Courage as Knowledge in the Laches
In the dialogue Laches, Socrates aids Nicias and Laches in advising their friend on the proper instruction of young men. In his usual fashion, Socrates gently turns the discussion from a simple question of whether or not a young man should study the art of fighting in armor to a more profound examination of the nature of courage. He asks Laches and Nicias both to offer their arguments for what constitutes courage. Laches makes an argument for the standard definition of courage: bravery in the face of danger and the “endurance of the soul” (Plato, 20). Socrates dismantles this argument by pointing out that both of these qualities can lead to foolishness as well as courage. Nicias makes a more sophisticated argument — one that leaves the whole party in confusion at the end of the dialogue.
Nicias argues that courage is a type of knowledge, specifically the knowledge of “that which inspires fear or confidence in war, or in anything” (26). Laches initially misunderstands this definition of courage as being the ability to tell the future, and assumes from Nicias’ definition that soothsayers must be courageous. Nicias corrects him and adds a layer of complexity to his definition by claiming that it is not the knowledge of future events that makes a man courageous, but the knowledge of whether or not those events will bring about good or bad consequences and therefore might be reasons for fear or hope. When Socrates points out that Nicias’ definition excludes the wild beasts that are generally considered to be emblems of courage, like the lion and the boar, Laches is thrilled that Nicias has been proven wrong. Nicias, however, denies the courage of these beasts, calling their actions merely “fearless and senseless” (30).
While Nicias’ explanation of animal actions does allow him to maintain his definition of courage, Laches and Socrates have a point. Wild beasts may not have the rationality to possess a knowledge of fear and hope, and therefore cannot be courageous in an intellectual sense, but the fact that they are considered by the Athenian society to be courageous points to one thing about courage that Nicias seems to be ignoring — the fact that often courage is seen as an action, not a state of mind. Nicias might believe that an action cannot be courageous without the proper mental state, but an argument could similarly be made that a mental state cannot be courageous without a corresponding action. A person may know the grounding of fear and hope and still act in a way that is cowardly, or may not even act at all. It is doubtful that such a person could be considered courageous in that circumstance.
Socrates then leads Nicias to acknowledge the contradiction in his argument based on its presumption that courage is only one part of virtue. Because a knowledge of fear and hope is at root a knowledge of good and evil, and because a knowledge of good and evil must be applicable to the past, present and future, Socrates argues that Nicias’ definition of courage is actually a definition of virtue in general. The dialogue ends with all parties admitting to falling short of a definition of courage, but I do not think that Socrates’ dismissal of Nicias’ argument is a true dismissal. It may be that courage is in fact the same as virtue, but only virtue in certain circumstances. As C.S. Lewis points out, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point” (Lewis, 9).
Lewis, C.S. Virtue and Vice: A Dictionary of the Good Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Plato. Laches, or Courage, trans. Benjamin Jowett. Electronic publication: Forgotten Books, 2008.
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