The Laches of Plato
A translation and commentary by Kenneth Quandt
“You've seen the display of fighting in armor, Nicias and Laches, and now Melesias and I will tell you why we invited you to come. With you, at least, we can be frank. Others might think this sort of thing ridiculous and rather than saying so might just say what they think we'd like to hear. We believe you two not only can judge well but also will tell us truly what your judgment is. That's why we asked you along. You see, it's all about our teenage sons here, named of course after their grandfathers – Melesias's son, Thucydides (the general, not the historian), and my son Aristides (yes, named after Aristides the Just). Lately we've decided to get involved in their education and not just let them while away their time the way so many parents let their children do. You, too, have sons and, given the sorts of men you are we were sure you've gotten involved in seeing to it that they turn out as best as they can be, and so we have asked you to give us your opinion – and in case you haven't, to talk things over with us as fellow parents.
“At the risk of boring you I will say more. Melesias and I are members of an eating club and sometimes our sons come along. Of course a lot of bragging goes on at a place like that, and although Melesias and I have plenty to say about the things our fathers did, we have nothing to say about ourselves in the presence of our sons! Frankly, this is a little embarrassing. We blame it on our fathers, though, because with all their military duties as well as their political work at home they neglected us in our teenage years and let us idle the time away! We've warned our sons against this, that if they neglect themselves and don't obey us, they will end up nobodies, whereas if they do obey us they may come to deserve the names they have inherited from their grandfathers.
“Well, the boys have said they would obey us and so now we have to find out what to tell them to do. Somebody told us fighting in armor would be a good thing for them to learn and got us to agree to attend a display – and it occurred to us to bring you along. That's why we're all here, and we ask you please to help us by giving your advice. How about it? Do you think fighting in armor is a good thing for us to arrange for them, or would you suggest something else?”
A certain Lysimachus has just said something like this to two men he hardly knows, in the presence of his son. It is a special thing about the Greeks, the way a man names his son after his own father. We do not need to plumb the Freudian depths to realize that all the mixed feelings a man feels about his own father will be brought to mind every time he faces his son, a mixture his son does not yet know about in all its complexity, and may not until he has a son of his own; but a son has his opinions, too, opinions about his father, just as his father does about his own father.
A father has only one first son, and does not need to pass a test in order to qualify for fatherhood. His own upbringing will be his model for raising his son, by default, even if he fights it. At the same time, “The child is father to the man” – a true old saw that can also feed and strengthen a deep and strongly misleading delusion with which the father can console himself and justify all his foibles. And just as there are fathers who down deep want their sons not to surpass them, even if it means they merely imitate them so as to justify their own lives while at the same time hoping their sons will do them proud, there are sons for whom a sense of filial piety deters them from outdoing their fathers, a sense that at the very same time sits restively beside hopes or wishes to be free of the father altogether. A father's very notion that studying hoplomachia would make a man out of his boy – this cherished vision of his son decked out in seventy pounds of hoplite armor – is part and parcel of such magical and self-contradictory thinking. It is for instance characteristic of a certain kind of father to admonish his son not to waste his youth because the father himself wasted his own: the fact that he did might have enabled him to recognize it was a mistake but it did not equip him to teach his son how to do better. And in a moment we shall learn that the converse is also true: that if he is a man of accomplishments he might have too little time to father his boy. The father's dilemma will be expressed with poignancy near the very center of our dialogue by the juxtaposition of two proverbs – the father must avoid “starting sculpture with a pithos,” while at the same time he must realize that it is “not just the first pancake” that he is risking. The Greek naming convention draws all these feelings forward as the moth to the flame, and Plato's Laches provides us among other things with a window onto how these feelings might play out in a discussion among fathers, on a typical day in Athens in the late Fifth Century.
The father-son theme also plays an even more prominent and powerful role in Plato's greatest work, The Republic, and I may advert my reader to my commentary on that dialogue where this issue is for once given the recognition it deserves. The Republic however explores the problem from the son's point of view whereas the Laches gets its beginning from the father's side of the problem. Our opening speaker, Lysimachus, is one of four fathers who together will spend the afternoon talking, more and then less directly, about the upbringing of their sons. Unlike the Republic it is a “dramatic” dialogue – there is no omniscient narrator telling us that yesterday he went down to the Piraeus – and therefore Plato leaves it entirely up to us to recognize and reflect on what is said and what is not said, and to notice not only the blind spots of each speaker, but also the shared silences of the group and the sometimes painful silence of the sons of Lysimachus and his friend Melesias, who are present for the conversation as we learn early on, when Lysimachus introduces them by name. Lysimachus in his opening speech apologizes several times for breaking through the conventional silence by which these difficult and disarming questions are usually kept at bay, for several times he apologizes for his frankness. It is quite exceptional that he chooses to confess his belief that he is unqualified to raise his son rather than to hide it. He says this to a pair of virtual strangers while his son looks on, strangers whose help he has solicited because of their reputations as generals and statesmen, as though they are likely therefore to have given adequate care for their sons' upbringings. But he has just complained that his father was too busy with civic and military affairs to attend to his own upbringing, and moreover in embarking even at this late date upon the care of his son he suddenly claims that he is not doing what all the other parents do who allow their sons to idle away the time. Immediately thereupon it is his son that he admonishes, rather than himself, not to idle waste his time lest he end up a nobody in the eyes of the world, which is now tantamount to telling him not to not be cared for at the same time that he demurs to tell him how he could become a somebody in his own eyes. That he should choose famous men for counselors is an index of his utter perfidy as a father. Most appallingly for his son, and for Melesias's son, it remains unclear whether the fathers are as worried about the lives their sons will lead as they are about how the perception of their sons in the eyes of others will affect their family names.
The first of the two strangers Lysimachus has brought along, the famous general Nicias, gracefully acquiesces to help in any way he can, but the first thing the second stranger says is that Lysimachus is right to point out this problem of neglect since he himself has neglected his own family given how busy a man like himself is at state affairs and war. It is this latter person, Laches, who gives the dialogue its name. His remark does not disqualify him to participate in the counseling, since Lysimachus has provided that in case they have not formulated ways to raise their sons they might for just that reason be willing to join Melesias and him in the deliberations as equally needful parties. Nor does Laches follow up with a demurral to help: in fact he makes this remark without expressing any hint of regret, nor with any apology for frankness in the manner of Lysimachus, as if for him he means only to convey that Yes, he is a mover and shaker of the sort whose opinion is worth soliciting. Rather than making clear what he thinks he is saying, he moves on to express surprise that Lysimachus has not also asked for the advice of a fifth person who happens to be present, a person we readers know very well from elsewhere and know perhaps better than do any of the other participants in this conversation. Socrates is said, within this dialogue, to be “younger,” but the characterization may mean simply to emphasize that he hasn't yet had any sons, since this son of Sophroniscus did not become a father until he was 52 or so, and his oldest son reached the “educable” teenage years of the sons of the other four men more than twenty years after the “dramatic date” of the dialogue, at about the time of Socrates's execution by his fellow citizens of Athens. We do know, by the way, that in the traditional manner he did name his second son Sophroniscus, after his father.1
“Why,” Laches asks Lysimachus, “have you not also called upon Socrates to join in the consultation? After all he is very interested in the pastimes of the young and, even more, his father Sophroniscus was a fellow demesman of yours.” Since the time of the Cleisthenic reforms in Attica the role played by family dynasties in social organization had largely been replaced by shared membership in ten geographical demes. Laches is telling Lysimachus he already has a claim on Socrates's attentions without having to beg and flatter the way he had just done in his speech to himself and to Nicias. Lysimachus is old and doesn't get out much any more and so he doesn't know about this Socrates, but he can say he had never had a falling out with his father, Sophroniscus, up to his dying day, so that now he might prevail upon Socrates to extend the relationship between their households that he had enjoyed with Sophroniscus. “But wait!” he says, for it has just popped into his elderly mind that he has heard that name bandied about by the young ones talking in his house, and he asks his son, “Is this Socrates here the one you have been talking about so warmly?” “Yes, Father,” answers Aristides, his son, named after Aristides the Just. -- and this is the only way we know he is present for the conversation. “Well then, Socrates, it's only just that you help me with my sons,” Lysimachus immediately infers.
Despite Lysimachus and Melesias's newfound desire to find a proper teacher for their sons, Plato leaves it up to us to notice that the sons themselves have already discovered the greatest teacher in Athens, the teacher whom Plato's brothers had sought out in the Republic, and have done so without their father's even being aware it. Lysimachus for his part has heard them talking about him around the house but he has not heard what they said about him, nor has he asked we may only infer. And if we think about it for a moment longer we realize the sons have not taken the trouble to tell him, either. But again the action now recalls us from such reflections, for Laches quickly chimes in with the segue that not only Socrates's father but also his fatherland should recommend Socrates to Lysimachus. He, too, passes over the revelation about the sons' relation with Socrates, because he is eager to tell us that he was an eyewitness to the man's very deeds, how he behaved during the disastrous battle of Delium in which the Athenians were infamously routed. If all the Athenians had managed to keep as calm as Socrates had during that battle, says he, things might have turned out differently – all this as if it qualified Socrates still more to be a teacher of the two sons.
Clearly the grownups would rather talk to each other – hold forth, that is, before each other – than engage the young men in a conversation and ask about their experience of Socrates as a teacher or counselor. Lysimachus is preoccupied with cajoling Socrates to come on board with the others, just as is the old man Cephalus did at the beginning of the Republic, while Laches has forgotten his own neglect of his family and passed over Socrates's extremely relevant relationship with the sons in order to remember him in a different connection altogether, a connection quite unconnected to the topic that has been brought up by the display they have just witnessed and the elaborate request that Lysimachus made at the opening of the conversation. Only that first stranger, who politely and discreetly agreed to help – the general Nicias, who some years later will be in charge of the ill-fated Athenian campaign in Sicily – has not exposed a hugely unconscious broadside by his remarks so far.
Given the unanimous acclaim for Socrates, Lysimachus now demands that he also come on board to give him counsel, since it would be only just for him to carry on the family association. But even more just would it be, Socrates responds, if he spoke only after the two others, given the fact that they are his elders.
With this the conversation is underway. Shall Lysimachus and Melesias send their sons to study fighting in armor (hoplomachia), or what should they do, in order to help them turn out as good as possible? This is the first three pages of Plato's Laches, which according to the ancient subtitles of Thrasyllus and the modern secondary literature is a dialogue “On Courage,” though so far it hardly looks that way, and I can tell you now that the way it may truly said to be about courage will end up never having been seen before!
II. 181D8ff
The quieter Nicias will speak first, just as he was first to agree to speak. He seconds the opinion of that salesman that recommended hoplomachia to Lysimachus. The exercise will hardly tolerate idlers, and in addition to being as athletic a pursuit as any other it will prepare the sons as athletes in the greater contest of war, no less than horsemanship. They will learn how best to fight, and more importantly how to maneuver on their own in case the order of the phalanx is broken; but once they have mastered this they will conceive a desire to study the next level of military prowess. Success and decoration will then engender in them a desire to go on to the highest military studies and ultimately they might become generals! Overall the study will give them both boldness and a gracefulness of bearing, a thing particularly formidable in the face of the enemy. It is of course natural that Nicias should assume the best outcome a young man could achieve is to become a general like himself and so he does not argue this but instead emphasizes how hoplomachia might instill in the young man an irresistible desire to do it – to study these higher things and really become a somebody. We can imagine this was the hope he held for his own son, and if we shift to the son's point of view we will recognize in what Nicias has said how every father tends to measure his son against himself and might have a tendency to justify himself by persuading his son to grow up and be like him.
