We usually reserve the term bravery for a selected group of people in our society, whether military, first responders, or an average citizen who intervenes extraordinarily to save somebody’s life. Imagine that Plato invites you for the gathering in home with several other guests, and in the course of dinner, Plato turns to you and asks you to define bravery. What would you say? Indeed, Plato would not be satisfied if you pointed to the above examples to answer the question. He would want something more.
This discussion is especially important in contemporary times. Since we saw that, during the Covid crisis, everything became inverted – cowardice became a virtue and courage, a vice. People were actually impugned for declaring that they were not going to let fear characterize their lives. At times like this, we must return the the sages of old to see what they can teach us.
This dialogue is known not only for its philosophy but also for its great drama. There has been debate among scholars who question whether Laches is more drama or philosophy.1 I resolve that debate by answering yes.
There are five main characters in this dialogue. Plato beautifully lays this dialogue out in a symmetrical fashion by having two older men, two younger generals, and an even younger Socrates mediate between the two groups.
The two elderly Athenians are Lysimachus and Melesias. Lysimachus was a retired general, and Melesias had been trained to be a top wrestler in Athens who ended up serving on an oligarchic council established to rule Athens in 411 B.C.2
The two younger men who were generals were Nicias and Lacres. Nicias went on to have a disastrous defeat in Sicily in 413, in which he tragically died. Lacres was a prominent general in the Peloponnesian War until he died at the battle of Mantinea in 418.
And, of course, we all know about Socrates, about whom I have written numerous posts in this blog. Socrates is a young man in this dialogue and, in usual Socratic fashion, claims not to know the answers to the operative questions but attempts to seek the truth through a series of questions. One of Plato’s purposes in writing this dialogue was to highlight Socrates’ intellectual prowess and bravery. When we think of Socrates, we tend to think of him as an elderly grey-haired philosopher, forgetting that, as a younger man, he was a soldier in his own right. So, apart from the primary purpose of this dialogue, which is to discover the nature of bravery, it also serves as a powerful tribute to Plato’s beloved teacher.
Despite the dramatic flare of this dialogue, which seems more pronounced than many of Plato’s other writings, its structure follows the lines of his other talks. Let’s briefly discuss that.
Emphasis on Virtue
The nature of virtue was a popular topic in the Classical world, not only among the Greek philosophers but also among the Roman ones like Seneca. Indeed, this remained a popular topic of exploration up to and through medieval Catholic times, with philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and others writing extensively on the nature of the various virtues.
The entire pre-Enlightenment world was steeped in this ethos of virtue. Before medieval times, it was, without a doubt, Plato’s star student, Aristotle, who went on to define and develop not just the meaning of virtue but also to expound upon the individual virtues. A good read along these lines is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
In a very close fashion, Aristotle equated the connection between virtue and happiness, or eudaimonia. This isn’t the superficial emotion of joy a person may experience when getting a job promotion or winning the lottery. Instead, this is more of a deep-seated sense of well-being and contentment. You may feel a sense of joy while eating a half a gallon of ice cream, but afterward, you will most likely have a profound sense of a lack of well-being and satisfaction with yourself. Aristotle would say you would experience more satisfaction; eudaimonia comes from a life characterized by disciplined exercise and eating habits.
This is a topic for another time, but all this was lost during the so-called Enlightenment, where transcendent ideals of any kind, including virtue, were replaced with a more pragmatic approach to ethics. Kant was probably the one most responsible for this, but there are numerous other examples in the modern era, such as the American Pragmatists William James and John Dewey. Kant separated happiness from virtue, distilling ethics into good old German, mechanical, robotic, emotionless formulations as found in his infamous Categorical Imperative. No wonder nobody is attracted to integrity and ethics in modern times! This is a fascinating topic, and if you would like me to write more on this, please let me know.
Asking the Right Questions
If you are familiar with Plato’s dialogues, you will know that his dialogues are more concerned with asking the right questions than answering them. Why is this the case?
Plato’s teacher Socrates taught him that, to pursue wisdom and knowledge on any topic, one should start from a position of ignorance. This is why, in this dialogue, you will find Socrates asking more questions than answering and making few definitive, declarative statements on the nature of bravery. Socrates taught Plato that one must ask the proper questions to get to the bottom of a matter. Sometimes, the question is more important than the answers because the right questions open our minds to even more incredible vistas of thought.
