My daily blogging experiment was rudely interrupted by a Labor Day Week-end trip to Chicago (which, by the way, yielded an exciting new picture of the torpedo seafish mentioned in the Meno; scroll down to see the new picture). But I am still pretty much on track with reading.
First: the end of the Charmides did include the heartening statement that if a “science of sciences” were possible, then “he who has it will not only learn more easily whatever he learns, but will perceive everything more plainly, since besides the particular things that he learns he will behold the science” (172b). However Socrates ends up rejecting this as a definition of temperance, which he seems to assume is something more limited. But my hopes for the metacognitive project I mentioned last time were encouraged.
The Charmides does not end up producing a satisfactory definition of sophrosune, but it does indicate toward the end that knowledge of good and evil might be the key to happiness (again, this path isn’t followed through because it seems to the interlocutors to go beyond the concept of temperance). In the Laches, also, knowledge ends the debate, this time over what constitutes andreia (“courage” but more literally “manliness”). Nicias has suggested that true courage consists of knowledge of “what is to be dreaded or dared, either in war or in anything else” (195). He thus denies that boldness, in the absence of knowledge, is really courage. (He also sidesteps the notion of action in response to knowledge: if one knows “what is to be dreaded” and rationally runs away, is that courage?).
As in the Charmides, however, Socrates’ questioning shows that this definition will end up being too broad for the more limited notion of courage. I’m not sure I buy his argument, but his claim is that “what is to be dreaded” must be knowledge of future things (since “fear is expectation of coming evil” 198b). But (Socrates claims) you can’t really separate out knowledge of future things from knowledge of present or past things, but such knowledge would have to be “knowledge of goods and evils not merely in the future, but also in the present and the past” (199b); thus again we have reached something that looks way more comprehensive than simply “courage.”
An entertaining feature of the dialogue is the characterization of Laches and Nicias, the two principal interlocutors: Laches in particular is clearly very competitive and if his definition is going to be shot down by Socrates, then by gum Nicias’s definition had better be as well. Nicias is portrayed as much more careful and rational, although in the end he also fails to define courage satisfactorily. But both are also interesting figures because of what we know of their careers: Laches led the first expedition against Sicily, and was prosecuted on his return for having failed to subdue it; Nicias led the second, and was executed by the Sicilians after the horrendous defeat of the Athenian forces in 413. One of the most painful parts of Thucydides’ narrative of the failed expedition is toward the end, when it is clear the Athenians have been defeated, but there still seems to be some chance of them getting their surviving forces home safely. But Nicias is spooked by a lunar eclipse, and is advised by his priests to delay for twenty-seven days; this delay — pretty clearly inspired by the attempt to understand “what is to be dreaded or dared” — proves disastrous.
It’s hard to tell whether Plato intended the historical careers of his interlocutors to color our response to their dialogues; Nicias is in many ways a tragic figure, and was certainly highly respected in Athens for his caution and his military success. Perhaps that reputation, in the fourth century, is all Plato’s audience would have associated with him. But it’s hard not to let the disaster of Sicily influence the way we respond to him.