The Meaning of Courage

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...
COURAGE (andreia) is one of the virtues extolled by Plato in his writings; the others are reverence or piety (eusebeiato hosion), wisdom (sophia), temperance or sound-mindedness (sophrosune), and justice (dikaiosune). In both Laches and Protagoras, Plato investigates the meaning of courage. While in Protagoras, he concludes that courage is the knowledge of what is good and evil in the future, in Laches he expresses doubt over this conclusion. Certainly, courage must not be separated from wisdom. It would be foolish for someone who didn’t know how to swim to jump into a current trying to show courage there. One also doesn’t put his hand in fire claiming that he or she doesn’t fear anything. Courage must be combined with wisdom, specifically the knowledge of what must inspire fear and what must not – in other words, the knowledge of good and evil of the future. But, knowledge of good and evil cannot be divided into past, present, and future. The definition of good is always the same and not dependent on time. That would mean that knowledge of future good and evil is the same as knowledge of past and present good and evil, in which case courage would be THE Virtue because the knowledge of good and evil is the essence of virtue. But, that can’t be so if we believe courage to be one of the virtues and not the whole of it. So, Laches ends up without an answer. However, in Protagoras, Plato suggests the concept of unity of virtues, which would mean that any of the virtues are not separable from each other though they bear distinction in themselves. Some have thought this to mean that if one has one virtue, one should have all; and some others have contended that there is a common essence that ties all virtues in.

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul talks of the fruit (singular) of the Spirit, naming nine virtues therein. Courage is not mentioned there. In fact, the Platonic courage (andreia) is never mentioned in the New Testament. But, we do have a connection in 1 John 4:18 where it says “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear….” One can also think of wisdom similarly connected here. Love cannot be separated from courage and wisdom. One can’t say that he loves God and then run away in times of trial; such love is still imperfect, i.e. it needs to grow in an understanding and wisdom of God.

Now, turning to courage in the book of Proverbs, it is certainly connected with the Platonic reverence or piety (eusebeiato hosion), wisdom (sophia), temperance or sound-mindedness (sophrosune), and justice (dikaiosune). The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The wise are temperate and righteous, and the righteous is bold as a lion (Prov.28:1). The inter-connection must not be lost.

All this having been said, we can conclude that courage is not merely the absence of any fear; it is the absence of irrational or foolish fear (and foolish fearlessness as well); while at the same time, it is the presence of a right confidence for the right action, in view of which it is intrinsically connected with wisdom, goodness, love, and the other virtues. A lone courage is like a car without a steering, fuel, and tyres. Virtue is holistic.

Domenic Marbaniang, 2010

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