Ancient Ethics

Laches: Courage

In Plato's Laches, much like many other discussions and debates with Socrates (who'd apply his "Socratic methods" to the contests), the argument ends without a clear answer of what exactly courage (or andreia—a general, more-encompassing Greek word that includes our current concept of courage, but also seems to indicate a somewhat larger scope of "manliness" that should be kept in mind during the reading.) is, but Socrates does come to the conclusion of what courage is not: that "it cannot be knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful." In order to fully understand Socrates' thought more clearly, we must follow the argument's line of reasoning.

Lysimachus, son of a famous Greek leader, opens the dialogue. He explains to Laches and Nicias why it is that he and Melesias have invited them: it is because all four of them have sons around the same age and Lysimachus and Melesias have both decided that, unlike most parents, they want their children to continue growing up (while, it is said, that most parents want their children to stop growing up at the first indication that the child intends to do so). Since all four of them have children about the same age, Lysimachus appeals to Laches and Nicias as to the proper way to raise a man and whether or not they want their sons to undergo the same training as Lysimachus' and Melesais'. Lysimachus proclaims that he intends for his sons to learn fighting in armor, as it is said to be a noble practice. Laches and Nicias both agree with this decision, but wonder why Lysimachus has not invited Socrates to consult as well. This confuses Lysicmachus until Nicias says that Socrates spends much time in places populated by young people. Upon confirming this with his sons, Lysimachus is pleased to learn of Socrates' bravery and previous ties to his own family. He then poses the same question to Socrates: Is fighting in armor a useful subject for young men to learn or not?

Socrates at first gives no answer himself, but instead pursues his fellows to give an account. Nicias again states that he thinks that this is useful and is a better past-time than leisure and that is leads to greater aspirations such as generalship. He goes on to say that such training in how to conduct oneself in battle naturally makes "every man bolder and braver in war than he was before."

Laches seems to disagree on the whole with Nicias, saying that most men who practice the art of fighting in armor never become renown in war. He relates a story about the foolishness of a man versed in the "art of fighting in armor" to demonstrate his disdain for this pursuit. He claims that the "art of fighting in armor" is either an art of little value or is only pretended to be an art by some people. And to counter Nicias' statement that this art makes men braver, Laches says that training only makes the cowardly brasher, not braver, thus allowing people to see this man's folly, and that brave men are criticized more, because they are the objects of envy.

Lysimachus indicates to Socrates that Socrates should "cast the final vote." Socrates opposes this method, saying that the one who is most versed in gymnastic arts should be the one to decide the art of the sons, not a simple majority from people who may or may not know about such arts. First of all, he states that they should somehow find a man who studied the art under a good teacher. He goes on to say that then they must find out the art of the teachers, comparing their search to whenever a man is looking for an ointment for his eyes, he is consulting about his eyes, not the ointment. In essence, Socrates means to say that "whenever a man considers a thing for the sake of another thing, he is taking counsel about that thing for the sake of which he was considering, and not about what he was investigating for the sake of something else."

This line of reasoning leads to Socrates stating that what they are really looking for is a man versed in the art of studying for the sake of the souls of young men. Socrates readily agrees that he did not have a formal teacher in such an art and has no "products" to show, and thus Lysimachus and Melesias should turn to either Laches or Nicias since both are richer and thus perhaps have had teachers in such a matter. But Socrates goes on to say that he is surprised that the men disagree with one another and thus perhaps they should give accounts of why one of them is more suited to judge than the other and Socrates will act as judge and questioner. Socrates urges Laches and Nicias to state how they learned the art of cultivating the souls of young men (whether on their own or from a teachers) and to either give an example of their "work" or the name and qualifications of their teacher.

Lysimachus seems to like this idea and appeals to Nicias and Laches to submit themselves to Socrates' questioning if they do not mind. Nicias explains to Lysimachus, in what may be considered an "aside," that Socrates never really questions about the subject itself in the end, but rather about the persons themselves. Apparently Nicias is accustomed to Socrates reasoning and does not mind this questioning, but thought that Lysimachus should be informed.

Laches prefaces his decision with the statement that to some he may appear to be an argument lover because whenever his "opponent's" words match his actions, Laches becomes passionate and interested, but whenever the words and the actions are incongruent, Laches does not enjoy the discussion. This leads Laches to say that although he is unfamiliar with Socrates himself, he has heard of Socrates' deeds and believes Socrates' words must be as fair as his actions. Thus, Laches agrees to be submitted to the questioning.

Socrates poses the question anew: what teachers have Laches and Nicias had in the art of training the souls of young men and what other persons have they made better? He then continues, saying that according to his previous suppositions, perhaps they should discuss what each knows about virtue, since it is virtue to young men they will be adding. Since this is quite a gargantuan task, Socrates decides to break down virtue to one single virtue that seems to pertain most to the debate: courage.

Laches states the courage is if a man is willing to stand his post and defend against the enemy. Socrates says he agrees with most of Laches assessment, but asks, what of men who fight while retreating, especially if it is his style? Laches finally agrees that this too is courage. Socrates blames himself for a poorly asked question and poses it anew: what is courage when applied to all situations, not just ones of war?

Laches calls this an "endurance of the soul." Socrates points out that endurance can be a bad thing if accompanied by folly. Naturally, Laches agrees. Socrates gives a few examples that completely throw Laches definition, such as which man is more courageous: the one who knows he will win and fights and the one who is uncertain he will win, but still fights. Laches believes it is the latter, but Socrates points out that that could be considered endurances accompanied by folly perhaps.

Nicias then enters the argument once Laches has been confused and isn't sure how to define courage. Nicias declares, in essence, that courage is a type of wisdom and, continuing, that it is knowledge of the hopeful and fearful in war and every situation. Nicias denies that his definition would consider animals courageous: instead, it would make them brash.

To further investigate Nicias' claim, Socrates gets Nicias to agree that fear is a knowledge of some future evil while hope is some knowledge of a future good or non-evil and also that the same knowledge is of the same things, future ones and all kinds. Thus, courage would have to be knowledge of all goods and evils. Socrates states that this is virtue in its entirety, not just courage, since knowledge of all goods and evils enables a man to conduct his whole life well.

The argument concludes with Lysimachus, impressed by Socrates' questioning, deciding to put the boys in school rather than train them in the art of fighting with armor.

While Socrates makes a strong argument and while I do not believe that "knowledge of the hopeful and the fearful" are courage, I do not think he totally convinces me that this is not courage. It does not make total sense that knowledge must be of things past, present, and future. Socrates' example of medicine makes some sense, but in order to be a good doctor, I do not think it it totally necessary to have an idea of where the future of medicine is going (though that might be the mark of a great doctor, a sufficient doctor would only have to know the present state of medicine and, in a way, the past—though not the past in detail.)

And also, Socrates seems to say that virtue needs only be the knowledge of all goods and all evils. I would think that virtue would also be how one faces these goods and evils, not merely having knowledge of them. It is possible that I do not truly understand what Socrates is trying to say, but I think that he has not made a sufficiently strong argument in my view against Nicias as he had against Laches.