90. Plato’s Dialogue Laches, What is Bravery?, Part II

What is Bravery?

What is Bravery?

In an age of feckless leadership in the West, we need to go back to the 20th century to find examples of leaders, such as Winston Churchill, who exemplified courage to an almost unknown degree today. And where did Churchill turn for his inspiration? To none other than the ancient Greeks. One reason could be that modern man emphasizes pragmatism, while the ancient Greeks emphasize virtue.

To get the context of this article, you should at least skim Post 89, Part I, to understand the context and the speakers of this dialogue.

True to form, Laches represents a typical Platonic dialogue with the subject matter of a particular virtue debated by various interlocutors, each with a different skill level and perspective. In this case, the subject matter concerns the virtue of courage. As is typical in such a dialogue, propositions, arguments, and counterarguments are made to answer the question of the nature of virtue. Still, by the end of the dialogue, the question remains unanswered.

There are several reasons why Plato structures his dialogues as such, which I have discussed in previous articles. The most important one is that he wants to engage us, his audience, to stimulate our thinking on the matter. He is more interested in promoting sound and creative thinking than spoon-feeding us answers. With that, let’s dive into Part 2 of this dialogue.

Socrates Sets the Ground Rules

As the moderator of this discussion, Socrates gives a short speech at the beginning to set the ground rules and inform Laches and Nicias what the end goal is. Laches is the primary speaker, and Nicias is the secondary. As expected, Socrates was unsatisfied with the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of bravery. Instead, he is looking for the essence of the meaning. This inquiry aims to answer the question posed in Part 1 on whether or not teaching bravery should be a part of military education. But how can one answer that question unless one first knows what bravery is? By implication, if one understands the nature of bravery, the question still needs to be answered on whether this knowledge can be transmitted from one generation to another.

Now the questions that we attempted to consider a while ago—“Who have been our teachers in this sort of training? What other persons have we made better?”—are perhaps of a kind on which we might well examine ourselves: but I believe this other way of inquiring leads to the same thing, and will probably also start more from the beginning. For if we happen to know of such and such a thing that by being joined to another thing it makes this thing better, and further, if we are able to get the one joined to the other, we obviously know the thing itself on which we might be consulting as to how it might be best and most easily acquired. Now I daresay you do not grasp my meaning. Well, you will grasp it more easily in this way. If we happen to know that sight joined to eyes makes those eyes the better for it, and further if we are able to get it joined to eyes, we obviously know what this faculty of sight is, on which we might be consulting as to how it might be best and most easily acquired. For if we did not know first of all what sight or hearing is, we should hardly prove ourselves consultants or physicians of credit in the matter of eyes or ears, and the best way of acquiring sight and hearing.

189d-190b

Socrates directs the discussion to the real issue, which is larger than the idea of bravery. He first lays out an abstract argument, followed by a concrete example. His abstract argument is as follows: if we are to improve X by adding Y, we must know what Y is. In this case, X is the youth in military school, but what is Y? That’s easy. Y is the virtue of bravery—not really. This is where the discussion takes an unsurprising Socratic turn. After all, things are sometimes taken at face value in Socratic dialogues.1

Regarding Socrates’ concrete example, he uses the faculty of sight, which I can resonate with as an optometrist. If I didn’t know about optics, how could I improve someone’s vision with optical devices?

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

190 b-c

Socrates argues that bravery is a subset of “goodness.” So, we need to step back and understand goodness before doing anything else. I am already forwarding to dialogues like The Republic, where Plato discusses his famous theory of forms and the idea of the form of goodness, stating that goodness is the highest form. What is Goodness? Well, just like in his other dialogues discussing virtues, the answer in the Republic needs to be more conclusive. Does Plato have his theory of forms in mind when he is writing this Laches? It isn’t easy to say. Plato tells us that the Good if the root of the other virtues. In other words, we should grasp the big picture here and not reduce bravery to merely mechanistic ideas teachable in a military academy.

Socrates goes on to say:

Let us not, therefore, my good friend, inquire forthwith about the whole of goodness, since that may well be too much for us; but let us first see if we are sufficiently provided with knowledge about some part of it.

