BECK index

Prudence and Courage

by Sanderson Beck
(based on Plato's Charmides and Laches)

SOCRATES: A Series of Philosophical Plays is now published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.


Friends of Charmides
Critias' Attendant
Fighters in armor
Two sons of Lysimachus and Melesias

Scene: Athens 432 BC. The gymnasium of Taureas during the day. Some are practicing gymnastics and wrestling, while others are sitting in small groups talking. As SOCRATES enters CHAEREPHON rushes up to greet him, seizing his hand.

How did you escape from the battle, Socrates?

Just as you see me now.

The report said that the fighting was very severe,
and that many of our acquaintances had fallen.
Were you present at the battle of Potidaea?

I was there.

Then sit down here, and tell us about it,
for the accounts we heard were unclear.

Socrates sits down between Chaerephon and CRITIAS, and others who are interested join their group.

Hello, Critias.

Socrates, we are glad to see you well.

And I am glad to be back among you all.

But Socrates, how did you manage to escape
when the Athenian army had such a bad time of it?

From the report we heard, they turned and fled,
seeking to save only their own lives.

Well, to be fair to my comrades,
I must say that they entered into battle
bravely and fully hoping for victory,
but unaware of the Lacedaimonian military training.
The Spartan upbringing
must be severe and disciplined,
for these soldiers we faced
were tough and determined.
Our Athenians were not well prepared for this fight.
As it became apparent that this was no even match,
more and more Athenians began to flee
until their forces were chasing our entire army.

What happened then?

Then it was that many of our city lost their lives,
for they could think of nothing
but running for safety,
and in their terror
were unable to defend themselves.

What did you do, Socrates?

In this situation I realized two things about myself.
First, that I'm not a very fast runner,
and would be caught if I tried to flee unscathed.
And the other in consequence was that
I can't fight nor defend myself with my back turned.
So, not really out of bravery,
but out of prudence for my own self-preservation,
I retreated slowly and cautiously,
often turning to stop and fight off my pursuers,
which with help of our Athena I was able to do.

This is a most exciting tale!

Enough of these matters of war.
What is happening here?
What is the present state of philosophy,
and are there any promising youths about,
known either for their beauty or wisdom?

Critias looks toward the door as several FRIENDS of Charmides enter.

As for beauties, Socrates,
you will soon see for yourself,
for these who are coming in now are the vanguard
and lovers of the greatest beauty of the day,
and he himself should be coming in any moment.

Who is he?

Charmides, son of my uncle Glaucon.
I think you know him,
but he's grown up since you went away.

Certainly I know him,
for he was not too bad even as a boy,
and I imagine that by now
he must be a young man.

You will see in a moment how he has grown.

CHARMIDES and some more of his followers enter. Everyone in the gymnasium stops and stares at Charmides.

How does the youth appear to you, Socrates?
Isn't his face beautiful?

Very fine.

But that is nothing:
if he is willing to undress
he would seem faceless to you,
so perfect is his form.

How magnificent, by Heracles!
if he has but only one more thing in addition.

What is that?

If the soul happens to be well brought up.
And being a relative of yours,
Critias, he should be.

He is as beautiful and good within
as on the outside.

Then let us not undress him but look at this form.
For I'm sure he is old enough to have a discussion.

He certainly is;
in fact he is a philosopher,
and also a poet,
as it seems to others and himself.

That runs in your family, Critias,
inherited from Solon.
But why not call the young man here
and show him to me?

Very well, I'll call him.
Call Charmides, and tell him I want him
to see a physician about the illness
he told me was bothering him yesterday.
(To Socrates)
He's been complaining lately of having a headache
when he gets up in the morning.
Why don't you indicate to him
you know a cure for the headache?

The Attendant has gone over to Charmides and said something to him. Charmides looks over at Critias and walks over to him, the others following. Those sitting with Critias and Socrates try to make a place for Charmides by pushing at their neighbors, while the ones on each end of the bench are pushed right off, one standing up and the other falling on the ground. They all laugh. Charmides sits down between Critias and Socrates, as the others gather around.

Charmides, this man has a cure for your headache.

What is it?

It's an herb, which requires a chant with the drug.
If one speaks the chant at the time it is applied,
the drug will make one completely well,
but without the chanting the herb doesn't work.

Then I'll write it down as you say the chant.

Would you rather have my consent or not?

CHARMIDES (Laughing)
With your consent, Socrates.

Very well; and are you certain of my name?

If I'm not mistaken,
for my age-group often talks about you,
and I remember when I was a child
you being here with Critias.

Fine, for now I can explain the chant to you,
for it does more than just cure headaches.
I'm sure you've heard good physicians say
to a patient who comes to them with bad eyes,
that they can't cure the eyes alone,
but to cure the eyes the head must be treated.
Also to treat the head as separate
from the rest of the body is foolish.
And by this logic
they apply their regimen to the whole body
in order to treat and heal
the part and the whole together.
Haven't you observed that this is what they do?

Yes, I have.

Does this seem right to you,
and do you accept the logic?

Yes, certainly.

Such, Charmides, is the nature of the chant,
which I learned while serving in the army
from a physician of the Thracian king Zalmoxis,
who they say can even make one immortal.
This Thracian told me
that the Greeks are correct
in these ideas we just mentioned,
as far as they go,
"But Zalmoxis," he said,
"our king who is also a god,
says that as you shouldn't attempt to heal
the eyes without the head,
or the head without the body,
so you shouldn't attempt to heal
the body without the soul."
And this is the reason why
many diseases escape the physicians of Greece,
because they neglect the whole,
which should be studied too,
for the part can never be well
unless the whole is well.
For all good and evil,
in the body or the whole person, he said,
originate in the soul and flow from there
as they do from the head into the eyes.
Therefore if the head and body are to be well,
first and foremost you must treat the soul.
And treatment of the soul, my young friend,
is by means of certain chants,
which are fair words;
by their use prudence passes into the soul,
and then health is easily brought about,
not only to the head, but to the whole body.
And when he taught me the cure and the chant,
he added, "Let no one
persuade you to treat his head,
until first the soul is presented
to be treated by your chant.
For this," he said, "is the great error of our time
in the treatment of human beings,
that physicians try to separate prudence and health."
And he strictly commanded me not to let anyone,
however rich or noble or handsome,
persuade me to do anything else.
Now I have sworn, and I must keep my oath.
So if you will allow me to apply the Thracian chant
first to your soul, as the stranger directed,
then later I'll apply the drug to your head.
But if not,
I don't know what to do with you, Charmides.

