Plato (428-348 BC) hardly needs an introduction. The student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle, Plato stands at the origin of the philosophic tradition of the Western world. It is not surprising then that we turn to him as a perennial source of insight and wonder concerning the human condition.
About Plato’s life, biographical details are sparse. His father was Ariston, who was reputed to be a descendant of early Athenian kings. His brothers were Adeimantus and Glaucon, both of whom appear in Plato’s most famous work, the Republic. War and philosophy were two determinative events in Plato’s life. Plato’s encounter with Socrates determined his life of study and reflection that gave rise to his dialogues that cemented his reputation as one of the greatest, if perhaps also the most perplexing of Western philosophic minds. But another event that informed his reflections about life was the Peloponnesian War. Plato was born during the fourth year of that war, which lasted in Thucydides’ estimation twenty-seven years. Thucydides called it a war like no other war, and it no doubt revealed the vagaries of human nature, and also the vagaries of the city itself, Athens.
One might wonder what someone as supposedly “abstract” or “metaphysical” as Plato could offer by way of strategic insight. Why should practical men, not philosophers, read Plato? Although one could point to a number of examples showing both the speculative and practical worth of the Platonic corpus, the Laches stands out for two reasons. The first is that it is a dialogue on courage, or more literally “manliness,” which seems a quality above all necessary for the successful conduct of warfare.
The second is that Socrates’ main interlocutors in the dialogue are two famous Athenian generals, Laches and Nicias. The dialogue is about, among other things, the intellectual commitments each man had about courage. Since Plato knew of the deaths of these generals in battle at the time he wrote the dialogue—each made mistakes and paid for them with their lives—the dialogue implicitly reflects on the practical consequences of that commitment, and the qualities that make up the good general, understood as the man who does not lose battles. Thus it is about strategy.
Socrates approaches the question of strategy and the good general by asking questions about courage and the education of young men. The more fundamental questions of education of the youth and genuinely confusing nature of courage have implications then for the art of generalship. In looking at a brief synopsis of the dialogue, we can see some of those implications.
The Argument of Laches
The Laches is of interest to us primarily because it has to do with the art of generalship and the moral virtue of courage, the necessary quality of any good soldier. But the dialogue begins with a discussion of education for young men; indeed the dialogue is unique in that it opens with a very long monologue by the undistinguished (by his own admission)Lysimachus, the son of the famous Aristides. He is accompanied by the quiet Melesias, who is the son of the famous Thucydides (not the historian). Both blame their fathers for not educating them; they were so busy with the affairs of the city and its allies that they took no time to educate their sons. Lysimachus and Melesias wish to avoid this with respect to their own sons, and thus come to the Athenian generals, Laches and Nicias, to ask them about education. Specifically, they wish to know whether a young man should learn to fight with shields or not, and whether that would make their sons the best of men. Laches suggests that they should speak to Socrates instead, but Socrates demurs and asks Laches and Nicias to give their own thoughts about shield fighting.
Nicias argues that shield fighting is particularly suited to a free citizen, since freedom depends on the capacity to make war. He reasons that it could be useful and advantageous for one who is fighting both within and without a phalanx, and whether one wishes to pursue and attack an enemy or defend against an attack. Because pursuit is of dubious aid in hoplite warfare (for example, in the battle of Mantinea, in which Laches lost his life, the Athenian right wing pursued the Spartan left, which left the center exposed and led to Athenian defeat), it is likely that from Nicias’ point of view, shield fighting is actually best used for personal safety, especially when one is separated from the phalanx. When a hoplite is within the phalanx, a shared shield-wall protects all the men; it would seem that a particular art of fighting with the shield would be more useful for someone who is outside the phalanx. But whether shield fighting is meant to be practiced primarily within or without the phalanx, it seems that for Nicias, knowledge that minimizes personal risk in the battle for civic freedom is ipso facto desirable.
Laches, on the other hand, ridicules the notion of shield fighting. It is worse than useless in his opinion, for it stands in the way of developing real manliness. His evidence is that the teachers of shield fighting do not go to Sparta, where, if they taught a really worthwhile skill in the service of manliness, teachers above all would be welcome. The implication is that the teachers are fraudulent, seeking to trick Athenians who are naïve about real manliness. He then reports that he saw one of the teachers, Stesilaus, make a fool of himself during a naval battle. Stesilaus got his unique “sickle spear” tangled up in the rigging of the enemy ship (causing laughter from both friend and foe), and then dropped it when a stone was thrown at his feet—hardly an exemplar of manliness. Laches prefers Spartan endurance and toughness to the showboating of the “shield fighters.” He then tells Lysimachus to ask Socrates’ opinion.