Laches speaks next. He would hate to rain on Nicias's parade, but maybe hoplomachia is not a real study after all! Why haven't the warlike Spartans hired such teachers? And worse, why haven't those who teach it even dared to approach them with their wares, but instead frequent only those towns that have the least redoubtable of armies? In fact I have seen today's teacher, Stesilaus (now we learn the name of the man who had put on the display at the beginning), have seen him not only today with his high talk and uninterrupted display, but also under the press of action in the field, where a person is less in control of circumstances. It was on a troop ship sailing to a battle. The boat came upon an enemy cargo ship and our clever Stesilaus had a clever weapon – a sort of spear with a scythe at the end. He tried to reach to the other boat to cut its rigging but the spear-scythe got all tangled up in the other boat's ropes and he couldn't get it loose. As the boat passed he ran along the deck holding on to the spear but as it cleared the boat we were on, there he was, holding the shaft by the very tip, and the enemy burst into laughter at the graceful pose he struck. Then somebody threw a rock at his feet and when it hits the deck he lets the thing go! Even those on our side could no longer contain themselves but burst into laughter at the sight – the spear hanging in the rigging of the boat as it slipped away and Stesilaus looking off to it longingly. Nicias may be right to say hoplomachia is a valid study – I am only reporting what I saw. But I would say more: it may be that a coward who learns the art will then rush in too confidently and only sooner show his true colors, whereas a braver man that has studied it will be eyed with envy exactly because he did so and held to an impossibly high standard – so that in my opinion those who take it seriously are making a mistake.
The speech is as stunning for its wit as it is for its perfect irrelevancy to the question. Laches is coloring outside the lines. He has undermined the advice of Nicias about the upbringing of the young but offered no advice of his own, and indeed has forgotten that question in order to ridicule the man they had come to watch giving the display. Where Nicias spoke with grace and some eloquence, as we shall see when we review the Greek closely, Laches is opportunistic and brusque. He challenges assent by means of satire and ridicule where Nicias sought to edify and persuade. He makes no recommendation about hoplomachia as a study for the education of young men nor does he suggest another tack for them to take, but only satirizes the display he had been persuaded to sit through.
In fact, as with his opening remark about neglecting his own family, he has spoken without making clear just what he is trying to do by speaking, nor does he seem concerned whether his remarks will advance the common work of the conversation. The structure of the speech reveals it is more a response to Nicias than an answer to Lysimachus. He starts by opposing Nicias's idea that the study has enough substance to lead to higher things, and then insinuates, in a captious and ad hominem way, just where it will lead instead, namely to failure in the real thick of battle, to a false sense of security, or at least to attracting the envy of one's peers. We hear satirical verbal echoes of Nicias's speech -- for instance about how the final pose that Stesilaus struck was hardly graceful and fearsome to the enemy but ungainly and ridiculous even to his own fellow soldiers -- but it is unclear whether the echoes are intentional since he neither owns up nor claims that this is the purpose of his speech, nor indeed does he tell us what he is doing. This is important because it leaves the group with two speeches that are not only discrepant but that cannot even be compared. Nicias has made a general point that Laches undermines but does not claim to refute, and does so with a mere anecdote; while for his part the only general point Laches makes is that hoplomachia would not be worth studying if it were not a serious study, but this is true by definition. Plato leaves us to reflect that perhaps he is the sort of person Lysimachus referred to at the beginning, the sort that might ridicule such a study, and that Lysimachus was right to think Laches would not be at all hesitant to hide his feelings – and yet he does not articulate his opinion in a propositional way, so that he actually has taken no position at all.
III. 184C9ff
What will – what can – happen next? Of course it devolves upon Lysimachus to speak, and in particular to request a response from Socrates. He asks him to break the tie with a third vote, but rather than jumping at the chance to hold forth as the other two have done, Socrates expresses shock. How in the world can you submit your son to a fate decided by a mere majority? Lysimachus is non-plussed and Socrates turns to his sidekick, Melesias, the other stake-holder in the consultation: Don't you think you would prefer to find an expert for your sons if it were a gymnastic competition he was to win? Melesias agrees and Socrates continues: But what should our expert be an expert in? What are we really deliberating about?
At this point Nicias interrupts – “Hoplomachia, no?” for he hopes to keep his favorite topic front and center, and Socrates turns to him to clarify the question he asked Melesias. It is not about eye-salve that we deliberate when somebody asks whether to put it on the eyes, but about the eyes for the sake of which we would do so. Similarly it would be for the sake of the son's souls that we would suggest one study or another and so in summary we need somebody who has studied and become competent at the care of the soul.
And now Laches interrupts: “Studied? Can't a person be effective without having a teacher leading him around by the nose?” Of course he is reiterating his skepticism about study in general, again without making a refutable argument to defend his prejudice, but for the nonce Socrates can sidestep the disruption with a slight modification. We need an expert who studied with a reputable teacher or failing that has actually improved somebody – indeed several people to be sure, and so according to their own testimony.
With just a few select remarks Socrates has brought all four others into a single conversation: Lysimachus and Melesias have been challenged, and Nicias and Laches have been corrected. Something like four dialogues have suddenly taken place and everybody has become involved. If they agree that they need an expert they will have to look beyond myself, he now goes on to say – I have spent my life thinking about this sort of thing but have gotten nowhere and never could I afford a teacher. But Laches and Nicias are older and richer, too. Moreover it seems they do have competence since they were so willing to hold forth a moment ago. I wonder only at the fact that they appear to disagree! So now Lysimachus, put it to them to show their credentials. And here Socrates gives him the very words to say, in order to ensure that things will not go off the rails again. In the course of doing so he happens to tie together several of the loose ends we noticed, that had been passed over by all the un-self-aware speechifying: “Here is what to say to them” (again I paraphrase):
“Socrates claims to be clueless about this matter himself and can't decide between you. So tell us with whom you studied the subject of bringing up the young so that just in case you haven't the time, given the pressures of your public activities, all of us here might go to that person instead and try to persuade him, with gifts or favors, to take care of both our children and yours, so that they won't heap embarrassment upon us by turning out poorly. Alternatively, if you discovered it on your own, show us an example of a person you transformed. After all, if it is only today that you have become such experts as to hold forth, you must beware, for you aren't 'risking a Carian' but your sons and the sons of your friends; and beware that the old proverb of 'trying to start ceramics with a pithos' might apply to you!”
Socrates's words have Lysimachus admonishing Nicias and Laches for being too busy to tend to their sons, and including them in his own dilemma and embarrassment. At the same time Socrates is admonishing Lysimachus that the fact somebody is a close associate is a good reason for him not to give advice, unless he is truly qualified. Lysimachus had had the chance to evaluate Socrates's effect on his sons but forwent doing so in order to cajole him into helping, on the grounds of being a fellow demesman. Moreover, Lysimachus confessed to “a certain embarrassment” (ὑπαισχυνόμεθα) at having nothing to say on his own behalf at dinner but now Socrates calls a spade a spade, warning them all against what he calls a devastating embarrassment (καταισχύνωσι); and though Lysimachus had complained that his father was too busy to bother with him, Socrates now shames Laches for saying this is true of himself without batting an eyelash. The crowning blow comes at the end, with the two proverbs – that the father is not risking a mere Carian slave (tantamount to our proverb about the first pancake), and that one would do better not to begin pottery with a pithos. What describes the great human dilemma of the father better than to remind him that his son is nobody to improvise on but also that raising a son is the hardest thing a man will ever have to do – that he will indeed be starting on the hardest of pots to throw unless he has done some kind of preparatory work, for instance on himself.
IV. 187B8ff
Again it devolves upon Lysimachus to speak. Wonderfully he has recognized the dynamic challenge in what Socrates has said and in what he had done in the interlude. Even upon his first brief exposure to Socrates he suddenly finds just the right words (as we shall see) to describe the constituents and character of Socratic method! Recognizing its power and its stringencies he realizes Nicias and Laches have to be given a chance to beg off answering the challenge Socrates wants him to put to them, but he pleads with them that they rise to the challenge nevertheless, since the very fame of their families is at stake; and thus, just as before, Lysimachus's request creates a berth for two more speeches.
Nicias again comes first. Reading between the lines of Lysimachus's mild request he remarks that it surely must be true that Lysimachus knows Socrates only through his father: the disarming challenge Socrates has raised is nothing new, but arises typically when one converses with him. 'Sooner or later he always turns his interlocutor's outward gaze around and makes him look inward. I am used to it and am ready to undergo it again since however it may hurt it is no harm. Rather it is better to be improved than to continue in one's old ways. Solon himself said,
Ever do I age, learning many things.
And so I will take whatever he serves up. In fact I just knew this conversation would not end up being about the boys but about ourselves! But you had better ask Laches what he thinks.'
Laches steps in directly and by now we should be on our guard: 'My feeling about speeches is simple – or, better, duplex. Nothing pleases me more than to hear a real man give a speech about virtue or some kind of sophistication when he himself is worthy of making such a speech. The harmony between what he is and what he says produces that beautiful music of the Dorian kind, not the fancy Phrygian, the lavish Ionian, nor that snarky Lydian, hardly fit for a Greek! But when it's the other way around it pains me: indeed the better the opposite sort of man speaks it pains me all the more! As for Socrates I haven't experienced his way of talking but can say that given the man I have seen him to be, he deserves to make as pretty a speech as ever he may – indeed to say absolutely anything he wants! Given all that, I am of course ready to be tested by him in conversation, and would also not be offended to learn something from him, for I too subscribe to Solon's advice, though with one proviso. I will gladly “be taught no matter how old I am,” as long as the teacher is a worthy man in himself, or else I will seem a very slow learner, indeed. That he should be younger than I or have not yet made a name for himself matters not: I feel this way about you Socrates – I put myself into your charge – I will never forget the dangers you and I went through that day at Delium, and the proof of yourself you offered, such as is only just for a man to offer!'
The speech expresses an aversion to rational discourse in general, and spells out what had underlain his critique of Stesilaus and hoplomachia as a study. What matters is the man, not what he says. If he is a real man he can say whatever he wants and if he isn't he doesn't deserve to speak. The incident with Stesilaus on the ship was for Laches enough to annihilate categorically any claim that even the content of what he could offer as a teacher might make upon our attention. It is moreover noteworthy that Laches expresses his preference and aversion in terms of pleasure and pain – complaint and praise in these terms sidestep giving reasons for the pain and pleasure, the articulation of which would require logos, and a logos, to explain. His speech behavior is of a piece with all we have heard so far – either he ridicules as in the case of Stesilaus or he praises with mawkish understatement as in the case of Socrates, and while he will listen only with pain to anything a man says whom he thinks is less than a man, he will listen pleasurably to anything a man says who has proven his mettle on the battlefield. Does he realize that he buys his readiness to put down others at the expense of an excessive fealty to any man that impresses him, from whom he is willing to “hear anything”? Does he realize the implication that with all his talk (and each time in fact he speaks at much greater length than Nicias) he is arguing that arguments have no inherent worth, while at the same time he somehow allows that an unmanly man could speak well or even better, in order to say he finds it painful? What could speaking well consist of, in itself? As before Laches leaves it to us to fill all this in for him. The only thing we can imagine would pain him would be to hear a man boasting beyond his ability, as he suggests that Stesilaus had done, but even so what Stesilaus probably boasted about was the worthiness of the study, and only derivatively his worth as its teacher. Finally, Laches claims to be inexperienced in Socrates's manner of speaking as mere foil for saying he has experienced his prowess at war. At the same time that this is mere rhetoric his words evince a strong contrast with the reaction of the old man Lysimachus, who has recognized in the short space of the Socratic interlude how very special it is! Plato leaves all these quandaries in our lap.
It is marvelous that the biographical fact of Socrates's bravery at Delium provided Plato a way to make credible a scenario in which a man entirely skeptical of the validity of argumentation should be eager, and perhaps even compelled, to engage in dialogue, as long as it is with Socrates. We may now guess that this very special tour de force, which has taken Plato half the dialogue to set up, is the reason he named the dialogue Laches.
V. 189C3ff
Nicias has acquiesced in being examined for the sake of self-improvement; Laches is compelled to do so despite his resistance to talk per se because of Socrates's heroism at Delium. Now Lysimachus seeks to absent himself from the conversation so as to return to the role of observer by asking Socrates to carry out the interrogation on behalf of himself and Melesias. At his age, after all, he can hardly keep track of the complicated give and take of a conversation like the one that just took place. Since the men have acquiesced to converse on the question of their merits and to examine their own credentials, Socrates can now turn the discussion to a program more substantial than merely to name teachers or persons they have improved, which would very likely devolve into insubstantial gossip. After all they would never possess such credentials unless they knew just what it is that improves a young man's soul as well as how to procure it for him; and they would never know that, in turn, unless they knew what virtue is, for it is virtue whose presence improves a man's soul. So let's check whether we know what virtue is.
