Upon hearing the encouragement of Laches, Socrates poses, once again, the essential question of what teachers or students he or the two generals may have had. However, Socrates then chooses to abandon this mode of inquiry in favor of another. Now, he focuses on the nature of the quality that they are discussing. For in order to decide if a person is well versed in something, Socrates argues, the exact nature of that thing must be decided. Socrates demonstrates this by stating that if we did not know the nature of a quality such as sight, then we would never know how to go about advising a person medically upon the health of their eyes.
Socrates states that the quality under investigation, in this case, is virtue. Therefore, he claims, they must investigate the nature of virtue since one cannot advise on a subject about which one is ignorant. Socrates then asks Laches if we can in fact know the nature of virtue and that if we know the nature of virtue, will we be able to tell others of it. Laches answers both questions affirmatively, thus allowing Socrates to test Laches's own knowledge of the nature of virtue. First, Socrates chooses to question Laches about a part of the nature of virtue. Most appropriately, Socrates questions Laches concerning the part of virtue that is most relevant to the art of fighting in armor—courage. Laches responds to Socrates's questioning by stating that Socrates is a man of courage for he fought bravely at the battle of Delium. Socrates replies, however that Laches has not answered the question he asked but has answered another one. Socrates explains his meaning by asking Laches if he would consider a man courageous who fights by fleeing instead of remaining at his post. Socrates then asks Laches to consider the Scythian cavalry, who fight valiantly while fleeing, and to consider the hero Aeneas who, according to Homer, was always fleeing on his horses in battle.
Since such examples are obvious examples of bravery and yet do not fit the condition of Laches's definition of courage, Socrates refines the question he wishes to ask. Socrates claims that he meant to ask Laches not only of the nature of courage possessed by foot soldiers who man their post, but of the kind of courage possessed by many in general, whether in battle, in politics, in poverty, or in fear. Socrates reinforces his point by taking the example of quickness, which may be found "in running, speaking, or in playing the lyre." In the case of quickness, Socrates reasons, one would define it most generally as the quality that accomplishes much in a little time. Socrates goes on to ask Laches to provide a definition of courage that includes all the cases in which a person might be said to be courageous.
This part contains the first elenchus of the dialogue in which Socrates draws out a definition from one of his companions only to undercut it using its own inconsistencies. To introduce the elenchus, Socrates shifts the focus from finding teachers of virtue, to the task of isolating virtue itself for closer study. Socrates first tries to concentrate on the nature of virtue by demonstrating how central understanding the nature of sight is to helping a person to maintain healthy eyes and seeing clearly. Just so, understanding the nature of virtue is in Socrates's mind essential to understanding how to instruct the children of Lysimachus and Melesias to have healthy, virtuous souls.
One may see here the beginnings of Plato's beliefs in the abstract world of forms, which entered the middle period of his philosophy well after he finished the Laches. Since any definition Laches gives, which is grounded in particular experience or example will fail to account for every situation of courage, it seems that Socrates is asking for an account of courage abstract enough to qualify as one of the entities Plato later calls a "form." After rebutting Laches's initial account of courage, Socrates asks Laches to come up with a catch-all definition of courage that would account for every single instance of the virtue. It seems here that Socrates is asking for a kind of "disembodied courage" stripped of all situation and context.
Socrates steers Laches towards a more general definition of courage by examining quickness in its most general form. However, it seems that Socrates gives Laches false hope in this deceivingly simple comparison. Whereas it is relatively simple to state what quickness would be in any given situation—the quality that accomplishes much in little time—it is much more difficult to say what acting courageously would be in any given situation. Unlike quickness, which demands a similar kind of action each time, courage, as Socrates demonstrated, can be embodied by actions exactly opposite from one another. Perhaps this is why Socrates defines quickness himself but only asks questions about courage.
Take a Study Break!