Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Laches - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI - Essays on Philosophy and the Classics
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The Laches - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI - Essays on Philosophy and the Classics 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI - Essays on Philosophy and the Classics, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by F.E. Sparshott (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).
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[Holograph MS, Berg Collection, New York Public Library, entitled “Notes on the Laches of Plato.” Paper watermarked 1828. Not mentioned in JSM’s bibliography. For details concerning the manuscript and the transcription, see the Textual Introduction, lxxxi-lxxxii above; for a discussion of this and the other translations of Plato, see also the Introduction, xvii-xxviii above.]
this little dialogue is an expansion of one of the arguments in the Protagoras.
The characters in it are Lysimachus and Melesias, two Athenians of rank; Nicias and Laches, the celebrated captains; & Socrates. The conversation originated in the wish of Lysimachus & Melesias to ask the advice of Nicias and Laches, respecting the education of their sons, who were now adolescent, & to whom they were extremely desirous to give every kind of instruction which could enable them to distinguish themselves. Among other things, it had been suggested by some one, that the exercise of the heavy-armed was a proper and useful branch of education for a young man; & on this subject they consulted Laches and Nicias. Both expressed their readiness to give their best advice; but Laches expressed his surprise, that Lysimachus should have called in Nicias & himself as his advisers in this matter, & should have passed over Socrates, who was present, & whose life was devoted to the consideration, what studies and modes of training were eligible. Lysimachus hereupon observed that Sophroniscus, the father of Socrates, had been an old friend of his, but that as, from his age, he seldom went out, he had not kept up the acquaintance of Socrates himself, & was not aware that he was the same Socrates of whom he frequently heard his son & the other young man speak in commendation. Now however being informed of the reputation of Socrates, & hearing from Laches great praise of the conduct of Socrates in the battle of Delium, & from Nicias, that he had recommended to him as a teacher of music for his son, Damon, a man not only excellent in his art, but in every respect a worthy tutor for a young man, he assured him of his warm friendship & begged him to resume his intimacy with the family for the sake of the two young men, and to join with Nicias and Laches in giving his advice on the point on which their opinion was now requested.
Socrates having expressed a wish first to hear the opinions of the two others who were his seniors, Nicias proceeded to declare his opinion, which was favorable to the study of the heavy-armed exercise: on the ground that to the advantages of the other gymnastic exercises, it added the recommendation of being an exercise in the very operation for which those exercises were intended: to prepare the body, viz. actual warfare: that when the line was broken either in pursuit or in flight, he who had learnt this exercise would be better able to cope with the enemy single-handed; that it is a preparation for, & incitement to, all other martial exercises & studies; that it increases personal courage, & even improves the personal appearance, & renders the aspect of the warrior more formidable.
Laches, being next asked for his opinion, gave it the other way, saying, “It is hard to say of any branch of knowledge that it is not worth learning; for it is good to know every thing. And if this is, as the teachers of it affirm, really a branch of knowledge, it is very fit to learn it: but if they are imposters, & it is not a branch of knowledge, or if it be a branch, but a trifling & insignificant one, what occasion is there to learn it? Now, if it were really good for any thing, it would not have escaped the notice of the Lacedæmonians, who occupy themselves with scarcely any thing in life but the means of obtaining military superiority: And at all events, the teachers of this art are well aware that the Lacedæmonians pay more attention to military affairs, than all the other Greeks, & that a man would be able to gain most money from the other Greeks as a teacher of military exercises if he were in reputation on that account at Lacedæmon; as a tragic poet would, if in reputation at Athens: Accordingly whoever thinks he can compose a good tragedy comes straight to Athens to try his fortune; but these teachers of the heavy-armed exercise seem to regard Lacedæmon as an inaccessible sanctuary, & never go near it, but prefer exhibiting their talents any where else, & particularly in those places of which the inhabitants would themselves admit that the Lacedæmonians were much their superiors in warfare. Besides,” continued Laches, “I have seen some of these men in actual combat: In every thing else, those who obtain the greatest name, are those who have studied & practised the thing in question; but it so happens that not one of the men who have practised this exercise as a profession, ever acquired a name as a warrior. My opinion of the matter is this, that a man otherwise a coward, studying this exercise, will probably have more confidence & therefore obtain more frequent opportunities of exposing himself; and if a brave man practises it, he will be so watched that if he makes even a slight mistake he will be vehemently censured: for the pretension to such knowledge excites jealousies, & a man must be very much the superior of other men in the military virtues, if he would escape ridicule & contempt, professing to have made this his study.”