Laches was the last to hold forth and so it devolves upon him to talk through this suggested change of program with Socrates. But first, Socrates suggests that to ask about virtue at large might be a rather large task, for after all they are only seeking to establish Laches and Nicias's candidacy to give advice about the upbringing of the sons. Perhaps it would suffice to focus on some aspect or part of virtue – say, bravery. We already have an inkling why this might have been the best question Socrates could ask Laches, since he had insisted that only a real man deserves to hold forth on “virtue or some wisdom” – whatever that phrase of his was trying to say. The virtue of talking intelligently (σοφία) for instance, if it were somehow a virtue, would be a non-starter with him, and his behavior in conversation so far evinces little respect for moderation (σωφροσύνη) or fairness (δικαιοσύνη), either. Of the four canonical or cardinal virtues mentioned elsewhere in Greek literature, bravery might be the only one Laches would even acknowledge as indubitably virtuous! In fact Socrates does not even hazard to mention the others by name, but just suggests bravery as the part of the whole of virtue with the graceful excuse that this is the part that according to most men would have something to do with hoplomachia – which Laches accepts with a derogatory sneer.
His articulation of the question that Laches must answer carefully repeats the criteria of the new program with its two steps. What is the bravery that we would endeavor to bring to the young men? Only later will we ask what studies, if any, might be useful for pursuing the second step, namely bringing it to them – say for instance through the study of hoplomachia. So 'How, Laches, would you characterize the virtuous man?'
“That's easy, Socrates: if a man should be willing to hold his ground in battle against the enemy and refuse to flee, you can know he would be a brave man.”
“Good answer, Laches, though now I see I did not ask the question I really had in mind to ask. I would agree the man you describe is brave but what about the man who flees and doesn't hold his position?”
“How could a fleeing man be brave?” Laches asks.
Socrates now cooks up some suggestive material from Homer: those horses of Aeneas that were reputed to know the lay of the land so well they were as good at charging as they were at flight. The Homeric term for fleeing is φόβος, which by the time of Socrates's Attic dialect almost always meant fearing – and so he then says Aeneas the governor of these horses, because of his knowledge of φόβος (fear or flight?), got the sobriquet “admonisher of flight which in Attic would mean “admonisher of fear.” Sometimes of course it can be wiser to flee, as when the prospects are fearsome – but this engaging ambiguity is entirely lost on Laches (as it has been on all commentators to my knowledge), and he gruffly replies, “Socrates, you are talking about cavalry tactics, whereas I was talking about hoplites.”
Socrates quickly remembers a pertinent example of retreat as a hoplite tactic, the maneuver of the Spartan infantry, who as Spartans are indubitably brave, against the Persians with their wicker shields – how they turned to flee but then wheeled back upon them and won the battle at Plataea. The story is true, Laches allows, but rather than tarry on the refutation Socrates quickly moves beyond "exemplomachy" to the real issue. He meant to ask about brave men of all kinds, not just men at war. For in fact it takes bravery to travel at sea, and to face up to disease, and even to face pains and pleasures.
To this wider extension of bravery Laches readily agrees, eager as he is to admire bravery in any and all forms, and perhaps even hoping that bravery (ἀνδρεία) is the only virtue or the virtue that underlies what it means to be “a man” (ἀνήρ). “In all these areas, what is the common element?” Socrates now asks, and illustrates what he means with the example of quickness. One can be quick at running or talking, quick in body or in mind, yet in all these cases there is the single ability of quickness, the ability to do many things in a short time. So what is the common ability that is present in all cases of bravery? And Laches has an answer: it is “a strength of soul to persevere.” This is just the sort of answer we need, Socrates says – but this would only include those sorts of perseverance that are admirable, no? – since bravery is a thing quite admirable? “You may be sure it is among the most admirable of things,” is Laches's completely predictable and slightly corrective reply. Thus a mindful perseverance would be an admirable thing and be brave, but a foolish perseverance would be shameful and therefore would not be. “Of course.”
Now Socrates introduces a new line: Would such a mindful perseverance be bravery whether it is a perseverance in small things as well as in large? If a person had the gumption to invest money knowing that later he would profit, would that count as bravery? Or a physician who denies his patient water and food when it would be deleterious, even if it were his own son – would this be a perseverance you would call brave? “No way,” answers Laches. These are matters of money and health, and in the Greek outlook the goods of money and health fall below a third category, the goods of soul. We may only imagine that this is the “large” concern that Socrates's expression “large and small” had brought into play. And now Socrates presents him with a third and more detailed case to judge:
“Say you had a man who was willing to fight the enemy, calculating that he will have the support of others while he will be fighting against men fewer and less qualified than the men supporting him, and that moreover his position on the field is superior: would you call this man or the man on the other side who awaits the assault, the braver man?”
“The other one,” Laches replies, and it is a huge decision since Socrates's hypothesis suggests beyond doubt that this waiting soldier will lose. This image of the man holding his “position no matter what” comes stunningly close to Laches's original (and for him definitive) image of the brave hoplite and moreover now places that hoplite in a situation that describes exactly their own "historical" position at Delium, facing superior numbers who held the higher ground! – and Laches says Yes! Will he after all modify his position merely because of its unforeseen implications, or will he stick by it with perseverance? With his previous examples Socrates had already broached the idea that the behavior of a soldier might be governed by tactical considerations and we saw how Laches responded there. He “informed” Socrates, as if he did not already know, that Aeneas's “expertise in fear” and the prowess of his horses to beat a retreat, was a matter of cavalry and chariots, whereas he, Laches, was talking about hoplites. But now Socrates has given him an example tailored to hoplite battle and there is no such escape – so Laches with imperturbable perseverance holds to the gut reaction he had expressed from the beginning. His hoplite who will not turn to flight no matter what – just as Socrates did not, that day at Delium, which is after all the only reason he is willing (more exactly the one reason he is compelled) to participate in the conversation!
From this point it becomes inevitable that for the sake of consistency (i.e. perseverance) Laches will defend the unschooled cavalryman whom Socrates next brings up, as being braver than a schooled one (Socrates is working back toward the example of Aeneas) and then for good measure Socrates adds the unschooled archer or slinger as well, and then adds examples beyond the military range like diving into a well. The problem, however, is that Laches had initially agreed, when he at first was praising bravery, to associate it with mindfulness. At that point he had seen mindfulness as sober resolution. But in Socrates's last example of the hoplite on the battlefield, he has not only recreated the situation of himself and Laches at Delium but he has also slanted that mindfulness toward mere calculation, in his depiction of the opposing hoplite – a thing quite different in Laches's mind and more of the ilk of Stesilaus and his display at the gym. Socrates reminds him they had agreed that foolish perseverance was shameful but bravery was admirable, so that the position they have now reached, in making bravery shameful, is itself not admirable, but rather reveals a Doric disharmony within themselves – a discrepancy within them between their words and their deeds, for an observer of their behavior at Delium might believe they have some share in bravery, but an auditor of this conversation would hardly think so.
With this Socrates indicates that Laches, who puts little stake in talk, has not even met his own minimal standard for speaking! Laches bravely takes this comeuppance right on the chin (“What you say is completely true”), and Socrates playfully suggests they should not perhaps abandon Laches's position entirely, at least to the extent that they should bravely persevere in their search! Who knows, maybe bravery will turn out to be perseverance after all and the argument itself will laugh at them for quitting!
In response to this good-humored remark Laches candidly reveals his feelings, and they are a jumble, as feelings can often be. In fact, for the first time the confusion that has underlain everything he has said comes near the surface and confusion is all that he expresses. “For my part Socrates I won't stand down before the fight is over; yet please recognize that I am not really used to these sorts of arguments; and I have to admit that a certain contentiousness has sprung up in me about the things that have been said; and I am truly disturbed that I am unable to express what I see in my mind. I do have an idea of bravery, and I don't understand how it has so eluded me just now that I cannot capture it in words.”
VI. 194B5ff.
Of course something else has to happen, and luckily Socrates can now suggest they ask Nicias for help. Nicias steps right in and suggests a new line of argument, based on something he has heard Socrates say in other conversations, that becoming wise (σοφός) about something enables people to become good at that something, so that maybe bravery is a kind of wisdom. “Wise” for Laches immediately means “sophisticated” – a negative thing – and so he objects with incredulous indignation, “What! Sophistication?” We are in a sort of three-way and Socrates brings things under control by suggesting to Laches that he turn his exclamation into a question for Nicias: “What (kind of) sophistication?” and asks Nicias the question himself, on Laches's behalf. Laches can't wait to hear how Nicias will answer this, and answer it he does: “The science of what is to be feared and what is to be dared, whether in war or anywhere else.” Laches immediately dismisses the answer with ridicule: “How far gone he is! We all know that bravery and sophistication have nothing to do with each other!” Socrates remarks, “Not according to Nicias,” so as to invite Laches to challenge his position with a question or argument, but again Laches retorts rather than responding: “No, not according to Nicias – that's what I mean: he is babbling!”
The conversation continues in this vein for a page, with Laches's captious swipes pre-empting Nicias from fully taking the floor to present his position on its own terms. Finally Laches accuses Nicias of being unwilling to admit that his position has been refuted as he himself had had the courage to admit when his position had been, and so Socrates needs to take over the role or job of questioner. He gets Nicias's position clarified: Bravery is a knowledge of what is to be feared and what is to be dared. This would imply that no animal without logos (knowledge) could be brave, but we always think of the lion or the boar as brave in comparison with the monkey or the deer.
Laches interrupts again, now to praise Socrates's question, for he sees it as a successful assault, but Nicias, quiet and unruffled, sticks to his guns: “Indeed I do not call any beast brave nor a mindless child, either. There are very few brave persons among men. The majority are mindlessly headstrong, like the ones you would call brave, whereas for me whether he is beast or man one must be mindful to be brave.” Laches again dismisses this distinguo as mere verbiage by turning to Socrates: “Behold how he decorates himself with fancy talk at the expense of dishonoring the sorts of people we all count as brave!”
VII. 197E1ff
Socrates must again take over so as to maintain Laches's participation in the dialogue while at the same time keeping him under control. He does so by asking a double sort of question: “Laches and I think this, Nicias (don't we Laches?), but what do you think about it?” In particular, the two of us had adopted the study of bravery as being a part of virtue – are you on board with that Nicias? And when you speak of fearables and dareables, Laches and I think of these as future goods and ills (don't we Laches?) – Do you? Nicias agrees. And yet the two of us think that knowledge of some category of things pertains as much to past cases of those things as present and future cases – don't you? Given all this, bravery as a knowledge of future goods and ills would by implication include knowledge of all goods and ills, future present and past, so that your definition of what bravery knows mentions only a third of what it knows; and the part that we have asked you for turns out to be a knowledge of all goods and evils: a man that knew all that would be lacking in no virtue and would have the whole of it instead of just a part.
What is the opposite of a Pyrrhic victory? Nicias appears to have lost the battle, but (as Plato again leaves us to see on our own) he has won the war! After all it was virtue they needed to show they could articulate, as a prerequisite to being able to confer it upon the sons: Socrates had focussed on bravery merely to keep Laches in the discussion. Technically, however, the conclusion is that Nicias has failed to define bravery, and this is all the pretext Laches needs to gloat that Nicias has done as badly as he had done. Nicias responds as he had once or twice before but now with greater forcefulness, by calling Laches on his empty contentiousness. For all his praise of manliness (ἀνδρεία) he is himself behaving in a way that is all too human (ἀνθρώπειον), bringing others down to his own level rather than looking within and trying to improve himself. I have done what I could in the conversation today; if there were missteps I took I will right them sometime, and when I do I will come and teach you what I have learned, for you are sorely in need of learning.
“Sophisticate though you may be, Nicias,” replies Laches, burying the hatchet but not without one final dig at the sophistication he despises, “I would advise Lysimachus and Melesias to drop us as counselors and rely on this fellow Socrates instead.” Nicias wishes he could persuade Socrates to help him with his own son, Niceratus, but reveals that for some reason Socrates always refers him to someone else when he asks. Perhaps Lysimachus will be more successful. Lysimachus chimes in with another cajoling but vague offer somehow to compensate Socrates if he will help him with his sons, again alleging it would only be “just” for him to do so – and all this draws Socrates out to make a longish speech that will bring the dialogue to a close.
“It would be unjust to refuse help, but our conversation has only shown that nobody among us stands out as qualified; but likewise nobody will let it out if I say that we have discovered that what we need to do is find a teacher for ourselves even before our sons! If someone ridicules us for going back to school at our age, we'll use Homer's line: “It doesn't help the beggar to be shy.”
