Can Courage be Taught?

Courage is the jewel in the crown of antiquity. But can it be imparted?

Posted Jul 16, 2012

The secret of happiness is freedom; the secret of freedom is courage. Thucydides

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all the others. —Aristotle

While knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient for freedom, since there is often an important gap between knowing something and acting on that knowledge. This gap is commonly called "courage", and no amount of teaching or learning appears to be able to bridge it. If a lack of courage is that which prevents people with knowledge from exercising freedom, then it becomes important to ask the question, ‘What is courage?’  

Is courage the same as bravado?

This is precisely the question that Socrates puts to the eminent Athenian general Laches in the Laches, which is one of Plato’s earlier dialogues. Being the eminent general that he is, Laches thinks that the question is an easy one, and asserts that courage is when a man is willing to remain at his post and defend himself against the enemy. Socrates objects that a man who flees from his post can also sometimes be called courageous. He gives the examples of the Scythian cavalry who fight both in pursuing and in retreating, and of the legendary hero Aeneas who, according to the poet Homer, was always fleeing on horses. Homer praised Aeneas for his knowledge of fear, and called him the "counsellor of fear". Laches counters that Aeneas and the Scythian cavalry are cases concerning horsemen and chariots, not hoplites (foot soldiers), for which reason Socrates also gives the example of the Spartan hoplites at the Battle of Plataea (the final land battle of the Second Persian War), who fled the enemy but turned back to fight once the enemy lines had broken. What Socrates really wants to know from Laches is what courage is in every instance, for the hoplite, for the horseman, and for every sort of warrior, and also for those who "show courage in illness and poverty", "are brave in the face of pain and fear", and so on. What is it that these instances of courage all 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 that accomplishes much in a little time". Is there a similar, single definition of "courage" that might apply to every one of its instances?

Is courage the same as endurance?

Laches this time defines courage as a sort of endurance of the soul. Socrates says that Laches cannot be correct, since endurance can be accompanied by folly rather than by wisdom, in which case it is likely to be harmful. Courage, in contrast, is always a fine thing. Laches accordingly restricts his definition of courage to "wise endurance". Who, asks Socrates, 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? Laches admits that the second man is clearly the more courageous, even though his endurance is the more foolish. Yet foolish endurance is both disgraceful and harmful, whereas courage is always a fine, noble thing. Therefore, courage cannot amount to wise endurance.

Is courage some sort of knowledge?

Despite having been thrown into a state of confusion, Socrates insists that he and Laches should persevere in their enquiry "so that courage itself won’t make fun of us for not searching for it courageously". Laches still thinks that he knows what courage is, but he does not understand why he cannot express it in words. His companion, the Athenian general Nicias, says that he 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. Thus, courage must be some sort of knowledge or wisdom. If courage is some sort of knowledge, what, asks Socrates, is it the knowledge of? Nicias replies that courage is the knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful in war and in every other sphere or situation. Laches accuses Nicias of talking nonsense, and maintains that wisdom is a very different thing from courage. He gives the example of an illness, in which the doctor is the one who knows best what is to be feared, but the patient is the one who is courageous. Nicias retorts that 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 other words, it is the patient and not the doctor who knows what is to be feared and what is to be hoped. Socrates says that, if Nicias means that courage is 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". Nicias agrees with Socrates, and surmises that the same is also true of children: "Or do you really suppose I call all children courageous, who fear nothing because they have no sense?"

The unity of the virtues

Socrates proposes to investigate the grounds of fear and hope. Fear, he affirms, is produced by anticipated evil things, but not by evil things that have happened or that are happening. In contrast, hope is produced by anticipated good things or by anticipated non-evil things. 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. 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 nor can he be said to be lacking in any of the other virtues (namely, justice, piety, and temperance). Thus, in trying to define courage, which is a part of virtue, Socrates has succeeded in defining virtue itself. Virtue is knowledge. Nicias and Laches are suitably impressed, but Socrates insists that he does not as yet fully understand the nature of either courage or virtue.

Can courage (and virtue) be taught?

If Socrates is correct in holding that courage and all of virtue is knowledge, then surely courage and the other virtues can be taught just like other forms of knowledge such as geometry or medicine can be taught. So who is wrong, Socrates in holding that courage is knowledge, or I in holding that courage cannot be taught?

In the Meno, which Plato almost certainly wrote several years after the Laches, Socrates points out that people of wisdom and virtue seem to be very poor at imparting these qualities. For example, whereas the Athenian soldier and statesman Thermistocles was able to teach his son Cleophantus skills such as standing upright on horseback and shooting javelins, no one ever said of Cleophantus that he was wise and virtuous, and the same could be said of 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 form 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 way to Larisa might make a good guide, but a man who has only a correct opinion of the way to Larisa, but has never been and does not know, might make an equally good guide. If the man who thinks the truth is just as good a guide as the man 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 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 (a mythological architect and craftsman of unsurpassed skill), 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 cease to be correct opinions and become knowledge. Since virtue is not knowledge, all that remains is for it to be correct opinion. This explains why virtuous men such as Thermistocles, Lysimachus, Pericles, and Thucydides were unable to impart their virtue to other men. Virtuous men 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 man who was able to impart his virtue to another man, he would be said to be amongst the living as Homer says Tiresias was amongst the dead: "he alone has understanding; but the rest are flitting shades." 

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

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