Lysimachus now called upon Socrates, saying that as the other two had given opposite opinions, it depended upon Socrates to decide.—“What,” answered Socrates: “Will you take whichever side obtains the greatest number of our suffrages?”—“What else can I do?” replied Lysimachus.—“And you, Melesias,” resumed Socrates: “If you were considering what exercises your son should learn, would your decision be governed by the proportionate numbers of our suffrages, or by the opinion of that one among us who had been trained under the best gymnast?”—“By the latter, in preference.”—“You would pay more attention to him, than to all four of us.”—“Perhaps so.”—“For in order to decide rightly, the decision should be governed by knowledge rather than by numbers.”—“Certainly.”—“You ought, then, first to consider, whether there is or is not any one of us who possesses a scientific knowledge of the subject, & if so, to be guided by him, & leave the others alone; if not, to seek another adviser. For you have now at stake, not some trifle, but your greatest possession, for such as your sons are, such will be the whole of your domestic economy.”—“True.”—“How then should we enquire, in order to know which of us has the most scientific knowledge on the subject of exercises? Would not the answer be, he who had learned, & practised, under good teachers?”—“Yes.”—“Teachers of what?”—“What do you mean?”—“It seems to me that we have not yet determined, what is the subject on which we are considering which of us has acquired scientific knowledge, under a master, & which has not.”—“Are we not,” said Nicias, “considering the subject of the heavy-armed exercise, whether a young man should learn it or not?”—“True,” answered Socrates. “But when we are considering respecting any particular ointment for the eyes, whether it should be applied or not, do you think that we are deliberating on the subject of the ointment, or on that of the eyes?”—“On the eyes.”—“And when we consider whether a bridle should be laid upon a horse or not, we are considering on the subject of the horse, not of the bridle.”—“Yes.”—“And in one word, when we are considering of one thing for the sake of another thing, the real subject of our deliberation is the thing for the sake of which we consider, not the thing which we consider for its sake.”—“Certainly.”—“Then we should, in the choice of an adviser, consider whether he has a scientific knowledge of the management of that for the sake of which we are considering.”—“True.”—“But we are considering of a branch of instruction for the sake of the minds of these young men.”—“Yes.”—“Then we must consider, whether any of us has a scientific knowledge of the management of the mind, & can manage it well, & has had good teachers.”—“But,” interrupted Laches, “have you not known men who have attained greater scientific knowledge without teachers, than with them?”—“I have,” replied Socrates: “but if these men said that they were good artists, you would not believe them unless they could shew you well executed works, each in his particular art.”—“True.”—“We then,” said Socrates, addressing Laches & Nicias, “since we have been called in to advise Lysimachus & Melesias with a view to the proper training of the minds of their sons, ought to produce our own teachers, men who have trained many other minds & trained them well before teaching us; & if any of us says that he has had no teacher, he should, if he can, produce his own acts, & shew who among Athenians or foreigners, slaves or freemen, has become a good man by his means: And if we can do neither of these things we should not run the risk of injuring the minds of the sons of our best friends, but should bid them seek other advisers. I, for my own part, say at once, that I have not had any teachers in this matter, although from my earliest youth I have desired to be instructed in it. But I have not money to give to the sophists, who alone professed to be able to make me a good & eminent man: And I have not up to this time been able to discover the art for myself. But I should not wonder if Nicias and Laches had learnt it or discovered it: for they are richer than I, & were therefore able to learn it from others, & older, so that they are more likely to have found it out. And they seem capable of educating a man; for they would not have given their opinion so confidently respecting good & bad modes of instructing youth if they had not confidence in the sufficiency of their own knowledge. I therefore confide in them in other respects, but wonder at their differing from one another. And I exhort you, Lysimachus, to interrogate Nicias & Laches, & say to them, Tell us whether you know the art of educating youth by having learnt it from some one else, or by having discovered it for yourselves, & if by learning it from others, who were your teachers, & what other teachers there are of the same art, that if your attention is engrossed by the affairs of the state, we may go to the teachers, & prevail with them by gifts or prayers to train our sons & yours, & if you have yourselves discovered the art tell us what persons besides you have made good & great men by your training. For if you are only now beginning to practise the art, consider lest you should be making experiments, not upon a worthless material but upon your sons & those of your friends, & learning pottery, as the proverb says, in the pot itself.”*