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

190c; 190d

I see some humor here when Socrates states that when we discuss courage, we need to understand goodness, but “that may well be too much for us,” so let’s reevaluate to just understanding a part of goodness, which is courage. This first appears like a circular argument or even a tautology; still, I think that Socrates is just reminding us, as mentioned above, that bravery is a virtue and not just an exercise taught by rote like wielding a sword or military horsemanship.

This serves as a good reminder for us in our pragmatic age to emphasize virtues once again instead of focusing on “what works.” For instance, we are living in an era where the perfection of military science has reached its peak, demonstrated by technologies like laser precision bombs and million-dollar cruise missiles. We seem to enjoy deploying these things worldwide, but we never seem to want to have the difficult discussions on what constitutes a just war or a just military operation.

Another reason why it is good to ask such questions is because we often judge situations with our passions instead of our reason. For example, some would justify everything a particular country does militarily out of blind patriotism. Conversely, those who hate that country will judge everything they do militarily from an opposite perspective. Passion instead of rationality guides both sides, which is why we need to train ourselves to look at situations philosophically to make the proper judgment. And it is by working through dialogues such as this that can teach us how to think philosophically, even if it does not outright give us solutions to our questions. That may be the point.

Laches’ First Definition – Bravery is a Brave Infantryman

Laches eagerly steps up to respond to Socrates’ challenge probably without giving it a whole lot of thought. He gives a very simple and succinct definition:

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

-190e

Laches’ simple definition does not shrink back and run away amid battle. Most people would agree with this, at least regarding battle behavior.

Socrates counters this definition without much effort, using examples such as feigned retreats as a military tactic and an example of Greek soldiers who at first refused to engage when fighting the Persians but later changed their minds. Regarding the first point, I do not consider it an effective counter because the retreat is feigned to deceive the enemy, not motivated by cowardice. But if Laches was giving a strict definition, Socrates probably made the point that such a move fell outside that definition.

In the second case, Socrates brings up a situation when, at the battle of Plataea between the Greeks and the Persians, the Greek foot soldiers refused to come up against the Persians because of their wicker shields and so turned and fled. When the Persians broke ranks to pursue them, the Greeks turned, reengaged the Persians, and won.

Socrates shows Laches that his definition, although correct in its limited sense, is too narrow and does not cover all of the different or even unconventional circumstances that may arise in battle in which bravery would manifest. He then goes on to widen the definition even further. This is where Plato masterfully applies the virtue of courage, not just to the entire military beyond the infantry but to all of life.

For I wanted to have your view not only of brave men-at-arms, but also of courage in cavalry and in the entire warrior class; and of the courageous not only in war but in the perils of the sea, and all who in disease and poverty, or again in public affairs, are courageous; and further, all who are not merely courageous against pain or fear, but brave and persistent fighters against desires and pleasures, whether standing their ground or turning back upon the foe—for I take it, Laches, there are courageous people in all these kinds.

191d-e

Plato has masterfully engaged the reader with this dialogue; if a reader was not interested up to this point, they are now. Who doesn’t, at times, have circumstances in life that one must face with fortitude? We all do, which motivates us to understand courage more profoundly, not only what it is but how to apply it. Who hasn’t faced an illness of themselves or a loved one, death, financial problems, family problems, etc.? In addition, we have countless opportunities in our lives in which to practice courage.

It may be confronting a teenage son or daughter on a problematic issue, saying something to our boss that may jeopardize our job, or just speaking out publicly on an issue that may bring the ire of cancel culture down upon us. Or it may be something even more ominous, like a recent cancer diagnosis with the prospect of months of painful and complicated treatments.

Of the four cardinal virtues that the ancient and medieval philosophers were so fond of talking about – prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude – fortitude is probably one of the more difficult ones for most people to master. As a part of our daily self-examination, we should consider how well we are doing with each virtue, listing even small ways to improve upon them.

Laches’ Second Definition – Bravery is Endurance

Well, that first attempt didn’t go so well, strike one. Laches will now attempt to formulate another definition of bravery.

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

-192b

Socrates seems to like this better, so instead of dismantling it like he did the first time, he adds to it with a question that Laches answers in the affirmative.

And endurance joined with wisdom is noble and good?

