Plato’s “Laches” – is courage choosing faith over fear?
Plato’s Laches is a dialogue about the nature of courage (literally translated, “manliness”). Socrates and his friends proceed in a manner typical of Plato’s dialogues: Socrates’ companions propose various definitions of courage, and a communal inquiry led by Socrates finds each one of the proposals inadequate. Courage is defined in turn as endurance (189d-192c), wise endurance (192c-194b), knowledge of the fearful and hopeful (194c-199c), and knowledge of good and evil (199c-199e).
While all of those definitions fail to describe the nature of courage, I think the best one was the third one, knowledge of the fearful and hopeful (or, at least, it sparked some thought in my mind). Socrates describes fear as the expectation of future evils. Hope or faith (there is a slight difference in the meaning of the two terms, but I will henceforth refer to “faith” since it more closely parallels Socrates’ definition of fear), then, is the expectation of future goods. Fear is the opposite of faith and faith is the opposite of fear, according to Socrates. Both describe a present relationship with future events, though from opposing perspectives. Socrates’ view differs from how we usually think about courage, cowardice, fear, and faith. “Courage in the face of death” is the usual way people talk about that virtue (as in, soldiers fighting enemies or patients battling cancer). “I have no faith in him” suggests that the opposite of faith is mistrust, not fear (no one would substitute “I fear him” for that expression). Socrates challenges us to examine these things further.
The last two definitions of courage in the dialogue fail because Socrates and his companions Laches and Nicias can not define what type of knowledge constitutes courage. But is not courage more than just knowledge? In a moment of conflict within the individual, isn’t there a sort of choice involved which determines whether his action turns out to be courageous or cowardly? Should we not say, then, that courage is choosing and acting in accordance with faith (that is, the expectation of future goods) over fear (the expectation of future evils)?
Immediately, an objection could be raised to this new definition. What is the difference between this new proposal and just saying that courage is knowledge of good and evil (the fourth definition of the dialogue, which Socrates disproved)? For Socrates, knowledge of good and evil always leads to virtuous action – only ignorance, not individual will, leads to evil. So then isn’t choosing to expect future goods over future evils the same as knowing what those goods and evils are? Well, yes, perhaps my attempt at philosophizing fails there. But maybe my proposal can still be salvaged if we look at courage through the lens of our imperfect world, just as Socrates does about love in the Symposium. Diotima, Socrates’ teacher in that dialogue, says that a lover is “in between being wise and being ignorant” (204b). She goes on to define love as “wanting to possess the good forever” (206a). Once one possesses the good, one is no longer a lover. Love is an imperfect state – the gods, being perfect, are not lovers. Perhaps courage is also a virtue only possible in an imperfect world. In moments of trial or uncertainty, when the fog descends over our understanding and the future seems uncertain, the lover desires the good nonetheless. The courageous man, undeterred, goes no small step further: he chooses to expect it.