Boasting in Laches: Homer vs. Socrates

Nicias has just been refuted by Socrates, and Laches, who had earlier fallen prey to Socratic questioning, is gloating. Laches:

But I, my dear Nicias, felt sure you would make the discovery after you were so scornful of me while I was answering Socrates. In fact, I had great hopes that with the help of Damon’s wisdom you would solve the whole problem.

Nicias answers him:

That’s a fine attitude of yours, Laches, to think it no longer to be of any importance that you yourself were just now shown to be a person who knows nothing about courage. What interests you is whether I will turn out to be a person of the same kind. Apparently it will make no difference to you to be ignorant of those things which a man of any pretensions ought to know, so long as you include me in your ignorance. (200a)

A first reading may miss the historical ramifications of this fascinating exchange. We may agree with Nicias that Laches shouldn’t be boastful just because his friend has been put in his place, both discussants having been shown not to know what courage is. Believing this may cause us to pass too quickly over a conceptual-historical transition from the Homeric to the Socratic moral world.

Recall that Nicias and Laches are both military men. Recall also that they are children of Homer, having been raised in a culture that is steeped in the Iliad and its conceits. In the heroic Homeric world, the hero displays his courage by performing great deeds as well as, and just a surely, by boasting, taunting, bragging, and getting good and properly angry with one’s friends (stoking their courage to fight, rallying their spirits to hold fast) and with one’s enemies (poking fun at their cowardice). One’s ethical conduct is, in a broad sense, governed by loyalty to one’s comrades and vengefulness toward with one’s enemies.

Then the city-state arises in which men become more civil with each other (indeed, they become citizens for the first time in history) and then the Socratic style of questioning is invented. How puzzling this must have been for Laches for on the one hand the Socratic elenchus is combative, ruthlessly investigating a proposal with a view to exposing its weaknesses (only the victorious proposal would, if it could, come out unscathed) while on the other it is an act of friendship to mutually inquire into something without knowing where the argument is headed. Are they comrades or foes? Who is whom? In what respect is inquiry like combat and in what respect refutation like victory or defeat?

Separately, Nicias and Socrates both put their finger on the answer. The argument itself, as if anthropomorphized, becomes neither friend nor foe but a guest to be examined with a view to finding out whether it is a friend (knowledge) or a foe (ignorance). All the while, fellow discussants are comrades of sorts who are on the same side even if one is pressing the other to keep answering, requiring him to go further with his thinking, demanding that they think this through together. The elenchus is a friendly contest of the guest at hand.

What ends up being defeated is not a person but, if it is, a proposal advanced by a person. At the same time, however, the person who upheld this proposal as true has now discovered something new: not that he is humiliated because he is not physically strong but ashamed, to some significant degree, because he does not know what he thought he did. Paradoxically, this shame, unlike the humiliation experienced in war, is intended to rally the spirits of the now-ignorant person, motivating him to get up and keep going and try again now that his mind is brought into contact with its foolishness. Not taunting but entreating, enjoining, uplifting.

Come on, man, get up now. Time to be courageous not before but now that you’ve fallen prey to ignorance. Now is the time to get serious about becoming knowledgeable. The Socratic move is, here as elsewhere, to transform the first question we ask from glory (Homer) and care for the body (medicine) to care for the soul, from physical courage and health to moral courage and wisdom. In doing so, Socrates is showing us that, in his moral world, there is no room for boasting. Nor is there any need.