Lysimachus, who has also learned quite a lot on this day, finishes things off with an improvement on the old saw of Solon: 'As I am the oldest I am also the most eager to learn! Please do come around tomorrow to my home, Socrates, and I will join my sons in the conversation!' Socrates says he will come around, God willing, and we know that when he does, Lysimachus, the most eager to learn because the oldest – though truly it is because he has learned the most today -- will finally be vouchsafed an opportunity to witness what his son has been talking about with Socrates, nothing different really from what these older men have been talking about today. But more importantly his son will be vouchsafed a chance to share the prospects of his life with his father and together they will bring the whole thing home and “justify” Lysimachus's old relation with Sophroniscus before he dies.
What a tender work it would have been, if Plato had written up what transpired the next day! Presumably he felt he had to move on to sterner duties.
* * * * *
The foregoing summary digests the results of the translation and commentary on the Greek text of Plato's Laches, presented below. As in my work on the Republic and the Phaedrus I have reached a dramatically verisimilar and morally profound interpretation simply by moving from the inside out, allowing the Greek to explain itself rather than pressing it with questions from the secondary literature. Again I seem to have reached something quite new, and again from this close perspective many of the questions discussed back and forth in the literature of the last seventy years do not arise, but seem in the aftermath of my own work to be viewing the action at a distance from which it is impossible to tell whether the tower is round or square. Plato's story is well told; it has created its own horizon; there is no need to hypothesize a Plato struggling to work out a doctrine of his own, nor is there any sense in hypothesizing a Socratic agenda being foisted upon his interlocutors, destined only in our days to undergo a long-overdue perusal and evaluation by a professional "philosophical" criticism barely a hundred years old. If Socrates's questions to Nicias and Laches rely upon questionable presuppositions it is the place of Laches and Nicias to say so, not of the scholar who thinks to improve the discussion by diverting it from its own course. The course it takes on its own is vindicated at the end by the interlocutors' unanimous agreement, reached after only a couple of hours' discussion – the agreement that Socrates is the one counselor worth listening to -- though scholars are still squabbling over this point a couple of thousand years later.
The dialogue is not about bravery but about Laches as a type who for some reason chafes at thought and speech, as if he “believes” in action instead, and is more quietly about the even-tempered Nicias. Laches's discomfort has a cause and a reason, more or less conscious, for he is a man and not a brute -- the cause of his attitude would be accessible to rational search -- but the prospects of his being brought to recognize this are shown to be slight, because when his one foray into conversation fails, he reacts with emulous aggression rather than self-corrective humility. Socrates suggests the focus on bravery because this is likely the only topic Laches feels it is incumbent upon himself to discuss, the only truth that matters. We are not talking about the Heraclitean, for whom the sense is always flowing and who will only wave his finger back and forth, but about a man whose words always fall short, living perhaps in envy of the smooth talkers who barely deserve to say what the gift of gab enables them to. The most sympathetic embodiment of such an attitude is Ajax; at worst it is the type of the crass and arrogant loudmouth who makes discussion impossible.
For such a man the only trusted value and the only solace is deeds done, deeds whose fame is secure from cavil, and it was exactly this that Laches revealed about himself when first he spoke, confessing without a trace of remorse that his public work has led him to neglect his family. The occasion of the dialogue -- the request of Lysimachus and Melesias -- brings to the fore that it is at the expense of his sons that Laches holds this value and consoles himself as he does. His sons will themselves have to act in their future and although it is incumbent upon the father to articulate the meaning of action as best he can so as to instruct them what to do and how to live, Laches, being skeptical of the truth of talk, is left only to hope his son's actions will be good or commendable. He barely realizes, at the same time that he subconsciously hopes, that the only recourse his sons will have is to imitate him, unless they find an avuncular figure like Socrates, the way Glaucon and Adeimantus did in the Republic and the way the sons of Melesias and Lysimachus have quietly done here. The opposite man to Laches is Solon, who has learned from life that life continues to have lessons for him down to the end. Of the four fathers depicted Laches is the only one who has no plan for his son and expresses no desire for one. In fact, again unbeknownst to himself, he reveals at the end that he has no idea “at what age” they are to be educated, as we shall see. His legacy will have its harvest in the life of the grandson who will be named after him.
Still, speech is the action that separates man from the brutes, and given Plato's lifelong project to depict man as the animal with speech – whose speech might raise him to a vision of truth and reality that is beyond the scope of language and everyday experience but may also promote and even foster forms of self-ignorance he would rather cover over with it – it was inevitable that sooner or later he would have to depict the type of man that plays a crucial role in the life of the polis but whose speech action is devoted to denying the validity of speech itself. This man is Laches. In the event however, Laches for all his gruffness will have spoken at greater length against hoplomachia and against speech than Nicias does on behalf of these, and in the dialogical section his belligerent speech-behavior will devolve into verbal swordplay, so that Socrates will need to bring him under control to enable him to continue to participate at all. It is his resistance to the world of language and talk that pushes Laches in the end to characterize his fellow general Nicias as a pansy sophisticate, whereas Nicias, as is shown by his own manner of speaking, proves to be decent, self-aware, and capable of improvement. In particular he defends his position with quiet perseverance – another sort of bravery in argument. It hardly needs to be said that these qualities make him most qualified in fact to raise his son; and in fact he alone succeeds to find not only bravery but even virtue as a whole.
Just as the battle of Delium is crucial to the attitude and behavior of Laches, Nicias's final battle in Syracuse becomes a theme for the dialogue on the plane of an allusion to the future, through the reference to soothsayers by Laches which is then later brought back, in relevant part, by Socrates. It is something of a scholarly crux to determine how Plato, writing a dialogue whose dramatic date is later than the definitive battle of the one interlocutor (Laches at Delium) but of course earlier than the definitive battle of Nicias's career (in Syracuse, where he will be killed), should have settled the score about Nicias's behavior in the extremely important campaign at Syracuse. We shall see that Plato in fact alludes to Thucydides's description, and teaches us something by his allusion. Laches's "definition" of bravery failed because of his loyalty to the disposition exhibited by Socrates at Delium: tactics to the wind, the man he sides with is not the calculating soldier Socrates reminds him he faced at Delium, but himself and Socrates who took it on the chin; and Nicias's definition of bravery fails because, like his leadership at Syracuse, it was his fear to offend the gods, his mindful fear, and his concern and ability to distinguish fearables from dareables, that led him to make his tactically ill-starred decision to hold off retreating during the eclipse, so as to deserve to be called "all-virtuous" by Thucydides, which is also the outcome of his argument, here.
Although both men fail in argument, both evince their deep sense of what courage is, and the deep sense is veritable courage, though the sense does not completely understand itself. Scholars in their well-heated offices might think of generals as willful and slightly mindless types eager to beat the enemy with astute tactics, but in truth the military man knows full well, as does even the owner of a sailboat, that once he leaves port or goes into battle, all bets are off. Courage is the willingness to set off into such an unknown; and the definitions of courage that Nicias and Laches give, who are in fact men willing to do this, are only attempts by themselves to bear witness to and praise this disposition they have – whether to say it is a willingness to show up and hold the course rather than to cringe regardless of unforeseeable circumstances (Laches), or to view it as an exceptional belief that what is most to be feared might not be death after all but the manner of living one's life (which, though he may criticize his superstition, will be Thucydides's closing praise of Nicias).
My work has included reviewing the text and commentaries of all editions I could find from Ast and Bekker forward, as well as many translations, all of which works are named in the bibliography at the end. Of the older commentators Christian Cron deserves special mention as a particularly sensitive reader and thorough exegete of the Greek. Discovering the significance of the Arsinoitic Flinders Petrie papyrus (iii b.c.) published in 1895 by J.P. Mahaffy, was a great and fruitful surprise: over the course of a little more than two Stephanus pages (189D5-192A9), this papyrus presents some twelve legitimate readings where BTW unanimously present an impossible reading, which led me to prefer its readings, ceteris paribus, over BTW, even in the cases where these do provide legitimate variants, and I have accepted its reading at 190E3, for the first time to my knowledge, where the papyrus portrays Socrates flubbing the formulation of what the scholars call the “What is F?” question. Overall my interpretation has restored many well-attested readings and left behind many of the “improving” emendations characteristic of some Nineteenth Century editors. Many of my errors have been remedied by two slow readings of the text, first with my long-time student, Matthew Morrissey, and then with my fellow student, Thomas H. Chance, the commentator on Plato's Euthydemus. For the more recalcitrant ones that remain the credit is mine alone.
The person who has designed and published all my Plato work on the web (commentaries of the Republic and the Phaedrus and a recensio critica of the NewLoebRepublic), and who invented the special and unique scrolling and search capabilities for the sites, is my close friend and Greek student, Tim James – reachable by the "megillah" button on the frame of the webpage. I thank him and hope you also thank him for making this material readily available to you at no cost, wherever you have web access.
* * * * *
The comédie humaine in which fathers and sons are the players I know from both directions.
I have the privilege as father and the honor as son of dedicating this work to mine:
Frederick Alexander Quandt II (1920 - 1997)
Eric Sebastian Quandt (1973 - )
γηράσκωμεν ἀεὶ πολλὰ διδάσκομενοι
The Laches of Plato
Lysimachus speaks:
“Now (178) you have seen the man's display of fighting in armor,2 Nicias and Laches. Why we asked you to watch it with us, Melesias here and myself, we did not tell you before but now we will,3 and the reason we will is that we are sure it is right and good to speak openly to you, given who you are.4 There are people, after all,5 who eschew6 such activities as this7 but if one seeks their counsel would not say what they really think8 but would try to tailor9 their remarks to the person who is asking and say something other than what they believe.10 When it comes to you, we11 are sure not only that you are capable of making the right judgment but also that once you have made it you would tell us12 straightforwardly what you believe13 – that's why we brought you in for counseling14 on the matters that we are intend to share with you.15
“All this preamble16 is because of this. (179) These boys here are our sons. This one is his and is named Thucydides, after the grandpa,17 and this one is mine. He likewise has his grandfather's name, the name of my father, for we call him Aristides.18 We have resolved to take it in hand19 to bring these two up as well as we can – not20 to act like everybody else and release them to do whatever they want once they show a beard, but rather just then to make a veritable start21 at maximizing our involvement in their upbringing. Knowing as we do22 that you, too, have sons we presumed23 that surely you if anyone24 would already have taken care25 to ascertain by what regime they might turn out best, or if by chance26 you have not focussed your attention on this sort of thing, we thought to remind27 you that it should not be neglected and incite your interest28 to do something29 about the upbringing of your sons as a joint effort with us.
“Now you should hear why we made this decision,30 Nicias and Laches, even if it makes things a bit longer.31 You see,32 we go to the common meal together,33 Melesias and I, and our sons come along34 with us. As I said at the beginning we are going to speak openly to you.35 The fact is,36 both of us have plenty of fine tales to tell our youngsters about our fathers – what they did in the war and in peace as well, having to do with the management of our alliances37 and our own city's concerns – but when it comes to ourselves and what we have done38 neither of us has anything at all to say! As you can imagine we are just a bit ashamed39 by this in the face of these boys, and we blame40 it on our fathers, because when it came to us they just let us41 idle away our teenage years, while42 the affairs of the others was their constant concern. We point this out to the boys, too – that if they are going to neglect themselves43 and disobey us they will come out destitute of fame, but if they are going to develop themselves they might conceivably44 come to deserve the names they bear.
“The boys for their part say they will obey us. Accordingly45 we are looking to see what study or what practice46 they might take up so as to become the best they can be.47 Now48 somebody introduced us to this study you have just now witnessed, saying49 that learning to fight in armor is a fine thing for a young man to do. The fellow went on to sing the praises50 of the particular man you saw making the display, and then he suggested we attend one of his displays. That's how it turned out that we decided51 we ought to attend it ourselves but also to bring you along with us,52 to act both as fellow spectators and also fellow counselors and partners53 in the deliberation – if you are willing that is54 – about the upbringing of our sons. (180)
“That's what we wanted to share55 with you. So56 now it is your turn, to render your counsel whether about this study and if you judge it worth learning or not, or about the others if there is some study or practice that you can praise for a young man, and to answer whether you will join us in the effort we propose.”57
“Well, for my part, Lysimachus and Melesias, what I can praise58 is the way you have thought the whole thing through, and I am quite ready59 to join in your effort; and so, I imagine, will Laches here.”60
“You imagine right, Nicias, since this thing Lysimachus has been saying61 just now about his and Melesias's fathers seems to me quite well put, both as it pertains to those fathers62 and to us and any man who engages in politics. Just what he is saying does happen63 to them in connection with their children and the rest: their private concerns are shortchanged and carelessly left in disorder. This part of what you say is well put, Lysimachus;64 but when you call upon us to be your counselors in regard to the education of your children but do not call upon Socrates here,65 this gives me pause. After all he is a demesman of yours, and besides he is always found spending time66 wherever something of the sort you are looking for is going on, a study or an exercise67 designed for the young.”
