Plato’s Laches: A Question of Definition

Plato's Laches: A Question of Definition," ms. 1992. In The Argument of the Action, 2000.


The Laches records the meeting between Socrates and the inglorious sons of Thucydides and Aristides, on the one hand, and on the other, the now-famous general Laches and Nicias. They meet sometime after 424 B.C., the battle of Delium, and before 418 B.C., the battle of Mantineia, where Laches lost his life. The meeting cannot be said to have been a complete success. No definition of courage is arrived at, and Socrates’ proposal, that they all go back to school, was not, it seems, followed up. The last works of the dialogue are Socrates’ – ean theos thelei – and they show him to be cautious even about tomorrow in Athens. This caution coult not have been very different fromt hat which he displayed at the battle of Delium itself, which impressed both Alcibiades and Laches. According to Thucydides, the left wing of the Boeotians was defeated b the Athenians, by the Athenians, on seeing two cavalry detachments that Pagondas had sent to their rear, panicked and ran in the belief that another army was about to attack them. If we imagine that Socrates was stationed on the initially victorious right wing – Laches’ praise of him would not be as suitable if he were in retreat from the states – then Socrates’ precaution, his being more emphron than Laches, would have consisted in his not taking anything except for what it is, with no false imaginings allowed, which would have earlier prevented him from killing his fellow Athenians when the enemy line bent into a circle and some of the Athenians lost their heads and failed to recognize their own. Socrates’ caution seems to be a species of prudence, and hardly a matter of courage as either Laches or Nicias think of it.