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Plato: Laches (excerpt)

[Several Athenians, including the famous generals Nicias and Laches, are gathered to discuss the question of whether the practice of fighting in armour is a good way of instilling virtue in young men. At this point in the dialogue, Socrates has managed to steer the conversation toward the topic of the nature of virtue.]

[190a] SOCRATES:: If we did not know first of all what sight or hearing is, we should hardly prove ourselves consultants or physicians of credit in the matter of eyes or ears, and the best way [190b] of acquiring sight or hearing.

LACHES: Truly spoken, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And you know, Laches, at this moment our two friends are inviting us to a consultation as to the way in which virtue may be joined to their sons' souls, and so make them better?

LACHES: Yes, indeed.

SOCRATES: Then our first requisite is to know what virtue is? For surely, if we had no idea at all what virtue actually is, we could not possibly consult [190c] with anyone as to how he might best acquire it?

LACHES: I certainly think not, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Then we say, Laches, that we know what it is.

LACHES: I suppose we must.

SOCRATES: And that which we know, I presume, we can also state.

LACHES: To be sure.

SOCRATES: Let us not, therefore, my good friend, inquire forthwith about the whole of virtue, since that may well be too much for us; but let us first see if we are sufficiently provided with knowledge about some part of it. [190d] In all likelihood this will make our inquiry easier.

LACHES: Yes, let us do as you propose, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Then which of the parts of virtue shall we choose? Clearly, I think, that which the art of fighting in armor is supposed to promote; and that, of course, is generally supposed to be courage, is it not?

LACHES: Yes, it generally is, to be sure.

SOCRATES: Then let our first endeavor be, Laches, to say what courage is: after that we can proceed to inquire in what way our young men may obtain it, [190e] in so far as it is to be obtained by means of pursuits and studies. Come, try and tell me, as I suggest, what is courage.

LACHES: On my word, Socrates, that is nothing difficult: anyone who is willing to stay at his post and face the enemy, and does not run away, you may be sure, is courageous.

SOCRATES: Rightly spoken, Laches; but I fear I am to blame, by not putting it clearly, for your having answered not the intention of my question, but something else.

LACHES: What do you mean by that, Socrates?

[191a] SOCRATES: I will explain, so far as I can: let us take that man to be courageous who, as you describe him yourself, stays at his post and fights the enemy.

LACHES: I, for one, agree to that.

SOCRATES: Yes, and I do too. But what of this other kind of man, who fights the enemy while fleeing, and not staying?

LACHES: How fleeing?

SOCRATES: Well, as the Scythians are said to fight, as much fleeing as pursuing; and as you know Homer says in praise of Aeneas' horses, that they knew “how to pursue and to flee in fearful swiftness this way and that way”; [191b] and he glorifies Aeneas himself for this very knowledge of fear, calling him “counselor of fright.”

LACHES: And very properly too, Socrates; for he was speaking of chariots; and so are you speaking of the mode of the Scythian horsemen. That is the way of cavalry fighting but with men-at-arms it is as I state it.

SOCRATES: Except, perhaps, Laches, in the case of the Spartans. [191c] For they say that at Plataea, when the Spartans came up to the men with wicker shields, they were not willing to stand and fight against these, but fled; when, however, the Persian ranks weree broken, the Spartans kept turning round and fighting like cavalry, and so won that great battle.1

LACHES: What you say is true.

SOCRATES: And so this is what I meant just now by sayng that I was to blame for your wrong answer, by putting my question wrongly. [191d] For I wanted to have your view not only of brave men-at-arms, but also of courage in cavalry and in the entire warrior class; and of the courageous not only in war but in the perils of the sea, and all who in disease and poverty, or again in public affairs, are courageous; and further, all who are not merely courageous against pain or fear, but doughty fighters against desires and pleasures, [191e] whether standing their ground or turning back upon the foe--for I take it, Laches, there are courageous people in all these kinds.

LACHES: Very much so, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Then all these are courageous, only some have acquired courage in pleasures, some in pains, some in desires and some in fears, while others, I conceive, have acquired cowardice in these same things.

LACHES: To be sure.

SOCRATES: What either courage or cowardice is -- that is what I wanted to know. So try again, and tell me first what is this thing, courage, which is the same in all of these cases; or do you still not comprehend my meaning?

LACHES: Not very well.

[192a] SOCRATES: I mean in this way: suppose, for instance, I were asking you what is quickness, as we find it in running and harping, in speaking and learning, and in many other activities, and as possessed by us practically in any action worth mentioning, whether of arms or legs, or mouth or voice, or mind: or do you not use the word so?

LACHES: Yes, to be sure.