Lys.“What's this, Laches? Are you saying that Socrates here has busied himself with one of these these sorts of things?”
Lach.“Quite so, Lysimachus.”68
Nic.“I have no less than Laches to tell about that,69 since just the other day he gave me some personal help70 by introducing me71 to a music teacher for my son – Damon the student of Agathocles, a man most gifted not only in music but in the other fields to which you might deem it at all72 worthy for young men to devote their time.”
Lys.“Well I have to tell all three of you, Socrates, Nicias, and Laches, that I and my age-fellows73 are not acquainted with the younger generation, seeing as how we spend most of our time at home due to our advancing years. But please, if you, too, son of Sophroniscus,74 have some good counsel for your fellow demesman here, you ought to join in our counseling. Indeed it would only be right since as it happens I am an old friend of your father's. We were always companions and friends, and in fact the only thing that set us apart from each other was his death. In fact something came to mind just now while these two were talking about you to me. These boys have discussions with each other at the house75 and the name “Socrates” comes up often, in very laudatory terms. But I never asked them (181) whether it was the son of Sophroniscus they were talking about. So – my boys,76 tell me, is this man here the Socrates you were mentioning so often?”
Youth:“Yes Father, that's him.”
Lys.“Thank Hera77 for this news, Socrates! You've done your father right, that best of men,78 especially since from this day forward we will be sharing our households, no less!”79
La.“But don't let your description of him end with that,80 Lysimachus! There’s81 another place82 I have observed him doing the upright thing, not only right by his father but also by his fatherland! At the time of the flight from Delium he was retreating with me and I can tell you that if others83 were willing to be like him, our city would be standing upright indeed, and such a fall would not have occurred.84
Lys.“Socrates,85 the praise you are being served up is fine indeed, both because it is coming from men that deserve to be trusted and because of what they are praising you for.86 Please therefore know that I am pleased to hear that you enjoy such good repute and that you may be sure I am most favorably disposed87 toward you. You should have come around before, and visited us on your own initiative,88 and have viewed us as family, according to what is right, as I said.89 But regardless, from now on, now that we have come to recognize who each other is, spend time with us and get to know90 not only us but also these young men, so that you yourselves in turn91 might92 foster and preserve our friendship. Be sure to do so,93 as we will remind you to in the future;94 but as to what we started with, what say you all?95 What's your opinion? Would you judge this study suitable to our young men, learning to fight in armor?”
“Lysimachus, I will surely try to counsel you on these things to the extent I am able, and also will try to do all the other things you invited me to do,97 and yet what seems to me to be most just98 is that since I am younger than these two99 and so less experienced in the matter you have raised,100 I should first hear what these men have to say and learn from them – and that if I have something to add beyond what they say should I thereupon try to teach and persuade them and you101 of my view. So, Nicias, why don't one of you speak?”
Nic.“Certainly,102 Socrates. I too103 think this study is beneficial for the young to learn, beneficial in many ways. The very fact of not passing their time in the places the young tend to go when they have free time, but instead in this, is a good thing, a thing that cannot but improve the state of the body. After all it is no less noble an exercise than any of the gymnastic104 pursuits, nor any less strenuous – while at the same time it is an exercise particularly fitting for the105 free man (182) to pursue, right alongside horsemanship.106 After all, for107 the contest in which we are competitors and for the field of struggle in which we are poised to strive,108 only those are training themselves who train in the use of these instruments, the instruments of war.109 Furthermore,110 this study also provides some margin111 of benefit in the heat of battle, when one is called upon to fight in formation with a large group of others, but its largest benefit comes112 when the ranks are broken and he must move on to113 fighting one on one, whether in offensive pursuit against a man who is on the defensive or for that matter in flight when the enemy is on the offensive and it is he that is on the defensive:114 neither at the hands of one will the man who masters this skill suffer, nor even perhaps at the hands of several. Nay, in all areas of battle he will have the advantage.115 And further, this study will bring him along so as to desire another study that is fine,116 for everyone that learns to fight in armor comes to117 desire the study that follows upon it, namely the study of formations; and once he has these studies down118 and feels the ambition to excel119 in them, he would be spurred on to the entire range of studies having to do with all aspects of generalship. Moreover it is clear and patent that the studies that these120 lead to, as well as the practices,121 are one and all fine and worthwhile for a man to study and practice, all of which this one study would usher in. And I will add122 something (no mean addition indeed), that any man would by no small amount123 be made the more daring and the more brave at war than he would have been through the mastery of this,124 and also the more poised (let us not disregard this though it might seem a small point to some)125 in the one connection it will serve him well to appear more poised, namely where poise will make him more fearsome to his enemies.126 So in my judgment, Lysimachus, as I said, one ought to teach this to the young, and127 as to why I have stated my reasons; but from Laches, in case he has something besides this to say, I would as gladly hear as you would.”128
La.“Well, Nicias, in truth it is difficult to make the case that any study ought not to be studied, since to know anything would seem to be a good thing – and so with this hoplite thing129 of yours. Assuming for a moment that it truly is a study, as those who teach it claim and as Nicias himself has argued,130 it ought to be studied.131 But if in truth it is not a study and those who profess132 it are being deceptive,133 or if it does qualify as134 a study but not as a particularly serious one,135 why in the world136 should one study it? I bring that up because of this. I fancy that if it somehow were,137 the Lacedaemonians would hardly fail138 to notice it, since (183) nothing else in life matters to them but to seek out and practice any study or exercise139 that might enable them have an advantage in war. And even if it had escaped their notice,140 it could hardly escape the notice of those teachers I just mentioned141 that since the Lacedaemonians among all Greeks take such things most seriously, a person who should142 win their respect for being able to train in these areas could also extract the hugest of fees from men of other cities,143 the way it is with tragic poets who win our respect. But mutatis mutandis144 nobody who fancies himself a good tragedian traipses around everywhere else from city to city to display his wares through all of Attica, but makes a bee-line145 straight to us and promotes his work among the people here,146 just as you would expect,147 whereas when it comes to these fighters-in-armor of yours, I have seen them with my own eyes treating Lacedaemon as an inviolable precinct into which they dare not tread nor set foot,148 but circumambulating it as it were149 and preferring to offer demonstrations to anyone but them, and especially150 to those who would readily acknowledge that many others are their superiors in matters of war!151 Second, Lysimachus, it is not just a few of them have I been near152 in very action153 and I see what they are like.154 I can put it in a nutshell.155 By some telling coincidence156 not a single man who had practiced this art157 has achieved fame as a fighting man.158 In all other fields the persons who achieve notoriety come from the group that had practiced it, whereas conversely these in comparison with the others159 have an equally pronounced tendency to meet with the most unfortunate of outcomes.160 Take as an example your man Stesilaus, here, whose exercise you and I watched along along with this great crowd, and whose high talk about himself we heard.161 Elsewhere162 I watched a finer163 demonstration by him in reality – a veritable exhibition164 of his ability under circumstances that were not of his choosing.165 One day the trireme on which he was serving as a marine collided with a cargo vessel. He was armed with a halbert, a truly special weapon166 for a truly special man.167 We can pass over much about the redoubtable fellow but the cleverness168 about that scythe attached near the tip of the spear must be told. In the midst of his maneuvers169 it somehow got tangled up with the rigging of the other ship and wouldn't come loose. Stesilaus tried to free it but he couldn't, and meanwhile the ships were passing each other. For a while he ran along the deck of the trireme yanking and yanking at the thing, but once the other ship had cleared his it began to separate him from it, spear and all.170 The weapon (184) slipped through his hands until he had a hold on nothing but the cap at the very end of the shaft. The men on the other ship roared with laughter and applause171 at the pose172 he struck. Then somebody threw a rock at him that clapped on the deck near his feet,173 and he up and lets go174 the spear, so that even the men on his own ship could no longer175 contain themselves but let out a whoop at the sight of how the halbert got stuck in the rigging of the cargo ship on him.176 So there might be something to this study, as Nicias has argued,177 but according to my own encounters with it, it is as I have described it. As I said at the beginning, if it holds such small benefits178 as an actual study or if it is not a study in the first place but they merely claim it is so as to perpetuate the illusion that it is, it is not in either case worth trying to learn.179 In all180 it seems to me that if a timid man should believe himself to be a person181 equipped with this skill,182 then exactly because he would183 thereby become the more daring his true nature would sooner come to the surface; whereas if a brave man should,184 then because he would come under the constant scrutiny of men,185 even the smallest error would bring down great calumnies onto his head.186 For the very conceit187 of possessing this so-called mastery incites envy, so that if one does not prove wondrously superior to the others in virtue188 there is no way he will escape becoming a laughing stock for claiming to possess it. It is something like this, in my opinion, Lysimachus, that accounts for any allure189 this study might enjoy. But as I said to you at the beginning, you must not let my man Socrates off190 but request that he advise you with his judgment about the question you have proposed.”191
Lys.“And I do request it of you, Socrates. In fact it seems to me our deliberations have need of an umpire. If these two were in agreement with each other our need for a person to play such a role would be less,192 but in the event,193 as you can see, Laches has cast a vote the very opposite194 of Nicias's, and so it will indeed be well to hear from you also, with which of the two you cast your vote.”
Soc.“What,195 Lysimachus? As soon as196 a majority of us approves you will follow their advice?”
Lys.“What else is one to do?”
Soc.“And what about you, Melesias?197 Is this what you would do? If our deliberations should be about an athletic competition198 and how your son should train for it,199 would it be the majority of us three you would believe or would it be the man, no matter who he was, that had in fact undergone training and discipline under the regime200 of a good trainer?”
“The man, in all likelihood, Socrates.”
Soc.“And would you sooner follow his advice than that of all us, even though we are four?”201
Soc.“For, I'd say, it is by knowledge and mastery203 that the decision should be made, and not by numbers, if the thing is going to be decided in an admirable way.”204
Mel.“Yes, how could it be otherwise?”
Soc.“And so in the present case205 the first question we must ask is just that, (185) whether or not any one of us is in the first place skilled in the subject of our deliberations, and if one of us is, then we must follow that man's206 advice even though he is only one and ignore the advice of the others. If on the other hand none of us is skilled, we ought to search beyond our ranks for a man who is. Or do you two think there is little at risk in what you two are now contemplating, you and Lysimachus? Isn't it rather about your most important possession of all?207 After all, as one's sons turn out, whether worthy or the opposite of worthy, so does the father's entire household, taking on the same character as that of the sons.”208
Soc.“And so one ought to devote a good deal of thought to the matter?”
Soc.“How then would we be conducting209 such an investigation – if, as I was just saying, we were wanting to determine which of us is the most skilled at a competitive game210 – would it not be the one who had studied it and practiced it211 and who had had good teachers of just this subject?”
Mel.“I think so, yes.”
Soc.“And even before that212 must we not investigate the nature of this thing of which213 we are seeking teachers?”
Mel.“What do you mean by that?”214
Soc.“I might make my meaning clear this way.215 In my opinion we failed to start off by coming to a settled agreement what it really is216 that we are deliberating about, so as to take the trouble to investigate217 which of us is competent in it and got teachers for the sake of it, and which of us isn't and didn't.
Nicias (intervening):
“But come218 Socrates, aren't we are inquiring about hoplomachia219 and whether or not our youths should learn it?”
Soc.“Quite so, Nicias, but when somebody 'inquires about' a drug for eyes220 and whether it ought to be rubbed onto them or not, do you think his deliberation is about the drug or about the eyes?”
Nic.“About the eyes.”
Soc.“And when one 'inquires about' a bit for a horse – whether to put it on him or not, and when to do so or not – is he deliberating about the horse and not about the bit?”
Nic.“That's right.”
