Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.46

Ryan K. Balot, Courage in the Democratic Polis: Ideology and Critique in Classical Athens.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xiv, 408.  ISBN 9780199982158.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher Moore, Penn State University (


Ryan Balot’s Courage in the Democratic Polis sets out to reconstruct a distinctly Athenian and democratic form of andreia (“courage” or “manliness”). One feature in particular sets this form of courage apart from other classical instantiations of the virtue. It combines, according to Thucydides’ Pericles (2.40.2-3), the otherwise antithetical forces of passion and reason. Harmony between these two aspects of human action develops via democratic deliberation about the nature of courage and the eudaimonistic goal of personal and communal life. At any rate, this is what the Athenians told themselves. In support of this self-understanding, Balot marshals evidence from across fifth- and fourth-century literature — historiography, drama, oratory, and philosophy — showing that Pericles’ celebration of a unique mode of courage is more than a self-congratulating rationalization for Athenian imperialism and exceptionality. Balot argues that virtues do in fact “vary according to regime type,” and not only in form or context but also in quality. Democratic courage, he claims, is better than the tyrannical, conservative, or coerced forms of courage found among the Athenians’ neighbors and predecessors. It is better in that it conduces more effectively to both extrinsic and intrinsic values. Among these he counts protecting the city, on the one side, and advancing the city’s, and the citizens’, flourishing, on the other. Much of the detail of this rather long book sets out the differences between Athenian democratic courage and other forms of courage:

Population Saturation. Whereas courage in archaic or non-democratic Greece suited the singular hero or the aristocratic hoplite, Athens found a way to distribute it across the social classes (ch. 8). Naval rowers, for example, could manifest a specifically marine courage, despite the scorn they typically faced from soldiers. The Athenian populace’s ability to accept a range of occasions for courage, and thus for increasing the number of people deserving of honor and commemoration, brought more citizens into close affective ties with the city. It may also have allowed Athenians to understand courage as protecting the entire city, rather than just preserving their own prerogatives or advancing their fame (ch. 1).

Psychological Motivation. When non-Athenian men, including Homeric, Spartan, and non-Greeks, acted courageously, they did so more often than Athenians on the basis of fear, patterns of obedience, and the desire for esteem (ch. 9). Athenians, by contrast, more often acted courageously on the basis of the love of what is noble. Balot emphasizes that this is a comparative claim: “Demosthenes’ funeral oration [for example] shows that the Athenians themselves sometimes relied on notions of honor, shame, and fear of the law in order to motivate their citizens to act courageously.” But the Athenians also appealed, and were receptive, to articulations of overlapping communal and personal value.

Spectator Education. Spartans learned courage through “a severe education that harshly censured cowardice…; [their courage was] based on the most rigorous kind of training, and [was] the result of traditional discipline and austerity” (ch. 9). The Athenian dramatic festivals, by contrast, presented plays meant to infuse self-knowledge about, among other matters, courage. The Lysistrata, for example, contrasted fiery men obsessed with honor, devoted more to the polis than the oikos, and unable to restrain any desire, to women who exercised practical intelligence and thus actual political courage (ch. 12). Tragedy presented the democratic ideals to which the audience considered itself, if vaguely, already subscribed, as well as the disaster-laden counter-ideals of non-democratic masculinity (ch. 13, taking up Agamemnon, Andromache, Heracles, and Trojan Women). Drama, sculpture, and oratory (ch. 10) — especially funeral speeches — presented their viewers with images of the ancestors or contemporaries worthy to be tried out, assessed, and modified as models of courage, or, put another way, as authoritative judges productive of self-regulating shame (ch. 11). Balot treats Euripides’ Theseus in the Suppliants, with the statues of the tyrannicides, as exemplary. He emphasizes that while these public works of art may not have caused direct institutional change, or even direct psychological or moral purification, and they may often have reinforced popular ideology, still they allowed the Athenian citizenry to take a reflective interest in the nature of courage in a way unavailable to non-Athenians.

Political organization. Freedom of speech (ch. 3), frequent sessions of critical forensic, deliberative, and exhortative exchange (ch. 10), and joint decision-making (citing Ober, Democracy and Knowledge, BMCR 2009.04.24), give occasion for critiquing, refining, and justifying the Athenian view of courage. They also give occasion for practicing a non-martial but still risky and agonistic, if not antagonistic, form of courage. Balot relies especially on the texts of Thucydides (ch. 2) and Isocrates (ch. 7) for the argument here.

Balot’s book in fact has two major strands of discussion: how Athens could treat as its own brand of courage one that blends reason and daring; and how Athens sometimes, or often, failed to act courageously in that special way. An important witness for Balot’s latter strand of discussion is Plato’s Laches (ch. 6). Neither Laches nor Nicias, famed generals both, prove able to unite energy and reason—erga and logoi, or tolma and gnômê—in the way that Pericles presented as the ideal of democratic courage. They fail in opposing ways, Laches failing to understand the importance of understanding what to do, Nicias failing to apply the abstract lessons he gained from Damon. Balot takes this as evidence that “the Athenians are unlikely to unite the[se] apparently antithetical attributes.” This is, at any rate, Plato’s assessment, and Balot finds other contemporary observers sympathetic to Plato’s conclusion. Elsewhere, Balot argues that in Lysias’ speech on the scrutiny of Mantitheus, we see a similar failure to attain perfect democratic courage. He diagnoses a tension between Mantitheus’ attempt to publish his democratic courage by advertising that he joined the common man’s infantry rather than the relatively safer aristocratic cavalry, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, his claim to his audience that he wants to look good to the demos, which “flies in the face of the democratic ideals of independent thinking and free speech,” on the other (ch. 10). In support of his charge that Mantitheus gives into a non-democratic shame culture, Balot quotes Lysias’ speech: “I did this, not because I found it easy to fight with the Lacedaimonians, but in order that, if I were ever unjustly threatened at law, I would secure every sort of justice because of the good reputation I had won with you. … We have to recognize the honorable and orderly citizens (tous philotimôs kai kosmiôs politeuomenous) of the polis on the basis of behavior like this” (Lys. 16.17-18). For my own part, I wonder whether Mantitheus would have actually been worse off justifying his actions by appeal to the “democratic ideals of independent thinking,” given that this eudaimonistic reasoning may sound unduly self-sufficient and confident, indeed aristocratically self-improving, in just the way he meant to avoid. Perhaps some democratic debate need not always identify the deepest or best reason for doing something.

