more “Socratic courage.” However, given Laches’ vehemence in his assessment of the nobility of courage, it seems safe to say that Socrates is not forcing a foreign definition onto Laches, but rather making more explicit what Laches’ assumptions are about what courage is. Darrell Dobbs, “For Lack of Wisdom: Courage and Inquiry in Plato’s ‘Laches,’” The Journal of Politics 48.04 (1986), 837 rightly notes that Laches seems to be offering his genuine opinion throughout the examination.
See Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, 48, who also places the tension between the noble and the good at the heart of her analysis.
Plato, Apology 21d; consider also that when Socrates describes his own way of life, he calls it the greatest good, but does not call it noble. See David Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense of Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 180.
Plato’s Symposium, trans. Seth Benardete (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Tessitore, “Courage and Comedy,” 126–128, also draws on the same passage from the Symposium as a resource to help explain the difference between moral virtue and Socrates’ own psychic self-possession. He emphasizes that Laches has received his opinions from the city and that he is ultimately too soft to rid himself of the certainty these opinions give him; his view is not incompatible with our presentation of Laches’ confusions over the noble and the good.
I borrow this formulation from Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, 50.
Bruell, Socratic Education, 57.
Gerasimos Santas, “Socrates at Work on Virtue in Plato’s Laches,” in The Philosophy of Socrates: a Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Gregory Vlastos (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1971), 184, and Foley, “Better Part of Valor,” 213, claim that Laches, as well as the rest of the characters in the dialogue, admit to not having knowledge of the nature of courage. This seems to mischaracterize the surface of the text when Laches says, “I am truly irritated, if I am unable to say what I thus perceive in my mind” (194b). Laches thinks he has hit a stumbling block in speech, but believes he has the answer. Thus, by suggesting that Laches does admit to not knowing what courage is, Foley misses the crucial point that Laches (and likely most of us, even when we are refuted in our deepest held beliefs) persists in holding on to his beliefs. Our inability to admit that we lack answers to essential questions is a problem Plato persistently shows us in his dialogues, and this inability is one that will keep us from any kind of genuine mental liberation.
See Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, 68; see also Leo Strauss, “A Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero,” in What is Political Philosophy? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 112, who while not talking about the Laches in particular, does detail how the unwise unsuccessfully receive the knowledge of the wise: “The diffusion among the unwise of genuine knowledge that was acquired by the wise would be of no help, for through its diffusion or dilution, knowledge inevitably transforms itself into opinion, prejudice or mere belief.”
Benardete, “Plato’s Laches,” also notices the pun, but does not point our attention to Socrates intentionally causing the discord between Laches and Nicias (73).
See James Nichols’ translation of the Laches, in Pangle, Roots, 259n30.
See Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage, p. 73.
For instance, Walter T. Schmid, On Manly Courage: A Study of Plato’s Laches (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992), 242.
Thucydides, War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, 7:77.
Thucydides, War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, 7: 42–50; Plutarch, “Life of Nicias” (in Plutarch’s Lives edited by Arthur Hugh Clough, translated by John Dryden, New York: Modern Library, 2001), 638–640.
Benardete, “Plato’s Laches,” 257.
My thinking on this problem is highly indebted to Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954) and “Between Jerusalem and Athens: Preliminary Reflections,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 147–173), Thomas Pangle “Introduction” (in Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), Heinrich Meier ( Leo Strauss and the Theological Political Problem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Timothy Burns (“What War Discloses.” Recovering Reason: Essays in Honor of Thomas L. Pangle, ed. Timothy Burns. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), and David Leibowitz ( The Ironic Defense of Socrates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Strauss, “Between Jerusalem and Athens,” 151.
Leibowitz, Ironic Defense, 98–99.
Timothy Burns, “Leo Strauss on Classical Political Philosophy,” in Brill’s Companion to Leo Strauss’ Writings on Classical Political Thought. ed. Timothy Burns (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishing, 2015), 3.
Plato Theaetetus 150e–151a and Theages 130a–130e.
Borrowing this formulation from Strauss, Natural Right and History, 74.
- A Look at Socrates’ Motive in Plato’s Laches
- Chapter 4