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Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness and the Impersonal Good

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Angela Hobbs

"This remarkable study on courage breaks new ground in Platonic scholarship, looking to Plato, not the poets, for an inquiry into what counts as true heroism." Review of Metaphysics    "Plato and the Hero promises to be of considerable … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Angela Hobbs
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
1 review about Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness and...

A great guide to understand the virtue of courage in Plato's "Republic"

  • Aug 30, 2009
I read Angela Hobbs' book for a graduate philosophy class. I paid close attention to Plato's thesis of courage in his Republic, which I expound below. I found Hobbs' book most illuminating in explaining Plato's work on the virtue of courage.

Plato's purpose in the Republic is not to perfect the character of people as an end but only as a means to an end. Plato's aim has a definite effect on his definition of courage. I find this is especially the case when exploring his ideas on how to educate the Guardians of the city to act courageously. Plato's goal, which is explained by Hobbs' is to match a person's character disposition to a job they are naturally inclined to perform in the city. Once he [Plato] has introduced the city in 369 b-d, he immediately advances the thesis, which is to dominate the rest of the Republic, that the needs of its inhabitants can best be met if each person in it performs that single task, and that single task alone, for which he is naturally suited.

With this view of human nature in mind, in Plato's model society, he divides the citizens into three classes. Rulers from whom the "philosopher king," will be selected, Guardians who are soldiers to protect the state, and the rest of the citizens classified as Artisans This division of citizens precipitates a discussion by Plato on the four virtues that these citizens will bring to the state. In the history of philosophy this becomes known as the "four cardinal virtues"; wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. With this introduction of courage as a virtue, Plato takes another crack at defining courage. What is also important to observe is that he introduces a new element, that of education, in his definition of courage that was absent from his early dialogue Laches.

Plato espouses the idea in the Republic that the Guardians need to possess certain natural qualities; such as strength, speed, and courage. It seems odd that Plato classifies courage as a natural quality possessed by certain people. This automatically presupposes that not all people can practice the virtue of courage. Plato's successor Aristotle, will argue against this notion in his EN. In addition, Plato argues that in order for people to be courageous they must also have an aggressive thumos [passion], which makes both people and animals fearless and determined. Plato fears that the Guardians could be susceptible to using their passion of aggressiveness against there own people. Therefore, he counsels that the Guardians who naturally possess aggressiveness have to also naturally possess the opposite characteristic of gentleness as well, so that their aggressiveness will only be used against the enemy and not their own citizenry.

This dialogue is significant in that it helps to flesh out Plato's notion of what ultimately makes a person courageous. First, Plato argues that the goal of education, which he compares to a sheepdog, is to watch over the Guardians; thus, with the proper education he believes the proper balance between exciting their aggressiveness and subduing it in the Guardians can be achieved. Second, Plato believes that if aggressiveness is properly excited by physical training, then the Guardian will be courageous. If overly excited they will be like a wild beast devoid of grace and will become ignorant. Finally, Plato argues in his education section of the Republic, that to counter the possibility of a Guardian developing an over excited passion of aggressiveness, it is necessary to teach the Guardians literature and music during the same time they undergo physical training. Thus, Plato hopes this balanced approach to educating the Guardians will then lead to courage being a controlled and calm act of endurance in battle, instead of a foolhardy lust for blood letting and an emotional reaction to war. Not only does Plato spend a significant amount of time advocating for the tools necessary to subdue the passions of the Guardians in book three of the Republic, but another important point in Plato's philosophy to consider is that since he believes that a Guardian's aggressiveness is influenced by literature he is very concerned by what type of literature is taught to them as well. Plato is very concerned that the archetypical heroic warrior Achilles, as depicted in Homer's epic poem the Iliad along with those depicted in Greek tragedies performed on stage, are bad examples for the Guardians to emulate. Consequently, Plato advises that heroes of Greek literature should be depicted as thoughtfully courageous and in control of their anger and physically resilient warriors. Hobbs makes a convincing observation. "Plato seems to be using the term andreia [courage] to cover (at the least) both courage proper, which can only exist in some kind of unity with the other virtues, and raw mettle or aggressiveness, which can exist in conjunction with various vices" (Hobbs, 118). Plato in book four of the Republic does move on from his study of thumos as the prime motivating force to act courageously, to actually defining the virtue of courage. Plato defines courage as a person's ability to subdue their aggressiveness by the orders of their reason in regards to what they should be fearful of regardless of their own feelings of pain or pleasure. Plato's expounded definition of the virtue of courage is that a courageous act is an amalgamation of a person's natural passion of aggressiveness and properly educated rational beliefs over what is worthy regarding the possibility of losing their life or limb over.

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