Asking the proper questions then sets the stage for finding the appropriate answers. This is, or should be, the approach that scientists and journalists take, but as we know, the art of asking the right questions is becoming a lost art and is a lost art in modern journalism. Ironically, artists often have the money to ask the right questions as they seek to hone their craft. Below is a quote from actor Al Pacino, who, in an interview, was describing what made his acting mentor and one of my favorite actors, John Cazale, great:
John loved to ask questions because he taught me about asking questions and not having to answer them, that’s the beauty, you ask a question about something, but you don’t have to have an answer. What’s wonderful about it is that you open the door to things. You have the variables now, now that you’ve asked the question.-Al Pacino on John Cazale
Does that mean that we shouldn’t seek to articulate answers to questions? By no means did Aristotle teach us as much. If we examine the three men’s works, that of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as a unity, we can fully understand the pursuit of wisdom. Socrates teaches us that we should start from ignorance because we don’t know what we don’t know. Plato teaches us that, from this position of ignorance, wisdom is found in formulating the right questions. Finally, Aristotle teaches us that if we follow the guidance of Socrates and Plato, there is much wisdom to be had through proper reasoning, as found in sound philosophy.
Setting the Stage
The dialogue opens with excitement as the reputed military expert, Stesilaus, is in town to demonstrate innovative fighting techniques using armour.3 Lysimachus and Melesias have invited the distinguished generals and their friends, Nicias and Laches, to join them in observing these exercises, which serve as a backdrop to the ensuing discussion on the nature of bravery. The military aspect is just a springboard, though, for the concept of bravery in this dialogue will be expanded beyond the battlefield to include illness, poverty, politics, and seafaring.4
As we all want to give our children advantages that we may not have had, Lysimachus and Melesias are wondering whether or not they should send their children to be taught by Stesilaus to get the education they never had. They want to know Nicias and Laches’ opinions on whether Stanislaus’s course is worthwhile. The anxious fathers, Lysimachus and Melesias, turn to the generals, Nicias and Laches, for answers because they have no significant military accomplishments. We have established a position of ignorance, which is very Socratic.
Laches expresses his surprise that they have yet to consult Socrates, who is not only an authority on such matters but is standing nearby watching the exercises. Again, in this section and later, part of Plato’s purpose in this dialogue is to pay tribute to his former teacher. As such, Laches states to Lysimachus:
…but I am surprised that you are asking us for advice on your sons’ education and you aren’t asking Socrates here: because, in the first place, he comes from your own township, and, in the second, he always spends his time in places where one might find the kind of thing you’re in search of for your children -some creditable discipline or pursuit.–Laches 180 b-c
Nicias then said that Socrates made an excellent recommendation when he needed a music teacher for one of his children. So now we have a ringing endorsement of Socrates from both generals, which the older men wholeheartedly agree with. How would you enter the conversation if you had such a ringing endorsement in a similar situation? Well, as we would expect, Socrates enters with humility and deference:
Well, Lysimachus, on that matter I’ll certainly try to give you any advise I can, and I’ll also try to do everything you invite me to do. But I think it’s only right that since I’m younger than these gentlemen and rather inexperienced in the field, I should listen to what they have to say first and learn from them. Then, if I have anything else to add to what they’ve said, I should explain my position and try to convince you and our friends here. Well now, Nicias, won’t you start us off?-Laches 181 c-d
Nicias and the Virtues of Military Training
So, Nicias takes the first stab at the value of military training. He reasons well and demonstrates intellect as he enumerates the benefits of military training for young people. After all, he states:
First of all, although they usually fritter away their free time on other activities, as you know, it’s a good idea for them to spend their time doing this instead, which is bound to make them fit and healthy, since it is at least as serious, and requires just a much hard effort, as any other physical exercises.181e-182a
Most parents can relate to this. What better way to get your kids off social media, which can be a big waste of time, and get them into sports? Sports provide a positive focus, a sense of accomplishment, and the added benefit of physical fitness. This is Nicia’s argument for military training for young men.
