The Laches is the next dialogue we will explore from the Early Socratic Dialogues as translated and commented on in the Penguin edition edited by Trevor Saunders. It is a splendid example of just how good Plato was at dramatizing situations, though precisely because of that it also raises the issue of whether good dramatic writing is helpful to, or gets in the way of, good philosophizing. The scene includes two elderly Athenians, Lysimachus and Melesias, who wish to know who is best qualified to teach their young sons, and how. They are watching a military display, so they end up asking two generals, Nicias and Laches, what their opinion is, and Laches, in turn, invites Socrates — who is nearby — to join the conversation.
Nicias happens to be in favor of professional instruction, while Laches is more skeptical. And Socrates turns the discussion into an exploration of the nature of bravery as an aspect of goodness, on the grounds that a good teacher ought to know what goodness is, before imposing his views on young boys. Nicias, incidentally, was the general that ended up in charge of the ill fated Athenian siege of Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, a siege he almost completed successfully, until the arrival at the last minute of the Spartan general Gylippus, who killed Nicias despite the fact that the latter had spared Gylippus on several previous occasions. Also noteworthy is that fact that this is the first dialogue in which Socrates brings up the controversial notion of the unity of the virtues, the idea that one cannot coherently be, say, courageous but unjust, an idea that makes sense only if one sees all virtues (including courage) as inherently moral in nature.
The dialogue is probably best seen as an example of the combination of two approaches to advancing a philosophical argument: the logos, obviously, i.e. the presentation of a given argument by way of reason; and what the ancient Greeks called the muthos, which translates to a story, or a myth, but that for them had a broader and more positive connotation than it has for us today.
So, the Laches begins with Lysimachus and Melesias wondering how to best educate their sons, in order for them to grow up good as men capable of enjoying a good life. They think that some sort of higher education is needed, perhaps of a military type, which is why they approach the two generals, Nicias and Laches. Lysimachus assumes that virtue can be taught, and that generals are suitable to advise him on the value (notice: as distinct from the specifics) of military training, two assumptions that Socrates eventually questions.
Laches is the one who notices Socrates nearby, and suggests that the philosopher joins the conversation, introducing him as an expert on education, something that Nicias wholeheartedly endorses. Laches also praises Socrates for his bravery at the recent battle of Delium, suggesting that had more Athenians behaved that way the battle would have had a far more favorable outcome for the city.
LYSIMACHUS: Socrates, and Nicias and Laches, people of my age really can’t keep in touch with the younger generation any more, we just potter around at home most of the time feeling our age.
SOCRATES: Well, Lysimachus, on that matter I’ll certainly try to give you any advice I can, and I’ll also try to do everything you invite me to do. But I think it’s only right that since I’m younger than these gentlemen and rather inexperienced in the field, I should listen to what they have to say first and learn from them.
At this point, Nicias talks about the advantages of military training, listing a number of them. The most important one turns out to be that military training makes one brave, which implies that virtue can be taught, and that it is, therefore, a kind of knowledge. Laches disagrees: for him bravery is not a type of knowledge, but a behavior that depends on one’s character.
It is at this point that the two generals ask for Socrates’ opinion, who says that military training here is just a means to an end, and since that end is the boys’ education, what is needed is an an expert in education, not military training. (And he immediately disavows being such an expert.)
SOCRATES: To follow on from what I was just saying, then, if we were wanting to consider which of us had the most expertise in athletics, how would we go about it? Wouldn’t we choose the man who’d learnt about athletics, who’d practised, and who’d been trained in the sport by top coaches?
MELESIAS: I think so.
SOCRATES: So, even before we consider that, we should ask in what subject we’re looking for teachers, shouldn’t we? … So what we have to consider is this: is any of us an expert in caring for the character, and able to care for it properly, and which of us has had good teachers?
Nicias candidly explains to Lysimachus how Socrates works:
NICIAS: You seem not to know that whenever anyone comes face to face with Socrates and has a conversation with him, what invariably happens is that, although they may have started on a completely different subject at first, Socrates will keep heading him off as they’re talking until he has him trapped into giving an account of his present life-style, and of the way he has spent his life in the past. And once he has him trapped, Socrates won’t let him go before he has well and truly cross-examined him on every angle.
Socrates then explains that whenever one claims that he can improve X by adding Y, he ought to know what Y is. Here Nicias and Laches think they can educate the boys by adding goodness to them, so they should know what goodness is.
SOCRATES: So the qualification we need is this: we need to know what goodness is, don’t we? Because if we hadn’t a clue what goodness actually is, there’d be no way in which we could possibly give anyone any advice on the best way of acquiring it, would there?