Lysimachus, with great simplicity, declared that Socrates was in the right, & requested Nicias & Laches to let Socrates interrogate them, & to make answer as he proposed. Nicias hereupon remarked that it was easy to see that Lysimachus knew Socrates only by his father & not personally, or not since he was a child.—“How so?” answered Lysimachus.—“Because you do not seem to know that whoever gets into conversation with Socrates, is sure, whatever they might be talking about at first, to be twisted round by Socrates until he is forced to give an account of himself, what sort of a life he leads & has heretofore led; & when he has got upon this subject, Socrates never lets him go until all this has been fully examined & soundly criticized. I,” continued Nicias, “am accustomed to him, & know that it is impossible to avoid undergoing all this from him, & that I shall not be able to avoid it now: for I like to converse with the man, & think that there is no harm in being reminded of any thing which we have done, or are doing, improperly, & that a man will be the more careful in his after life if he does not fly from this, but is willing & desirous (as Solon says) to learn as long as he lives, & does not think that age brings good sense along with it as a matter of course. I therefore have no objection to be taken to task by Socrates, & I knew before, that, Socrates being present, the discourse would not turn upon the young men but upon ourselves. Let us hear what Laches says on the subject.”
“My case is very simple,” answered Laches; “or rather not simple but double, for I may sometimes be thought to love discussion & sometimes to hate it. When I hear a man discoursing on the subject of virtue or wisdom, who is a true man, and worthy of the language he holds, I am pleased, seeing that the speaker & what he says are suitable to, & in unison with each other, & that such a man is the best of musicians, having the true harmony not of sounds but of life. I delight so much therefore in the discourses of such a man, that I might seem to any one, fond of discussion: But a man who acts ill, the more excellently he talks, annoys me the more, & makes me appear a hater of discussion. I have not yet tried Socrates in words, but I have tried him in acts, & found him worthy of the finest discourses & the greatest freedom of speech. I therefore should be delighted to be examined by such a man, & to learn from him, for I too am desirous, with Solon, to grow old constantly acquiring knowledge, but on condition, that my teachers shall be worthy men. This therefore must be granted to me: but whether my teacher is younger than myself, or not yet in repute, & so forth, I do not care. Since that day, Socrates, when I made trial of you in peril, & proved your virtue, I am willing that you should instruct me & refute me as much as you please.”
Socrates therefore proposed that instead of enquiring what teachers they had respectively had in this sort of instruction, & what persons they had themselves rendered worthier than before, they should enter into another enquiry which tended to the same end, but commenced higher up, & nearer to first principles.
“If we knew, respecting any thing, that if it were communicated to another thing it made that other thing better than it was before; & if we also had power to cause it to be so communicated; we must evidently know that thing, concerning which we are able to advise, how it might best & most easily be acquired. To explain myself more clearly; if we happen to know that sight, when it is communicated to the eyes, makes them better than they would otherwise be, & if besides, we have the power of communicating sight to the eyes, it is evident that we must know what sight is, or we should be very ill qualified to advise how the eyes might acquire it.”—“True,” answered Laches.—“And we are now asked, in what way the minds of these young men may, by the acquisition of virtue, be made better.”—“Certainly.”—“Is it not, then, necessary that we should know, what virtue is? for if we did not know what it is, how should we be capable of giving advice, how it may best be acquired?”—“Not at all.”—“We profess, then, to know what it is.”—“We do.”—“And if we know, we can tell.”—“Certainly.”