He then lists the other positive benefits of military training in 182a-182d. He states that it prepares men to exercise their military duties as citizens, gives a soldier an edge over untrained opponents in an actual confrontation, fosters an interest in military science, instills bravery, and encourages a soldier to look like a soldier.
It is not surprising, then, that as an intellectual, Nicias’s position boils down to bravery being a particular kind of knowledge. His list above would have been all well and good except for the controversial statement that military training instills courage, which starts the entire ball rolling in this dialogue. His actual words are as follows:
…the possession of this same knowledge will make any individual a great deal braver and more daring in battle than he would be otherwise be.-182c
This introduces the main prompt to the dialogue. Can one teach bravery?
Laches and the Futility of Military Training
Laches is more of a practical man than an intellectual like Nicias. Instead of intellectualizing, he draws upon his vast experiences and synthesizes a coherent conclusion. The difference between these two men is between the top-down, deductive, analytical approach of the former versus the bottom-up, inductive, synthetic method of the latter. This is brilliant dialogue craftsmanship on the part of Plato, setting the stage eventually for Socrates to add his perspective amidst not just these two conclusions but also between these two types of reasoning approaches.
Laches puts forth three arguments, and the first is inconsequential. I consider them fillers, but the third contributes significantly to the gist of the dialogue. His first point is that the Spartans do not have any formal military training. The problem with this argument is that it is simply not true. The Spartans had a long history of formalized military training. His second point is debatable. He claims that, from his experience, he had never seen a martial arts teacher become distinguished on the battlefield. Several potential improvements in this argument catch my attention, but I consider them a rabbit trail diverting from the overall direction of the central thesis.
His third main point asserts that bravery is a specific character trait or behaviour one cannot teach or learn. Bravery is based on who a person is and not on their specific knowledge. Therefore, military training is futile to instill bravery. Even if a man could learn military techniques, he cannot learn bravery. Either he has it, or he doesn’t. His conclusion is as follows;
So, as I said at first, either it is a discipline, but of not great use, or it’s not, an people merely claim that it is under false pretenses; but, whichever way, it’s not work trying to study.-184b
Consider the opening speeches of Laches and Nicias as opening speeches of a debate. They will flesh these points out in more detail in the second part of this dialogue, but they have established their initial positions for now. Socrates acts as a moderator, but unlike most debate moderators, Socrates finds flaws in the premises of the entire debate. So, he will now skillfully reset the ground rules, all the while maintaining ignorance of the topic in general.
Socrates Redirects the Discussion
To reorient the discussion, the young Socrates turns his attention back to the two elderly gentlemen, Lysimachus and Melesias, with Lysimachus being the central figure of this pair and Melesias the minor, just as Laches is the central figure of the generals and Nicias the child. Again, notice the harmonious symmetry of the characters.
Lysimachus then turns to Socrates and asks him to be the tiebreaker. Is he going to agree with Laches or Nicias? Is bravery a matter of nature or nurture or neither? Once Socrates decides, Lysimachus and Melesias will have their answers, and everyone can go home. But not so fast, says Socrates. Are we going to resolve this matter by a purely democratic vote? Especially by one like Socrates, who admits to having no expertise in this area? After all, we are talking about the future of the most precious things that they possess: their beloved children.
Socrates reasoning sobered Lysimachus up very quickly. Of course, he would not decide his children’s future with a simple democratic vote. Socrates convinced Lysimachus that they needed an “expert in the field”. This is where the dialogue takes an entirely new direction. Socrates claims they have been barking up the wrong tree, for we are not learning military techniques, but this is a much deeper matter altogether.
This issue at hand, according to Socrates, is not one of military knowledge but of character. An expert who has a track record of forming the characters is young people, for that is ultimately the source of virtue. Socrates may have Heraclitus in mind, who quoted the famous dictum, “Character is destiny”. The endpoint of one’s life is determined more by one’s character than by one’s circumstances.
If this be the case, Socrates reasons, then an expert must be found, not in military prowess, but in the education of the character of young people. The subject matter is entirely different. The military question is only a means to an end. If only follows from this, then any so-called expert consulted in this matter must be proficient in the education of character formation. This runs to the heart of the case, for the word used here for “character” is soul or Psūkhe. What Socrates is talking about is soul development.
