What Is Courage Made Of?

There is little point in being anything unless we can also be that thing when it matters most. Courage is the noblest of the virtues because it is the one that guarantees all the others, and the one that is most often mortally missing.

But what is courage? It seems like an easy question, until, that is, we try to answer it. In Plato’s Laches, Socrates famously sticks the question to the eminent Athenian general Laches. Also present is the Athenian general Nicias. Here is a brief outline of the conversation that ensues:

S: What is courage?

L: Courage is when a soldier is willing to remain at his post and defend himself against the enemy.

S: But a man who flees from his post can also sometimes be called courageous. Aeneas was always fleeing on horses, yet Homer praised him for his knowledge of fear and called him the ‘counsellor of fear’.

L: Perhaps, but these are cases concerning horsemen and chariots, not foot soldiers.

S: Well what about the Spartan hoplites at the Battle of Plataea, who fled the enemy only to turn back once their lines had been broken? In any case, what I really want to know from you is this: what is courage in every instance, for the foot soldier, for the horseman, and for every other class of warrior, not to forget those who are courageous in illness or poverty and those who are brave in the face of pain or fear.

L: How do you mean?

S: Well, what is it that all these instances of courage have in common? For example, quickness can be found in running, in speaking, and in playing the lyre. In each of these instances, ‘quickness’ can be defined as ‘the quality which accomplishes much in little time’. Is there a similar, single definition of courage that can apply to every one of its instances?

L: I suggest that courage is a sort of endurance of the soul.

S: That can’t be right. Endurance can be born out of wisdom, but it can also be born out of folly, in which case it is likely to be blame- worthy. Courage, by contrast, is always fine and praiseworthy.

L: Very well then, courage is ‘wise endurance of the soul’.

S: Who do you think is more courageous, the man who is willing to hold out in battle in the knowledge that he is in a stronger posi- tion, or the one in the opposite camp who is willing to hold out nonetheless?

L: The second man, of course—though you are right, his endurance is, of course, the more foolish.

S: Yet foolish endurance is disgraceful and harmful, whereas courage is always a fine and noble thing.

L: I’m thoroughly confused.

S: So am I, Laches. Still, we should persevere in our enquiry so that courage itself won’t make fun of us for not searching for it courageously!

L: I’m sure I know what courage is. Of course I do! So why do I seem unable to put it into words?

N: I 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. So perhaps courage is some sort of knowledge or wisdom.

S: Thank you, Nicias. Let’s go with that. If courage is some sort of knowledge, of what is it the knowledge?

N: It is the knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful in war, as well as in every other sphere or situation.

L: Nonsense! Wisdom is other than courage. When it comes to illness, it is the physician who knows best what is to be feared but the patient who shows courage. So wisdom and courage can’t be the same thing.

N: That’s wrong. The physician’s knowledge amounts to no more than an ability to describe health and disease, whereas it is the patient who truly knows whether his illness is more to be feared than his recovery. And so it is the patient, and not the physician, who knows best what is to be feared and what is to be hoped.

S: Nicias, if, as you say, courage is the knowledge of the grounds of fear and hope, then courage is very rare among men, while animals can never be called courageous but at most fearless.

N: The same is also true of children. A child who fears nothing because he has no sense can hardly be called courageous.

S: Right, so let’s investigate the grounds of fear and hope. Fear is produced by anticipated evil things, but not by evil things that have happened or that are happening. Hope, in contrast, is produced by anticipated good things or by anticipated non-evil things.

N: Right.

S: For any science of knowledge, there is not one science of the past, one of the present, and one of the future. Knowledge of past, present, and future are the same type of knowledge.

N: Of course.

S: Thus, courage is not merely 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 who had such knowledge could not be said to be lacking in courage, but neither could he be said to be lacking in justice, temperance, or indeed any of the virtues. So, in trying to define courage, which is a part of virtue, we have suc- ceeded in defining virtue itself. Virtue is wisdom—or so it seemed to me just a moment ago.


Courage, says Socrates, is knowledge. Imagine that I am walking along a beach and spot someone drowning. I know that I cannot swim and that there are strong currents in this particular area, but I jump in anyway because a human life is at stake. Very soon, I too need rescuing, and, despite my best intentions, have only succeeded in making a bad situation worse. As I completely misjudged the situation, I acted not bravely but recklessly. The lifeguard, in contrast, is a strong swimmer and equipped with a floater. From past experience, she knows that if she dives in she stands an excellent chance of making a rescue. Of course there is some risk involved, but the potential benefit is so large and likely that it far outweighs the risk. If the lifeguard perfectly understands all this, she will ‘courageously’ dive in. If she does not dive in, she cannot be said to have a full grasp of the situation.

One of Socrates’ most famous arguments is that no one ever knowingly does evil. If people do wrong, it is, ultimately, because they are unable to measure and compare pleasures and pains—not, as many people think, because their ethics are overwhelmed by a desire for pleasure. People do evil because they are ignorant. They act with recklessness or cowardice because such is the limit of their understanding. In the long term, courage maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain, both for ourselves and for those around us, which is why Socrates called it ‘a kind of salvation’.

Now, geometry, medicine, and any other field of knowledge can readily be taught and passed on from one person to another. However, this does not seem to be the case with courage and the other parts of virtue, which suggests that Socrates’ conclusion in the Laches is wrong and that they are not knowledge after all. In the Meno, which Plato almost certainly wrote several years after the Laches, Socrates argues that people of wisdom and virtue such as Themistocles are in fact very poor at imparting these qualities. Themistocles was able to teach his son Cleophantus skills such as standing upright on horseback and shooting javelins, but no one ever praised Cleophantus for his wisdom and virtue, and the same can be said for 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, it seems that virtue cannot be taught; and if virtue cannot be taught, then it is not, after all, a type of knowledge.

If virtue cannot be taught, how, asks Meno, did good men come about? 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 road to Larisa may make a good guide, but a man who has only correct opinion of the road but has never been and does not know may make just as good a guide. If he who thinks the truth can be just as good a guide to Larisa as he who knows the truth, then correct opinion can be just as good a guide to right action as knowledge. In that case, how, asks Meno, is knowledge any different from correct opinion? Socrates replies that correct opinions are like the statues of Daedalus, which had to be tied down so that they would not 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 much explains why virtuous men such as Themistocles, Lysimachus, and Pericles were unable to impart their virtue to their sons. Virtuous people 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 were a virtuous person who was able to impart his virtue to another, he would be said to be among the living as Homer says Tiresias was among the dead: ‘he alone has understanding; but the rest are flitting shades.’

Like all virtue, courage consists not in knowledge but in correct opinion. Virtue relates to behaviour, and in particular to good behaviour or ethics. In ethics, the choice of one action over others involves a complex and indeterminate calculus that cannot be condensed into, and hence expressed as, knowledge. Whereas knowledge is precise and explicit, correct opinion is vague and unarticulated and more akin to intuition or instinct. Thus, correct opinion, and so courage, cannot be taught but only ever encouraged or inspired.

From this I conclude that the best education consists not in being taught but in being inspired—which is, I think, a far more difficult thing to do. Unfortunately, it seems that many people are simply not open to being inspired, not even by the most charismatic people or greatest works of art and thought.

As Hemingway scathed, ‘He was just a coward and that was the worst luck any man could have.’

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