SOCRATES: Well then, suppose someone asked me: Socrates, what do you mean by this thing which in all cases you term quickness? [192b] My reply would be: The ability to get much done in little time is what I call quickness, whether in speech or in runnning or in any of the other instances.

LACHES: Your statement would be quite correct.

SOCRATES: So now try and tell me on your part, Laches, about courage in the same way: what faculty is it, the same whether in pleasure or in pain or in any of the things in which we said just now it was to be found, that has been singled out by the name of courage?

LACHES: Well then, I take it to be a certain endurance of the soul, if I am to speak of the natural quality that appears in them all.

[192c] SOCRATES: Why, of course we must, if we are each to answer the other's actual question. Now it appears to me that by no means all endurance, as I conceive it, can appear to you to be courage. And my grounds for thinking so are these: I am almost certain, Laches, that you rank courage among the nobler qualities.

LACHES: Nay, among the noblest, you may be quite certain.

SOCRATES: And endurance joined with wisdom is noble and good?

LACHES: Very much so.

[192d] SOCRATES: But what of it when joined with folly? Is it not, on the contrary, hurtful and mischievous?


SOCRATES: And can you say that such a thing is noble, when it is both mischievous and hurtful?

LACHES: Not with any justice, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Then you will not admit that such an endurance is courage, seeing that it is not noble, whereas courage is a noble quality.

LACHES: That is true.

SOCRATES: So, by your account, wise endurance will be courage.

LACHES: Apparently.

[192e] SOCRATES: Now let us see in what it is wise. In all things, whether great or small? For instance, if a man endures in spending money wisely, because he knows that by spending he will gain more, would you call him courageous?

LACHES: On my word, not I.

SOCRATES: Or what do you call it in the case of a doctor who, when his son or anyone else is suffering from inflammation of the lungs and begs for something to drink or eat, inflexibly and enduringly refuses?

[193a] LACHES: That is no case of it, in any sense, either.

SOCRATES: Well now, when a man endures in war, and is willing to fight, on a wise calculation whereby he knows that others will come to his aid, and that the forces against him will be fewer and feebler than those who are with him, and when he has besides the advantage of position,--would you say of this man, if he endures with such wisdom and preparation, that he, or a man in the opposing army who is willing to stand up against him and endure, is the more courageous?

[193b] LACHES: The man opposed to him, I should say, Socrates.

SOCRATES: But yet his endurance is more foolish than that of the first man.

LACHES: That is true.

SOCRATES: So you would say that he who in a cavalry fight endures with a knowledge of horsemanship is less courageous than he who endures without it.

LACHES: Yes, I think so.

[193c] SOCRATES: And he who endures with a skill in slinging or shooting or other such art.

LACHES: To be sure.

SOCRATES: And anyone who agrees to descend into a well, and to dive, and to endure in this or other such action, without being an adept in these things, you would say is more courageous than the adepts.

LACHES: Yes, for what else can one say, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Nothing, provided one thinks so.

LACHES: But I do think it.

SOCRATES: And you observe, I suppose, Laches, that persons of this sort are more foolish in their risks and endurances than those who do it with proper skill.

LACHES: Evidently.

[193d] SOCRATES: Now, we found before that foolish boldness and endurance are base and hurtful?

LACHES: Quite so.

SOCRATES: But courage was admitted to be something noble.

LACHES: Yes, it was.

SOCRATES: Whereas now, on the contrary, we say that this base thing -- foolish endurance -- is courage.

LACHES: Apparently.

SOCRATES: Then do you think our statement is correct?

LACHES: On my word, Socrates, not I.

SOCRATES: Hence I presume that, on your showing, you and I, Laches, [193e] are not tuned to the Dorian harmony: for our deeds do not accord with our words. By our deeds, most likely, the world might judge us to have our share of courage, but not by our words, I fancy, if they should hear the way we are talking now.

LACHES: That is very true.

SOCRATES: Well now, does it seem right that we should be in such a condition?

LACHES: Not by any means.

SOCRATES: Then do you mind if we accept our statement to a certain point?

LACHES: To what point do you mean, and what statement?

[194a] SOCRATES: That which enjoins endurance. And, if you please, let us too be steadfast and enduring in our inquiry, so as not to be ridiculed by courage herself for failing to be courageous in our search for her, when we might perchance find after all that this very endurance is courage.

LACHES: For my part I am ready, Socrates, to continue without faltering; and yet I am unaccustomed to discussions of this sort. But a certain ambitious ardour has got hold of me at hearing what has been said, [194b] and I am truly vexed at finding myself unable to express offhand what I think. For I feel that I conceive in thought what courage is, but somehow or other she has given me the slip for the moment, so that I fail to lay hold of her in speech and state what she is.

