The Magazine

The Forgotten Virtue

How Plato perceived the importance of courage.

Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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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.