The headache will be a blessing to my young cousin,
if the pain in his head
forces him to improve his mind.
Yet I can tell you, Socrates, that Charmides is
not only pre-eminent in beauty among his peers,
but also in that quality for which you say
you have the chant---prudence, isn't it?


Then be assured that he is considered to be by far
the most prudent person of all the young men today.

Well, if you have this prudence already,
then you don't need any chants,
and I might as well give you
the drug for the head right away.
But if you don't have this quality,
I must use the chant
before I give you the medicine.
So tell me yourself
whether you agree with Critias
that you are already prudent or not.

CHARMIDES (Blushing)
I can't really say yes or no, Socrates,
for if I say that I'm not prudent,
that would be a strange thing to say against myself,
and also I would be calling Critias and others liars
who consider me to be prudent.
But on the other hand, if I say that I am,
I'd be praising myself,
which would be bad manners.
Therefore I don't know how to answer you.

That is a natural response, Charmides,
and I think we ought to inquire together into this,
so that you won't have to declare what is distasteful,
nor will I have to use the medicine recklessly.
Is this all right with you?

There is nothing I would like better;
so inquire in whatever way you think is best.

Then I think this is the best way to consider it:
If prudence is in you,
you must have an idea about it,
for it must give you
some perception as to what it is.
Or don't you think so?


Then tell me what you think prudence is.

Uh, let's see;
well, I think prudence is
doing everything orderly and carefully,
like walking in the streets and talking.
I'd say prudence is carefulness and caution.

Is that right?
It is said the cautious are prudent;
so let's see if there is anything to it.
Tell me, isn't prudence fine and good?

But which is better
when you are at your teacher's,
to read and write spontaneously and quickly,
or to do so cautiously and slowly?


And in playing the harp or wrestling,
are quickness and spontaneity far better
than slowness and caution?


And in boxing and in other physical activities,
are quickness and spontaneity better?

It seems that way.

Then in physical activities
or in learning actions of the soul,
spontaneous agility and quick apprehension,
not caution, are finest and best?


Then prudence is not caution,
nor is the prudent life cautious, upon this view,
for the life which is prudent we agreed to be good.
Very seldom do cautious actions appear better
than the quick and spontaneous ones,
or even granting that
there are as many better actions
that are cautious as there are that are quick,
still prudence won't be acting cautiously
anymore than acting quickly and spontaneously,
either in walking or talking or in anything else,
since quick actions appear to be
as good as the cautious ones.

What you have said seems to me correct, Socrates.

Then once more, Charmides,
fix your attention more closely
and look within you.
Consider the effect
which prudence has upon yourself,
and the nature of that
which should have this effect.
Now thinking over all this,
tell me truly and courageously---
what is prudence?

Pause, as Charmides thinks.

It seems to me
prudence makes a person ashamed and shy,
and it is the same as modesty.

But did you not agree that prudence is good?

Yes, certainly.

And can that be good
which does not make people good?

Of course not.

But don't you believe
Homer spoke well when he said,
"Modesty is not good for a needy man"?

I do.

Then it would seem modesty is not good and good.


But prudence is always good,
since its presence makes people
only good and not bad.

It appears to me to be as you say.

Then prudence cannot be modesty,
since it is good,
while modesty is no more good than bad.

All that appears to me to be true, Socrates,
but I would like to know what you think about
another definition of prudence,
which I've just remembered I heard from someone,
that prudence is minding one's own business.
I ask you, do you think this is right?

You rascal, you've heard it from Critias here,
or from some other wise person.

Certainly from someone else,
for he didn't hear it from me.

But does it matter from whom I heard it?

Not at all,
for the point is not who said the words,
but whether they are true or not.

There you are right, Socrates.

Yes, but I'll be surprised
if we can discover whether it's true or false,
for it looks like a kind of riddle to me.

What makes you think so?

Because the one who said,
"Prudence is minding one's own business,"
seems to have meant something other than he said.

How so?

When the artisans and craftsmen mind their business,
don't they actually mind the business of others?

In what way?

The builder builds another person's house;
the weaver makes another's clothes and so on.
What would happen if everybody was restricted
to minding their own business in this way,
weaving and washing their own coats,
making their own shoes
and cookery and other implements?

Life would become very hard,
or impossible as we know it.

Then whoever said this
surely meant something else
of a person minding his own business.
Can you tell me what it means?

No, I can't,
and I wouldn't be surprised if
the one who said this
didn't understand what he meant.

Charmides laughs slyly and looks at Critias who appears rather anxious. Charmides speaks quietly to Critias, trying to get him in the discussion.

It's been refuted.

Critias becomes angry and looks hard at Charmides and speaks to him loudly.

Do you imagine, Charmides,
because you don't understand the meaning,
that its author also
didn't understand his own words?

Why, at his age, excellent Critias,
he can hardly be expected to understand,
but you are older and have studied.
Will you take up the argument on this definition?

Yes, but I would avoid
confusion of "their own things"
and say rather that
prudence is doing good actions.

Can the prudent be unaware of their prudence?

I don't think so.

A person may be prudent to perform an action
which one considers to be good,
but do they know positively the result will be good?
For example, when physicians treat a patient
they hope the remedy will prove beneficial,
but do they necessarily know for sure that it will?

Maybe not.

Then sometimes doctors may do good or harm
without knowing the effect of their actions.
So when they do actually do good,
then they are prudent according to your statement.
Or did you not say that?

I did.

