Plot: Two Athenian generals, Nicias and Laches, are asked their opinions on the value of a military education for the sons of Athenian noblemen. Laches invites Socrates to join the discussion. Nicias takes the view that a military education provides a number of valuable benefits, including making the recipient braver and more daring in battle. Laches is not inclined to see any benefit.
Socrates reminds the generals that what is required of them is their advice on the education of the boys for the ultimate goal of good character development, for which military training is the chosen means to that end. To instil this goodness, they must be able to recognise and describe it. Socrates narrows goodness down to a definition of ‘bravery’ in keeping with the military nature of their experience. Laches initially defines bravery as someone who stands up to the enemy and fights without fleeing. Socrates asks about other instances of bravery : fighting at sea, or being brave in facing disease or poverty. He then offers a definition of ‘quickness’ to show what he is seeking : doing something in a short space of time. But as the editor points out, Socrates chooses a physical action which does not require a moral decision.
Laches suggests that introducing the concept of endurance as necessary to exhibiting bravery in all these situations, but then Socrates asks if that is endurance with wisdom or knowledge, or without wisdom (= foolishness), and again they reach an impasse as Socrates offers examples of bravery in both circumstances.
Nicias re-enters the debate and offers the thought that bravery includes knowledge of what is fearful and what is encouraging or not fearful. Socrates counters with asking if animals or children are brave if they are unafraid of danger, but Nicias explains they are not demonstrating bravery but are merely unaware of the danger they face, and draws a wider distinction between bravery and those who are “reckless, daring, fearless and blind to consequences”. Socrates then asks Nicias if knowing something is fearful is based on the expectation of future evil as a result, to which he agrees. Then Socrates argues that the recognition of future good or evil is the same as recognising past or present good or evil, which is further a recognition of all goodness, not just bravery, and they all admit defeat in their efforts.
My version is part of the Penguin edition Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor Saunders. (ISBN 9780140455038)
Phew! Socrates is again shown as being able to turn any argument inside out and convincing his opponent that their initial assertion is not what they subsequently support once Socrates leads them through a logical (but perhaps not watertight) series of questions and examples. The end result is basically a collapse of the validity of all their arguments (and a certain degree of squabbling and name calling between Laches and Nicias) as they still don’t have a satisfactory definition of bravery. To a student of philosophy, this might be a reasonable outcome, but I must say I find it a little frustrating and futile.
Laches’ initial arguments against military education seem very weak even before Socrates begins to speak – his assertion that the Spartans do not rate military training as useful in the field flies in the face of everything we now believe about the legendary Spartan education of boys; that the Greek military trainers have never gloried themselves on the actual battlefield is supported by only one example which is not recorded in any other surviving text.
Favourite lines/passages:As the dialogue finished with Socrates admitting that none of them could find an answer, he suggests
“we should all cooperate in looking for the best teacher we can find – primarily for ourselves”
Personal rating: 4
Next: Lysis, another Socratic dialogue by Plato, this time trying to define friendship.