Plato's Laches

In an effort to put more up on this blog, I'm going to start publishing my reading notes from Evernote. Today, I came across a reference to the Laches dialogue in Brad McAdon's 2004 article "Plato's Denunciation of Rhetoric in the Phaedrus." I was interested in this dialogue precisely because its central concern is courage--a quality I think central to Plato's distrust of sophistry, Latour's socialization of science, and Levinas's intersubjective ethics. In brief: Plato misunderstands sophistic notions of courage as either 1) denigration of the masses or 2) propensity toward power. Latour and Levinas (and recent depictions of the historic Gorgias by people such as Bruce McComiskey and Scott Consigny) offer us a third option: courage as the willingness to approach the many from a position of weakness rather than [epistemological, rational, etc.] strength.

What appear below is my initial reactions/notes to the dialogue. Many are grammatical fragments. Please proceed with tolerance.

The dialogue opens with Lysimachus querying two Athenian generals, Nicias and Laches, as to whether his sons should learn to fight in armor. Nicias says "yes" (for the sophistic reasons). Laches says no (can't fake it to real soldiers, looks foolish). Lysimachus calls for a vote, who should teach his sons courage, he asks Socrates to join the discussion.

Nicias--all men should learn to fight in armor (182e). Long passage suggests learning to fight in the terms that the sophists argue for learning to speak--preparation for combat, self-defense against the accusations, err, attacks of the one and the many. Nicias identifies combat among the

...forms of exercise especially suited to a free citizen. For in the contest in which we are the contestants and in the matters on which our struggle depends, only those are practiced who know how to use the instruments of war. And again, there is a certain advantage in this form of instruction even in an actual battle, whenever one has to fight in line with a number of others. But the greatest advantage of it comes when the ranks are broken and it then becomes necessary for a man to fight in single combat, either in pursuit when he has to attack a man who is defending himself, or in flight, when he has to defend himself against another person who is attacking him. A man who has this skill would suffer no harm at the hands of a single opponent, nor even perhaps at the hands of a larger number, but he would have the advantage in every way. [...] And we shall add to this an advantage which is not at all negligible, that this knowledge will make every man much bolder and braver in war than he was before. And let us not omit to mention, even if to some it might seem a point not worth making, that this art will give a man a finer-looking appearance at the very moment when he needs to have it, and when he will appear more frightening to the enemy because of the way he looks. (182-a-d).

How closely does this echo the defense of sophistry found in the Gorgias? Couldn't 'this skill' be logon techne? As the dialogue progresses, it becomes clear that Nicias is meant to stand for sophistry (particularly his association to Damon and Prodicus).

Socrates's response to Lysimachus's call for a vote: "So I think it is by knowledge that one ought to make decisions, if one is to make them well, and not by majority rule" (184e). As in the Gorgias (specifically Polus), a rejection of majority. And, of course, a rejection of the sophistic aspiration that the "better" course consists of the one that can be more persuasively presented to the masses. Better is trans(cendentally) human here.

Interesting note by Socrates' own education: "...concerning myself, that I have had no teacher in this subject. And yet I have longed after it from my youth up. But I did not have any money to give the sophists, who were the only ones who professed to be able to make a cultivated man of me, and I myself, on the other hand, am unable to discover the art even now" (186c).

Translator Rosamond Kent Sprague notes the overlaps between Socrates's rejection of learning in Laches and in the Gorgias (in both instances, a reference to pottery--learn how to craft small items before moving on to the larger one's. In this case, explore how to teach minor things before teaching the student?). More evidence for my interpretation that this dialogue, ostensibly on military training, is more about education and sophistry.

Nicias--who represents the sophist position, on dealing with Socrates: will question and question on something that seems quite removed from the original subject. To engage Socrates is to

...keep on being led about by the man's arguments until he [Socrates's interlocutor] submits to answering questions about himself concerning both his present manner of life and the life he has lived hitherto. And when he does submit to this questioning, you don't realize that Socrates will not let him go before he has well and truly tested every last detail. I personally am accustomed to the man and know that one has to put up with this kind of treatment from him, and further, I know perfectly well that I myself will have to submit to it. I take pleasure in the man's company, Lysimachus, and don't regard it as at all a bad thing to have ti brought to our attention that we have done or are doing wrong. Rather I think that a man who does not run away from such treatment but is willing, according to the saying of Solon, to value learning as long as he lives, not supposing that old age brings wisdom of itself, will necessarily pay more attention to the rest of his life." (188a-b).