-192c

Now, we are getting somewhere. The Greeks prized wisdom above all else, and it only makes sense that any virtue could only be a virtue if guided by knowledge. All seems good until Socrates brings out more critiques, this time of his statement! He does this by showing some counter-examples that illustrate that endurance with wisdom might not always be brave, but sometimes it is more courageous to show endurance with foolishness.2 Socrates shows us here that we should critique our ideas and not just the ideas of others. We often critique the ideas of others and assume that our ideas are correct.

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

-193a

The point is obvious. If one applies wisdom to his situation and realizes that he has the upper hand, is it bravery if he endures, or is his weaker opponent braver because he is taking against greater odds? He also uses other examples that you can read for yourself if you wish.

At the end of this account, more confusion remains with Socrates and Laches. They are on the right track concerning endurance as a critical component of bravery. But what knowledge do they need to guide them? For this, they turn to their friend Nicias.3 Socrates’ other point in doing this is formulating a more robust definition of bravery by incorporating both generals’ insights. Thus, Socrates and Laches throw a lifeline to Nicias.

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

-194c

Nicias Definition – Bravery is a Special Kind of Knowledge

Nicias sets the discussion on a completely new course, a more intellectual one. While it is important to learn techniques and procedures, military science should always be guided by correct knowledge. He even ties it back to Socrates’ original point that bravery is a subset of goodness or virtue. But how do we know what goodness is?

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

Socrates
What is that, Nicias?

Nicias
I have often heard you say that every man is good in that wherein he is wise, and bad in that wherein he is unlearned.

Socrates
Well, that is true, Nicias, I must say.

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

Socrates
Do you hear him, Laches?

Laches
I do, without understanding very well what he says.

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

194 c-d

When challenged by Laches, Nicias clarifies:

I say, Laches, that it is this—the knowledge of what is to be feared or encouraged, either in war or in anything else.

194e-195a

Bravery, then, is knowledge of terrible things.

Laches puts forth some counter-examples of farmers and doctors who know what is dreaded in their art. Does that make them brave? Nicias denies that. The farmer and the doctor may be good at predicting what will happen with a crop or a person with a specific illness. But, that is not the same as knowledge of bravery. Bravery is not a special kind of knowledge of prediction. Instead, it is a knowledge of what is terrible or not, what is to be feared, or what is to be encouraged.

After presenting this strange and enigmatic argument, Laches accuses Nicias of twisting words to hide the fact that he is baffled and doesn’t know what he is talking about. Socrates, though, does not give up on this line of argumentation and encourages Nicias to go on:

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

196 b-c

Perhaps Nicias just needs another chance

Socrates Challenges Nicias’ Argument

The summary of Nicia’s argument so far is as follows:

Socrates
Now tell me, Nicias, or rather, tell us—for Laches and I are sharing the argument between us—do you say that courage is knowledge of what is to be feared or encouraged?

Nicias
I do.

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

Nicias
Yes, it was.

196 c-d

Socrates now brings up a point about animals such as lions, leopards, or boars. We all know that such animals are brave. If that were true, then that would mean they have a special kind of knowledge that many people do not. And if this isn’t the case, then we do not find true bravery in animals. Which would deny what everyone knows to be true.

Nicias answers as follows:

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

197 a-c

Nicias denies that true bravery exists in animals. What we see rather is fearlessness or recklessness. This same fearlessness is also found in humans, whether men, women, or children. Most people act this way, according to Nicias, for there are very few courageous people. These reckless acts can appear to be courageous. But, in reality, they are not since they are not guided by this special knowledge.

This brings up a point in my mind that is not addressed in this dialogue. It appears that Nicias is bringing another virtue into this discussion, prudence. Prudence is the wisdom to know the proper action to take in specific situations. If prudence is indeed a separate virtue, then it would seem that one could imprudently exercise bravery. In other words, one could be brave while acting with poor judgment at the same time. Nicias seems to be conflating two virtues, courage and prudence. This becomes the weakness in his argument that Socrates exposes at the end of the dialogue below.

Another problem is that Nicias also seems to be putting all of the eggs of his bravery virtue in the basket of special knowledge. So now we have a true dichotomy between Laches and Nicias. Laches, the seasoned soldier, gives a gritty, earthy definition of bravery, stand and fight like a man. Whereas Nicias gives a more abstract, esoteric definition of bravery and special knowledge. His definition seems almost gnostic in its approach. Nicias conflates fortitude and prudence, whereas Lashes leaves prudence out altogether.

