Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in the Laches

"I still think that I know what courage is, but I can't understand how it has escaped me just now so that I can't pin it down in words and say what it is."

Socrates is sometimes described as the founder of Western moral philosophy. This is not strictly true -- there were others before him -- but Socrates certainly did more than any other thinker to set the method and the agenda of ethical thought for the next two and a half millennia. (Click here for two sculptures of Socrates.) Later philosophers have often disagreed with Socrates’ conclusions, but have generally admired his essential approach.

Like Jesus, with whom he is often compared, Socrates left no writings of his own, and our knowledge of his teachings derives from the writings of his students, particularly Plato and Xenophon. (For the purposes of this course we shall focus on the writings of Plato.) Plato presents Socrates in conversation with his contemporaries. These portrayals are unlikely to be literally accurate reports of actual conversations, but they presumably do convey the kind of teaching that Socrates engaged in.

It is useful to begin our study of moral philosophy with Socrates, because Socrates exemplifies the dialectical method more explicitly than any other philosopher. Socrates always starts by eliciting premises from his interlocutors, asking them what they think on various questions. Socrates then proceeds to show them -- again, not by asserting anything himself but simply by asking questions -- that their beliefs are deeply inconsistent. Socrates’ dialectical method of inquiry rests on a distinction between what we may call surface beliefs and deep beliefs. Our surface beliefs are the beliefs we actually hold right now. Our deep beliefs are the beliefs we are committed to holding -- the beliefs we would end up holding if we were to trace out all the implications of our surface beliefs and resolve any inconsistencies among them. For Socrates, these deep beliefs represent what we really believe, as opposed to what we merely think we believe. One of the aims of Socratic cross-examination is to move his interlocutors to resolve inconsistencies in their surface beliefs, and thus to uncover their deep beliefs. Socrates seems to think, further, that there is one best way of resolving surface inconsistencies, and so that everyone will ultimately turn out to have the same deep beliefs on moral issues.

Many of Socrates’ own moral views seem radically at odds with common sense. He claims, for example, that there is no conflict between morality and self-interest; that a criminal is better off being punished than not being punished; that knowing the good is sufficient for choosing the good, so that all wrongdoing is involuntary; and that virtue all by itself is sufficient for happiness, so that a virtuous person cannot be harmed. But Socrates insists that, as counterintuitive as these views may seem, they are views to which ordinary common sense can be shown to be committed once its implications are traced out and its internal inconsistencies eliminated.

It’s important to see that Socrates isn’t poking holes in people’s belief systems just for the fun of it. Socrates thinks that the “examined life” -- the life of philosophic inquiry -- is the most valuable one that anyone can live, and he is helping to liberate his interlocutors from the condition of being prisoners of their own confusion. To employ Plato’s metaphor, Socrates is trying to lead people out of the Cave. Socrates sees himself as offering a kind of salvation -- not salvation of the soul (in the Christian sense) but salvation of the mind.

Not everyone experienced Socrates’ efforts that way, however. (Recall Rand’s description of the anti-conceptual mentality. How would the kind of person Rand describes react to Socrates’ questioning? Is it surprising that Socrates was eventually put to death?) Socrates thought that people should regard having their beliefs refuted as a benefit. If your beliefs don’t make sense, you’re better off knowing it rather than remaining in your delusion. But this will be the reaction only of those who are interested in truth. Those who were primarily concerned with their own ego and social status rather than with truth were embarrassed at having their beliefs ripped to shreds by Socrates, and they regarded his intellectual activity as a bane rather than a boon.

In the Laches, as in most Socratic dialogues, Socrates asks his interlocutors to define a certain moral quality -- in this case, courage. Socrates assumes that if one really knows what courage is, one will be able to give a definition that identifies the common essence that all instances of courage share -- the feature that makes all courageous things courageous. An inability to provide such a definition will be regarded by Socrates as evidence that the interlocutor knows nothing about courage. (After all, how can I know that so-and-so is courageous if I don’t even know what courage is?) Following his usual pattern, Socrates asks the interlocutor to propose a definition of courage. Once the interlocutor has done so, Socrates will ask him more questions, in order to reveal that the interlocutor holds other beliefs that are inconsistent with his suggested definition. The interlocutor is then offered the opportunity to revise his beliefs in the face of the discovered inconsistency. If the interlocutor offers a revised definition, Socrates then seeks to elicit further beliefs that contradict it. As long as the interlocutor is still holding inconsistent positions, he has not yet reached the level of his deep beliefs.

For understanding the Laches -- Socrates’ discussion of the nature of courage -- some background is helpful. Any contemporary reader of Plato would have known that Socrates’ two main interlocutors in this dialogue -- Laches and Nicias -- were both famous generals. Nicias, in particular, was responsible for one of the greatest disasters in Athenian history. During the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Athenians sent an expedition, under Nicias’ command, to conquer Sicily so as to secure its grain supply. Nicias’ excessive caution, conservatism, and reliance on omens led to the catastrophic failure of the expedition (the entire force was slaughtered, including Nicias himself) and ultimately to Athens’ defeat in the war as a whole. (Since Athens’ defeat created in turn the climate that led to Socrates’ execution, Nicias’ mistakes can be seen as indirectly responsible for Socrates’ own demise.) Given Nicias’ own poor military judgment in real life, there is a certain irony in his defending, as he does in the Laches, a conception of courage that lays great stress on accurate judgment about the future. The implication is that Nicias does not himself possess the virtue that he talks about.

