Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.11

Richard Avramenko, Courage: the Politics of Life and Limb.   Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.  Pp. xiii, 361.  ISBN 9780268020392.  $40.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by A.S.P. Walden, Dartmouth College (

Table of Contents

Richard Avramenko has written a fine and flawed book. But its excellences are rarer than its faults, and deserve the first recognition.

Its most important virtue is that he makes, on the whole, a persuasive case for an ambitious thesis: that courage belongs at or near the center of our collective moral lives. Courage has come into disrepute, most often on display as the last refuge of nostalgics, reactionaries, and jingoists. This book is a welcome reminder, and a compelling demonstration, that courage is too powerful and too useful to leave to them.

The core of the book lies in the four middle chapters, which report and analyze different ways that courage has been interpreted and has functioned in different (European and North American) cultures; in particular, in fifth-century BCE Sparta, fifth- and fourth-century BCE Athens, eighteenth-century France, and the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The arguments proceed by a combination of close readings of primary texts and brief synthetic accounts of relevant secondary literature. The chapter on each society mainly presents the perspectives of local and contemporaneous writers – respectively, Herodotus and Xenophon; Thucydides and Plato; Rousseau; de Tocqueville – with Avramenko as curator, commentator, and guide. The book’s structure works. Each chapter is of independent interest, and, taken together, they argue that courage has remained so important in part because it is so flexible. Peaceful, pleonectic early American businessmen and traders are not like austere and cruel Spartan warriors, and the two groups’ forms of courage are not alike – yet he shows us how to recognize both as courage. This variety-within-continuity suggests the possibility of a contemporary form of courage, which need not be violent, bellicose, or gender-exclusive. Thus, the central chapters ground the framing theoretical arguments: If courage has taken such diverse forms, why shouldn’t we be able to adapt it to our needs? If courage has been so important to groups of people who share neither goals nor constraints, isn’t it worth seeing whether we, too, can’t make something of it?

Courage has smaller virtues as well. Avramenko’s style is pleasant and readable, especially in the less- theoretical chapters. Having daringly tackled a massive and a rather old-fashioned topic,1 and one of obvious non-scholarly interest, he takes care that a non-specialist should be able to follow his arguments. He reads primary texts closely, if selectively. He seems to have absorbed an astounding number of secondary texts belonging to a wide variety of scholarly fields, which he cites unobtrusively and often helpfully throughout. (The main body of the text, only 255 pages long, is supplemented with 64 pages of notes and 31 pages of bibliography; though, unhappily, the nine-page index does not include an index to primary sources cited.) Works in political science (the author’s own purview), history, literature, psychology, and philosophy are brought to bear usefully on both fifth- and fourth- century Athenian and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French texts. Such devotion to interdisciplinary analysis is impressive.

On the other hand, many particular readings do not persuade. Courage has the vices of its virtues. First, as is inevitable in such a short book of such a wide scope, the breadth of Avramenko’s knowledge can keep discussion close to an issue’s surface. Second, his focus and passion sometimes let close readings bleed into overreadings. Third, his political science background and his extensive readings in social and political topics lead him to neglect individual-oriented accounts of courage developed in tandem with the collective accounts he favors.

To me, the book’s clear highlight came in the twenty pages devoted to Plato’s early dialogue on courage, Laches (117-138). Here the breadth of the author’s knowledge serves to deepen his reading as he takes us through the dialogue in almost speech-by-speech detail. First he looks at Thucydides’s representations of Nicias and Laches and isolates their key characteristics, so that we will know what to look for. He then shows how Plato simultaneously lets their characters emerge from within the dialogue form and relies on their characters to shape the dialogue’s dialectic. Presenting a Platonic dialogue as both drama and argument, indeed as a drama of argument, is exceptionally difficult, and Avramenko’s discussion of the Laches is exemplary. This extended section is both the book’s most useful intertextual analysis and its most successful close reading.

Yet despite the interpretative richness of his analyses, his conclusions can seem unbalanced and thin. In this case, Avramenko reads the dialogue as decisively rejecting Nicias’s suggestion that courage is a kind of knowledge (Laches 195a); he thinks Plato intends the proposal to reveal Nicias’s selfish overcaution (135-138). His argument is interesting and thoughtful, he cuts his pieces cleanly and sews neat seams; my concern is that Socrates elsewhere seems to argue that courage is a kind of knowledge, the very claim that is supposed to discredit Nicias. When Socrates leads Protagoras to that conclusion, for instance, the sophist evidently feels that Socrates is forcing something Socratic on him (Protagoras 360b-d. Avramenko cites the Protagoras, but not on this point.)2 3

A few other specialist complaints. The contention of the section entitled “Socrates and Achilles” (112-117), that Plato presents Socrates as a kind of successor to or replacement for Achilles, is quite correct. But, though he must be aware of it, Avramenko fails to cite the most obvious piece of supporting evidence: at Apology 28c Socrates himself claims as ancestor “the son of Thetis [viz., Achilles], who was so contemptuous of danger compared with disgrace.”

Avramenko claims Aristotle would deem Achilles the opposite of great-souled (112), without mentioning explicitly Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics 97b, whose five paradigms of greatness of soul include both Socrates and Achilles. (Avramenko alludes to this text [113] without mentioning its relevance.)

I was surprised too to read that Aristotle had presented a newly universalized view of courage, as a human as opposed to manly virtue (111-112), since Aristotle is, by far, the ancient philosopher who makes the most of sex differences,4 and since he says explicitly that a man’s courage is different from a woman’s (Politics i.13 1260a20 and iii.4 1277b20).