SOCRATES: Well, my dear sir, the good huntsman must follow the hounds and not give up the chase.

LACHES: Yes, indeed, by all means.

SOCRATES: Then do you agree to our inviting Nicias here to join in our hunt? He may be more resourceful than we are.

[194c] LACHES: I agree, of course.

SOCRATES: Come now, Nicias, and use what powers you have to assist your friends, who are caught in a storm of argument and are quite perplexed. You see the perplexity of our case; you must now tell us what you think courage is, and so at once set us free from our perplexity and give your own thoughts the stability of speech.

NICIAS: Well, for some time I have been thinking, Socrates, that you two are not defining courage in the right way; for you are not acting upon an admirable remark which I have formerly heard you make.

SOCRATES: What is that, Nicias?

[194d] NICIAS: I have often heard you say that every man is good in that wherein he is wise, and bad in that wherein he is unlearned.

SOCRATES: Well, that is true, Nicias, I must say.

NICIAS: And hence, if the brave man is good, clearly he must be wise.

SOCRATES: Do you hear him, Laches?

LACHES: I do, without understanding very well what he says.

SOCRATES: But I think I understand it: our friend appears to me to mean that courage is a kind of wisdom.

LACHES: What kind of wisdom, Socrates?

[194e] SOCRATES: Well, will you put that question to your friend here?


SOCRATES: Come now, tell him, Nicias, what kind of wisdom courage may be, by your account. Not that, I presume, of flute-playing.

NICIAS: Not at all.

SOCRATES: Nor yet that of harping.

NICIAS: Oh, no.

SOCRATES: But what is this knowledge then, or of what?

LACHES: I must say you question him quite correctly, Socrates, so let him just tell us what he thinks it is.

NICIAS: I say, Laches, that it is this -- the knowledge of what is to be feared or hoped, [195a] either in war or in anything else.

LACHES: How strangely he talks, Socrates!

SOCRATES: What is it that makes you say that, Laches?

LACHES: What is it? Why, surely wisdom is distinct from courage.

SOCRATES: Well, Nicias denies that.

LACHES: He does indeed, to be sure: that is where he just babbles.

SOCRATES: Then let us instruct and not abuse him.

NICIAS: No, it seems to me, Socrates, that Laches wants to have it proved that I am talking nonsense, because he was proved [195b] a moment ago to be in the same case himself.

LACHES: Quite so, Nicias, and I will try to make it evident. You are talking nonsense: for instance, do not doctors know what is to be feared in disease? Or do you suppose that the courageous know this? Or do you call doctors courageous

NICIAS: No, not at all.

LACHES: Nor, I fancy, farmers either. And yet they, I presume, know what is to be feared in farming, and every other skilled worker knows what is to be feared and hoped in his own craft; but they are none the more [195c] courageous for that.

SOCRATES: What is Laches saying, in your opinion, Nicias? There does seem to be something in it.

NICIAS: Yes, there is something, only it is not true.


NICIAS: Because he thinks that doctors know something more, in treating sick persons, than how to tell what is healthy and what diseased. This, I imagine, is all that they know: but to tell whether health itself is to be feared by anyone rather than sickness, -- do you suppose, Laches, that this is within a doctor's knowledge? Do you not think that for many it is better [195d] that they should never arise from their bed of sickness? Pray tell me, do you say that in every case it is better to live? Is it not often preferable to be dead?

LACHES: I do think that is so.

NICIAS: And do you think that the same things are to be feared by those who were better dead, as by those who had better live?

LACHES: No, I do not.

NICIAS: Well, do you attribute the judgement of this matter to doctors or to any other skilled worker except him who has knowledge of what is to be feared and what is not -- the man whom I call courageous?

SOCRATES: Do you comprehend his meaning, Laches?

[195e] LACHES: I do: it seems to be the seers whom he calls the courageous: for who else can know for which of us it is better to be alive than dead? And yet, Nicias, do you avow yourself to be a seer, or to be neither a seer nor courageous?

NICIAS: What! Is it now a seer, think you, who has the gift of judging what is to be feared and what to be hoped?

LACHES: That is my view: who else could it be?

NICIAS: Much rather the man of whom I speak, my dear sir: for the seer's business is to judge only the signs of what is yet to come -- whether a man is to meet with death or disease or loss of property, [196a] or victory or defeat in war or some other contest; but what is better among these things for a man to suffer or avoid suffering, can surely be no more for a seer to decide than for anyone else in the world.