“Let us not, then, consider respecting the whole of virtue at once, but some part of it. It will then be easier to discover, whether we sufficiently understand it.”—“Be it so.”—“What part shall we chuse? That part, probably, to which the exercise of the heavy-armed appears to tend. It is thought by most persons to tend to courage.”—“It is.”—“Let us first then, endeavour to shew, what courage is: next, in what manner young men may acquire it, so far as it is capable of being acquired by study & training. Try, therefore, to say, what courage is.”—“It is not difficult. If a man is willing to remain in his rank and resist the enemy, & does not run away, he is a courageous man.”—“You say well; but probably by my fault, & the indistinctness of what I said, you have not answered what I had in mind, but something else.”—“How?”—“I will tell you. He is courageous who remains in his rank & fights.”—“He is.”—“But what do you say of him who runs away & fights, instead of remaining in his rank?”—“How runs away?”—“Like the Scythians, who are said to fight flying, as well as pursuing; & the horses of Æneas & Æneas himself are praised in Homer, for being good in flight, as well as in pursuit.”[*] —“And very properly, for Homer was speaking of chariots: & what you say of the Scythians relates to cavalry. For their cavalry fight in that manner; but the heavy infantry of the Greeks, in the manner I speak of.”—“Except perhaps the Lacedæmonians, who are said to have won the battle of Platæa in full retreat, & only to have turned round & pursued when the enemy were fairly broken.”—“True.”—“This then is what I meant, in saying that I had caused you to make a wrong answer, by putting a wrong question. I meant to ask you, not only respecting those who are courageous in the heavy infantry, but in the cavalry, & all modes of warfare, & not only in war, but in danger by sea, or in disease, or in endurance of poverty, or in political affairs, & not only those who are courageous with respect to pain or fear, but to desires & pleasures, being able to fight against them. For some are courageous in such things.”—“Extremely so.”—“All these, then, are courageous, but some of them are so in pleasure, others in pain, some in desire, others in fear. And some are cowardly in each of these things.”—“Yes.”—“Let us then enquire what these two qualities are. And first, let us consider, what courage is; being, as it is, one & the same thing in all these matters. Do you understand me?”—“Not exactly.”—“As if I were to ask you, what quickness is; the case being, that we may have quickness in running, in playing the harp, in speaking, in learning, & in many other things: In short, it may exist in the operations of the hands, the legs, the voice, or the mind. Now if I were asked what this is, which is called quickness in all these operations, I should answer, that the power which effects much in a short time is quickness, whether it exists in the voice, in running, or in any thing else.”—“Right.”—“Do you, then, try to say, what power it is, which, being one & the same in pleasure, in pain, & in all the other things which we have mentioned, is called courage.”
“It seems to me,” answered Laches, “that courage, if it is common to all these things, is a certain determination of soul.”*
“You do not,” (replied Socrates,) “I suspect, give to all determination of soul, the name of courage. For I am pretty sure that you consider courage as an admirable thing.”—“One of the most admirable.”—“Then, considerate determination is admirable.”—“It is.”—“But inconsiderate determination? Is not this, on the contrary, hurtful & mischievous?”—“Yes.”—“What is hurtful, you do not call admirable?”—“Certainly not.”—“Then you do not call this sort of determination, courage.”—“No.”—“Considerate determination, then, is what you consider to be courage.”—“So it seems.”—“Considerate, then, upon what? Upon all things, great or small? For example, if any one spends money with determination, in a considerate manner, knowing that it will bring him an ample return, do you call him courageous?”—“Certainly not.”—“If a physician, his son being ill & desiring to eat or drink some thing, refuses it to him with determination, do you call him courageous?”—“Nor him either.”—“If a man fights with determination in battle, reflecting considerately, that he will receive assistance & has superiority of numbers & of ground, do you consider him more courageous than the man in the opposite army, who determinedly resists?”—“The latter is the more courageous.”—“But his courage is more inconsiderate than that of the other.”—“True.”—“And you consider him who fights on horseback with determination, being a skilful rider, or with bows & arrows, being a good archer, or who dives with determination being expert in the art, less courageous than those who do all these things being less skilful?”—“Yes.”—“But all these persons shew determination, & incur danger, more inconsiderately than they who do these things with art.”—“They do.”—“But we decided, that inconsiderate boldness & determination was hurtful, & disgraceful.”—“We did.”—“And that courage was admirable.”—“Yes.”—“But now we say that this disgraceful thing, inconsiderate determination, is courage.”—“So it seems.”—“Are we right, then?”—“Certainly not.”—“We are not, to use your expression, in unison, for our deeds, & our words, are not in harmony with each other. In deed, it seems, you & I might be said to be courageous, but in words, if one were to judge by our present discourse, he would say we were not.”—“True.”—“Shall we then listen to our own discourse?”—“What discourse?”—“That which bids us have determination. Let us proceed in a determined manner with the investigation, lest Courage itself should laugh at us for not seeking for it courageously, if courage be determination.”—“I am ready,” answered Laches, “although unused to such discussions. But a kind of contentiousness has seized me, & I am angry if I am not able to speak according to my own thoughts: I seem to myself to conceive what courage is, but it slipt through my fingers, I know not how, & I could not seize it in words & explain it.”—“A good hunter, then, should persevere, & not relax the pursuit.”—“Certainly.”—“Shall we call in Nicias to aid us in the pursuit, if he have any resource which we have not?”—“Certainly.”—“Come, then, Nicias, assist your friends who are in difficulties. You see that we are at a loss; if you can tell what courage is, you will relieve us from our embarrassment and confirm your own views.”
