Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 15, 2021, from

8. Laches and Charmides

Contrast the works outlined in §7 with Laches and Charmides, which were very likely conceived as a pair, the one an inquiry into courage, the other into sōphrosynē or moderation. Both engage in fairly elaborate scene setting quite absent from Crito and Gorgias. In both there is concern with the relation between theory and practice, which is worked out more emphatically in Laches, more elusively in Charmides. For example, in Laches Socrates is portrayed both as master of argument about courage, and as an exemplar of the virtue in action – literally by reference to his conduct in the retreat from Delium early in the Peloponnesian War, metaphorically by his persistence in dialectic, to which his observations on the need for perseverance in inquiry draw attention.

A particularly interesting feature of these dialogues is their play with duality. Socrates confronts a pair of main interlocutors who clearly fulfil complementary roles. We hear first the views of the more sympathetic members of the two pairs: the general Laches, whom Socrates identifies as his partner in argument, and the young aristocrat Charmides, to whom he is attracted. Each displays behavioural traits associated with the virtue under discussion, and each initially offers a definition in behavioural terms, later revised in favour of a dispositional analysis: courage is construed as a sort of endurance of soul, sōphrosynē as modesty. After these accounts are subjected to elenchus and refuted, the other members of the pairs propose intellectualist definitions: according to Nicias (also a general), courage is knowledge of what inspires fear or confidence, while Critias identifies sōphrosynē with self-knowledge.

Broad hints are given that the real author of these latter definitions is Socrates himself; and in Protagoras he is made to press Protagoras into accepting the same definition of courage. There are also hints that, as understood by their proponents here, this intellectualism is no more than sophistic cleverness, and that neither possesses the virtue he claims to understand. Both are refuted by further Socratic elenchus, and in each case the argument points to the difficulty of achieving an intellectualist account which is not effectively a definition of virtue in general as the simple knowledge of good and bad. Laches explicitly raises the methodological issue of whether one should try to investigate the parts of virtue in order to understand the whole or vice versa (here there are clear connections with the main argument of Protagoras).

Aristotle was in no doubt that Socrates ’thought all the virtues were forms of knowledge’ (Eudemian Ethics 1216b6); and many moves in the early dialogues depend on the assumption that if you know what is good you will be good (see Socrates §5). But Laches and Charmides present this Socratic belief as problematical. Not only is there the problem of specifying a unique content for the knowledge with which any particular virtue is to be identified. There is also the difficulty that any purely intellectual specification of what a virtue is makes no reference to the dispositions Charmides and Laches mention and (like Socrates) exemplify. In raising this difficulty Plato is already adumbrating the need for a more complex moral psychology than Socrates’, if only to do justice to how Socrates lived. If the viewpoints of Laches and Nicias are combined we are not far from the account of courage in Republic, as the virtue of the spirited part of the soul, which ‘preserves through pains and pleasures the injunctions of reason concerning what is and is not fearful’ (442b).

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Laches and Charmides. Plato (427–347 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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