Nicias defends a highly intellectualized conception of courage. Laches, by contrast, defends a more traditional conception that lays primary stress on nonrational aspects of courage. Socrates tries to show both men that their beliefs about courage are inconsistent and confused. It is noteworthy that Nicias claims -- and an examination of other Socratic dialogues (e.g., the Protagoras) seems to support the claim -- that the intellectualized conception of courage he is defending is in fact that of Socrates himself. If this is so, why does Socrates attack his own view? Presumably because he doesn’t simply want Nicias to parrot Socrates’ own view back to him; he wants to see if Nicias understands the view. And it turns out that Nicias doesn’t, since he also continues to hold other beliefs that conflict with what he says about courage.

As I have mentioned, once a definition has been proffered, Socrates then elicits further beliefs that can be used as premises for a valid argument against that definition. As you read Plato’s dialogues, you should be trying to identify what the premises and conclusions of these arguments are. In the case of this dialogue I have done the job for you, but for later dialogues you will learn to do so yourself. (Note that the numbers I cite represent marginal line numbers, not page numbers.)

Laches’ first definition of courage (190 e-192 b)

Courage = standing firm in battle

Socrates’ refutation:

1. Courage is a property that all instances of courage share. (premise)
2. Standing firm in battle is not a property that all instances of courage share. (premise)
3. Courage does not = standing firm in battle. (conclusion from 1 and 2)

Laches’ second definition of courage (192 b-d)

Courage = endurance

Socrates’ refutation:

1. Courage is fine and noble. (premise)
2. Nothing harmful and injurious is fine and noble. (premise)
3. Courage is not harmful or injurious. (conclusion from 1 and 2)
4. Endurance is sometimes harmful and injurious, e.g., when it is in a foolish cause. (premise)
5. Courage does not = endurance. (conclusion from 3 and 4)

Laches’ third definition of courage (192 d-193 c)

Courage = wise endurance

Socrates’ refutation:

1. If courage = wise endurance, then the more wisdom one has when enduring danger, the more courageous one is. (premise)
2. Skill is a kind of wisdom. (premise)
3. If courage = wise endurance, then the more skill one has when enduring danger, the more courageous one is. (conclusion from 1 and 2)
4. The less skill one has at doing the dangerous thing one is attempting, the more couragous one is. (premise)
5. Courage does not = wise endurance. (conclusion from 3 and 4)

Nicias’ first definition of courage (194 d-199 e)

Courage = knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful (i.e., of what is worth fearing and what is worth hoping for)

Laches’ first attempted refutation:

1. Doctors have knowledge of illness and health. (premise)
2. Illness is fearful (i.e., worth fearing) and health is hopeful (i.e., worth hoping for). (premise)
3. Doctors have knowledge of the fearful and hopeful. (conclusion from 1 and 2)
4. Being a doctor doesn’t automatically make one courageous. (premise)
5. Courage does not = knowledge of the fearful and hopeful. (conclusion from 3 and 4)

Nicias’ reply:

(3) is ambiguous. Doctors may know various things about conditions that are in fact hopeful or fearful (e.g., illness and health), but they don’t necessarily know when or whether illness and health are hopeful or fearful. (3) is true if it means that doctors have the technical knowledge about how to produce sickness and health, but false if it means that doctors have the moral knowledge to evaluate whether sickness is worth fearing.
[Notice how this answer enables Nicias to resolve Socrates’ puzzle about how wisdom in some cases seems to increase courage and in other cases seems to decrease it. Different kinds of wisdom are at issue. The technical wisdom about how to reduce risks makes one’s action less courageous. The moral wisdom about which risks are worth taking makes one’s action more courageous.]

Laches’ second, and Socrates’ first, attempted refutation:

1. Few human beings possess knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful. (premise)
2. Whoever possesses knowledge that most humans lack is wiser than most humans. (premise)
3. If lions and boars possess knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful, then they are wiser than most humans. (conclusion from 1 and 2)
4. If courage = knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful, then either lions and boars possess knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful, or else lions and boars are not courageous. (premise)
5. If courage = knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful, then either lions and boars are wiser than most humans, or else lions and boars are not courageous. (conclusion from 3 and 4)
6. Lions and boars are not wiser than most humans. (premise)
7. Lions and boars are courageous. (premise)
8. Courage does not = knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful. (conclusion from 5, 6, and 7)

Nicias’ reply:

Reject premise (7).

[Notice how in both Laches’ objections, Laches simply asserts his premises rather than drawing them from Nicias’ beliefs.]

Socrates’ second refutation:

1. Fear is the anticipation of future evil; hope, of future good. (premise)
2. The knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful is the knowledge of future goods and evils. (conclusion from 1)
3. Knowledge has to have a unified subject-matter; knowledge of future F must also encompass knowledge of past and present F. (premise)
4. The knowledge of future goods and evils = the knowledge of good and evil generally. (conclusion from 2 and 3)
5. Knowledge of good and evil generally is the whole of virtue, not just a part of it. (premise)
6. The knowledge of future goods and evils is the whole of virtue, not just a part of it. (conclusion from 4 and 5)
7. Courage is only a part of virtue, not the whole of it. (premise)
8. Courage does not = the knowledge of future goods and evils. (conclusion from 6 and 7)

Nicias does not know how to reply to Socrates’ argument, and the dialogue ends without resolution. But this does not necessarily mean that Socrates (or Plato) had no solution to offer. Just as Socrates prefers to elcit answers from his interlocutors rather than simply asserting his own views, so Plato may be trying to motivate us to figure out the answer for ourselves. At any rate, we shall see in a later dialogue, the Protagoras, that Socrates himself rejects premise 7, and so does not himself endorse the argument he offers against Nicias’ definition. (Remember that Nicias claims he got his definition from Socrates in the first place.) We shall also see in the Protagoras why Socrates thinks that mere knowledge of good and evil is sufficient for virtuous conduct.

In lieu of study questions for this section, just think about these arguments and how you would evaluate them.

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