“I thought all along,” answered Nicias, “that you were not defining courage rightly; because you made no use of something very good which I have often heard you say.”—“What was that?”—“You have often said that each of us is good, in those things wherein he is wise, & bad in those wherein he is ignorant.”—“It is very true.”—“Then if a courageous man is good, he must be wise?”—“Do you hear, Laches?” said Socrates.—“Yes,” answered Laches, “but I do not quite understand him.”—“I think I do,” said Socrates, “& that he affirms courage to be a kind of wisdom.”—“What kind?” rejoined Laches.—Socrates begged Nicias to answer; “what sort of wisdom it is which constitutes courage. Certainly not that which relates to flute-playing.”—“No.”—“Nor to harp-playing.”—“No.”—“What sort of wisdom is it, then? What is it the knowledge of?”—Laches commended this mode of interrogation, & Nicias answered, “The knowledge of what is dangerous, & what is safe, both in war and in other things.”
“How strangely he talks!” said Laches.—“In what respect?” asked Socrates.—“Surely wisdom & courage are very different things.”—“Nicias says not.”—“He does, & therein he talks nonsense.”—“Let us instruct him then, & not abuse him.”—“Laches,” said Nicias, “seems to desire that I too should appear to have nothing to say, because he himself is in that predicament.”—“Yes,” answered Laches, “& I think I can shew it. Do not physicians know what is dangerous in diseases? Or do you say that the courageous men know it? Or, do you say that physicians, & courageous men, are the same thing?”—“Not at all.”—“Nor husbandmen either, I suppose. And yet, they know what is dangerous in husbandry; & all other workmen know what is dangerous & what is safe in their several arts; but they are not the more courageous.”
“What do you think, Nicias,” asked Socrates, “of the remark of Laches? There seems to be something in it.”—“There is something in it, but not the truth.”—“How?”—“Because he fancies that physicians know something more about the sick, than what is productive of health, & what of disease. They, however, know merely this. Whether health is not more dangerous to some people than sickness, do you suppose they know that? Or do you not think that to some it is better not to recover from illness than to recover? Tell me, Laches: Do you affirm that it is better for all to live, or do you not say, that for many it is better to die?”—“It is.”—“Do you think that the same things can be considered dangers, to those for whose benefit it would be to die, and to those for whom it would be good to live?”—“No.”—“Do you give to the physicians the office of discriminating these things? or to any other man of science, except to the man who knows what is & is not dangerous, whom I call courageous?”
“Do you understand, Laches, what he means?” asked Socrates.—“Yes,” replied Laches: “his courageous man is a prophet: for who else can tell whether it is better for a man to die or to live? And pray, Nicias, do you affirm yourself to be a prophet, or admit yourself not to be a brave man?”—“Do you think,” answered Nicias, “that it belongs to a prophet to know what is dangerous & what is safe?”—“To whom else?”—“Much rather to the man I am speaking of. A prophet is only supposed to know the signs of future events; whether a person will die, or be ill, or lose his property, or be victorious or vanquished: but which fate would be most beneficial to any individual, it no more belongs to a prophet to judge, than to any body else.”—“I do not understand him, Socrates,” answered Laches: “The person whom he calls courageous, is neither a physician, nor a prophet, nor any body else whatever, unless he means some God. It appears to me that Nicias is not willing boldly to confess that he has nothing to say, but twists backward and forward to conceal his perplexity. You & I could have twisted in the same manner, if we had wished to avoid apparently contradicting ourselves. If we had been pleading in a court of justice, there might have been some reason in this: but why should a man seek to dignify himself by vain talk in a conversation like this?”—“Certainly,” answered Socrates: “but perhaps Nicias thinks there is something in what he says, & does not say it merely for the sake of talk. Let us therefore question him more particularly about his meaning, that if there be any thing in it, we may agree with him, if not, instruct him.”—“Do you then interrogate him if you will: I have interrogated him enough.”—“I have no objection; & I will interrogate for you & me jointly.