So in doing what is beneficial
may one be prudent,
but still be ignorant of one's own prudence?

No, that could never be, Socrates.
If that is the case,
I have to confess my error
and withdraw my previous admissions.
I believe that the truly prudent person
has self-knowledge
and lives up to the words at Delphi,
for to my mind
"Know yourself" means "Be prudent."
So I abandon the previous argument, Socrates,
because either you or I might have been right,
and nothing certain came out of our discussion.
Now I intend to prove to you,
if you don't agree,
that prudence is knowing oneself.

But Critias, you speak as though I claim to know
the things about which I am asking questions,
and, if only I wished to, I could agree with you.
The fact is I am inquiring, because I don't know.
So I wish to consider before I tell you
whether I agree with you or not.
Please give me a moment to consider.

Consider then.

Pause, while Socrates thinks.

I am considering.
If prudence is knowing something,
then it must be some kind of science.
Do you think so or not?

It is, and of the self.

And is medicine the science of health?


Then medicine as a science of health is useful to us,
because it produces the benefit of health,
Do you accept this?

I do.

And then if you asked me what result
is produced by building and the art of architecture,
I would answer houses,
and so on with the other arts.
Now you should answer for prudence,
since you say it is the science of the self, Critias.
What fine and worthy result
does it produce for us?
Come now, say it.

But you are not inquiring correctly, Socrates.
For its nature is not like the other sciences.
You tell me, for instance, what product
results from the arts of computation or geometry?

There may be no physical product,
but they do each have a subject.
Computation studies the relations of numbers,
while geometry deals with shapes.
Or in weighing, the heavier and lighter weights
are different than the art of weighing.
Tell me, what is prudence the science of?

There you go again, Socrates,
pushing the discussion to the point
where prudence differs from all the other sciences.
All other sciences
have something else as their subject,
but this one alone is
a science of the other sciences and of itself.
Now you are doing what you just denied,
trying to refute me
without following the argument.

If I'm trying to refute you,
it is only because
I want to understand the meaning of my own words
lest I think I know something I don't.
I do this for my own sake
as well as for our friends.
Don't you think it is for the common good
that the truth should be discovered?

Definitely I do, Socrates.

Then have courage,
and answer the question as it appears to be to you
without worrying whether it is Critias or Socrates
who is being refuted.
Just concentrate on the argument
and observe what comes out of it.

I'll do so, for you seem to make sense to me.

Then tell me what you mean by prudence?

I mean that it alone of the sciences is a science
both of itself and of the other sciences.

Then will it also be the science of lack of science?


Then only the prudent will know themselves
and be able to tell what they know and don't know,
and they also have the ability of judging
what others know and think they know,
when they do actually know,
and also when they don't know but think they do.
So prudence is knowing oneself,
to know what one knows and what one doesn't.
Is this what you mean?

I do.

Again then, as our third offering to the savior,
let us consider from the beginning
first whether this is possible or not---
to know what one knows and does not know,
and second, if it is possible,
what benefit comes to us by knowing it.

Yes, we must consider these.

Come then, Critias,
let's see if you are more resourceful than I,
for I am stuck.
Shall I explain my difficulty?


If you consider other cases I think you'll see
that a science of itself and other sciences
without being a science of anything in particular
is impossible.

How so?

If you thought there was a vision,
which is not the vision of seeing things,
but a vision of itself and other kinds of vision
and also of the lack of vision,
yet while being vision sees no color,
does it seem to you that this exists?

No, by God.

And in the same way
with hearing and the other senses,
could they sense themselves
without actually sensing anything else?


For hearing, if it did not hear any sounds,
would not really be hearing.

By necessity.

And sight, if it is to see itself,
must be able to see color or something,
for sight cannot see the invisible.

You're right; it can't.

Now if this is a problem with sight and hearing,
it may also be a difficulty in regard to knowledge.
So what we need is someone great who will decide
to our satisfaction whether anything in nature
is able to apply its faculty to itself
and not some other object,
and if there are such things
that relate to themselves only,
whether prudence is one of them.
Now I don't believe I'm capable of deciding this
and can't be sure a science of science is possible.
Besides I don't really care whether it exists
until I know whether such a thing might benefit us.
Yet I divine that prudence is beneficial and good.
So you, son of Callaeschrus, since you say that
prudence is a science of science,
should first show that it does exist
and second that it is beneficial;
then perhaps I'll be satisfied that
your definition of prudence is correct.

Critias, feeling himself to be in a very difficult position, doesn't know what to say.


Well, Critias, if you like,
let us assume for now
that a science of science does exist,
and we'll consider whether it does some other time.
Come then, how does this help one to know
what one knows and what one doesn't know?

Well, a person who has a science
which knows itself
will be like what one has,
just like those who have speed will be fast,
those who have beauty will be beautiful,
so those who have knowledge will know,
and the one who has self-knowledge
will know oneself.

I don't doubt that the one who has self-knowledge
will know oneself,
but how does having that knowledge
help one to know
what one knows and doesn't know?

Because, Socrates, they are the same.

I still don't see how
knowing what one knows and doesn't know
is the same as self-knowledge.

Why not?

Will a science of sciences be able to determine
anything besides what is a science and what isn't?

No, only that.

Is the science of health the same
as the science of justice?

Not at all.

For one is medicine and the other politics,
while what is in question is science itself.

Why not?

So if someone does not know health and politics,
but knows only science alone,
they will know they have scientific knowledge
about themselves and others, won't they?


But how will science help them
to know what they know?
For is it not true that they know
health from studying medicine, not prudence,
and harmony from studying music, not prudence,
and building from studying architecture, not prudence?


How will prudence,
if it is only a science of science,
help them to know health or music or building?

It won't.

Then those who are ignorant of all this
will not know about what they know,
but only that they know.

So it seems.

Then prudence will not be this knowledge of
what one knows or doesn't know,
but only knowing that one knows or doesn't know.

I'm afraid so.

