Socratic mental discipline: Laches and the question of courage

Courage is a kind of knowledge, Nicias says. It’s the kind that’s concerned with the fearful and the hopeful. But that’s nonsense, Laches replies. Because I take wisdom to be different from courage. Well, let him answer, says Socrates. And indeed let’s not just belittle our friend, Nicias. If he turns out, upon examination, to be wrong, then let’s instruct him.

And with this passage in Plato’s Laches, there is much already to be said and learned about Socratic mental discipline. Laches, having heard something strange, weird, jumps to the conclusion, based on his own assumptions, that his friend’s proposal must be nonsensical as well as incorrect. Essentially, he begs the question, and this begging the question could be said to be not simply a momentary lapse for Laches but, more damagingly, a character defect. In a discussion whose subject is courage, begging the question as a disposition (if I can be allowed to call it that) is not just foolhardy but also cowardly: cowardly because it involves running ahead of others or retreating from the examination when the thing to do is to slowly examine something odd, peculiar, vexing and to do so with an open mind.

This is but one telling moment in the early pages of one of the earliest Socratic dialogues, one moment that underscores the supreme value and beauty of Socratic mental discipline. Other moments are, if not as vivid, then nonetheless quite illustrative of the many facets of Socrates’s rigor in thinking. Let me point out a few more such moments from these pages.

To begin with, Socrates sets the question by finding what is essentially at stake in what appears to be a particular deliberative inquiry about whether or not two fathers’ sons should learn the art of fighting in armor. Socrates observes that what is at the heart of the matter is the training of their boys’ souls–isn’t that right? They agree. And so wouldn’t they need to find the right teachers in order to train their sons in the right way? Undoubtedly. Then wouldn’t the right teachers have to possess the knowledge in question? Most surely. Then shouldn’t the present discussants figure out what sort of knowledge the teachers would need to possess? They would indeed. Well, in the present context wisdom may be too broad of a subject but courage–isn’t this what is in question, after all? It is. Then let us, that is, all those present, seek to figure out what courage is? Yes, let us.

By getting his conversation partners to agree with him that the chief matter at hand is not the use of these weapons or those, the martial training in one subject or another but the acquisition of some virtue (namely, courage), Socrates is able to set the question at the right level of generality: well, what is courage anyway?

Second of all, he makes an assumption that his answerer quickly (I would say: too quickly) agrees with. ‘If person P knows what F is (or possesses F), then P should be able to state what F is.’ Charmides (on temperance), Euthyphro (on piety), Lysis (on friendship), and Laches all begin the examination of a concept in this fashion. Here, Laches professes to know what courage is and, I assume, readily believes that he himself is courageous. In order to get the inquiry underway, Socrates needs his interlocutor to grant this assumption: namely, that the sort of knowledge they are seeking is discursible and that someone present claims to possess it or to have adequate experience of it. If these things are so, then it is only a matter of saying what is the case and of examining the answerer’s account to ascertain whether it can hold up under rational scrutiny.

Thirdly, Socrates tries to be exceptionally clear about the kind of question he is asking. In the early Socratic dialogues, one becomes painfully aware of how odd this kind of question may have been to hear for those living in Athens in the 400s BCE. When Socrates is asking Laches what courage is, he is not looking for instances that, in those circumstances, are evidence of courage. No one is likely to disagree with the empirical claim that a hoplite who remains at his post when the enemy closes in is acting courageously, given the right circumstances. Nor is Socrates looking for a collection of examples of courageous acts nor even for common sayings about courage. He wants to teach his interlocutor to be able to grasp the nature of this kind of question: what properties are such as to make courage what it is, invariably is, and not some other. To make explicit what kind of question he is asking, Socrates must exercise the virtues of patience and good-humoredness, and he needs the right sort of answer to ‘stay put.’

Fourthly, after Laches’s early proposals have culminated in contradictions, Socrates observes Laches’s perplexity. He had, like Meno, thought he was well-acquainted with courage, yet now he cannot say what it is. How very strange to be so confused. Quite so, Socrates goes on, though let us not give up our search yet. Mustn’t we be courageous and continue on, courageous in order to continue on? Agreeing to this, Laches shows what he cannot as of yet say: that there is also courage involved in moving from the inarticulate to the articulate, from the tacit to the explicit. Beautifully, the virtues in question are shown and shown as each Socratic dialogue unfolds.

Finally, Socrates is at pains to emphasize that one should not, in the first instance, concern oneself with whether or not one’s argument has been refuted; one should pay attention and keep in view–let come to mind and retain in mind–how the argument is proceeding. Does it matter whether Socrates or Nicias or Laches is refuted? No, not, again, in the first instance. But in the second instance (or after the fact), yes, it does. Since our first concern is to disinterestedly examine the argument, it does not matter who is questioning and who is answering, who is refuting and who refuted, since both of us wish to know. Yet it does matter in the second instance and this as we reach the conclusion since Laches (and not some other person) had professed to know, has been shown not to, and therefore should feel a certain shame as he is confronted with his ignorance. The absurdities, perplexities, or implausibilities in which his argument is thrown reveal, as if in relief, a way of thinking–his own–that is turgid and undisciplined, that is not actually in possession of truth, and thus is in need of being chastened (so to say) and of retraining.

In Apology, Socrates rightfully asserts that he is not a teacher because, not being himself wise, he has never instructed others in how to become so. And yet, he does provide luminous example upon example of the sort of mental discipline that is required in order to pursue wisdom in hopes of being less ignorant as well as less unwise. His example can be followed.