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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Plato: Early Dialogues: Apology, Crito, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Euthyphro, Ion (Forgotten Books)

Plato: Early Dialogues: Apology, Crito, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Euthyphro, Ion (Forgotten Books)

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A book by Plato

Book Description:    "Plato, the greatest philosopher of ancient Greece, was born in Athens in 428 or 427 B.C.E. to an aristocratic family. He studied under Socrates, who appears as a character in many of his dialogues. He attended … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Plato
Publisher: Forgotten Books
1 review about Plato: Early Dialogues: Apology, Crito,...

The classical Greek search for the virtue of courage

  • Jul 5, 2009
I read this book for a graduate philosophy class. The classical Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were the midwives of Western civilization's "birth" of philosophy. Prior to the fifth century BCE classical Greek period, Greek citizens learned about virtuous actions including courage through their mythical religious beliefs, and epic poetry; such as, Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey. Thus, not until Socrates asks the question of what does the "good life" consists of do people ponder with reason and logic as their guide what constitutes virtues and how to practice them. Plato, like Socrates before him and Aristotle after him, believes in a virtue-based code of ethics where the end goal is to attain "happiness" which is understood by the classical Greeks as a flourishing" and is obtained only by performing virtuous acts.

Plato's short dialogue Laches is his literary vehicle to show Socrates exploring the virtue of courage. Socrates questions two famous Greek generals, Nicias and Laches, who participated in the Peloponnesian War, as did Socrates, in order to get at a definition of courage. The virtue of courage figures prominently in the second half of Plato's dialogue when Socrates asks both generals to define courage. It is important to note that though Socrates is the first philosopher to embark upon a search for a definition of virtue, he did not write his philosophy down. All of what we know of Socrates' teachings comes from the pen of Plato, one of his most devoted students. Laches first defines courage for Socrates by providing him three components of courage. A courageous person is "willing," "stands their ground in the face of the enemy," and "does not run." Laches' three components of courage are really just examples of the time-honored duty of Greek patriotism, which is derived out of a feeling or emotional attachment to one's country. In essence, the Greek citizen is "willing" to act out of a sense of duty to their city; "standing their ground" to protect their city from enemy attack. The citizen "does not run" in fear for their lives risking the safety of their city. Essentially, Plato's summation of these three components as spoken by Laches, is that courage comes from an "endurance of the soul." (p 34, (192c). Up to this point in the dialogue, Plato's definition of courage does not differ from the standard Homeric definition. However, when Socrates continues his questioning of Laches, he expands the scope of courageous actions to encompass perils of illness, sea travel and even into the political realm in hopes of better defining courage. Thus, Plato recognizes that there is a host of situations that requires a person to use courage to surmount whatever dangerous predicament they face. By posing the question this way, Plato through Socrates assumes that there is something else that people rely on to make them courageous. This is the real crux of the dialogue; to find out what else there is in the human condition that instills one with courage.

To accomplish this task, Plato introduces Nicias into the dialogue, who introduces the idea that it takes an amalgamation of emotions and wisdom for courage to be a universal virtue. With the introduction of wisdom into the mix, courage takes its "first step" forward from the heroic Homeric notion. For example, in the Homeric epics only aristocrats are depicted as acting courageously. It is important to recognize that by introducing these other hardships not related to war fighting, Plato is moving away from the ancient Greek Homeric model that so dominated the culture of his day. Nicias answers Laches, "Therefore, if a man is really courageous, it is clear that he is wise." (p, 38, (194d). However, when Socrates presses Nicias to explain what type of wisdom makes a person wise enough to be courageous he answers, "...it is the knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful in war and every other situation." (p, 39, (195a). Socrates is incredulous that Nicias argues that only people who can foretell future goods and evils will be able to act courageously, and for this reason, Socrates rejects Nicias' definition of courage. Socrates ends the dialogue abruptly because he sees that he is only getting examples of acts of courage in his questioning. His goal is to get to a definition, and to understand the essence of courage. With a definition, he can compare all examples of courage to it and then decide if the examples are truly acts of courage or not. In most of Plato's dialogues involving Socrates, his quest for a definition of a particular virtue ends in the same manner. At this point as in so many of Plato's dialogues, he ends his search for a definition of courage, but he takes it up again several years later in his Republic where he will introduce the element of education into the mix.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in virtue ethics, Greek philosophy, and military history.

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