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At the beginning of the Laches, Socrates, Laches, Nicias, Melesias, Lysiamachus are gathered to discuss whether Melesias’ and Lysiamachus’ sons should learn to fight in armor. Socrates argues that Melesias and Lysiamachus are really concerned about “the matter in which virtue might be added to the souls of their sons to make them better” (190b). The first step in developing an answer to this question is determining what exactly virtue is (190c). Socrates, however, thinks that trying to determine what virtue is might possibly be “too great a task,” so he suggests that they first see whether or not any of them have knowledge about a part of virtue, and, because the goal is to determine whether or not Melesias’ and Lysiamachus’ sons should fight in armor, Socrates decides that the part of virtue they investigate should be courage (190d). Socrates gives the following reasoning in response to Nicias’ argument that courage is knowledge of the fearful:
Socrates begins by defining fear: “fear is produced not by evils which have happened or are happening but by those which are anticipated. Because fear is the expectation of a future evil” (198b). In other words, when we have fear, it is because we anticipate something bad happening to us in the future. Along those same lines, fear of something is expecting that that thing will cause something bad to happen to you in the future. If a person is afraid of roller coasters, then that person expects that something bad will happen to him if he rides one, perhaps that he will fall.
Using this definition of fear, Socrates asserts that knowledge of future evil is the same as knowledge of present and past evil. In order to explain what he means, Socrates says of medicine’s relation to health that “there is no other art related to the past, the present, and the future except that of medicine” (198d). The important thing to note here is the use of the word “art,” which implies a technical knowledge, an ability, as opposes to a knowing of facts. On this view, then, one’s technical ability does not discern among things that have happened in the past, things that are happening in the present, and things that will happen in the future.
Knowledge so conceived makes courage the knowledge of past, present and future evil (199c), or “practically all goods and evils put together” (199d). Furthering his point, Socrates says, “Then does a man with this kind of knowledge seem to depart from virtue in any respect if he really knows, in the case of all goods whatsoever, what they are and will be and have been, and similarly in the case of evils?” (199d). In other words, a person who possesses courage (knowledge of “practically all goods and evils put together”) can “deal circumspectly with both gods and men with respect to both the fearful and its opposite” (199d) and so cannot have the deficiencies that would cause one to err with respect to virtue.
However, if the preceding point is true, then Nicias’ definition of courage “would not be a part of virtue but rather virtue entire” (199e). Anyone with knowledge of practically all goods and evils would necessarily possess courage, justice, temperance and every other part of virtue. The problem with having defined all of virtue, a whole composed of parts, is failing to identify the particular aspects of courage that differentiate it from the other parts of virtue and the aspects of courage that it shares with all other parts of virtue.
I disagree with Socrates, however, about past, present, and future knowledge being the same. On the contrary, very different methods and facts are needed in order to draw conclusions about past, present, and future events. He uses the example of medicine to illustrate this point, but medicine also presents an ideal counterexample. Knowledge of past health using modern terminology is knowledge of someone’s medical history. Knowledge of a person’s current state of health is best gained through a physical examination. Finally, knowledge of future health is a matter of making predictions about health outcomes under certain circumstances. Doctors can have varying levels of ability in each of these areas because they are different skills that require different knowledge. Knowing how to set a bone is different from knowing what to make of the fact that someone had the mumps as a child, and these are both different from being able to calculate how much longer a person has to live. Courage, then, need not be knowledge of past and present as well as future evils, making Nicias’ definition of courage plausible insofar as it does not describe all of virtue.
Socrates could respond to this objection by pointing out that, while there are separate skill sets that handle past, present, and future health, these are all united in the art of medicine in the same way that knowledge of past, present, and future evil would all be united in the art of courage, thereby making courage virtue in general. Perhaps bone setting is a matter of “present” health, but bone setting is but one part of medicine, and a bone setter is far less than a doctor, precisely because of his lack of knowledge of past and future health. Bone-setting, though, is its own art as well. A bone-setter would certainly know what (past) action caused a particular type of fracture and how best to set the bone so that (in the future) it heals correctly. In short, knowledge of an art must require knowledge relating to the past, present, and future.
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