Philosophical Pursuit and Flight: Homer and Thucydides in Plato’s Laches1

International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 8 (1):72-91 (2014)
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Abstract

This paper offers a new reading of Plato’sLachesthat examines the dialogue’s philosophical approach not only to courage but also to two literary texts that both formed and questioned traditional Athenian views of it: Homer and Thucydides. In the middle of Plato’sLaches, the eponymous character claims that the courageous man “should be willing to stay in formation, to defend himself against the enemy, and to refuse to run away.” Socrates responds by wondering whether a man can be courageous in retreat. He cites Homer’s description of Aeneas’ horses that “know how to pursue and flee quickly this way and that”, a quotation that appears twice in theIliad: once at 5.222-3 when Aeneas refuses to retreat from the rampaging Diomedes and again at 8.106-8 when Diomedes retreats from Hector, despite their belief that to do so is cowardly. On the surface, it seems that the contexts of the Homeric line do not match Socrates’ argument. This paper will argue that Socrates’ apparent ‘miscue’ is both intentional and purposeful because it signals a correspondence between the Homeric scenes and Thucydides’ narrative of the Battle of Mantinea that invites criticism of Homer’s place in the value systems of contemporary Athens. Plato signals a philosophical reading of Homer’sIliadand of Thucydides’ description of the Battle of Mantinea, through which we are invited to evaluate not only the traditional model of Athenian education, embodied by the former, but also its application in fifth-century Athens, as revealed by the latter. This paper, therefore, demonstrates that the philosophical and literary strategies behind Plato’s decision to ‘misuse’ Homer reveal a disjunction between wisdom and manliness in the Athenian cultural tradition that philosophy aims to resolve.

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