The Forgotten Virtue: How Plato Perceived the Importance of Courage

"The Forgotten Virtue: How Plato Perceived the Importance of Courage," review of Plato and the Virtue of Courage, by Linda R. Rabieh, Weekly Standard, 29 January 2007.


Courage is a very common virtue, its presence observed by all, even by children, and its absence sometimes severely blamed, more often excused with disdain. Your reputation will suffer a good deal if you are seen to be a coward. Nor can you take refuge in the relativism of values that, in other matters, is such a feature in the thinking of our times. You will probably not be able to defend yourself from an accusation by claiming that one person’s courage is another’s cowardice. We do not believe there is great difficulty in defining it. Though some societies are peaceable, others warlike, all seem to prize courage and despise cowardice.

Yet courage is very little studied. However much we praise it, however easily we define it, we today are not sure that we altogether approve of it. Our individualism prizes the self, but courage deliberately endangers the self for the sake of–what? It seems that the answer would have to be that we value something more than our selves, more than our principle of individualism, and this would be uncomfortable to confront. So we let the anomaly of courage, a virtue much noticed in life and little valued in theory, pass without comment.

Contemporary theorists of liberal democracy chicken out completely, for even when it is their declared business to consider liberal virtues, they do not consider this one. Whether we think of gain in the terms of economics, or of esteem in the language of psychology, the self is a kind of deity and our theorists are its theologians. They seem to be afraid of courage.

Linda Rabieh’s fine new book on courage in Plato begins from current neglect by theorists. They “seem to have placed old-fashioned, traditional courage in a closet, trusting that it’s there, ready to be hauled out in case of emergency, but otherwise neglecting it.” Exceptions to this attitude are feminists who criticize courage as unhealthy, inhumane, and over-manly; but they are inhibited by their wish to claim courage for women and perhaps for themselves, as well as by their need to avoid giving the impression that women are fit only, or at all, for  motherhood.

Weekly Standard