None of this would be important if it were not related to what seems to me the largest gap in his account of courage.

From the beginning Avramenko assumes that the core of courage is a response to risk (7 et passim). Consequently “Manliness [just previously defined 5 as ‘confidence in the face of risk’] and courage … go hand in hand” (13), joined by war and violence. Now “a certain irony comes to light.” For courage “reveals both men and women as creatures defined by care; it reveals a ‘manly’ world of caring and self-overcoming and, at the same time, a womanly world of courage” (13). In other words, courage must be made nearly paradoxical in order to leave behind its martial roots, but the project is worthwhile.

With their focus on risk, danger, and fear, Mansfield and Avramenko assume that courage is about facing down the harm that one might suffer. But this ignores an alternative proposal. What if the core of courage were not the willingness to undergo risk, but the willingness to submit to sacrifice? Surely martyrdom, surely submitting wittingly to certain death or loss requires at least as much courage as merely risking it. When he takes Charles Darnay’s place at the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton does not put himself in danger of dying: he decides to die. But the certainty of death hardly renders his action ignoble. Dickens, anyway, think he is doing “a far, far better thing … than [he has] ever done” – the sort of action that at a stroke redeems a wasted life and entitles him to “a far, far better rest … than [he has] ever known.” By the same token, Socrates does not risk death, but embraces it, by proposing that, instead of hemlock, he be “punished” with publicly financed meals for the remainder of his life. He would have risked death if he had proposed exile as a punishment, but by offering a clearly unacceptable alternative, he instructs the jury to sentence him to death so that he can bear witness (marturein) for his principles.

The proposal I’ve just sketched stems from an alternative Greek tradition about courage, which takes Heracles as its archetype. Heracles struggles unremittingly and on his own (relying on others’ assistance earns him additional, solitary labors), not in battle against a defined set of enemies, but potentially against anything outside himself.6 Avramenko doesn’t seriously consider Heraclean courage, but he should. He wants to develop an account of courage on which it is not inherently martial, not essentially gendered, and evidently and intimately related to “care.” Heraclean courage is just that. If risk and fear and danger are incidental to courage while the willingness to sacrifice is essential to it, then the battlefield is only incidentally the paradigmatic sphere of courageous activity, and social roles only incidentally limit it. If courage encompasses labor and loss, then its expressions range from individual atonement through heroic deeds on a grand scale (Heracles), to living in public to educate the public (Socrates, the Cynics), to the private self-sacrifice inspired by love (Sydney Carton). What more could Avramenko want?

Courage opens a worthwhile discussion, and is itself a worthwhile contribution. Anyone who is interested in the political cultures of the societies he treats will benefit from reading it.

Errata: I noticed apparent typographical or spelling errors in Greek on pages 28, 87, 88, 102, 105, 109-110 (ή́ καλός and τὸ καλλὸν, respectively, for τὸ καλόν), 125, 130, 132; and in English, on 35 (“than” for “then”) and 73 (“Pausanius” for “Pausanias,” x4).


1.   In fact, Avramenko is not alone; several other notable books on courage have been published recently, including Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter’s edited volume Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (Brill, 2003; BMCR 2003.12.19), which Avramenko lists in his bibliography, and Nancy Sherman’s Stoic Warriors (OUP, 2005; BMCR 2006.07.68), which he omits. Neither seems as old- fashioned as Avramenko – Rosen and Sluiter because of its focus on gender issues, Sherman because of her focus on the lived experience of contemporary soldiers. Avramenko is however not so defiantly old-fashioned as Harvey Mansfield, Manliness (YUP 2006).
2.   Aristotle also attributes to Socrates the view that the virtues are forms of knowledge (Nicomachean Ethics vi.13 1144b28-9).
3.   Similarly, he mentions Plato’s Gorgias without noting the degree to which it is structured around repeated invocations of courage and shame. In particular, Callicles claims to be demonstrating courage and throwing off shame by declaring that even a life spent scratching one’s itches could be a happy life (494d). Socrates presses the point: if so, then the life of a catamite could be happy too – at which Callicles really is ashamed (494e). In fact, he is so ashamed to assert a conclusion that he thinks follows from his argument that he rejects the argument and withdraws to conventional views. So it turns out to be Socrates, not his bold interlocutor, who has the courage of his convictions. The only argument he fears or is ashamed of is the one that would prove him unjust (522d).
4.   Aristotle holds that “Although the parts of the soul are present in all, they are present in different ways. For the slave lacks the deliberative faculty entirely. The woman has it, but it is without authority. A child has it, but it is incomplete” (Politics 1.13 1260a10-14). By contrast, most other ancient philosophers who deal with gender at all believe that the soul is not fundamentally gendered, and so that women are capable of complete virtue, although they may be less likely to attain it than men. I am thinking here of Pythagoreans, Socrates as per early Plato, middle Plato (to a disputable extent, but certainly more than Aristotle), Cynics, Cyrenaics, Epicureans, and Stoics.
5.   Avramenko is citing, approvingly, the definition of Harvey Mansfield in Manliness (further citation above in footnote 1).
6.   Heracles is treated as a moral hero notably in Prodicus’s parable of the choice of Heracles (Xenophon Memorabilia ii.21-34), and in the Cynical tradition. Not coincidentally, the Cynics take both Heracles and Socrates as models.

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