What is courage?
It seems like an easy question, until, that is, we start to give it just a little bit of thought.
In Plato’s Laches (4th century BC), Socrates famously sticks the question to the eminent Athenian general Laches. Also present is the Athenian general Nicias.
Here is a brief outline of the fascinating conversation that ensues.
L: Courage, Socrates, is when a man is willing to remain at his post and defend himself against the enemy.
S: I have to disagree, Laches, because a man who flees from his post can also sometimes be called courageous. The Scythian cavalry fight both in pursuing and in retreating, and, according to Homer, Aeneas was always fleeing on horses. Yet Homer praised Aeneas for his knowledge of fear, and called him the ‘counsellor of fear’.
L: Yes, Socrates, but these are cases concerning horsemen and chariots, not footmen.
S: Well then, what about the Spartan hoplites at the Battle of Plataea, who fled the enemy but turned back to fight once the enemy lines had been broken?
L: Yes, I’ll accept that example.
S: You see, what I really want to know from you is: what is courage in every instance, for the footman, for the horseman, and for every sort of warrior, not to forget those who show courage in illness and poverty and those who are brave in the face of pain and fear.
L: How do you mean?
S: Well, what is it that all these instances of courage have in common? For example, quickness can be found in running, in speaking, and in playing the lyre, and in each of these instances, ‘quickness’ can be defined as ‘the quality which accomplishes much in a little time’. Is there a similar, single definition of courage that can apply to every one of its instances?
L: Now I see what you mean. I suggest that courage is a sort of endurance of the soul.
S: That can’t be right, since endurance can be accompanied by folly rather than wisdom, in which case it is likely to be harmful. Courage, by contrast, is always fine and praiseworthy.
L: Very well then, ‘wise endurance of the soul.’
S: Again, I disagree. Who is the more courageous, the man who is willing to hold out in battle in the knowledge that he is in a stronger position, or the man in the opposite camp who is willing to hold out nonetheless?
L: Clearly, the second man—though you are right, his endurance is clearly the more foolish.
S: Yet foolish endurance is disgraceful and harmful, whereas courage is always a fine and noble thing. So, you see, courage can’t amount to wise endurance.
L: I’m now terribly confused.
S: So am I, but, still, we should persevere in our enquiry so that courage itself won’t make fun of us for not searching for it courageously!
L: I’m sure I know what courage is, of course I do. So why am I unable to put it into words?
N: I once heard Socrates say that every person is good with respect to that in which he is wise, and bad in respect to that in which he is ignorant. So maybe courage is some sort of knowledge or wisdom.
S: Thank you, Nicias, let’s go with that. If courage is some sort of knowledge, of what is it the knowledge?
N: It is the knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful in war and in every other sphere or situation.
L: That’s nonsense. Wisdom is a thing completely different from courage. For example, with an illness, it is the doctor who knows best what is to be feared, but the patient who shows courage.
N: I disagree. A doctor’s knowledge amounts to no more than an ability to describe health and disease, whereas it is the patient who has knowledge of whether his illness is more to be feared than his recovery. In short, it is the patient and not the doctor who knows what is to be feared and what is to be hoped.
S: Nicias, if, as you say, courage is the knowledge of the grounds of fear and hope, then courage is very rare among men, and animals can never be called courageous but at most fearless.
N: Yes and the same is true also of children. Or do you really suppose I call children courageous, who fear nothing because they have no sense?
S: Good. So now I propose to investigate the grounds of fear and hope. Fear is produced by anticipated evil things, but not by evils things that have happened or that are happening. Hope, in contrast, is produced by anticipated good things or by anticipated non-evil things.
S: For any science of knowledge, there is not one science of the past, one science of the present, and one science of the future. Knowledge of the past, present, and future are the same type of knowledge.
N: No one can disagree with that.
S: Thus, courage is not only the knowledge of fearful and hopeful things, but the knowledge of all things, including those that are in the present and in the past. A person with such knowledge cannot be said to be lacking in courage, but neither can he be said to be lacking in justice, temperance, or any of the virtues.
N: I am amazed by this definition!
S: You see that, in trying to define courage, which is a part of virtue, we have succeeded in defining virtue itself. Virtue is knowledge—or so it seemed to me just a moment ago.