Soc.“And to put it into a single formula,221 when somebody 'inquires' about something for something, his deliberation is really about that222 something for which he was223 inquiring, rather than about this something he was looking into for that other thing.”
Soc.“And so one must investigate the counselor, as to whether he is skilled in the taking care of224 that 'thing for the sake of which,' which is what we are really busying ourselves to inquire after225 in our inquiry.”
Nic.“Quite so.”
Soc.“Are we now in agreement that we are making an investigation about study undertaken for the sake of the soul226 – the soul, that is, of the young men?”
Soc.“And so whether one of us is skilled227 at taking care of soul as such,228 and is able to render care to it admirably,229 and which of us had good teachers – this is what we must investigate.”
Laches (interrupting)
“What's this,230 Socrates? Have you never yet seen231 people turning out to be more skilled without teachers than with them, in some areas?”
Soc.“Yes I have, Laches, the very232 people whose claim to be competent practitioners you would not trust unless they were able to show you the product of their skill successfully produced in deed, and not just a single such product (186) but several.”233
La.“This much you say is true.”234
Soc.“So it is in our case, Laches and Nicias. Lysimachus and Melesias have summoned us to counsel them about their sons,235 out of eagerness that their souls become as virtuous236 as possible. If on the one hand we claim to have any,237 we must point out to them just which were our teachers,238 themselves competent239 from the get-go and coming with a record of having helped many young men's souls, who thereupon were observed240 teaching us. Or, if one of us denies he ever had a teacher on the subject, but does241 at least have deeds242 of his own, he must describe and show243 who – whether it be Athenians or foreigners, whether slaves or free – would corroborate244 that it was through his action245 that they were made competent in fact. But if we come with neither kind of credentials on hand, we must instruct them to seek counsel from others, and ourselves not risk246 to cause corruption247 among the very sons of our fellows, and thereby to bear the heaviest kind of opprobrium from men who are our closest familiars.248
“I will answer about myself first,249 Lysimachus and Melesias, and say that I never had a teacher of this subject, though a desire250 for this thing251 is something I have felt ever since a boy. But I never had the money to hire sophists, who are the only persons I know of that would promise to be able to make me a right and good person;252 and as for discovering the skill by myself, I've proven unable, at least so far. If Nicias or Laches have either discovered it or learned it253 I would not be surprised. They have more money at their command so as to be in a position to learn it from others, and also they are older so as by now to have discovered it.254 They do seem to me able to teach a man. For they wouldn't dare hold forth on which exercises are worthwhile for a young man and which are a waste of time if they did not trust in themselves that they had an adequate grasp of the matter. In principle255 I would put my trust in them, too – though the fact that they disagree with each other is something of a surprise. So let me counter256 the request that Laches made to you a moment ago encouraging you not to let me loose but to ask me questions: I now encourage you not to let Laches and Nicias loose but to question them by saying:
'Socrates claims to be clueless257 about the whole affair,258 and therefore is not able to decide which of you is correct259 given the fact that he has neither discovered them nor was anybody's student in these matters – but you, Laches and Nicias, come and tell us for your part each of you with what very clever person did you associate in the study of bringing up the young. Tell us whether it was by learning from somebody that you have the knowledge you do or by discovering it on your own, and if it was from learning (187) who your teachers were, each of you, and who are the others in their guild, so that just in case you haven't the time, given the pressures of your public activities, all of us here might approach those others instead and try to persuade them, with gifts or favors or both ways,260 to take care of both our children and yours,261 lest they heap embarrassment262 upon their respective parents by turning out poorly. Or if, according to the alternative, you qualify as discoverers263 of the truth of this matter on your own, show us an example of the others you have transformed with your care from nobodies into men good and fine. After all, if it is only now that you are beginning to take up the matter of educating your sons,264 you must be wary that it is not a Carian that you are putting at risk265 but your sons and the children of your friends, and also beware that the old proverb of starting ceramics with a pithos might apply to you.266 Tell us therefore which of these credentials you claim you come with267 and which describes you more suitably, and which you deny.'
“That, Lysimachus, is what you have to get out of them … and268 don't let these worthy men slip through your fingers!269
Lys.“I for one approve what Socrates has said, my friends, but whether you two find yourselves willing270 to be asked and to answer the questions271 you have heard him laying out is for you to decide.272 As for Melesias and me, we find ourselves273 quite pleased by the prospect of your being willing to answer step by step all of what Socrates has asked. As I said at the start, it was for just this reason that we called upon you to advise us, namely that we believed you had likely given your attention to these things,274 especially since your children are about as close to the age of being educated as ours are. If it is all the same to you, please say so275 and join in Socrates's inquiry – in an exchange, that is, of questions and answers with him. After all he is right when he says that we are now deliberating about the most important of what is ours.276 But enough from me:277 look to whether you ought do this or not!”
Nic.“Let me say, Lysimachus, that it does seem your only acquaintance with Socrates is through your relationship with his father, as you said, and that you have not spent time with him278 since he was a child, but perhaps met him in the company of your townsmen when he came along with his father to a temple or to some other gathering of the deme. Now that he has gotten older and become a man279 you have never been in his company – that's obvious!”
Lys.“Just why do you say that, Nicias?”
Nic.“It seems you don't know that anybody who comes into close relation with Socrates in conversation as well as in family280 and enters into dialogue with him281 – that even if he starts a conversation with him on another topic, I daresay282 any other, he will inevitably be turned around283 by him in the conversation until sooner or later he finds himself giving an account on the topic of himself, and discussing how (188) he is living his life and what he has done with it up until now.284 And once he finds himself doing that, that he won't be let go before this Socrates fellow puts all that he says to a right good285 test. I, on the other hand, am quite familiar with him and know that the treatment is inevitable, and also that I'll be undergoing it again in the future, as will others.286 You see, Lysimachus, I enjoy being in his company and think it not at all bad that we be made mindful of the ways287 we haven't and aren't behaving288 well. To the contrary a person will perforce be more mindful in his future life if289 he does not avoid this treatment but instead is willing to follow the dictum of Solon and value learning as long as he lives,290 rather than imagining that old age by its very approach291 will confer good sense onto him.292 So for my part there is nothing unfamiliar nor again unpleasant293 in being tested by Socrates – All along I just knew that since he is here our discussion would not be about our boys, but about ourselves. For my part I am ready to go through this exercise294 with Socrates as ever he wishes to manage it. But as for Laches here, you'll have to see295 how he feels about this sort of thing.”
La.“My feelings are simple when it comes to talk,296 Nicias – or, if you will, not simple but double, since I might seem to someone to be a lover of talk and then again a hater of talk. The reason is that whenever I hear a man conversing about virtue or some kind of sophistication,297 if he himself is truly a man298 and equal in worth299 to what he is saying, I am overjoyed by the spectacle of the speaker and what he saying being so appropriate to each other and fitting. Such a man is plainly musical, attuned according to a most beautiful sort of melody, not in a lyre or some other mere toy but attuned in the very way he lives,300 himself attuned to his life, a life in which his words are in harmony with his deeds – obviously in the Dorian mode rather than the Ionian, nor I would say the Phrygian or Lydian, but in the one and only mode that is truly Hellenic.301 A man of this sort gives me joy by the very sound of his voice,302 which would make me seem to anybody303 a lover of talk, given how eagerly I accept and receive the arguments that he makes out of what he is.304 But he whose behavior is the opposite of this305 gives me pain, and the better he seems to talk the more he pains me, so that in turn I am made to seem306 a hater of talk.
“Now when it comes to Socrates I have no experience307 of his talk308 but I have, as it would appear,309 tested him in the area of deeds, and in that310 realm I (189) discovered him to be a man quite deserving to make fine talk311 -- indeed, to say absolutely whatever312 is on his mind. And if moreover this is the way things are, I do join the man313 in what he wants314 and would be most pleased315 to be investigated by him, given the sort316 he is, and would not be loathe to learn from him. I, too, yield to the counsel of Solon – if I may add just one thing to it. To be “learning many things as I age” I am willing, but only from worthy men. Let this also then be granted to me, that the teacher I am to learn from be also virtuous317 in himself,318 or else I would seem slow to learn because the learning would be painful. If on the other hand the teacher is younger, or has not yet achieved eminence, or something else like that,319 I do not mind it at all. Just so, I offer myself up to you, Socrates, to teach me and examine me as ever you wish, though also to learn what I for my part know.320 This321 is how you have stood in my estimation ever since that day we weathered those dangers together under my command and you gave yourself over to a test of virtue of the kind that a man must give if he is going to give the test that justice requires.322 Say then whatever you please323 and don't let any324 consideration of our age give you pause.”325
Soc.Well! We won't be able to complain that for your part you are not both of you326 ready and willing to join in the deliberations and investigate the matter together!
Lys.“Then let's move on to our part,327 Socrates – for I count you as one of us. Conduct the investigation in my stead as to what we need to learn from these two on behalf of the young men, and carry out the deliberations328 in a dialogue329 with them. For I forget what I wanted to ask, at my age,330 as well as what answers I have heard, and if other arguments arise between the questions and answers I barely remember them, either.331 So you all carry on the discussion. Go step by step and back and forth with each other through these questions332 we have set before ourselves. I will listen, and once I have heard Melesias and I will carry out whatever decision you reach.
Soc.“Obey we must, Nicias and Laches, the request of Lysimachus and Melesias. Now as to what we set ourselves333 to investigate – what teachers we had in educating the young or which persons other than ourselves we might have improved – it may not have been a bad idea to examine each other on such topics as these also,334 but I have another inquiry to suggest that I think will lead to the same result but might also be starting a little closer to a beginning. For if, speaking generally,335 we know in fact what thing it is that, by coming to something, makes the thing better by virtue of coming to it, and if in addition we are able to make that thing come to it, then it is clear that we know that very thing336 which our counsel would enable337 a person to acquire in the best and fastest way.338 In case you don't get339 what I am saying, you might do so if I put it this way. (190) If in fact we do know that vision, when it comes to the eyes, makes them work better by coming to them, and in addition we are able to cause it to come to the eyes, then clearly we do know just what this thing vision is, in itself,340 about which, in the role of counselors, we could advise a person as to how he might acquire it in the best and fastest way.341 For if we don't even know what this thing, vision, really is – or what hearing is342 – we can forget343 about becoming counselors worthy of the name as doctors are,344 about the eyes or the ears345 and by what means a person might best acquire hearing or sight.”346
La.“That's true, Socrates.”347
Soc.“But, Laches, in the present case these two men have called upon us to counsel them for their sons as to how virtue might come to their souls and make them better?”348
La.“Quite so.”
Soc.“And so we must have on hand349 knowing what this thing virtue is?350 For if we do not even351 know virtue at all,352 what it is in fact,353 by what means could we become counselors to anybody as to how he might best acquire the thing?”354
La.“We could by no means, I would say, Socrates.”
Soc.“And therefore we do claim that we know what it is in itself.”
La.“So we do.”
Soc. “But if it is something we know,355 we can presumably say what it is.”
La.“How not?”
Soc. “We will do quite well,356 my best of men,357 not to go straight358 to an investigation about virtue is as a whole – that would be quite a large task – but instead some part of it, for the sake of seeing359 whether we are sufficiently knowledgeable.360 Besides, this way, the investigation will go easier for us.”
La. “Nay, let's do that, Socrates, just as you wish.”361
Soc.“Then which of the parts of virtue shall we select?362 Doesn't it make sense to choose the one that the study in armor would seem to be related to? Most people would judge it relates to bravery. Am I right?”
La.“They certainly do!”363
Soc.“So, Laches, let us set it before ourselves364 first to say what virtue is in itself, and then only in the aftermath365 of this will we go on366 to investigate how it might come to the young men, to the extent that it is possible for it to come to them by means of practicing and learning.367 Come and try to describe, as I am saying, the brave man.”368
La. “But369 Socrates, Zeus be my witness it is not hard to say! If a person should be willing to hold his position in formation and stand his ground against370 the enemy rather than flee, you can be sure he would be a brave man.”
Soc.“You have spoken well, Laches, but perhaps I am to blame, having spoken unclearly, that you have not answered the question I intended to ask you but another.”
La.“Whatever do you mean by that, Socrates?” (191)
Soc.“I'll try to express it if somehow I can. Brave I do presume371 this fellow of yours to be, as you also say, who stays in formation and battles the enemy.”
La. “I at least do aver this.”