Then this person will not be able to examine
someone else's claim to knowledge,
nor be able to tell whether
that one knows or does not know
what that one claims to know.
They will only know
that they have some knowledge,
but prudence will not enable them
to know what it is.

Apparently not.

So by prudence alone one would not be able to tell
whether someone was truly a doctor or not
or who has knowledge and who does not.
For to do that one must have knowledge
about medicine or the other knowledge in question,
since to understand medicine requires
knowledge of health and disease, does it not?


So only a doctor,
or someone with medical knowledge
would be able to determine
whether someone else truly has medical knowledge,
for the prudent
would have to have medical knowledge
in addition to their prudence to do this,
wouldn't they?

That is so.

Then prudence, if it is a science of science,
will not help one to determine
who has knowledge of other things
and who does not,
for only the fellow artists
will be able to do that.


Then what benefit, Critias, is there in prudence?
Now if the prudent did know what they knew
and were able to tell whether others knew also,
then they would be of great benefit to us.
Then we could do everything without errors,
for we would not attempt to do
what we didn't know,
instead of finding those who do know,
nor would we let others under us
do anything they didn't know about.
Thus houses would be well-ordered,
and states would be well administered,
according to the rule of prudence.
Such knowledge would abolish error
and lead to justice, success, and happiness.
Would this not be the case if prudence gives us
knowledge of what we know and don't know,
and if we were so prudent?


However, you see that
such a science cannot be found.

I see.

So if we think that we can learn such a science
and be able to know all about ourselves and others,
then we will gain all these wonderful advantages.
But are we looking at
and seeking something greater
than it actually is?

Probably so.

Yes, and probably our inquiry has been for nothing.
And I have concluded this,
because I notice some odd things about prudence,
if that's what it is.
For if you wish,
let us assume there is a science of science,
and that prudence is knowing
what one knows and what one doesn't know.
Granting all this let us consider
whether this prudence
would be of any benefit to us,
for what was just said about it being our guide
in ordering houses and states and so a great good,
it seems to me, Critias, was not well conceded.

Why not?

Because we too easily conceded that
it would be a great good to humans
if each of us does what we know
and gives over what we don't know
to others who know.

So was that not well conceded?

It doesn't seem so to me.

Truly what you say is very odd, Socrates.

By the Dog, it seems that way to me too;
and that is why I said
the results seemed odd to me,
and I was afraid we had not looked at it correctly.
For truly, even if prudence is all of that,
it is clear to me it has no good effect on us.

Why not?
Tell us so that we may know.

I think I'm being silly;
but one must consider what comes to one
and not ignore it,
if one cares at all for oneself.

Well said.

Listen then to my dream,
whether it came through the horn or ivory.
For if prudence is as we now defined her,
and she ruled over us completely,
would not every action
be done according to science,
so no one pretending to be
a pilot or doctor or general
would deceive us or go undetected.
Would this not result in our physical health,
safety at sea and in war,
and in skillful work in all our utensils, clothes, shoes,
and in fact in everything we did and used,
because we would be employing true artisans?
If you wish,
prophecy as the knowledge of the future,
with prudence directing her
would expose the charlatans
and reveal the true seers as prophets.
So provided, the human race would act and live
according to knowledge, I admit;
for prudence watching would prevent ignorance
from intruding into our affairs,
and by acting according to knowledge
we should be successful and happy.
This is what we have yet to understand, Critias.

But still, you will not easily find anything else
for the goal of success,
if you reject knowledge.

Then instruct me on one little thing.
What is this knowledge of?
Is it shoemaking?

No, by God.

Working in brass?

Not at all.

Then wool or wood or something else?

Of course not.

Then not just any knowledge will be enough
to make you happy,
but only certain knowledge.
You probably mean what I just said about
the one who knows the future, the seer.
Is this the one you mean?

Yes, and another.

Is it the one who might know,
besides the future, all that has been and now is,
and so is ignorant of nothing?
Certainly no one could know more than that.

Of course not.

Then there is one more thing
I would like to know:
which of the sciences makes this one happy?
Or is it because of them all?

Not all of them alike.

But most because of which?
Is it the one that gives knowledge
of the past, present, and future?


Is it the knowledge for the game of checkers?


Is it computation?

Not at all.

Is it health?

More likely.

And the more likely knowledge is of what?

Of good and bad.
You rascal!
All this time you've been dragging me around
hiding the fact that life according to science
does not make us successful and happy,
not even if it is all the sciences put together,
but only if it is the one of good and bad.
Since, Critias, if you take away
this science from all the rest,
will medicine still cause health,
shoemaking shoes, weaving clothes,
or will the pilot's art prevent accidents at sea
and the general's in war?

Not any less.

But Critias,
for these to be well done and beneficial
will be unattainable if this science is missing.


This is not, it seems, prudence,
but one whose work is to benefit us.
for it is not a science of science
and of lack of science, but of good and bad.
So if this is beneficial,
prudence must be something else.

But why couldn't it be beneficial?
For if prudence is a science of science
and presides over the other sciences,
it would also rule over the science of good,
and so benefit us.

And make us healthy too?
Will she and not medicine do this?
And will the particular works of each art be hers?
Have we not long ago protested that
she is only the science of science
and of lack of science and of nothing else?


Then she will not be a worker of health.


For health is from another art, or isn't it?

It is.

Nor of benefit, my friend;
for this work we assigned to another art.


Then how will prudence be beneficial
if it is not a worker of benefits?

It seems it won't, Socrates.