What I notice here is that the Sophist (like Gorgias in Plato's dialogue), submits to Socrates. Honors his response. Invites the alterity that Socrates brings. And does so without running away, with courage, faces.

To note, Laches is interested in speeches that sound harmonious. He will not do well, I fear.

Socrates--let's investigate an element of virtue, particularly "ought we to take the one to which the technique of fighting in armor appears to lead? I suppose everyone would think it leads to courage, wouldn't they?" O.k., so Nicias has already warned us how the show works. This will lead to anything but courage. (190d)

Laches: courage is a willingness to "remain at his post and to defend himself against the enemy without running away" (190e).

Socrates: looking for a more abstract definition for courage, one that could count the man in the assembly as well as the solider at his post. (191d).

Laches's response (take 2): "an endurance of the soul" (192c).

Socrates rebuts: "it would be wise endurance which would be courage" (192d). Here I am already thinking that wide endurance is something, from a sophistic perspective, that amounts to obstinance. Think: Apology.

Socrates's aim is to show, almost ironically to my reading, that holding out in the face of defeat (that which Lache's originally identified as courage) is not wise but foolish. (193b).

Laches, unused to dialectic deliberation (oh, the drug of the soul): "But an absolute desire for victory has seized me with respect to our conversation, and I am really getting annoyed at being unable to express what I think in this fashion. (194b).

Nicias: courage is wisdom (but not in particularly musical arts--flute playing or lyre playing, Platonic-Socratic metaphors for Gorgias's style). As with Gorgias in the Gorgias, sophistry is reduced to a kind of mystical performance that, stripped down to notation, carries no force.

Laches expresses confusion/outrage at Nicias's assertion that wisdom and courage are the same thing.

Nicias's "wisdom" is equated to something mystical--to the "magical" gift of the seer. Think: idiotic things Plato's Gorgias says vs. the things that Gorgias's actual texts indicate he would probably say.

Laches responds that Nicias is simply twisting words to avoid defeat. Such a demented practice is only suitable for a court of law.

Nicias: "My view is that very few have a share of courage and foresight, but that a great many, men and women and children and wild animals, partake in boldness and audacity and rashness and lack of foresight." (197b) [Like Callicles, sophistry as a denigration of the common in favor of the superior, a typical Platonic representation of sophistry].

Socrates positions Nicias within a tradition of sophists (Damon, Prodicus). Laches: "well, Socrates, it is certainly more fitting for a sophist to make such clever distinctions than for a man the city thinks worthy to be its leader" (197d).

It is unlikely that a sophist would agree to Socrates's distinction that fear is only a product of future evils, not present ones. (198b). Fear is also a product of the present, part of the mood of the scene, the kairotic moment. Fear is not simply a state of mind, but a mode of being.

Also, Socrates tricks Nicias. The logical conclusion would be that fear and hopelessness also have a past and a present, and that wisdom of courage is an understanding of what made us fearful, why we are fearful, and what we might come to fear. Instead, Socrates limits fear and hope to the future, searching for completely different qualities (dimensions) of courage in the present and past. (See 199d-e)

The funniest part of the dialogue might be that Socrates wins the argument (and the endorsement as the teacher of Lysimachius's sons without himself offering even a definition of courage!). But, of course, he has offered a demonstration of armored combat, adorned by the sparse speculations of dialectic rather than the lavish shine of sophistry.

There is also, at the conclusion of the dialogue, what I think can be read as a clear swipe at Isocrates's complaints of Socrates as an old-school boy: "What I don't advise is that we remain as we are. And if anyone laughs at us because we think it worthwhile to spend our time in school at our age, then I think we should confront him with the saying of Homer, "Modesty is not a good mate for a needy man. And, not paying any attention to what anyone may say, let us join together in looking after both our own interests and those of the boys." (210b)

I appreciate Socrates's sentiment--particularly that first line: "what I don't advise is that we remain as we are," Anyone in rhetoric, I assume, forefronts the propensity toward change. As the sophist-monster often points out--the difficult part of social discourse isn't the argumentation, but the inclination. How do you get someone to care? And, once they care, how do you get them to listen? And, once they listen, how do you get them to contemplate (rather than antagonize?). We cannot be so silly as to take the disposition toward change for granted, as something that merely precedes the real work of rhetorical theory.

At the same time, however, is Socrates really an emblem for change? When in the course of a single Socratic dialogue did Socrates ever change his thinking on anything? Socrates is a master antagonist, but he targets the other and insulates the self. That line should really read: "what I don't advise is that you remain different from my transcendental ideal."


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