LACHES: Well, I fail to follow him, Socrates, or to see what he is driving at; for he points out that neither a seer nor a doctor nor anybody else is the man he refers to as the courageous, unless perchance he means it is some god. Now it appears to me [196b] that Nicias is unwilling to admit honestly that he has no meaning at all, but dodges this way and that in the hope of concealing his own perplexity. Why, you and I could have dodged in the same way just now, if we wished to avoid the appearance of contradicting ourselves. Of course, if we were arguing in a law-court, there would be some reason for so doing; but here, in a meeting like this of ours, why waste time in adorning oneself with empty words?

SOCRATES: I agree that it is out of place, Laches: but let us see: [196c] perhaps Nicias thinks he does mean something, and is not talking just for the sake of talking. So let us ask him to explain more clearly what is in his mind; and if we find that he means something, we will agree with him; if not, we will instruct him.

LACHES: Then, Socrates, if you would like to ask him, please do so: I daresay I have done enough asking.

SOCRATES: Well, I see no objection, since the question will be on behalf of us both.

LACHES: Very well, then.

SOCRATES: Now tell me, Nicias, or rather, tell us -- for Laches and I are sharing the argument between us -- do you say that courage is knowledge [196d] of what is to be feared or hoped?


SOCRATES: And that it is not every man that knows it, since neither a doctor nor a seer can know it, and cannot be courageous unless he add this particular knowledge to his own? This was your statement, was it not?

NICIAS: Yes, it was.

SOCRATES: And so in fact this is not a thing which, as the proverb says, “any pig would know”; and thus a pig cannot be courageous.

NICIAS: I think not.

[196e] SOCRATES: Indeed it is obvious, Nicias, that you at least do not believe that even the Crommyonian sow1 could have been courageous. I say this not in jest, but because I conceive it is necessary for him who states this theory to refuse courage to any wild beast, or else to admit that a beast like a lion or a leopard or even a boar is so wise as to know what only a few men know because it is so hard to perceive. Why, he who subscribes to your account of courage must needs agree that a lion, a stag, a bull, and a monkey have all an equal share of courage in their nature.

[197a] LACHES: Heavens, Socrates, how admirably you argue! Now answer us sincerely, Nicias, and say whether those animals, which we all admit to be courageous, are wiser than we are; or whether you dare, in contradiction of everyone else, describe them as not even courageous.

NICIAS: No, Laches, I do not describe animals, or anything else that from thoughtlessness has no fear of the fearful, as courageous, but rather as fearless and foolish. Or do you suppose I describe all children [197b] as courageous, that have no fear because they are thoughtless? I rather hold that the fearless and the courageous are not the same thing. In my opinion very few people are endowed with courage and forethought, while rashness, boldness, and fearlessness, with no forethought to guide it, are found in a great number of men, women, children, and animals. So you see, the acts that you and most people call courageous, I call rash, and it is the prudent acts [197c] which I speak of that are courageous.

LACHES: Mark you, Socrates, how finely, as he fancies, my friend decks himself out with his words! And how he attempts to deprive of the distinction of courage those whom everyone admits to be courageous!

NICIAS: I am not referring to you, Laches, so do not be fiightened: for I grant that you, and Lamachus also, are wise, since you are courageous, and I say the same of numerous other Athenians.

LACHES: I will not say what I could say in answer to that, lest you call me a true son of Aexone.

[197d] SOCRATES: No, say nothing, Laches: for in fact you seem to me to have failed to perceive that he has acquired his wisdom from Damon, our good friend; and Damon constantly associates with Prodicus, who is supposed to be the cleverest of the sophists at distinguishing terms like these.

LACHES: Yes, for it is more suitable, Socrates, for a sophist to make a show of such refinements than for a man whom the city thinks worthy to govern her.

[197e] SOCRATES: Indeed it is suitable, I presume, my amiable friend, for a man in the highest seat of government to be gifted with the highest degree of wisdom. But it seems to me that NICIAS: is worthy of further attention, so that we may learn in what connexion he uses this word “courage.”

LACHES: Then attend to him yourself, Socrates.

SOCRATES: That is what I propose to do, my good sir: still, you are not to think that I will release you from your due share of the argument. No, you must put your mind to it and join in weighing well what is said.

LACHES: Well, so be it, if you think that I ought.

SOCRATES: Indeed I do. Now, Nicias, please go back to the beginning and answer us: [198a] you know we started our discussion by considering courage as a part of virtue?

NICIAS: Quite so.

SOCRATES: And you joined in this answer, -- that it is a part, there being also other parts, which taken all together have received the name of virtue.

NICIAS: Why, of course.

SOCRATES: Now, do you mean the same as I do by these? Besides courage, I refer to temperance, justice, and other similar qualities. And you also, do you not?