What those best reasons for acting courageously are is explained most fully in the final chapters of Courage in the Democratic Polis. Balot reads Lysias’ “Funeral Oration” as showing how democratic Athens could resolve “the paradox of courage,” the supposed problem that of all virtues, courage looks the most self-sacrificing, and is thus the one that pries furthest apart one’s own good from that of one’s city (ch. 14). Athens did better than Sparta, Balot argues, in producing a three-pronged defense against this problem: that the flourishing of the city is dependent on the flourishing of individuals; that the individual is educated through cultural institutions; and that aretê is intrinsically worthy. In explaining the third prong, Balot takes a line familiar from Alasdair MacIntyre (ch. 15). We are each embedded in, even constituted by, a community and set of relationships, and so their good is internally our own good. Further, we can make sense of ourselves only as people working to preserve (i.e., courageously) what we care about. The Athenians regularly promulgated such narratives of a situated life and identified themselves with doers of noble deeds. Balot supports this account with an analysis of courage in Solon’s tale of Tellus (Hdt. 1.30).

In this book Balot canvasses a tremendous amount of classical Athenian literature about, and expressive of, courage, and he cites a great deal of relevant scholarship. And yet it is not easy to use his book for thinking about the definition of courage. Balot admits that he does not wish to take on the “numerous debates about the character of courage altogether,” only the historical one, but even if he does not want to enter these debates, he should at least list the Greek terms he takes as synonymous or at times contextually equivalent with andreia. He does give a provisional definition of courage, as “an intrinsically worthwhile excellence of character, on the basis of which ethical agents knowingly strive to overcome difficult, dangerous, painful, or frightening obstacles or uncertainty, with a view to achieving noble ends.” But I wonder whether the inclusion of “uncertainty” creates a too-expansive view of courage. We can see the consequences of this in Balot’s praise of Socrates. The Laches, he argues, presents a positive picture of Socrates’ courage. Socrates is in fact militarily courageous, humble about his knowledge of courage, and persistent both in his investigations about the nature of courage and in his pursuit of courage. These last two elements, his intellectual and self-therapeutic persistence, constitute “philosophical courage,” since together they manifest perseverance in the face of obstacles and difficulties. It is true that the Laches entertains “steadfastness of soul” as a definition of courage. But then in Balot’s argument courage as karteria becomes remarkably akin to sôphrosunê (“discipline,” “sound-mindedness”). Even for those accepting the unity of virtue, this is a puzzling outcome.

The differences and similarities between andreia and sôphrosunê return, in the final chapter, but with little increase in analytic clarity; Balot shifts quickly between their objects as “danger,” “suffering,” and “adversity” (ch. 16), which seem at least potentially ethically distinct. (I note that Balot makes only three passing remarks about Plato’s Protagoras; the long discussions of courage in that dialogue may have been helpful resources for the book.) A philosophical courage that is responsive to fear and danger seems in principle possible, if it is connected to the dread of having to sacrifice one’s pleasures and projects, for example, perhaps even to the extent that one loses oneself as presently constituted. But Balot does not discuss this. (We may also wonder whether Socrates’ “courage” is influenced by his purported belief not to find bodily harms bad; were he really to believe this, then he would not find military battle dreadful, and so he might not need to exercise courage to put up with it.)

Leaving aside discussion of the necessary conditions of courage has its disadvantages. We end up with a less certain grasp of Balot’s idea of political courage or any other non-militaristic versions of courage. This is especially the case when Balot claims, near the book’s end, that “we might envision courage as providing a space for rational reflection by resisting the pressures to make quick and easy decisions based on the authority of cultural paradigms.” In a similarly challenging statement, Balot argues that “in order to defend themselves, states will occasionally need the courage of bold action, but it is only the courage of steadfastness that permits adequate reflection on the question of when, where, how, why, and within what limits bold action should be undertaken.” Does this mean that courage has two parts, or two moments, or is simply two related virtues? These questions could lead to the skeptical worry that applying the term “courage” to patience, due diligence, and the confidence in rational or experiential assessment is not as productive as it may on first glance seem.

For all that, the concluding chapter makes some sober and important remarks about courage and its connection to violence. Balot remains an optimist, however, hoping that democracy remains or becomes able “to disentangle courage from bellicosity, to imagine more appropriate and self-consistent ways for courage to express itself, and to transform standards of behavior.” And it can set courage below justice, where it belongs, and find avenues for its citizens to exercise life-improving courage in non-militaristic pursuits: advocacy, sport, art, and radical thought.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010