Can these two opposites be reconciled?

Socrates Dismantles Nicias’s Argument

As a good moderator, Socrates calls Nicias back to the original premise of this entire discussion, that bravery was a part of goodness, along with other “parts” such as temperance and justice. At this point, we are discussing the unity of the virtues. Plato raises this issue here in Laches and the Protagoras dialogue. When Nicias conflates bravery and prudence, as I discussed above, is he saying that all virtues are one? In this case, they would all be manifestations of that “special knowledge,” which he calls the “knowledge of good and evil” in this dialogue, which is another way of saying wisdom. Then there is the debate about Socrates that continues to our present day. Are all virtues separate parts of wisdom? Or are they all synonymous with each other as a single entity?4

At this point, Socrates gets Nicias, according to his prior definition, claims that bravery is a unique knowledge of what is to be feared and avoided in the future, rather than the present or the past, for it is anticipatory knowledge.

We hold that the dreadful are things that cause fear, and the safely ventured are those that do not; and fear is caused not by past or present, but by expected evils: for fear is expectation of coming evil. You are of the same mind with us in this, are you not, Laches?

-198b

After Nicias acknowledges this, Socrates points out that this is restricted knowledge.

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

199 c-d

Nicias again agrees and so Socrates continues with his line of questioning:

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

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

199 d-e

The original premise was that bravery was a part of goodness. But, how Nicias eventually described it, how can one have a part of goodness? For bravery to be exemplary, it would have to participate in the whole of goodness. Because all virtues are needed, including temperance and prudence.

So, to go back to the beginning, the original definition agreed upon was that bravery was endurance with wisdom. This view takes what Laches originally proposed and adds an intellectual element, which Nicias expands upon, thus unifying the two men’s dialogues. Socrates was the one who brought up the point of bravery being a part of goodness. But, in the process of critiquing Nicias, he also negates his point on that matter. How can bravery be a part of goodness if bravery is the knowledge of good and evil?. Which is the definition of goodness?

Epilogue and the Unity of the Virtues

Socrates ends the dialogue with a humble note. In the end, everyone turns to him and asks him to teach their children. Socrates respectfully declines admitting that he is just as ignorant on the matter as anyone else.

Now if in the debates that we have just held I had been found to know what our two friends did not know, it would be right to make a point of inviting me to take up this work: but as it is, we have all got into the same difficulty, so why should one of us be preferred to another? In my own opinion, none of us should

-200e

Plato closes one door and opens another. He is asking us to consider the relationship among the virtues, the problem of the unity of the virtues. Is there a diversity of virtues united as one or simply one virtue, goodness, manifested in different ways? While this sounds esoteric, how this question is answered does have practical implications for the field of Ethics. Plato’s real intent in writing this dialogue was not to discover the nature of courage but rather to introduce the question of the unity of the virtues and how the virtues relate to one another. In presenting the difficulties of defining the virtue of bravery, it is my opinion that Plato’s ultimate agenda in this dialogue is to introduce the topic of the unity of the virtues.

In the next article, I will discuss this idea of the unity of the virtues as found in the dialogue Protagoras and expand beyond that to discuss the implications of this idea for today.

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Deo Gratias!

Featured Book:

What is Bravery?

Footnotes and Endnote:

  1. Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, pp. 97-98, Penguin Classics, 2005, ISBN-13: 978-0140455038
  2. Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, p. 101, Penguin Classics, 2005, ISBN-13: 978-0140455038
  3. To get a fuller background of the identity of the speakers in this dialogue, please see the previous post.
  4. Clark, Justin, “Socrates, the primary question, and the unity of virtue”, Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Further Reading:

Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, Penguin Publishers, 1987, ISBN-13: 973-0-140-45503-8

Price, A.W., Virtue and Reason in Plato and Aristotle, Oxford University Press; 1st edition (December 17, 2011), ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0199609611

Rabieh, Linda R., Plato and the Virtue of Courage, Johns Hopkins University Press (October 18, 2006), ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0801884696

 Vasiliou, Iakovos, Aiming at Virtue in Plato, Cambridge University Press; 1st edition (December 8, 2008), ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0521862967

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