Then do you see, dear Critias,
that long ago I had good reason for my fear
that the consideration of prudence was not useful?
For I don't think that
what is conceded to be the finest thing of all
would appear to us as useless
if the inquiry had been well done.
But now we have been defeated at every turn,
and have not been able to discover what prudence is.
Yet we conceded much not proven by the argument.
For we conceded that there is a science of science
which the argument did not affirm,
also that this science could know
the works of other sciences
which is not logical either,
in order to show that the prudent
had knowledge of what they knew and didn't know.
And this we conceded
in a completely magnificent way
not considering that it was impossible
for someone to know in some way
what one does not know at all;
for our assumption said that
they know what they don't know.
Yet I think nothing is more illogical than that.
Nevertheless after we were
so good-natured and docile
the inquiry was still unable to discover the truth,
but it mocked us by showing that
even by the fictional assumptions
as to the meaning of prudence
it was still not beneficial.
So I am disappointed less for myself
than I am for you, Charmides,
that with your form and most prudent soul
you do not benefit from
the presence of prudence in your life.
I am even more disappointed about the chant,
which I learned from the Thracian,
that I should spend so much effort on a lesson
that has had no practical value.
Now I really don't think this is so;
but rather that I have been poor at inquiring,
since I think prudence is a great good,
and you are blessed if you really have it.
But see if you do, and so don't need the chant;
for if you have it, I should advise you to regard
me as a fool and incapable of logical inquiry,
and yourself as the more prudent you are
the happier you will be.

But by God, Socrates,
I don't know whether I have it or not.
For how can I know,
when even you two
are unable to find out what it is?
But I am not persuaded by you, Socrates,
and I think that I do need the chant,
and I have no objection to
being chanted to by you every day
until you say I've had enough.

Well then, Charmides, if you do this,
it will be a sign to me of your prudence,
if you let yourself be chanted to by Socrates
and don't abandon him through thick and thin.

You may depend on my following
and not abandoning him,
for it would not be proper for me to disobey
what my guardian orders.

But I do order it.

Then I'll do it, starting from today.

You guys, what are you plotting to do?

Nothing, but we have already plotted.

So will you use force
even though I have not made my investigation?

By force, since he commands me,
and so you should be advised as to what you'll do.

But that leaves out advice;
for once you attempt to do something by force,
no one will be able to resist you.

Then don't you resist.

Then I won't resist.

The scene dissolves.
The new scene is the same gymnasium, but twelve years later. Evidence of the Pelopennesian War is scattered around, and an exhibition of fighting with armor is taking place. LYSIMACHUS and MELESIAS enter with their TWO SONS and NICIAS and LACHES who are dressed as army generals of the time. They talk as they walk in and observe the brief fighting exhibition.

Melesias and I know you have seen this exhibition
of fighting in armor, Nicias and Laches,
but we asked you here for your advice.
We each have a son as you can see,
and we all live in the same house.
Now we wish to give our sons
the best training we can.
We have talked of our fathers' noble deeds in battle,
in making peace and managing the state,
but neither of us has such deeds we can show.
We're a little ashamed of this,
and blame our fathers for letting us be spoiled
while they were busy with the concerns of others.
Thus we are urging our sons to work hard
so they will become worthy like their grandfathers,
and they have agreed to take up some training.
Now fighting in armor has been recommended to us,
and so as generals we are asking for your opinion
as to who would be the best teacher for our boys.

I'll be glad to help,
and I think Laches will too.

Certainly, and I agree with you that too often
those in public affairs neglect their own children.
But look, here is our friend Socrates.
Let's ask him about the education of your youths,
for he is in your district
and is always spending his time
where youths study the virtue you want.

But does Socrates know anything about this?

I know he does,
for he supplied me
with a music teacher for my son,
who is an excellent musician and fine teacher.

Please, son of Sophroniscus,
give us your advice,
for I was a close companion of your father's,
and he died without us ever disagreeing.
As I recall,
you boys often praise this Socrates.
Tell me, my boys,
is this the Socrates you talk about?

Certainly, father; that's him.

They walk over to Socrates.

I'm glad to hear, Socrates,
that you maintain the good name of your father.
I hope we can renew our family ties.

Indeed, Lysimachus,
you shouldn't give them up,
for I know Socrates
has honored his country in battle.
He was my companion
in the retreat from Delium,
and I can say that
if the others had fought like him,
we never would have been defeated.

That is high praise from important witnesses,
Socrates, and I'm glad to hear about your fame.
I hope that we can be friends.
But what about this matter of fighting in armor?
Do you think it's an advantage
for a youth to be instructed in this practice?

I'll be glad to advise you
as best I can, Lysimachus,
but since I'm less experienced
than the generals here,
let's ask for their advice first.
Sit down here, and listen to them.
Would you begin, Nicias?

They sit next to Socrates.

I have no problem with that, Socrates,
for I think this art is beneficial to young men.
Fighting in armor is good
for strengthening the body,
and it can be used in battle to defend oneself,
whether fighting in a line or in single combat.
Also this practice may lead to other military arts
such as strategy
and the complete art of the general,
which certainly is very noble and valuable.
Therefore I recommend this instruction.
But Laches may not agree with me,
and I'd like to hear his opinion.

I wouldn't say that any learning
is not to be gained,
for I believe that to know anything is good.
But is this skill with arms really learning,
as the teachers and Nicias here claim,
and if it is, is there any value in learning it?
I've noticed these fencing masters do poorly in war,
none of them being distinguished as heroes,
and this is the only profession I know
where the teachers don't excel.
I think if the one who has this art is a coward,
he's likely to be rash and so reveal his character.
Or if he is brave, and fail only a little,
he will be overcome by other brave men,
because there is a jealousy of such pretenders.
Unless a man is absolutely the greatest warrior,
he is apt to be ridiculous, if he claims this skill.
That is my opinion, Lysimachus,
about this learning.
But as I said before,
I think you should ask Socrates.

Well, Socrates, since they disagree,
I would like to hear your vote
so that I can decide.

What, Lysimachus, are you simply
going to go with the majority?

Why, yes.
What else can I do, Socrates?

What about you, Melesias?
If you had to decide about
gymnastic training for your son,
would you follow the advice of the majority of us,
or of the skilled and trained master of gymnastics?

Naturally I'd listen to the master, Socrates.

Then his one vote would be worth more
than the votes of all four of us?


Is that because a good decision
is based on knowledge, not numbers?

Of course.

Then shouldn't we find out whether any of us
is an expert on this matter and listen to him?
After all, since children are your riches,
isn't their education of the greatest importance,
and shouldn't we take the greatest care about it?