“You say, Nicias, that courage is the knowledge of what is dangerous & what is safe.”—“I do.”—“To know this, does not belong to all men, since neither a physician nor a prophet knows it nor is courageous, unless he acquires this knowledge too.”—“Certainly.”—“Then, as the proverb says, it is not every sow that knows it, & is courageous.”—“No.”—“Then you do not consider even the famous sow of Crommyon to be courageous. I do not speak this in jest; but one who holds your opinion cannot allow any brute animal to be courageous, since it cannot be admitted that any brute, a lion or a panther or a goat, is so wise as to know what few men know, from the difficulty of learning it. A lion & a deer, a bull & a monkey, are absolutely on a level in respect to courage, if it be what you say it is.”—Laches was delighted with this remark, & triumphantly asked Nicias whether he affirmed that these beasts, which all admit to be courageous, are wiser than men, or, contrary to universal opinion, denied them to be courageous?
Nicias answered, “I do not call any thing courageous, but silly, which does not fear what is really dangerous, from mere ignorance. Do you suppose I call every child courageous, which, from ignorance, fears nothing? Fearless, & courageous, are not synonymous. Very few persons in my opinion possess courage & forethought, but many, both men, women, children & brutes, are bold, & daring, & fearless, without forethought. These then, which you & the multitude call courageous, I call bold, but I call those only courageous who have thought.”—“You see, Socrates,” said Laches, “how he as he thinks, dignifies himself by his argument, but those whom all admit to be courageous, he attempts to deprive of that honour.”—“Be of good heart,” answered Nicias; “I say that you, & Lamachus, & many other Athenians, are wise, if you are courageous.”—Hereupon Socrates either in jest or in earnest says to Laches, that he did not seem to be aware that Nicias had learnt this wisdom from Damon, who had conversed much with Prodicus, who was esteemed the cleverest of the sophists in making verbal distinctions.—“These subtleties,” answered Laches, “are more suitable to a sophist than to a man whom the state thinks worthy of presiding in its councils.”—“And yet,” observed Socrates, “he who presides in the greatest things ought to have the greatest wisdom. It seems to me that Nicias deserves to have what he says examined, & his reasons for defining courage as he does, explored.”—They accordingly agree to question Nicias further, which Socrates does, as follows.
“We began the examination of courage, considering it to be a part of virtue.”—“Certainly.”—“If you distinguished this as one part, there must be other parts.”—“There are.”—“Are these other parts what I call them? viz. justice, & temperance, & so on.”—“Certainly.”—“So far we are then agreed. Let us now consider whether we all mean the same thing by Dangerous, & Safe. We call those things dangerous which excite fear, safe which do not. But the things which excite fear, are not past or present evils, but future ones: for fear is the expectation of a future evil. Do you not think so, Laches?”—“Entirely so.”—“We, then, Nicias, mean by dangerous things, future evils; by safe things, future things which are not evil, or which are good. Do you think the same?”—“I do.”—“The knowledge of these things, then, you term courage.”—“I do.”—“Now, Laches & I think, that on any subject on which there is knowledge, there is not one knowledge about the thing when it is past, viz. the knowledge how it did happen, another about it when present, how it is happening & a third, how that which has not yet happened, may best happen; but that all this knowledge is one. For instance, respecting health, one single branch of knowledge, viz. medicine, considers both of what has conduced to health, of what does conduce to it, & what will: The same may be said of husbandry: and of the military art. The art of generalship considers both of past, present, & future, & is not subordinate to the art of prophecy, but uses that art as subordinate to itself, considering itself to know best the future as well as the past, in respect to war. Is this right, Laches?”—“It is.”—“Do you agree with us, Nicias, that the knowledge of the future, of the past & of the present, are all the same?”—“I do.”—“But courage, you say, is the knowledge of the dangerous, & the safe.”—“Yes.”—“The dangerous means, future evil, the safe, future good.”—“Yes.”—“And of the same thing, whether past, present, or future, there is but one & the same knowledge.”—“Yes.”—“Courage, then, is not merely the knowledge of the dangerous & the safe: for it does not only understand respecting future good & evil, but likewise past & present, like all other branches of knowledge.”