[198b] NICIAS: Certainly I do.

SOCRATES: So much for that; thus far we agree: but let us pass on to what is to be feared and what to be hoped, and make sure that you and we do not take two different views of these. Let me tell you our view of them, and if you do not agree with it, you shall instruct us. We hold that the fearful are things that cause fear, and the safely ventured are those that do not; and fear is caused not by past or present, but by expected evils: for fear is expectation of coming evil. You are of the same mind with us in this, are you not, Laches?

[198c] LACHES: Yes, entirely so, Socrates.

SOCRATES: So there you have our view, Nicias, -- that coming evils are to be feared, and things not evil, or good things, that are to come are to be safely hoped. Would you describe them in this way, or in some other?

NICIAS: I would describe them in this way.

SOCRATES: And the knowledge of these things is what you term courage?

NICIAS: Precisely.

SOCRATES: There is still a third point on which we must see if you are in agreement with us.

[198d] NICIAS: What point is that?

SOCRATES: I will tell you. It seems to your friend and me that, to take the various subjects of knowledge, there is not one knowledge of how a thing has happened in the past, another of how things are happening in the present, and another of how a thing that has not yet happened might or will happen most favorably in the future, but it is the same knowledge throughout. For example, in the case of health, it is medicine always and alone that surveys present, past, and future processes alike; [198e] and farming is in the same position as regards the productions of the earth. And in matters of war; I am sure you yourselves will bear me out when I say that here generalship makes the best forecasts on the whole, and particularly of future results, and is the mistress rather than the servant of the seer's art, because it knows better what is happening or about to happen [199a] in the operations of war; whence the law ordains that the general shall give orders to the seer, and not the seer to the general. May we say this, Laches?

LACHES: We may.

SOCRATES: Well now, do you agree with us, Nicias, that the same knowledge has comprehension of the same things, whether future, present, or past?

NICIAS: I do, for that is my own opinion, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And courage, my good friend, is knowledge of [199b] what is to be feared and hoped, as you say, do you not?


SOCRATES: And things to be feared and things to be hoped have been admitted to be either future goods or future evils?

NICIAS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And the same knowledge is concerned with the same things, whether in the future or in any particular stage?

NICIAS: That is so.

SOCRATES: Then courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be feared and what hoped, for it comprehends goods and evils not merely in the future, but also in the present [199c] and the past and in any stage, like the other kinds of knowledge.

NICIAS: Apparently.

SOCRATES: So the answer that you gave us, Nicias, covers only about a third part of courage; whereas our question was of what courage is as a whole. And now it appears, on your own showing, that courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be feared and what hoped, but practically a knowledge concerning all goods and evils at every stage; [199d] such is your present account of what courage must be. What do you say to this new version, Nicias?

NICIAS: I accept it, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Now do you think, my excellent friend, there could be anything wanting to the virtue of a man who knew all good things, and all about their production in the present, the future, and the past, and all about evil things likewise? Do you suppose that such a man could be lacking in temperance, or justice, and holiness, when he alone has the gift of taking due precaution, in his dealings with gods and men, [199e] as regards what is to be feared and what is not, and of procuring good things, owing to his knowledge of the right behaviour towards them?

NICIAS: I think, Socrates, there is something in what you say.

SOCRATES: Hence what you now describe, Nicias, will be not a part but the whole of virtue.

NICIAS: Apparently.

SOCRATES: But, you know, we said that courage is one of the parts of virtue.

NICIAS: Yes, we did.

SOCRATES: And what we now describe is seen to be different.

NICIAS: So it seems.

SOCRATES: Thus we have failed to discover, Nicias, what courage really is.

NICIAS: Evidently.

LACHES: And I, in fact, supposed, my dear Nicias, that you were going to discover it, [200a] when you showed such contempt for the answers I made to Socrates: indeed I had very great hopes that the wisdom you derived from Damon would avail you for the discovery.

NICIAS: That is all very fine, Laches; you think you can now make light of the fact that you were yourself shown just now to know nothing about courage; when my turn comes to be shown up in the same light, that is all you care, and now it will not matter to you at all, it seems, if I share your ignorance of things whereof any self-respecting man ought to have knowledge. You really strike me, indeed, [200b] as following the average man's practice of keeping an eye on others rather than on oneself: but I fancy that for the present I have said as much as could be expected on the subject of our discussion, and that later on I must make good any defects in my statement upon it with the help of Damon -- whom I know you choose to ridicule, and that without ever having seen the actual Damon -- and with others' help besides. And when I have settled the matter I will enlighten you, in no grudging spirit: [200c] for I think you are in very great need of instruction.

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