The Forgotten Virtue
How Plato perceived the importance of courage.
Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Plato and the
Courage is a very common virtue, its presence observed by all, even by children, and its absence sometimes severely blamed, more often excused with disdain. Your reputation will suffer a good deal if you are seen to be a coward. Nor can you take refuge in the relativism of values that, in other matters, is such a feature in the thinking of our times. You will probably not be able to defend yourself from an accusation by claiming that one person's courage is another's cowardice. We do not believe there is great difficulty in defining it. Though some societies are peaceable, others warlike, all seem to prize courage and despise cowardice.
Yet courage is very little studied. However much we praise it, however easily we define it, we today are not sure that we altogether approve of it. Our individualism prizes the self, but courage deliberately endangers the self for the sake of--what? It seems that the answer would have to be that we value something more than our selves, more than our principle of individualism, and this would be uncomfortable to confront. So we let the anomaly of courage, a virtue much noticed in life and little valued in theory, pass without comment.
Contemporary theorists of liberal democracy chicken out completely, for even when it is their declared business to consider liberal virtues, they do not consider this one. Whether we think of gain in the terms of economics, or of esteem in the language of psychology, the self is a kind of deity and our theorists are its theologians. They seem to be afraid of courage.
Linda Rabieh's fine new book on courage in Plato begins from current neglect by theorists. They "seem to have placed old-fashioned, traditional courage in a closet, trusting that it's there, ready to be hauled out in case of emergency, but otherwise neglecting it." Exceptions to this attitude are feminists who criticize courage as unhealthy, inhumane, and over-manly; but they are inhibited by their wish to claim courage for women and perhaps for themselves, as well as by their need to avoid giving the impression that women are fit only, or at all, for motherhood.
These feminists join liberal theorists as disparate as Hobbes and Kant in preaching the advantages of cooperation. If liberal society is to focus on the self, its main anxiety has to be the exaggeration of the self when in conflict with other selves. The enemy is testy pride nourished by courage, and the solution is toleration in the active and positive sense of "civic engagement." Liberals who deplore the trend toward "bowling alone" never think of overcoming the lack with martial virtue, such as courage seems to be.
Rabieh kindly takes liberal theorists by the hand and leads them to Plato, who had much to say about courage. Plato discusses it, or lets it be discussed, in two dialogues especially, Laches and the Republic. In the Laches, Socrates examines the views of two Athenian generals, Laches and Nicias, who ought surely to know something about courage. But they flounder grievously in trying to explain themselves to Socrates, and the dialogue ends without resolving on an agreed definition.
In the Republic, a more positive doctrine emerges because courage is considered in company with, or as a consequence of, justice, a virtue we demand as well as admire. We need courage, and a definition of courage, in order to defend justice. But then it turns out that there is a higher form of courage, philosophical courage, which overshadows the ordinary courage--steadfastness in the face of risk--that we all can recognize. For the philosopher needs courage when he takes the life-long risk of questioning opinions, both society's and his own.
Linda Rabieh finds nothing peculiarly Greek about Plato's thoughts on courage that make them inaccessible to us. We today could easily find, from making a survey in the street, two problems in courage that Plato uncovers. (Our liberal theorists could find them too, if they desired.)
First, it is very clear that one can admire the courage of one who fights in a bad cause, for example a courageous Nazi soldier. This implies that courage is separable from its end, is an end in itself. But does it make sense to admire the courage that acts on behalf of an injustice that one must abhor? Virtue may be divided into virtues, but it also seems to have a unity so that the virtues work together, especially courage and justice. Even the liberal theorists, when they speak of a single "self," presuppose such a unity however much they wish to stress the plurality of human inclinations.
A second problem is that courage does not seem to be in one's interest. Courage responds to danger and calls for sacrifice, particularly in battle. Being courageous can get you killed--hardly in your interest, one might think. And even if it is not in your interest to live a coward's existence, courage needs guidance from prudence to know when it is reasonable to make this sacrifice. It is noble to face risk, but must the risk not be worthwhile, requiring an exercise of prudence to see when to attack, when to retreat? But courage and prudence seem to be at odds: The one warm, enthusiastic, and oblivious to danger, the other cool, calculating, and watchful.
Today in Iraq, American soldiers are risking their lives to save our lives at home. But our way of life puts peace, security, and survival ahead of conflict and danger. Thus it seems that the nobility of our soldiers is compromised because it is put in the service of mundane living for the folks back home--which is just what our soldiers gave up. Yet if we try to escape this incoherence by reminding ourselves that our way of life includes sacrifice for our way of life, then it seems we are sacrificing for the sake of sacrifice, endlessly.
This is but a sample of Rabieh's reasoning. Her book is not a line-by-line commentary on Plato's texts, but it does follow all the ins and outs of his arguments. If you want to learn about courage, or if you merely want to be impressed with what it takes to learn about courage, or to read Plato, this is the place to go. The toughness of courage is treated: The toughness to reject false hopes and to accept that certain evils are unavoidable. And also the magnificence of courage: the beauty of self-fulfillment that is greater than the nobility of self-denial or self-sacrifice. For self-sacrifice is in your interest if it makes you better. The paradox of sacrifice--for its own sake yet somehow for your own sake--is the theme of this excellent study.
Rabieh deals justly and generously with her fellow scholars of Plato. She is modestly, but still bravely, critical of those who take a historical or developmental view of Plato, and who would see the two dialogues--the Laches negative or aporetic (ending with doubt rather than a conclusion) and the Republic more definite--as stages in Plato's career as he understood things better or differently. Rabieh sees the dialogues as presenting different aspects meant to be understood as complementary. In her view, Plato is still relevant today--indeed needed--and all the more because we are so chary of courage.
Like us, Plato was opposed to the societies of his time, including Sparta, who put too much trust in courage and welcomed war. But unlike us, he confronted courage as a problem because, despite its dangers, he admired the toughness of soul on which it rests.
Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of Manliness.