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Part Four (186b–189d)


After suggesting that the men try to isolate among them who is most skillful or successful in the treatment of the soul, Socrates continues in typical Socratic fashion discounting his own knowledge and experience. He claims that he has never had a teacher in the art of the soul since he could never afford to pay for one of the sophists but that perhaps Nicias or Laches have since they are much wealthier than he is. He also says that they must have the knowledge to educate a person for if they hadn't then they never would have spoken as confidently as they did at the outset. Socrates goes as far as saying that unlike Nicias and Laches, he "has no knowledge of the matter." Socrates asks that Nicias and Laches tell him who were their great teachers in wisdom. Therefore, if Nicias and Laches decide that they are too occupied to take up the education of the boys, they might seek out their teachers and ask them to take up the children's education. Socrates also asks the two generals for proof of their great wisdom in instructing children's souls, which he believes they must possess.

Lysimachus agrees with Socrates's charge that the two generals give proof of their skill in instructing souls and asks them to answer such questions. Nicias, however, rather than answering the question appears annoyed and merely tells Lysimachus that he obviously doesn't know Socrates very well if he is taking his questions seriously. Nicias says that Socrates plays with his interlocutors and tries to draw them off-topic and confuse them by manipulating language. Nicias notes that he is not surprised to find that the topic of conversation is no longer the sons of Lysimachus and Melesias but is rather about the men themselves.

Laches responds that he himself is both a lover and a hater of the kind of discourse that Socrates engages in. He claims that he hates discourse when a person's actions disagree with his words, but when a person's actions agree with his words—as when an instrument is playing in tune—he finds discourse very pleasant. Laches claims that he has no knowledge of Socrates's words, but that according to the valor and nobility of his actions, he is entitled to speak on many noble matters with much confidence. He therefore invites Socrates to teach him and Nicias whatever he may know concerning the instruction of the soul, despite the fact that Socrates has already claimed to know nothing.


In this passage, we experience Socratic irony to its full effect. Socrates is of course the most famous teacher of youth in Athens and is being bitterly sarcastic to the two men throughout this section. It is known that Socrates had little or no respect for the sophists, whom he ridicules in many of the dialogues. Therefore his suggestion that Nicias or Laches might be wiser from taking lessons from sophists is bitingly sarcastic. His statement that the two generals must be wise since they voiced their opinions about the education of the youths is a thinly veiled criticism that the two men presumed to say anything at all on the matter. Socrates sarcastically entreats the two men to reveal the source of their wisdom so that others may benefit from their teachers even though Socrates knows full-well that the men have had no such teachers and that no one could possibly know more about the instruction and guidance of children than he does.

Nicias is clearly annoyed by Socrates's sarcasm and wastes no time in informing Lysimachus of it. Nicias ignores Socrates's question and merely complains of how whenever anybody asks Socrates a question, he turns the situation around and begins questioning him. Unlike Nicias, Laches appears to recognize Socrates's device without condemning him for it. Since Laches is intimately familiar with the heroics and valor of Socrates's character, he is willing to listen to him and to be instructed by him. Laches states, "Socrates, I invite you to teach and confute me as much as ever you like, and also learn of me anything which I know. So high is the opinion which I have entertained of you ever since the day on which you were my companion in danger, and gave proof of your valor such as only the man of merit can give." Laches's judgment of Socrates further emphasizes the connection between knowledge and example in the Laches. Because Socrates has proven himself on the battlefield and has been a shining example of honor, it is assumed by Laches that he must also have a great deal of knowledge and be capable of teaching those qualities that he innately understands.

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