A simplified scenario may serve to clarify this unexpected definition of courage as knowledge. Imagine that I am walking along a beach and see someone drowning in the sea. I know that I cannot swim and that there are strong currents in that spot, but I dive in anyway on the grounds that a human life is at stake. Very soon, I too need rescuing, and, despite my good intentions, I have only succeeded in making a bad situation worse. Because I completely misread or miscalculated the situation, I acted not courageously but recklessly.
In contrast, the lifeguard is a strong swimmer and is equipped with a floater. If only from past experience, he knows that, if he dives in, he stands an excellent chance of pulling out the drowning person without imperiling himself. Of course there is some risk involved, but the potential benefit to the world is so large and likely that it far outweighs the risk. If the lifeguard perfectly understands all this, he will ‘courageously’ jump in. Conversely, if he is ‘cowardly’ and does not jump in, it has to be because he does not fully grasp the situation.
Socrates famously argues that no one ever knowingly does evil. If people do evil, it is essentially because they are unable to measure and compare pleasures and pains—not, as most people think, because their ethics are overwhelmed by a desire for pleasure. If people do evil, it can only be out of ignorance. If people are reckless or cowardly, it can only be out of ignorance. Yes, they may be governed by greed or fear, but that is only because they are poor calculators of pleasures and pains, and, in particular, long-term pleasures and pains.
Now, geometry, medicine, and any other subject that is classified as knowledge can readily be taught and passed on from one person to another. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case with courage and the other parts of virtue, suggesting that Socrates is wrong and that they are not knowledge after all.
In the Meno, which Plato almost certainly wrote several years after the Laches, Socrates confirms that people of wisdom and virtue seem very poor at imparting these qualities: for example, Themistocles was able to teach his son Cleophantus skills such as standing upright on horseback and shooting javelins, but no one ever praised Cleophantus for his wisdom and virtue; and the same can also be said for Lysimachus and his son Aristides, Pericles and his sons Paralus and Xanthippus, and Thucydides and his sons Melesias and Stephanus. As there do not appear to be any teachers of virtue, Socrates infers that virtue cannot be taught; and if virtue cannot be taught, then it is not, after all, a type of knowledge.
If virtue cannot be taught, how, asks Meno, did good men come into existence? Socrates replies that he and Meno have so far overlooked that right action is possible under guidance other than that of knowledge: a man who has knowledge of the road to Larisa might make a good guide, but a man who has only correct opinion of the road but has never been and does not know might make an equally good guide. If the person who thinks the truth is just as good a guide as the person who knows the truth, then correct opinion is just as good a guide to right action as knowledge.
In that case, how, asks Meno, is knowledge any different from correct opinion, and why should anyone prefer the one to the other? Socrates replies that correct opinions are like the statues of Daedalus, which needed to be tied down if they were not to run away. Correct opinions can be tied down with ‘an account of the reason why’, whereupon they are transformed into knowledge.
Since virtue is not knowledge, all that remains is for it to be correct opinion. This much explains why virtuous men such as Thermistocles, Lysimachus, Pericles, and Thucydides were unable to impart their virtue to other people. Virtuous people are no different from soothsayers, prophets, and poets, who say many true things when they are inspired, but have no real knowledge of what they are saying. If ever there was a virtuous person who was able to impart his virtue to another, he would be said to be among the living as Homer says Tiresias was among the dead: he alone has understanding; but the rest are flitting shades.
Like all the virtues, courage consists not in knowledge but in correct opinion. The virtues relate to human behaviour and, in particular, to good or moral human behaviour, that is, to ethics. In ethics, the choice of one action over another involves a complex and indeterminate calculus that cannot be condensed into, and hence expressed as, knowledge.
Whereas knowledge is precise and explicit, correct opinion is vague and unarticulated and more akin to intuition or instinct. For this reason, correct opinion, and so courage, cannot be taught, but only ever encouraged or inspired.
This has some serious implications, for example, for education. If courage and the rest of virtue can only inspired, then the best education consists not in being taught but in being inspired—which is, I think, a far more difficult thing to do.
Unfortunately, it seems that many people are not open to being inspired, not even by the most charismatic people or the greatest works of art or thought. As Hemingway scathed, ‘He was just a coward and that was the worst luck any man could have.’
Courage is the noblest of the virtues because it is the one that underwrites all the others, and the one that is most often mortally missing. There is little point in being anything if we cannot be that thing when it is most needed.