Monday, April 13, 2009

Socrates and Political Courage

Paul Woodruff

University of Texas at Austin

Citizen Socrates: 5th Annual Platsis Symposium
The University of Michigan, Sept 29, 2006

Socrates, facing a cross section of his fellow citizens who were soon to have him
executed for offenses related to his career said this to his judges:

Suppose you made me this offer: “Socrates, we won’t do as Anytus
instructs us; we’ll let you go, but on this condition: no more running
around in this search of yours; no more philosophy. If you’re caught doing
it you’ll die.” Suppose you made me that offer. I’d answer you, “My
fellow Athenians, I salute you, I love you, but I will obey the god rather
than you, and so long as I can breathe and am able I will not stop . . .”
(Apology 29 cd).

That’s courage. It has two unusual features—unusual, at least, for Athens at the

First, this is no battlefield; it is a court of law, and courage has no
traditional place here. In a court of law, brave men are expected to beg for
mercy, whereas on the field of battle they must go without flinching into the way
of death. The kind of courage Socrates shows in court is what I call political
courage. That’s new with Socrates.

Second, this courage has an intellectual basis. Specifically, it rests on
Socrates’ recognition that he does not know that death is an evil. In his last faceoff
with the panel of judges he says: “To fear death is to think that you are wise
when you are not” (29a). And Socrates knows better than to claim knowledge he
does not have. He said earlier, “I know of myself that I am not wise, neither in
large nor small matters”(21b). Socrates’ intellectualist conception of courage is
new and remarkable; the common way to think about courage, then as now, had
more to do with inner strength than with knowledge.

So courage is new with Socrates—new in its scope, which includes civic
affairs as well as battle, and new in its basis, which is intellectual.
In all that he does, courage is Socrates’ most salient attribute, at least so it
appears in Plato’s report. Socratic courage is remarkable in both depth and
range. It lies deep enough to keep his mind clear in the face of death, so that he
can continue to follow the argument that strikes him as best, and then to act as he
believes he ought, during his trial and against the temptation to escape by
corrupting his jailer. Socrates’ courage ranges far beyond the usual Greek
context of manly steadfastness in battle. We hear of his courage during the wild
retreat at Delium, courage in the frozen siege of Potidaea, courage when the
Assembly of Athens put itself above the law, and courage against the Thirty
Tyrants’ reign of terror.

1. Knowledge-Based Courage

Socrates’ courage is odd. Most of us believe that courage is the virtue that gives
us strength to do the right thing in the face of fear. But, if so, Socrates does not
have courage, because Socrates plainly has no fear in any of these situations. He
seems to have no fear of death at all. So if what Socrates does have is courage, we
will have to abandon the common assumption about what the relation between
courage and fear. Socrates’ courage is not the ability to stand fast against fear. It
is the ability, based on knowledge, to have no fear of death, while remaining
fearful of doing injustice.

Is fear so easily controlled? This does not fit our experience of courage.
More than any other virtue, courage resists Socrates’ claim that knowledge is
necessary and sufficient for virtue...


Socrates taught us that courage had a place in politics, but he could not
give us a complete example of courage in politics because he could not enter
politics at all, and still remain true to what he firmly saw as his mission.10
Politics would not have been the death of him, had he learned to play the game.
But it would have been the death of him as the philosopher he was. The man
would have lived, but the philosopher in him would have died.

Socrates showed us the power of living in what we now call the ivory
tower. He also showed us its cost. Athens went from crime to crime, with little
protest from Socrates. Socrates kept himself apart, and he went from one private
encounter to another on a road that led him to undying fame as the champion of
the examined life. His courage was not political, because he was not political,
but it was no less profound for all that. He had the courage to look without
flinching into the darkest corners of his own mind.

Full-text of the paper is available, click here. (20 pages)

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