Posted: October 3, 2007
lato and the Virtue of Courage is an intelligent discussion of an important topic. Linda Rabieh, a lecturer in political theory at Tufts University, examines Plato's Laches (the dialogue he devotes to courage) and the relevant parts of the Republic. Serious attention to these works always is welcome, especially given our renewed concern with manliness.
Rabieh offers careful and thoughtful discussions of her texts but not line-by-line commentary. She begins with the obligatory what-do-contemporary-schools-of-thought-say-about-courage-and-why-are-they-wrong chapter. She then turns to three chapters each on the Laches and Republic, before concluding with a discussion of "the promise of courage." The most useful elements of her introduction and conclusion are a good discussion of the faults of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and a clear exposition of John Locke's understanding of courage. The highlights of her main chapters are a subtle grasp of what underlies the Athenian general Nicias' opinion in the Laches that courage is "knowledge of terrible and emboldening things" and serious reflection in her own right on the place of courage in philosophy.
The heart of Rabieh's discussion lies in the detail and complexity of her argument, which I cannot reproduce here. I will try instead to expand her analysis and thus also give some sense of its substance.
Rabieh's choice to limit herself to the Laches and the Republic is not unreasonable, but the two dialogues do not constitute "Plato on the virtue of courage." The Protagoras also contains a discussion of courage, which she partially describes, as does the Statesman, which she ignores. There are more than passing references to it in other dialogues, such as the Laws.
These omissions affect not just the scope of Rabieh's discussion but also her major themes. She is, for example, especially concerned about the relation between courage and happiness. The Protagoras suggests that courage helps define natural men who free themselves from convention and take what they want, namely, pleasure. Thinking this dialogue through would have helped her analysis of Glaucon's argument in the Republic that injustice is what is best for true men. Her discussion of the conversational impetus of the Laches—two fathers' concern about their sons' education—does not consider that in wishing the "best" for their sons the fathers may have in mind wealth or renown, whether or not they are gained by conventional virtue. And the Protagoras is especially relevant for another of her themes, the relationship between courage, or virtue generally, and knowledge.
Ignoring the Statesman means that Rabieh does not confront what the Eleatic Stranger says there about how virtue can be one and yet have two different parts, courage and moderation. This discussion would have helped her analysis of Socrates' suggestion that Nicias' definition pertains not to courage specifically but to all virtue. Nicias may for the reasons she suggests (or others) accept the rebuke, but why should the rest of us complain about such unexpected largesse? In the Statesman, courage is connected to the hard and quick, and moderation to the soft and slow. Either alone tends to harmful excess. The virtues perfect different parts of the soul, or kinds of speed and movement. The Stranger's discussion would have helped Rabieh develop elements in the Laches to which she gives short shrift: Socrates' reminding Nicias of animals' apparent courage; the absence of thumos there (and from the Statesman); why Socrates uses swiftness as his example to Laches of the general statement about courage he seeks from him; and the subtlety in Socrates' letting Laches know that one can be courageous while moving backward and circling in battle as well as moving forward or standing still. Rabieh does not sufficiently situate the phenomenon of courage on the broad ground that Plato prepares for it.
These two types of movement and pliancy are virtues only when they fit together in the right whole, for instance, in the right regime. Left alone each becomes extreme. Neither courage nor moderation can be the virtue each is without the other, but they are not the same. Noble risk and prudent ease can belong together in the city, although they are imperfect there because they are yoked by law and opinion. The Statesman's analysis thus sheds light on the connections among courage, prudence, nobility, and happiness with which Rabieh is concerned. In this regard, her discussion of philosophy would have profited from attending to the common elements of every particular philosopher's quest. In general, indeed, she does not sufficiently work through the dialectic between individual and common.
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Rabieh's interesting discussion of spiritedness in the Republic also is somewhat misleading. She treats it as occasioned by perceived injustice, but does not distinguish this carefully enough from spirited concern with one's own: one can become angry when one's ambition is dashed, way is blocked, or perch is threatened, even when one's rival has as just a claim, or a better one.
Rabieh also downplays the natural protectiveness of spiritedness and its connection to risk. Defending one's own (and its elevation in courage) is often more connected to happiness and less nobly self-forgetting than she would have it. Risk is involved not only in nobly facing death, or in philosophical unconventionality; it belongs to the acquisition of almost anything good. There is more necessity in courage than she lets us see. This is not, however, to deny the unusual height of noble courage.
Although I believe that attention to these texts and issues would improve Dr. Rabieh's discussion, I do not mean to detract from her book's considerable merits. It is the well-deserved winner of the inaugural Delba Winthrop Mansfield award for excellence in political science, and students of Plato and courage should read it.