Soc.“Yes and so do I. But what about this type, the one who battles the enemy by fleeing, rather than staying in formation?”
La.“How in the world by fleeing?”372
Soc.“Both in the way the Scythians373 are said to do battle no less in flight than in pursuit, and in Homer, where he praises the horses of Aeneas “darting back and forth” for knowing “how to chase or to recoil” and also praised Aeneas himself for this very thing, for his knowledge of fear, calling him “fear-counselor.”374
La.“And correctly for sure. He was talking about chariots.375 And as for your instance of the Scythians, that is about cavalry. Those are the ways you fight when horses are involved. But for hoplites it's as I say.”
Soc.“With the possible exception of the Lacedaemonian hoplites. They say that when these376 came up against the men with wicker shields377 in Plataea, they would not fight against them by holding position but fled,378 but that once the formations of the Persians were broken in pursuit they wheeled back upon them, the same way a cavalry does, and in this way they won the battle there.”
La.“Yes, that is a true account.”379
Soc.“Well then as I was just saying, I am to blame for you not answering well, since I did not put you380 the question well.381 I was wanting to get information from you not only about the men382 who are brave in the division of hoplites, but also those in the equestrian divisions and in the military in general, and not just those at war but also the men who stand out as brave among those who face the dangers of travelling at sea,383 and all those who prove brave in the event384 of disease, all those facing poverty or even the dangers of politics, and still more, not only those who are brave about pain and fear385 but also able to battle desires and pleasures, too, whether by strongly holding their ground or by clever reversals.386 For you know, Laches, there are people that are brave in these connections, too.”387
La.“Yes, and very brave indeed.”388
Soc.“So, by bravery389 that all of these are made brave, but for some it is in the face of pleasures, some in the face of pains, others in the face of desires, and still others in the face of fears390 that they are in possession of bravery. And then again, I imagine, there are others who have timidity in these areas.”
La.“Quite so.”
Soc.“But by virtue of each of this pair being exactly391 what? That is what I am trying to learn from you. So go back and try again to say what single and selfsame thing bravery is in all these connections. Now do you see what I am getting at?”
La.“Not quite.” (192)
Soc.“Let me put it this way. It is as if I were asking you about just what speed is, which we might possess in running and in playing the cithera and in speaking and in learning and in many other things, where in all cases we possess some self-same thing that deserves to be spoken of as such, whether in connection with the things that hands do or limbs do or the mouth or voice or our thinking do.392 Don't you also speak this way?”
La.“Quite so.”
Soc. “Alright then, if somebody should393 ask me, 'Socrates what do you mean by this thing you refer to as being present in all these connections, with the term speediness?'394 I would tell him that the ability to carry out many things in a short amount of time is what I call speediness, whether in connection with the voice or running or all the others.”395
La.“And you would be speaking correctly.”396
Soc.“So now you, Laches: Try to speak the same way about bravery. By virtue of being what sort of power that is the same in pleasures and in pains and in all the other connections397 we were just listing off, does it then398 come to be called bravery?”
La.“For myself, then, I will answer it is a persistence399 in soul, if we must speak of the single element that operates400 in all the cases across the board.”
Soc. “But assuredly we must speak so, if we are going to give the answer to the question we have asked ourselves.401 For myself this seems to be the case,402 that it is not all persistence that seems to be bravery to you. I take my indication from this: I am nearly certain, Laches, that you would class bravery among things particularly admirable.”
La.“Know rather403 that I class it among the most admirable.”
Soc.“Is the persistence that is accompanied by sound-mindedness404 a thing admirable and good?”
La.“Quite so.”
Soc.“But what about the persistence that is accompanied by mindlessness? Isn't it, on the contrary, harmful and evil?”
Soc.“Will you assert such a thing as that to be fine, being evil and harmful?
La.“That would certainly not be right, Socrates.”
Soc.“So you will not allow405 that this kind of persistence is bravery, if in fact it is not admirable, given that bravery is an admirable thing.”
La.“What you say is true.”
Soc.“So it is mindful persistence406 that would be bravery, according to your407 argument.”
La.“So it seems.”
Soc.“Then let us ask, 'Mindful about what?' Mindful about each and every thing whether large or small?408 For instance if one persists in laying out his money mindfully, in the sense that he knows that though he spent it he will be getting more,409 would you call this fellow brave?”410
La.“By Zeus not I!”
Soc.“But what about somebody who is a doctor,411 and his son or someone else412 is stricken with pleurisy and pleads with him to give him something to eat or to drink, (193) what if he will not be swayed but shows persistence.”413
La.“Nor in any way would that be bravery.”414
Soc.“But a man415 showing persistence in war and willing to do battle mindfully calculating416 his options – knowing417 first that others will be fighting with him, second that he will be fighting against a group both smaller and weaker than the group he is among, and third that his location is tactically superior418 – would you say this man, persisting in the choice to fight with419 such thoughts and such provisions, is braver than a man in the opposing army that is willing to withstand attack420 and to persist in holding his ground?”
La.“Him in the opposing army, I would say,421 Socrates.”
Soc.“But the persistence of your man is more mindless than that of his counterpart?”
Soc.“And would you say the man with a knowledge of cavalry422 who persists in a cavalry battle is less brave than the one who does so without knowledge of cavalry?”
La.“So I, at least,423 would.”
Soc.“And also braver than the man with a knowledge of slinging or archery or some other skill424 who persists?”
La.“Quite so.”
Soc.“And people willing to climb down into a well and dive,425 and who persist in this behavior, assuming they are not clever at it, or in some other such activity, will you say they are braver than the people who are clever at such activities?”
La. “What else could a person say, Socrates?”
Soc. “Nothing else, if that is what he believes.”
La.“But I do so believe.”426
Soc.“And yet it is more mindlessly, Laches, that men like this are taking risks and persisting in the activity,427 than the men who are skilled and do these same things.”
La.“So they appear.”428
Soc.“But wasn't it also apparent429 a moment ago that mindless daring and persisting430 is ugly and harmful?”431
La.“Quite so.”
Soc.“Whereas432 just then we were agreeing that bravery is something admirable?”
La.“Yes we were.”
Soc.“But now we are going back on ourselves and saying that what was the433 shameful thing, the mindless persisting, is bravery.
La.“We look that way.”
Soc.“So do you think we are arguing in an admirable434 way?”
La.“By Zeus Socrates, I at least do not think so.”435
Soc.“And so to use your metaphor,436 Laches, we might say we are not properly harmonized in the Dorian mode, you and I, in the sense that it has turned out that our actions do not jibe with our words.437 For in our acts, I would guess, one might say that we do possess bravery, but in our talk, as I see it,438 he would deny we have it, if he should hear the discussion we just carried out.”
La.“What you say could not be truer!”439
Soc.“And do you think it admirable440 that we should be in such a state?”
La.“No way!”
Soc.“And so would you like to accept our assertion441 at least this much?”
La. “What442 'this much' and to what 'what'?” (194)
Soc. “The argument that tells us to persist! If then you would like to, let's the two of us also now hold our ground443 and persist – in our investigation, that is – or else Bravery herself will laugh us down for failing to search for her bravely444 – in case she does somehow445 turn out to be simple446 persistence after all!”
La.“Well, I am ready447 and willing not to quit before the battle is over.448 But at the same time I am rather unused to this sort of arguing,449 and I confess that I feel a tug of contentiousness450 against what has been said, and451 in truth I am bothered by the fact that I am unable to express right off what I know in my mind. For I do believe I know about bravery and see452 what it is, but it has eluded me just now – I know not how – so that I cannot put together the words for it and say what it is.”
Soc.The capable hunter, my friend,453 has to keep on the scent454 and not let up in his pursuit.”
La. “You can be quite sure of that.”
Soc.“So would you want us to call Nicias along on our hunt, in case he might prove a little more successful than we?”
La.“I do want that – why not?”
Soc.“So come, Nicias. Your goodly allies455 have met with heavy weather in their discussion456 and are totally at a stop.457 Come to our rescue if you are able. Alone, we are at a standstill, as you see, so tell us what you take bravery to be and get us underway,458 while for yourself you secure your grip459 on what you know by telling it.”460
Nic.“Well frankly, Socrates, I think you two got off the track some ways back in your attempt to demarcate bravery. That formula I've heard you share with me461 before has gone neglected here.”
Soc.“Just what would that formula be?”
Nic.“Often I have heard you say we are good at the things we are sophisticated at,462 in our various ways, but where we are untaught,463 there464 we are bad.”
Soc.“May Zeus be my witness, Nicias, I have said that.”465
Nic.“Therefore, if the brave man is good, as you say, then clearly he is wise.”466
Soc.“Did you hear that, Laches?”
Lach.“Yes I heard and it is not overwhelmingly clear to me what he means.”467
Soc.“But I get it: I think our man468 is saying that it's a kind of sophistication469 that bravery is.”
Lach.“Please, Socrates... Sophistication?”470
Soc.“Are you asking this fellow here?471
Lach.“Yes I am.”
Soc.“Come then, Nicias. Tell him what sort of sophistication bravery might be according to your argument. For I don't imagine you mean it is flutely472 sophistication.”
Nic. “No way!”
Soc. “Nor sophistication at the cithara...”
Nic. “Certainly not!”
Soc.“Alright then, which473 sophistication is it, or the science474 of what, that you have in mind?”
Lach.“That's just the right way to put the question to him, Socrates. Let's just let him describe the one he claims it is.”475
Nic.“Here's what I say, Laches:476 It is the knowledge of what should be feared and what should be dared, (195) in war and in each and every other department of life.”
Lach.“”How strangely he talks, Socrates!”477
Soc.“What are you referring to, Laches?”
Lach. “What?478 Sophistication479 has nothing480 to do with bravery!”
Soc.“But Nicias for his part denies that.”
Lach.“He certainly does, by Zeus – and for this481 I say he is blabbering.”
Soc. “Then shall we teach him482 rather than abuse him?”
Nic.“Nay, Socrates. I think Laches desires that I be shown to be speaking nonsense, as he was shown to be doing483 a moment ago.”
Lach.“You bet I do, Nicias, and I am going try to make it happen. As I say,484 you are speaking nonsense. In diseases, for instance,485 isn't it really the doctors who know what is fearsome? Or do you think it is brave men that know that? Or486 maybe you'll say the doctors are brave.”
Nic.“None of that at all.”
Lach. “Nor,487 I would guess, do you call the farmers brave, and yet it is your farmers that know what is to be feared in the area of farming, just as each and every other man of competence488 knows what is to be feared and what is to be dared in their respective fields; and yet this knowledge makes them none the braver.”489
Soc.“What do you make of what Laches is saying, Nicias? He does seem to be saying something.”490
Nic.“Yes indeed he is saying something, but not something true!”491
Soc.“How is that?”
Nic.“Because he has the notion that the doctors know more about their patients than what enables them to declare492 what would be healthy or unhealthy for them. In truth it is only this much493 that they know. But whether it is fearsome or not, this sickness or health of the patient that you bring up,494 are you going to go out on a limb and495 hold that the doctors know that,496 Laches? Perhaps you have the notion that for many patients it is better not to recover from their sickness than to recover. We'll know if you answer this question: Do you assert that for all persons it is better to be alive? Do you deny that for many the better course497 is to be dead?”
Lach.“With that much I do agree.”
Nic. “And for those who are better off dead, do you think the same things are fearsome as for those who are better off alive?”
Lach.“I do not.”
Nic.“But do you attribute the knowledge of this to doctors or to any practitioner other than to the master498 of what is fearsome and what is not – the man, that is, whom I am calling brave?499
Soc.“Do you grasp500 what he is saying, Laches?”
Lach.“I do – It is the soothsayers he is saying are the brave. Who else,501 after all, will know502 for whom it is better to be alive than dead? But yourself, Nicias, which way will you have it? Will you allow you503 are a soothsayer? Or, if not a soothsayer, that you are not brave, either?”
Nic.“What?504 Now505 you imagine the soothsayer is suited to know what is fearsome and what is to be dared?”506
Lach.“I do. Who else?”