That's true.

Before we consider
who is a good teacher of this art,
shouldn't we examine what the art itself is?

But Socrates,
isn't the question whether or not
to learn the art of fighting in armor?

Yes, Nicias,
but we must look to the end of the art,
or the ultimate purpose
for studying and practicing it.
For every art is practiced to some purpose,
such as medicine is for health of the body.
Wouldn't you agree?


And by education we are looking toward
the improvement of the soul of the youth,
aren't we?


Then let us consider
who is most skilled in treating the soul,
and which of us has had good teachers.

But Socrates,
haven't you noticed that in some things
those without teachers are more skilled
than those with teachers?

Yes, I have,
but we still couldn't trust them
if they claimed to be masters of their art,
unless they could show proof
of their skill in works.

That is true.

Then, Laches and Nicias,
if we are to advise well,
let us tell these noble gentlemen here
who and how experienced our teachers were,
or if we had none,
what works we can show,
and the people we can point to as having improved.
And if we can't do this,
we should tell them to find other advisers,
for to run the risk of spoiling our friends' children
would expose us to the worst accusation imaginable.
As for myself, I confess that
I never had a teacher of the art of virtue,
although I've always wanted one
from my earliest youth.
But I don't have money to pay the sophists
who are the only professors
of moral improvement around.
Even now I still haven't been able
to discover this art.
But Nicias and Laches
may have discovered or learned it,
since they are wealthier than I am.
They are also older
and have had more time to learn it.
They must be able to educate a person,
or they would not have spoken so confidently
about what pursuits are beneficial or not for youths.
I trust them,
but I am surprised they disagreed.
Let us ask them who are the best teachers,
or if they have discovered this art on their own,
what good works they can show.
Make them tell you, Lysimachus,
and don't let them off.

That is well said, Socrates.
Do you agree, Nicias and Laches,
and will you answer the questions of Socrates?

Lysimachus, it seems to me it is true
that you only know Socrates through his father
and have not conversed with him since he grew up.

Why do you say that, Nicias?

Because anyone who converses with Socrates
is liable to be drawn into an argument
and be carried round and round by him,
regardless of the original topic,
until you must account for your own attitudes.
Once you are entangled,
Socrates doesn't let you go
until he has thoroughly put your ways to the test.
Now I predict I'll suffer this,
for I like his conversations,
and I'm not afraid of correcting my errors,
for like Solon I intend to learn as long as I live,
not believing that old age of itself brings wisdom.
With Socrates around it was inevitable that
the subject would shift from our sons to ourselves.
So I'm willing to discuss this with Socrates,
but you'd better ask Laches how he feels about it.

I have one feeling about discussions,
or if you like, not one, but two.
For some think that I love them,
and others that I hate them.
When I hear someone speak on virtue or wisdom,
I compare the speaker and their words.
When their actions are true to their ideals,
then I am very pleased,
for those who have this correspondence and harmony
between words and deeds I consider a true musician,
and I love to hear the sound of their voices.
But those whose actions
don't agree with their words annoy me;
the more I hear them, the more I hate them.
As for Socrates, I don't know his words,
but I have seen his deeds,
and as far as I'm concerned
they entitle him to complete freedom of speech.
I too with Solon
would grow old learning many things,
but I add, "only from the good."
I don't care about a teacher's youth or reputation
as long as the teacher is a good person.
Therefore I invite you, Socrates, although younger,
to teach and argue
and learn from me anything I know,
for you were my companion in danger,
and you proved your valor.

I see that neither of you
is reluctant to counsel with me.

So it rests with us, Socrates.
Now change places with me,
and find out from Nicias and Laches
what we want to know,
for I'm old and my memory is bad,
and I don't remember
all my questions or the answers,
and if there is a digression I lose the thread.
Therefore discuss the problem among yourselves;
I'll just listen,
and when you have decided,
then Melesias and I will do what you think is best.

Lysimachus and Socrates change places.

All right, Nicias and Laches,
let us do what Lysimachus and Melesias ask.
However, instead of asking which teachers we had,
let us start more from first principles,
for if we know what makes something better,
then we'll obviously know
how to improve something.
Perhaps you don't understand what I mean,
but you'll understand it more easily this way.
If we know that sight makes the eyes better,
and if we are able to impart sight to the eyes,
then obviously we know what this gift of sight is
and how it might be best and most easily acquired.
For if we didn't know what sight or hearing is,
then we would be poor medical advisers,
wouldn't we?

That's true, Socrates.

And aren't our two friends asking us
how virtue may be imparted to their sons
for the improvement of their souls?


Then first we must know what virtue is,
for if we didn't know what it is,
how could we ever advise about acquiring it?

Its seems to me we couldn't, Socrates.

Then, Laches, we are saying we know what it is.


Then if we know,
doubtless we can say what it is.

Of course.

Then let's not consider the whole of virtue,
for that may be too much for us,
but let's see if we have enough knowledge of a part,
for this will be easier for us.

Let's do as you advise, Socrates.

Then which particular virtue should we choose?
Clearly it seems we should take the one
the art of fighting in armor
is supposed to promote,
and most would say that is courage,
wouldn't they?


Then first let's try to say what courage is;
and after this we may consider how youths
may acquire courage and by what studies.
So try to tell me what courage is.

By God, that's not hard, Socrates.
Whoever is willing to stay at one's duty
and face the enemy and not run away
is courageous.

Well said, Laches;
but you've answered something else.
Maybe I'm responsible
for not asking the question clearly.

What do you mean, Socrates?

What about those
who don't stay but fight on the run?

On the run?

Like the Scythians who fight fleeing and pursuing,
using quickness to outwit their enemy,
or like the Spartans who fought heroically at Plataea
by turning on the Persians after retreating.

That's true.

But I'm responsible for not asking my question well.
For I did not mean to ask just about courage in war,
but about courage in any situation,
such as when in danger at sea
or courage in facing pain or fear
or struggling against desires and pleasures.
Don't these require courage also, Laches?

