The theme of the Laches is exoterically about the nature of courage (andreia, fortitude, endurance, strength in the face of uncertainty), but on a much closer inspection, the question at hand is of good teaching. What is a good teacher? Two men, Lysimachus and Melesias, bring their two sons to the noted Athenian warriors, Nicias and Laches. They want for their sons to be properly instructed. Both fathers are concerned. They are descended from great fathers who were great warriors of great renown, though they are ashamed as fathers and soft and have not taught their sons greatness in honor of their names. To Lysimachus education of greatness is equivalent to instruction in the art of arms and war, not of virtue. Melesias remains mostly silent.
Why, in the first place, is the dialogue’s title dedicated to Laches? What is Plato calling attention to with his character? Laches is a general, though less reputable than Nicias, who is a noted statesman and political competitor of Cleon. Nicias is also the reluctant leader of the failed Sicilian expedition of Alcibiades. Laches, unlike Nicias, invites Socrates into the conversation on two grounds: first, the fraternity of his deme (both Socrates and Lysimachus are from Alopece), and second, Socrates is always teaching the young in noble pursuits. For Laches, Socrates has experience. To others Socrates pursues strange and irrelevant activities, as we see satirized in Aristophanes’s Clouds, the earliest known portrayal of Socrates during his lifetime. Nicias supports Laches’s suggestion not on the merits of Socrates as a teacher, but on the principle of following Laches’s word. After all, Laches had recently suggested a reputable music teacher to Nicias, but to Laches, philosophy is worth considering. Additionally, Laches attests to Socrates’s bravery as a soldier at the retreat of Delium. He reaffirms the common opinions of the city by persevering in the face of what is terrifying.
Lysimachus readdresses his question: is the study of fighting in honor good for the young? The conversation leads to the most interesting parts in an engagement between Socrates and Laches. Socrates claims that the two fathers are really asking what virtue is, and he suggests starting with an investigation of a part of virtue. Why does Socrates merely suggest searching for a part of virtue, when in the Meno he settles for nothing less than a definition of the whole of virtue?
The part of virtue Socrates poses is courage. Eventually, Laches suggests it to be: “a sort of endurance of soul” (192C). Though, as in the case folly, Socrates points out it is not a universally correct statement. Nicias is also brought into the hunt, but he winds up finding all of goodness/virtue. The definitions prove to be deficient and Socrates suggests they search for a truly good teacher, for the sake of minding their own business and for the sake of the boys. Lysimachus asks Socrates to come to his home the following day to instruct him and the boys, though we have no knowledge of this meeting ever taking place.
Though this dialogue ends in aporeia, recall that in the end of the Protagoras, Socrates claims that courage is not the willingness to “go toward” what a man fears, but rather the courageous man has knowledge of what is truly deserving of fear. Elsewhere, in the Republic, Socrates posits that we call a single man courageous because the spirited (thumos) part of his soul preserves through pains and pleasures what has been proclaimed by the speeches about that which is terrible and that which is not (442c). In explaining to Glaucon, Socrates says, “The preserving of the opinion produced by law through education about what-and what sort of thing-is terrible. And by preserving through everything I meant preserving that opinion and not casting it out in pains and pleasures and desires and fears” (428c). Perhaps this is not so different from the definition provided by Laches, though his may be incomplete. Courage is one of the criteria for the “city in speech” if it is to be perfectly good. As later thinkers would call it, courage is one of the “Cardinal Virtues” (coming from the Latin for cardo meaning “hinge”). Curiously, both fathers came looking for instruction in the ways of war, and came away with Socrates, the teacher, who has made them aware of their own ignorance of the nature of courage, the central philosophic idea underlying the nature of the soldier -it is what the goal of the education of the guardians strives toward in the Republic.