Nic.“Much more he who I am talking about, my best of men! After all (196) a soothsayer only needs to know the signs of what is coming – whether a given person is to die or to get sick or to lose his fortune, whether he will win or lose a war or some other contest.507 But as for judging which of these will be better for the given person to undergo or not to undergo, is the soothsayer any more suited to make that judgment than any other practitioner?508
Lach.“Here's the place where509 I don't get what he is trying to say, Socrates.510 Neither a soothsayer, nor what other kind of person is he revealing he calls the brave man,511 unless he means it's some god.512 To me Nicias seems unwilling to have the decency to admit he is saying nothing.513 Instead he twists his argument every which way514 so as to cover up515 the fact that he, too, has come to a standstill.516 And yet you and I could have twisted things around this way a few moments ago if we had wished to avoid the appearance of contradicting ourselves. If the discussion were taking place in the courtroom it would make some sense to act that way, but why would somebody in a meeting like this517 thwart the argument with empty distinctions518 merely to keep himself looking good?”
Soc.“For no good reason519 – I would agree, Laches. But let's see whether Nicias thinks520 he is saying something521 and is not just mouthing words.522 Let's inquire of him more exactly what he has in mind.523 Then, if it becomes clear he is really saying something,524 we will agree with him; and if not we will instruct him.”
Lach.“Go ahead and try to inquire525 if you wish, Socrates. I'm fairly526 inquired out.”
Soc.“It won't hurt if I do, since I will be doing the inquiring on behalf of both of us.”527
Lach.“Quite so.”
Soc.“Then tell me, Nicias – or better, tell us,528 since Laches and I are making this argument together. You are saying that bravery is the knowledge of what is to be feared and what is to be dared?”529
Nic.“I am.”
Soc.“And that530 it belongs not to mankind at large531 to know this, given that532 neither a doctor nor a soothsayer will know it and thereby533 be brave, unless he should acquire this knowledge in addition as a supplement – isn't this what you were arguing?”
Nic. “That it was.”
Soc.“So, truly,534 as the proverb says, it's not something any pig would know,535 so as thus to become a brave one.”
Nic.“I'd say, No.”
Soc.“Clearly, Nicias, you do not believe the Crommyonian sow was really brave, either.536 I say this not as a joke537 but because I imagine that a person who argues as you do cannot accept bravery as a characteristic of any beast,538 or else539 he must grant that some animal is sophisticated enough that such things as only some few men know, due to the difficulty of knowing them, are known to a lion or a leopard or perhaps to some boar.540 Instead, the man that posits bravery to be what you posit it to be must say that lion and deer and bull and ape541 are by nature equally brave.”542 (197)
Lach.“My god, Socrates! How well543 you put the matter! And so, Nicias, give us a real answer to this question544– Do you claim these beasts are more sophisticated than we are – the ones, that is, that all of us545 would agree are brave – or do you dare546 to oppose the world and not even call them brave?”
Nic.“Nay, Laches, neither547 beasts nor anything else do I call548 brave that fails to fear what is dangerous out of a lack of intelligence549 but is550 unfearing only551 and witless. Or do you imagine I call all children brave since they fear nothing because of their mindlessness? No – I take the unfearing and the brave to be different things. My position is that bravery and forethought is something in which some small few552 have a share, whereas boldness and audacity and this element of “un-fearing” accompanied by un-forethoughtfulness,553 is shared by very many – men, women, children and beasts. The cases that you and the majority of men554 call brave, I call rash; what I call brave are cases that are mindful in the matters I mentioned.”555
Lach.“Behold, Socrates how well this fellow again plumes himself 556 with talk, while those whom everybody else557 counts as brave he seeks to strip of that honor.
Nic.“But not you,558 Laches: never fear! For I declare you to be sophisticated, you and Lamachus559 too, if in fact560 you are brave, and other Athenians, too, a good lot of them.”
Lach.“I have nothing to say to that – not because I am at a loss but because if I did, you would say it is no accident that I am an Aexonian.”561
Soc.“Please don't say it, Laches. And I do not think it is lost on you562 that the sophistication you see in him563 is something he got from our associate Damon.564 As for Damon, he consults with Prodicus a good deal, the man judged to be the most adept of all the sophists at such fine verbal distinctions.”
Lach.“Yes and that is just what suits a sophist – this sort of subtle use of language – as opposed to565 what suits a man whose city deems him worthy566 to be put in charge of herself.”
Soc.“In any case, my blessed fellow, what suits567 the man who is put in charge of the greatest things is that he have the greatest share of mindfulness. But as to what Nicias deserves,568 I think it is a closer investigation569 as to what he has in mind when he applies this term, bravery.”
Lach.“Go ahead and investigate him yourself, Socrates.”
Soc.“That's what I will do, by noble friend, but don't think I am excusing you from the joint endeavor of our discussion. Pay attention to what is said and think along with us.”
Lach.“Let it be so if that seems right.”570
Soc.“But it does seem right.571 Now Nicias,572 answer a new set of questions.573 (198) You recognize, don't you, that at the start Laches and I574 were investigating bravery as being a part of virtue.”
Nic.“Quite so.”
Soc.“And did you, too, give your answer about it575 viewing it as a distinct part,576 one among other parts which all together are called virtue?”
Nic.“How not?”
Soc.“And as to the other parts, do you say the same about them as I do? Besides bravery I speak of temperance and justice and other such things.577 How about you?”
Nic.“Yes to that … .” 578
Soc.“Then let's continue.579 Since we agree about this much, let's have a closer look580 at the things that are to be feared and dared,581 in case you think one thing about them but Laches and I582 think another. We will say how we take the terms, and if you take them otherwise, you will explain to us why you do.583 We take it that things are fearsome if they do indeed584 provoke fear, and dareable if585 they do not provoke fear; and also that what provokes fear is not things in the past that are evil, nor present evils either, but evils we anticipate in the future, since fear is the anticipation of an evil to come. Or do you not also take it so, Laches?”586
Lach.“Very much so, Socrates.”
Soc.“So now you have heard what we587 think, Nicias – that what is fearsome are evils to come, whereas what is dareable are things to come that are not evil or are good.588 Do you see it this way or another way?”
Nic.“This way, myself.”
Soc. “And meanwhile589 it is the knowledge of these things that you call bravery.”
Nic.“Clearly yes.”
Soc. But still let us see if you agree with Laches and me about the third thing.”
Nic.“And what590 third thing is that?”
Soc.“I will tell you. This fellow and I think that for any things of which there is knowledge, the knowledge of these things as they once were in the past is not different from the knowledge of such things as they now are, nor of such things as they might best be or as they shall be591 in the future, but is the same knowledge. For instance on the subject of health, medical science is not different for each of the different times, since it is one, but presides over present, past and future things, how they are, and were, and shall be. And likewise the science of farming presides over the things that are grown on farms592 no matter when; and when it comes to war the two of you will593 doubtless testify that the science of strategy provides the finest mindful supervision594 in all cases, especially as to what is to be done in the future, and fancies not at all that it should be subservient to soothsaying595 but rather should rule it, knowing better as it does about matters of war whether in the present or the future. (199) Just so, our law forbids the soothsayer to govern the general but rather enjoins the general to govern the soothsayer. Isn't that what we declare, Laches?”596
Lach.“Declare it we do.”
Soc.“Alright, then, Nicias, do you declare along with us that a science about the same set of things, as one and the same science, knows what's what597 about the things whether they be future or present or past?”598
Nic.“I do, for to me it seems to be as you say.”
Soc.“And you do declare, my best of men, that bravery is the knowledge of fearsome and dareable things, don't you?”
Soc.“But we have agreed that the fearsome and the dareable consist on the one hand of future goods and on the other of future evils?”599
Nic.“Quite so.”
Soc.“And yet that600 a science of a class of things is one and the same, whether they be in the future or whatever state they are in?”
Nic.“That, too, we have agreed.”
Soc.“Therefore it is not only of the fearsome and of the dareable that bravery is the knowledge. For it is competent not only about goods and evils601 in the future but also those that are present or past or in any state602 – just like the other kinds of knowledge.”
Nic. “It does appear so.”
Soc.“And so your original answer gave only a part of bravery, something like a third of it, whereas we were asking603 what bravery is as a whole; and the way it looks now, according to your argument, bravery is not the science of fearsome and dareable things only. Instead, a knowledge of virtually all goods and evils no matter what their state is what bravery would be! Has the argument switched positions in this way604 – or what would you say?”
Nic.“I deem that it has!”605
Soc.“And do you deem that a man of the sort you have in mind,606 my stunning friend,607 would be lacking608 in virtue in any way, if he did know all the goods and know fully how they are and how they shall be and how they have been, as well as all the evils? Do you think your man would be deficient609 in temperance, or in justice and piety,610 when in truth he alone is qualified to manage, with due caution and in relations both divine and human, the things that are to be feared and shunned and those that are not, and conversely to garner all the things that are good, knowing as he would the right way to commune with both gods and men?”611
Nic.“What I deem is that you are really saying something, Socrates!”612
Soc.“So what is now being described would not be merely a portion of virtue for you,613 but the whole614 of it.”
Nic.“”So it seems.”
Soc.“But our position was that bravery is but one portion of virtue.”
Nic.“So it was.”
Soc.“But the thing we have just now reached in argument seems not to be so.”
Nic.“Seems it doesn't.”
Soc."And so the result is, we have not discovered what bravery is.”
Nic.“It seems we haven't.”
Lach.“But I at least, dear Nicias, thought you would discover it, since615 you scorned the way I answered Socrates. (200) I had only the highest hopes.Thought I, 'With the help of Damon's sophistication you will616 turn it up!' ”
Nic.“How good for you, Laches, that you are no longer troubled617 that a moment ago you were shown618 to know not a whit about bravery – instead it is whether I will turn up619 as equally futile that you look for. No longer does it make a difference to you, it seems, that you, right along with me, are entirely ignorant of the science of those things that are appropriate for a man to know who fancies himself a real620 man. Instead yours is a behavior621 all too human, in my opinion, casting622 the eye of judgment not at all upon oneself623 but upon others. For my part on the other hand I believe that I have acquitted myself decently and well624 in this conversation of ours, and that if I have failed in some way, I will redeem my error at some later time, whether with the help of Damon – whom I suppose you deride, though you have never even seen625 the man – and with the help of others. And once I have secured626 some understanding I will come and teach you as well, and will not begrude you. For you do seem to me very sorely627 in need of learning.”
Lach.“How sophisticated you are,628 Nicias! Yet still I will advise Lysimachus here and Melesias to drop both you and me as counselors about the education of their boys, and rather to keep this fellow Socrates from getting away from them as I suggested at the very beginning.629 And if my own children were at the that age I would be doing the same thing.”630
Nic.“I agree with what you say,631 and if only Socrates is willing to take care of their boys, I advise them to seek no other.632 In fact I would gladly turn my own boy Niceratus over to him if only he would take him. But he always recommends others633 when I bring the matter up, and himself is unwilling.634 Try and see, Lysimachus, if Socrates might pay a bit635 more heed to a request from you.”
Lys.“Just636 it would be, indeed, Nicias, since I in fact637 would be ready to do a lot for this man, more than I would do for no great number of others. So what do you say, Socrates? Will you heed my request and join in encouraging these boys638 to become as noble as possible?”
Soc.“Terrible639 it would be, Lysimachus, to be unwilling to encourage someone to become as noble as possible! I would say that if I had been shown in the present conversations640 to be a person with knowledge and these two to be ignorant, then it would indeed be just641 to call upon me in particular to perform this task. But as it is we all ended up confused. Why then should any of us prefer any of us?642 By my own lights I would say (201) not a one. And if I am right, then ask yourselves whether the advice I have for you seems worthwhile: I say (mind you none of us here is going to pass this along643) we ought first of all join together and seek out the best teacher we can find for ourselves644 – for clearly we need one645 – and then a teacher for the lads, sparing neither expense nor anything else.646 To let it go on the other hand and leave ourselves in the state we are in – this I counsel you not647 to do. If someone should set about ridiculing648 us for thinking we need to go back to school at our age, we must fend him off with Homer's remark that there is “nothing good about acting shy when a man is in need.”649 If we are to let go of something let's let go of worrying about what somebody might say, and instead join together to take care of ourselves and our lads.”
Lys.“For myself, I accept what you suggest, Socrates, and by whatever amount I am the oldest I am the most eager to try and learn right along with the lads.650 But what you must do is this. Show up first thing tomorrow morning at my house651 – I enjoin you to do it – so that we might counsel each other about these very topics. For now, let's call our meeting to an end.”
Soc.“Do it I will, Lysimachus. God willing, I will come to you tomorrow.”
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