Very much.

What is courage in general,
or don't you understand what I mean?

Not really.

I mean, for example, with quickness,
in running, playing the harp, speaking, or learning,
the common quality of quickness would be
accomplishing much in a little time,
no matter in what kind of action.
Now you, Laches, try to tell me
what the common quality of courage is.

Then it seems to me it is endurance of the soul,
if I have to say what is the nature of them all.

Yes, you have to,
if you are to answer the question.
Now it appears to me
courage is not every endurance.
Here's why: for I know, Laches,
that you would consider courage a fine quality.

One of the finest.

So isn't thoughtful endurance fine and good?


What about thoughtless endurance?
Isn't it bad and harmful?


Then do you say it is fine
when it is bad and harmful?

That would not be right, Socrates.

Then you admit endurance is not fine,
but courage is fine.


Then according to your argument
only thoughtful endurance is courage.


Let's see then; in what is it thoughtful?
In everything, great and small?
For example, if someone shows endurance in
spending money thoughtfully
because they know they would make more money,
would you call them courageous?

By God, not I.

What about a doctor whose son is suffering
inflammation of the lungs and begs for food or drink,
but the father endures by firmly refusing?

That's not it either.

Or if someone endures in war and is willing to fight
based on thoughtful calculation
that others will aid him
and those against him will be fewer and weaker,
and suppose also that
he has an advantageous position---
would you say that the one who endures
having made this thoughtful preparation
is braver than the one in the opposing army
who is willing to stay at his post and endure.

No, I'd say the one opposed is braver.

But this is a more thoughtless endurance.


Then you'd say the one
who endures in a cavalry fight
with the knowledge of horsemanship
has less courage
than the one who endures
without that knowledge.

I think so.

Then anyone who endures in something
even though they have less knowledge
than the ones who are skilled
you would say are more courageous.

Yes. What else can I say, Socrates?

Nothing, if that's what you think.

I do think so.

You realize I suppose, Laches,
that these people who are thoughtless
in enduring are in greater dangers
than those who are skilled.


But did thoughtless boldness and endurance
before appear to be harmful?


But we agreed that courage is something fine.

We did.

But now on the contrary we are saying that
the shameful, thoughtless endurance, is courage.

It seems like it.

Then do you think this is well said?

By God, not I, Socrates.

Then according to your logic
you and I, Laches, are not attuned
to the harmony of words and action,
for by our actions it appears
we had some courage,
but not by our logic,
if anyone heard our discussion.

Very true.

What then?
Is this right?

Not at all.

Then do you wish to accept part of the statement?

Which part?

The argument which orders us to endure.
Then if you wish, let us endure in our inquiry
so that courage won't laugh at us
for not enduring in this very search for her,
which after all may often be endurance.

I'm ready, Socrates, to persevere,
even though I'm not used to these arguments.
But an antagonism comes over me,
and I'm upset at not being able
to express my ideas.
For I think I understand about courage,
but I don't know how she escapes me
so that I can't take hold of her in the argument
and say exactly what she is.

Then my friend, as a good hunter,
don't give up the chase.

I won't at all.

Then do you think
we should invite Nicias here
to join in our hunt,
since he may be more resourceful?

I wish it, of course.

Come on, Nicias,
and if you can, help your friends
who are caught in the storm of an argument.
You see how lost we are;
so tell us what you think courage is.

I've been thinking for a while now, Socrates,
that you haven't defined courage well;
for you are not using what was well said,
which I heard from you before.

What is that, Nicias?

Often I've heard you say that
everyone is good in that in which they are wise,
and bad in that in which they are ignorant.

By God, you tell the truth, Nicias.

Then if the brave are good,
clearly they must be wise.

Did you hear that, Laches?

Yes, but I don't really understand what he means.

I think I understand;
he seems to mean
that courage is some kind of wisdom.

What kind of wisdom, Socrates?

Why don't you ask him?

I am.

Come on, tell him, Nicias,
what kind of wisdom courage is in your meaning.
For it wouldn't be in flute-playing.

Not at all.

Nor in harp-playing.

Of course not.

But what kind of knowledge is this?

You are asking him correctly, Socrates,
and let him say what it is.

I'd say, Laches,
it is knowledge of fear and confidence
both in war and in everything else.

That's a strange meaning, Socrates.

Why do you say that, Laches?

Because surely wisdom is different than courage.

But that's not what Nicias says.

He doesn't, by God,
and that's where he's so silly.

Then let's teach him, and not abuse him.

It seems to me, Socrates,
that Laches wants me
to appear to not make sense,
just as he appeared so.

Certainly, Nicias,
and I'll try to make it apparent.
For you're not making sense;
for example,
don't doctors know the diseases to be feared?
Or do you think the courageous know them?
Or do you call doctors courageous?

No, not at all.

Nor are farmers, I would think.
Yet they know what is to be feared in farming,
and so with all the skilled workers
who know the fear and confidence of their skill;
but that doesn't make them any more courageous.

What do you think Laches means, Nicias?
There does seem to be something in it.

There is something, but it's not true.

Why not?

Because he thinks that doctors
know more than health and disease.
But Laches, do you think a doctor knows
whether health is to be feared by anyone?
Or is it sometimes better for some
never to rise up from their sickbed?
Do you think it is always better to live?
Isn't it sometimes better to die?

I think so.

So do you think the same things are to be feared
by those who would be better off dead
as by those for whom it would be better to live?

No, I don't.

But do you attribute this knowledge
to any doctors and other skilled workers
except to those who know what is to be feared,
whom I call courageous?

Do you understand what he means, Laches?

I guess he's calling the seers courageous,
for who else could know
for whom it is better to live or die?
So are you a seer, Nicias,
or are you neither a seer nor courageous?

Do you think a seer knows fear and confidence?

I do. What else?

No, a seer can only know
signs and omens of the future,
but not which things someone should suffer or not.