As a sidebar and point of interest, this is an apology by Plato on Socrates’s behalf. Because, in his famous trial, one of the accusations levelled at him was corrupting the youth. According to Plato, nothing could be further from the truth as Plato has Socrates saying the following:
When our friends’ sons are at stake, we can’t risk corrupting them, and then having to fact the bitter reproaches of people we’re close to.-186b
Socrates’ Challenge to the Generals
After Socrates redirected the entire course of inquiry, he challenged Laches and Nicias. Can they be called upon to be experts in the character formation of the youth, for this is the actual need that the children of Lysimachus and Melesias have? Can Laches and Nicias show that they have been trained by such experts? Or do they have any such record of teaching others? I don’t know about you. But if I were in the shoes of Laches or Nicias, I would kindly bow out.
Lysimachus is fully persuaded that this is the proper direction for the discussion. Not relying on any reputed military expertise of the generals but vetting them on their expertise in educating the youth’s souls. Lysimachus states the following:
Well, gentlemen, to my mind Socrates’ suggestion is admirable: but whether you’re willing to have such questions put to you and are prepared to give an account of yourselves in reply, that you must decide for yourselves…So, if it’s all the same to you, could you join Socrates in discussing the issue and exchange your views with one another?187c-d
Both Nicias and Laches agree to subject themselves to Socrates’ challenge. They realize now that a true expert in human affairs must ultimately be an expert in character and virtue. As such, they realize that this debate’s ultimate focus is their characters. They are willing, then, to face the gauntlet of Socrates’ penetrating inquiries.
The Character of Socrates
Part one of this dialogue ends with a hagiography of sorts concerning Socrates. Plato masterfully includes this in the conversation at this point for two reasons. First of all, as I mentioned above, Plato is weaving an apologetic of the life of Socrates into the narrative to counter the false accusations made about him at his trial.
Secondly, how could Socrates vet the general’s character if he were not a good character? His arguments about nature would undercut his authority. If he were either a person of questionable character or an uncertain character. This would render the rest of the dialogue null and void.
So, going forward, Plato must establish Socrates as the actual character “expert” in this discussion. Although implicitly and not a mere moderator. Plato uses the literary technique of irony at its best for the very expert in the character development of youth. So, what they were looking for was standing right in front of them in the person of Socrates. Socrates’ humility indicates his character; he would not put himself forward as a character expert. Since he would have considered himself a work in progress and not having yet arrived.
The other point of irony is that, even though Socrates claimed to have no experience or expertise, Laches alludes to his outstanding bravery in the battle of Delium when he was a soldier. This, again, qualifies him to be the implicit expert in this discussion.
Having said that, it is appropriate to close with a quotation from Laches attesting to the character’s bravery of Socrates. In reality, these are Plato’s words inserted into the mouth of Laches. Which, on a human level, reveals Plato’s love and admiration for his teacher.
In Socrates’ case I’m not familiar with his conversation, but I believe I do have prior experiences with his conduct, which I found worthy of a man of high principles and total frankness.
You see, whenever I hear a man talking about goodness or any kind of wisdom – a real man, that is, who lives by his principles – I’m overjoyed, because I can see that the speaker in in tune with his words an that the two go together. Such a man really is, I think, a true musician188e-189a; 188 c-d
By the Greek’s love for symmetry and harmony, as already indicated by the structure of this dialogue, we have another beautiful illustration of how, when someone’s words match their actions regarding goodness, this is like a beautiful sound produced by a finely tuned instrument. Leave it to the Greeks to give us such a poignant description. When we live lives of good characters, we are in harmony with ourselves and with the universe.
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Footnotes and Endnotes:
- Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, pp. 71-79, Penguin Publishers, 1987, ISBN-13: 973-0-140-45503-8
- Ibid, p. 80
- Woodruff, Paul, “Plato’s Shorter Ethical Works”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 15,(Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.)
Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, Penguin Publishers, 1987, ISBN-13: 973-0-140-45503-8
Rabieh, Linda R., Plato and the Virtue of Courage, Johns Hopkins University Press (October 18, 2006), ISBN-13 : 978-0801884696