Socrates reveals that two experts on the worth of shield fighting—generals—disagree on its aid in inculcating virtue in young men. He then steers the conversation toward the question of what sort of teacher is able to put the souls of the young men in a good condition. Thus rather than focusing on shield fighting as such and whether it leads to manliness, we should ask about manliness itself. Nicias is more reluctant than Laches, because he has “suffered” Socrates’ questioning previously and knows that it results in a kind of self-knowledge that can be unpleasant. Laches has a different experience of Socrates, for they fought together in the Athenian army. Because he has experienced Socrates’ courage in battle, he is willing to be questioned by the philosopher.
As Socrates questions Laches, we see an unfolding of the encounter familiar to readers of Plato’s dialogues. Socrates asks the general what manliness is, and the general proposes two definitions. Each of these is found lacking in some way. He first claims that the manliness is holding a position in battle rather than running away. Socrates counters that this does not hold in the case of cavalry. For the Scythians fight both by advancing and fleeing, but never by standing still. Laches persists and says that he is presuming a hoplite battle, but Socrates again counters and gives the example of the Spartan “flight” at the battle of Plataea. Laches realizes that his view of manliness is too narrow.
Socrates then asks Laches about the manliness that covers the Spartan tactical retreat, the steadfast hoplite, the mobile Scythian, and indeed all walks of life such as illness, poverty, and bad weather. Laches suggests in response that this form of manliness is endurance of the soul. Socrates praises this definition, but questions Laches further about what he really means, for Socrates knows that Laches holds that manliness is among the noblest things for human beings. Noble things lead to human goods. But Socrates is able to lead Laches to the conclusion that foolish endurance of evils can hardly be noble—true noble endurance, true manliness, must be accompanied by prudence. Thus, prudent endurance seems to be the meaning of manliness. But then Socrates asks whether we can attribute courage to a prudent spender of money or a prudent doctor. Laches says no. He believes that the risk in battle, of possibly losing life, is an essential part of true manliness and wherein it derives its nobility. He does not want manliness to be simply useful for calculating how to achieve a further end.
Socrates then invites Nicias to take part in the conversation. Nicias thinks that a good man possesses wisdom, and thus holds that true manliness must involve wisdom. Nicias does not object to Socrates’ formulation that courage is wisdom. Socrates then points out one who possesses wisdom about the lyre is not necessarily courageous. Nicias then says that manliness is not all knowledge, but of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped for in war. Laches finds this suggestion distasteful, and ridicules Nicias, for the possession of knowledge removes the risk he associates with courage. Socrates and Laches both question Nicias extensively about the character of the courageous man’s knowledge, and Nicias persistently shifts his position and words to avoid admitting his failing to say what courage is. Finally, since he maintains that courage is knowing what is to be feared and hoped for, and therefore knowing future goods and evils, he admits that the knowledge required by courage must belong to a soothsayer.
While Laches tried to distinguish manliness from knowledge in order to preserve the risk and uncertainty from which it derives its nobility, Nicias tries to eliminate risk through knowledge of the future. He wishes to do away with the unknown in human life, the unknown that requires a kind of endurance and a hope for good things. Hence Laches’ vituperative responses to Nicias, which seem over the top for two men who should at least share a professional friendship. Socrates appears in the end to support Laches when he argues against Nicias that perfect knowledge of future good and evil belongs to the whole of virtue, whereas they were looking only for a part of it, courage.
Although we might be wary of Laches’ annoyance at Nicias’ opinions in the conversation, Laches explains his frustration: Nicias does not possess prudence (phronesis), but only contempt (kataphronesis) for those who appear ignorant. Nicias disdains the risk taken by the man who possesses manliness as Laches understands it. Indeed, Nicias is the very picture of unmanliness, risking, enduring, hoping for nothing because he thinks he can know the future by means of soothsaying. Thus, although the dialogue is often described by commentators as failing to define courage, it is not simply inconclusive. Laches understands that neither he nor Nicias (perhaps especially not Nicias) are fit to educate young men toward becoming good. He does recommend Socrates to Lysimachus, doubtless because Laches recognizes something worthwhile in his encounter with the philosopher: his own ignorance. Plato, after all, named the dialogue after Laches rather than Nicias.
Socrates’ encounter with the Athenian generals acquires greater meaning when we consider how each general met his end during the war, something that would have been known to Plato when he wrote the dialogue. Laches, as noted above, was killed at the battle of Mantinea. Before the battle, he, with his coalition of Argives and Athenians, successfully drove off the Spartans under the command of Agis II while in possession of higher ground. He initially refused to follow the fleeing Spartan onto unfavorable ground, but his men accused him of lacking manliness and being afraid of the Spartans. Perhaps ashamed by the accusation, he led his men into a battle in which the Spartans bested the Athenians. Thucydides the historian states that in the battle the Spartans showed themselves superior in manliness, and restored the reputation for fighting prowess that they lost after the debacle of Sphacteria, where three hundred Spartans surrendered to light-armed Athenians. Laches thinks of manliness in terms of endurance and risk-taking, but there is little room in his account for prudence – he chooses the nobility of risk over the more certain, and cautious, path to victory.