I don't understand, Socrates, what he means;
for if neither a doctor nor a seer is courageous,
who could he mean but some god.
It appears to me that
Nicias is not willing to admit
that he makes no sense,
but he twists up and down
in order to conceal that he is lost.
You and I could have done this,
if we wanted to seem like
we weren't contradicting ourselves.
If we were in a court of law,
he might have some reason to do this,
but why should he idly embellish the argument
with empty words among friends?

He shouldn't, Laches,
but let's see what he means.

Then if you want to, Socrates, you ask him.
I've probably done enough asking.

Then I'll ask the questions for you and me.
So tell me, Nicias, or rather, us---
for Laches and I are sharing the argument---
are you saying that courage is
the knowledge of fear and confidence?

I am.

And not everyone knows it,
since neither a doctor nor a seer is courageous
unless they have this particular knowledge;
isn't this what you said?

Yes, it was.

Then this is not something which,
as the proverb says,
"Every pig would know,"
and so a pig is not courageous.

I don't think so.

If only a few people know this,
then could a beast like a lion know it,
or are you saying that a lion is not courageous?

By the gods, you argue well, Socrates.
Now answer truly, Nicias, whether a lion,
which everyone admits is courageous,
is wiser than we are,
or do you dare to contradict everyone else
by saying that lions are not courageous?

I don't, Laches, call any beasts courageous
which from thoughtlessness have no fear.
Do you think I call all children courageous
who from thoughtlessness are not afraid?
I don't think fearlessness and courage are the same.
I think very few people
have courage and forethought,
while rashness and boldness
and fearlessness without forethought
may be found in many men,
women, children, and beasts.
The actions many call courageous I call rash,
but the thoughtful ones I call courageous.

Look, Socrates,
how well he embellishes with words
and how he tries to deprive of the honor of courage
those whom everyone acknowledges as valiant.

Not you, Laches, for I say you are wise,
because you are courageous.

I'd answer that,
but I'd not let you say I'm arrogant.

Don't say anything, Laches,
for you don't seem to have noticed
that he got this wisdom from Damon
who is often found with Prodicus,
the sophist who is best at defining words.
Let's examine his definition then.
Do you remember, Nicias,
that at the beginning
we considered courage as a part of virtue?


Now do you understand the same parts as I do?
I call them courage, prudence, justice, and so on.
Do you also?


Then so far we agree.
Now let's consider fear and confidence.
Doesn't fear have to do with future evils
and confidence with future goods?

I'd say so.

And is knowledge of these
what you call courage?


But doesn't knowledge of any particular subject
take in the past and present as well as the future?
In health the science of medicine best understands
the past, present and future of medical cases,
and so too a farmer in farming,
and in war for example,
isn't a general more able
to forecast future battles than a seer
so that a general gives orders to a seer,
and a seer does not give orders to a general?
Shouldn't we say this, Laches?

We should.

Then do you agree with us, Nicias,
that the same knowledge
understands the same things
whether they are past or present or future?


And the things we fear and are confident about
are future goods and future evils.


And the same knowledge
is concerned with the same things
both in the future and in other times.

That's so.

Then courage is not merely knowledge
of the fear and confidence about the future,
but in order for it to be a complete knowledge
it must comprehend the past and present as well.
What do you say to this change, Nicias?

It seems right to me.

Then does it seem to you
that anything could be missing
from the virtue of a person who knew all about
good and evil things of the past, present and future?
Do you think such a person could be missing
either prudence or justice or holiness
who is able to take precautions
in divine and human affairs
as to what is to be feared or not,
and also in attaining good things
based on knowledge of correct behavior?

You've got a point, Socrates.

Then isn't your definition not just a part
but actually all of virtue?

It seems like it.

But we said that courage is one part of virtue.

We did.

But now it apparently is not.

It doesn't seem like it.

Then we have not discovered, Nicias,
what courage is.

Apparently not.

And I thought, my friend Nicias,
you'd discover it,
since you looked down on
my answers to Socrates,
and I had great hope
with Damon's wisdom you would.

Well, Laches, you think that now
you have an excuse
for being ignorant concerning courage
as long as I seem to be ignorant too.
You are like many people who look at others
instead of working to improve yourself.
I must go back to Damon
to see if the definition can be corrected.
And when I've figured it out,
I'll be glad to come back and teach you,
for I think you have much need of learning.

You are wise, Nicias,
but I still would advise Lysimachus and Melesias
not to take you and me as advisers
about the education of their children.
They should ask Socrates,
as I said at first,
for if I had children of that age,
I'd do the same.

I agree,
if Socrates is willing to take care of them,
but I've asked him to tutor my Niceratus,
and he refuses himself
and recommends other tutors.
See, Lysimachus, if Socrates will listen to you.

It would be right if he would, Nicias,
for I'd do for him
what I'd do for very few others.
What do you say, Socrates?
Will you assist in the improvement of these youths?

It would be terrible, Lysimachus,
for me to refuse to assist
in the improvement of anyone.
Now if in the discussion
I had appeared to know
what our two friends do not,
it would be right to invite me
to take up this task;
but since we're all in the same difficulty,
why should one of us be preferred?
Since this is the case,
let me give you some advice.
I think we all should search for the best teacher,
first for ourselves and then for the youths
regardless of the expense or anything else.
Even if they laugh at us
we should appeal to Homer who said,
"Modesty is not good for a needy man."
Let's be glad then to work together
and take care of ourselves as well as the youths.

I like your suggestion, Socrates,
and as I'm the oldest,
I'm most eager to learn with the youths.
Please come to my house tomorrow morning
so that we can consult on these matters,
but for now let's break up our meeting.

Then I'll come to you tomorrow, Lysimachus,
if God is willing.


Copyright 1996, 2008 by Sanderson Beck

SOCRATES: A Series of Philosophical Plays is now published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

"Know Yourself"
The Sophists
Prudence and Courage
The Lover
The Banquet
The Good
The Trial
Prison and Death

Introduction to Socrates and Plato
CRITO by Plato
PHAEDO by Plato

The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Did Socrates Practice It?
Influence of Socrates

BECK index