—“So it seems.”—“Then you only told us one third part of courage, instead of the whole. And now, it seems, courage is not merely the knowledge of the dangerous & the safe, but nearly of all good & evil whatever. Can you say otherwise?”—“I cannot.”—“Then, if a man know how all that is good & all that is evil has been produced, is produced, & will be produced, of what virtue would he be destitute? Do you think that he would need any further justice or piety, he who would be able to provide all that is good and avoid all that is evil both in respect to gods & men?”—“There seems to be some reason in what you say.”—“Courage then at this rate is not a part of virtue, but the whole.”—“So it seems.”—“But we said that it is only a part.”—“We did.”—“Then we have not yet found out what courage is.”—“It appears, we have not.”—“I thought,” said Laches, “that you would find it out, since you despised my answers to Socrates: I had great hopes that by the wisdom you derived from Damon you would discover it.”—“So,” answered Nicias, “you think it nothing that you have been shewn to know nothing about courage, but are satisfied if I appear equally ignorant, & it will make no difference to you now, it seems, that both you & I are utterly ignorant of what a man who thinks anything of himself ought to know. You appear to me to do what is very common, to look not to your own mind, but to the opinion of others: for my part, I think that I have answered very tolerably on this subject, & that if any part of what I have said is not sufficient, I shall be able hereafter to correct it, by discussion both with Damon, whom you pretend to laugh at without ever having seen him, & with other people. And when I have mastered the subject, I will not grudge to instruct you upon it; for you seem to me to have very great occasion to learn.”—“For you yourself are a wise man,” answered Laches. “But for all that, I would advise Lysimachus & Melesias to let you & me alone about the education of their sons, but, as I said at first, not to let go their hold of Socrates: for if my own sons were old enough, I would do the same thing.”—“I agree with you,” said Nicias, “that if Socrates would consent to take charge of the young men no other person needs be sought for: I would most gladly commit my son Niceratus to his care, if he would consent: but whenever I mention the subject he recommends other people to me, but will not himself consent.”—Lysimachus begged Socrates nevertheless to take charge of the two youths & join in making them as excellent as possible.
“It would be shameful,” replied Socrates, “not to be willing to join in making any one as excellent as possible. If therefore in our conversation just now, I had appeared to know & these two to be ignorant, it would have been just to call me in particular to this work: but as we were all equally at a loss, which of us could any one prefer? None of us, as it appears to me. Hear therefore what I would advise: That we should all of us jointly seek out the best teacher for ourselves in the first place, & afterwards for our children; neither sparing money nor any thing else. But to be contented as we are now, I do not advise. And if any one laughs at us for putting ourselves to school at our age, we can quote Homer against him. That poet says, that it is not good for a needy man to be ashamed.[*] Let us therefore, without minding what people may say, attend both to ourselves & to the young men, at once.”—Lysimachus expressed his satisfaction, & said, the older he was, the more ready he would be to learn with the young men; & he invited Socrates to come the next day, that they might resume the deliberation. Socrates consented, and in this manner, without settling any one of the questions which they had been discussing, the dialogue breaks off.
[* ]ἐν πίθῳ τὴν κεραμείαν. Some translate this proverb, “to begin your apprenticeship upon a jar,” which was considered the article of pottery most difficult of construction. But I suspect that it rather means, to make the first trial of your hand in executing a customer’s order for a finished piece of work: not to practise moulding clay into different shapes, but to open a shop and delay your first experiment until somebody orders a jar of you.
[[*] ]See Iliad, trans. Murray, Vol. I, p. 346 (VIII, 107-8).
[* ]Καρτερία τις τη̑ς ψυχη̑ς. Cousin [Lachès, in Œuvres de Platon, Vol. V, p. 369,] translates it, “constance” or perseverance, & the word admits of that sense, but the version I have given is more suitable to the argument which follows.
[[*] ]See Odyssey, trans. Murray, Vol. II, p. 176 (XVII, 347).