LACHES: No, I don’t think there would, Socrates.
Socrates then zooms into the obvious aspect of goodness that is pertinent to the discussion, since two of his interlocutors are generals: bravery. What is that? Laches attempts a definition by describing the behavior of a good infantryman, saying that to be brave is to stand and fight. But it doesn’t take long for Socrates to dispatch of this by counterexamples: sometimes the brave thing is to retreat in order to be able to fight another day, and at any rate, soldiers are not the only ones who can be brave.
SOCRATES: [bravery is standing to fight] with the possible exception, Laches, of the Spartan infantry. At the battle of Plataea, so the story goes, the Spartans came up against the troops with wicker shields, but weren’t willing to stand and fight, and fell back. The Persians broke ranks in pursuit; but then the Spartans wheeled round fighting like cavalry and so won that part of the battle.
LACHES: That’s true.
All right, says Laches, then let’s modify our definition: bravery is endurance. Well, responds Socrates, only if endurance is accompanied by wisdom, since endurance for its own sake is hardly a virtue. Here it is Nicias who offers help, fine tuning the definition of bravery by distinguishing between different kinds of knowledge: doctors and farmers, for instance, have technical knowledge that is different from the sort of knowledge that they are interested in at present, i.e., knowledge of good and evil. If they changed the definition of bravery as “endurance with knowledge of good and evil” the counterexamples put forth earlier by Socrates would lose force.
Socrates pushes back against Nicias’ revised definition, even though scholars seem to agree that what Nicias is saying actually reflects Socrates’ own preferred answer. If courage is endurance with knowledge of good and evil, then what about animals and children? Is Nicias denying that they can be brave too? That’s right, answers Nicias. Contra popular belief, animals are not brave, and children aren’t either, at least until they mature a certain understanding of things. Animals and children sometimes behave as if they were brave, but they cannot properly be described as such because they do not actually appreciate the dangers of what they are doing.
NICIAS: ‘Brave’ is not a word I use to describe animals, or anything else that’s not afraid of danger because of its own lack of understanding; I prefer ‘fearless’ and ‘foolish.’ … So you see, what you and most people call brave, I call reckless: brave actions are those coupled with wisdom, as I said.
I find this point to be analogous to contemporary discussions about morality: are primates who, say, show an inclination toward sharing resources fairly with other members of their group acting morally? No, they are acting in a moral-like fashion, but unless they are capable of understanding what they are doing and why (and there is no evidence that they do) applying the moral label to their actions is a category mistake.
Socrates isn’t done, though. He points out to Nicias that now he can no longer distinguish between bravery and goodness, and yet he had previously agreed that bravery is but a part of goodness. They now appear inextricably linked to each other.
That’s pretty much the end of the discussion, with Socrates admitting that they don’t really know the answer, and that they would all well served by looking for someone who can teach them this sort of things. But in reality Nicias’ final proposal is pretty good, and the issue raised by Socrates is answered by the (Socratic!) notion of the unity of the virtues. While nowadays we think that someone can be, for instance, courageous and yet unjust, for Socrates (and the Stoics who followed him on this) that’s an oxymoron. All virtues are unified by wisdom, the knowledge of good and evil, so that only a just person can be courageous, in the moral sense of the term.
As counterintuitive as the notion of the unity of virtues is, I have come to really appreciate its power, which i really prescriptive more than descriptive. It does not negate that someone can act in what looks like a courageous way even though that person is also acting unjustly, and perhaps we should simply use two different words to distinguish such cases. Common sense courage, call it courage-c, may be displayed by a daring criminal, for instance. But virtuous courage, call it courage-v, is precluded to such individual. More difficult is to account for the reverse situation, say someone who understands what is and is not just, and yet fails to act on it for lack of courage. Socrates would say, I am guessing, that such a person is not really just, he only understands justice at an abstract level, but he has not internalized the concept as a matter of practice.
Which brings me to the crucial issue mentioned above, yet only indirectly tackled in the Laches: can virtue be taught? The answer appears to depend on what one means by “taught.” Virtue is certainly not just a matter of theoretical knowledge, as the case of someone who understands justice and yet fails to act on it demonstrates. But it isn’t a matter of practice only either, since Nicias has made clear that one’s acts should be informed by one’s understanding, if they are to count as moral. So virtue can be taught, but such teaching is a combination of sophia and phronesis, i.e., theoretical and practical wisdom.
(next: the Lysis, in which Socrates investigates the nature of friendship)