Likewise, Nicias’ death after the unsuccessful invasion of Sicily also reflects his intellectual commitment to possessing perfect knowledge before acting. Thucydides makes it clear that during the Athenian withdrawal from Syracuse, Nicias was overcome with fear of death. He feared both death at the hands of the Syracusans, but also feared what his fellow citizens might do to him if he returned to Athens. Caught between two nasty alternatives, he put his faith in soothsayers, who told him to do nothing. So he did nothing, and his army was slaughtered while he endured an ignominious death. An unwillingness to take a risk, especially when there seemed to be no personally profitable outcome, led to paralysis that led, ultimately, to the defeat of Athens, a defeat from which the city never recovered. Thus Nicias puts himself at risk because he was afraid, and Laches does so out of boldness.
The twin fates of Laches and Nicias provide a sober reflection on the import of Socrates’ encounter with the generals and the meaning of the art of the general. The general must be able to take risks and act on imperfect knowledge. Socrates attempts to make Nicias see this when he points out that the general is supposed to command the soothsayer, not the soothsayer the general. We cannot have the perfect knowledge that a soothsayer is supposed to provide. Strategy and generalship, as practical forms of reasoning, are in fact uncertain and not precise. Socrates is pointing out that in the greatest of human acts, such as preserving the safety of the city through victory in war, we are reliant on probability and chances that we hope go our way. Other than that, we use what little knowledge we have and endure through the rest. Laches promptly agrees with the Socratic ordering of the general and the soothsayer. But of course, he tends to separate reasoning too much from the endurance and risk of manliness, as seen by the circumstances of his death. Nicias, on the other hand, as we know from his death was beholden to soothsayers, afraid to take action without them.
What does all this matter to us? It is not as if we rely on soothsayers before we go to war. But one might note that there is a tendency, especially in advanced liberal democracies, to reduce risk and make safety more certain. This makes sense in a society based on the fear of violent death, or even one that seeks security for the sake of comfortable living. Even in that realm of traditional manliness, soldiering, one might see a preference for drone strikes over manned missions, a preference for air war over land combat, and in general the desire to “stay alive” rather than to achieve honor. Of course, these preferences do not totally excise the need for traditional manliness. Although continued reliance on technology may deprive the human beings that make up a liberal military of the manliness necessary for warfare, at some point soldiers will need to come to grips with the enemy, and so far soldiers from advanced liberal societies have proven themselves capable of risking and enduring. It is an open question as to whether this occurs despite or because of the liberal character of the societies from which they come.
But it is not only a desire for safety that impedes successful soldiering. A far more dangerous and problematic desire, seen again in advanced liberal societies, is a quest for certainty in political life, including diplomatic-strategic conduct. If Nicias’s fearfulness is contemptible, it is understandable. His foray into soothsaying, seeking perfect knowledge, is paradoxically irrational, that is a true forsaking of reason. But a political science, especially a science of international relations, that claims predictive power is not far from the shamans that clouded Nicias’ judgment. This was the reason for Morgenthau’s distrust of liberal foreign policies that put more weight on science than on the virtue of prudence. If technology threatens to soften a liberal military, technique threatens its mental capacity. In Socrates’ terms, we run the risk (without nobility or honor) of placing the soothsayer above the general.
 Hoplomachia has been translated as “fighting in armor,” “fighting in heavy armor,” “fighting with heavy arms,” or “spear-fighting.” I have decided to render it as “shield fighting” because that seems to conjure the image of phalanx warfare, appropriately. Return to Text.
 This is a curious point in the dialogue, since the Spartans actually covered the retreat of the rest of the Greek army after the army ran out of water. Return to Text.
For Further Reading
Blitz, Mark. “An Introduction to the Reading of Plato’s Laches.” Interpretation Vol. 5 No. 2 (Winter 1975)
Dobbs, Darrell. “For Lack of Wisdom: Courage and Inquiry in Plato’s Laches.” Journal of Politics. Vol. 48: 825-49.
Hanson, Victor Davis. The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. (New York: Random House) 1989.
Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. (New York: Penguin Books) 2003.
Rabieh, Linda R., Plato and the Virtue of Courage. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press) 2006.
Schmid, Walter T. On Manly Courage: A Study of Plato’s Laches. (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press) 1992.
Zuckert, Catherine. Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 2012.