BMCR 2001.04.13

Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness and the Impersonal Good

, Plato and the hero : courage, manliness, and the impersonal good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xvii, 280 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521417333. $59.95.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates divides the soul into three parts: the rational, spirited, and desiring elements. The presence of the so-called “spirited element” ( to thumoeides or thumos) in the Republic adds an element of complexity to Platonic psychology not found in earlier dialogues. Prior to the Republic, when the subject of psychology comes up, the human personality is usually defined in terms of a simple dichotomy between reason and desire. The prominence of the spirited element in the Republic has long posed a problem of interpretation for scholars. As Angela Hobbs points out, the spirited element or thumos is associated with a wide range of attributes not usually thought to cohere: “anger, aggression and courage; self-disgust and shame; a sense of justice, indignation and the desire for revenge; obedience to the political authorities though not necessarily to one’s father; a longing for honour, glory and worldly success; some interest in the arts but a fear of intellectualism; a preference for war over peace and increasing meanness over money” (p.3). In her thoughtful and important book, Hobbs (hereafter H.) examines Plato’s thinking on the nature of courage and manliness.

In the manner of Homeric ring-composition, H. begins and ends the book with the treatment of courage in the Republic, describing its close relationship to the spirited element of the soul, the thumos. In the middle chapters, she analyzes in detail the treatment of courage in earlier dialogues, the Laches, Protagoras, and Gorgias, and then briefly draws into the discussion the Apology, Hippias Major and Hippias Minor. H. treats the earlier dialogues in some detail in order to argue that Plato was unable properly to account for the virtue of courage as long as his psychological thinking was based on the dichotomy between reason and desire. Only in the Republic, when the autonomy of the thumos was recognized, was Plato able to provide an adequate account of the workings of courage. The Homeric ring-compositional element of the book’s structure, beginning and ending with the Republic, serves to reinforce the significant role that Homeric poetry, according to H., plays in the development of Plato’s mature psychology. Plato’s thumos emerges as a kind of “living repository of Homeric values” (p.141, n.14), an element of the soul that the philosopher wishes to harness and control through the educational scheme of the Republic. H. gives further validity to Arthur Adkins’ succinct observation, “Scratch Thrasymachus and you find Agamemnon,”1 except that Achilles rather than Agamemnon is the Homeric hero lurking behind such important and obstreperous Platonic characters as Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Alcibiades.

In Chapter 1 (“The puzzle of Plato’s thumos“) H. rightly notes that scholarship traditionally fails to do justice to the emphasis Plato puts on the thumos in the Republic (pp.3-4). Thumos is essential for the operation of courage ( andreia) (p.9), which in the early books of the dialogue is associated with “manliness” (p.13). However, thumos is not simply a raw, warlike drive; it is responsive to the educative influences of poetry and music and is partly formed by social and cultural influences, most importantly, H. argues, a society’s heroes (p.12). Indeed, the subject of proper education for the Guardians only emerges when their need for thumos is first brought up (p.11). Thumos is the natural ally of reason and may conflict with desire, the lowest of the soul’s three elements or parts (p.17). Unlike reason, however, thumos does not question appearances (p.17) and is concerned with moral issues only insofar as these relate directly to an agent’s self-image (p.19). The essence of the thumos in humans is “the need to believe that one counts for something” and central to this need is “a tendency to form an ideal image of oneself in accordance with one’s conception of the fine and noble” (p.30). The chapter closes with a consideration of how Aristotle, Nietzsche, Adler, and Freud have all valued characteristics of the human personality that Plato associates with thumos (pp.37-49).

In Chapter 2 (” Thumos, andreia, and the ethics of flourishing”) H. continues the discussion of the place of role models in Platonic ethics. Plato’s fundamental ethical starting point is the question of how one ought to live (p.50), a question that he answers in terms of how one can achieve eudaimonia (here translated as “flourishing”), which is identical with virtue ( arete, p.53). The question of how to “flourish,” though formally framed by reason, is also prompted in part by the thumos and its tendency to emulate cultural heroes (p.55). H. claims that Plato’s emphasis on role models is extremely important and largely ignored in contemporary ethical philosophy (p.59). (The voluminous writings of R. Girard on the subject of role models are strangely overlooked, though perhaps they do not count as ethical philosophy.) Role models can continue to be helpful long after reason is formed, as they appeal to the “non-rational elements” (p.60) of the soul and give to human life a shape and structure that cannot easily be discerned from within the stream of an individual’s experience (p.64). (M.M. Bakhtin’s important work on the uses of narrative to make sense of human life as it is lived from moment to moment could usefully have been brought into the discussion.) The available role models in ancient Greek culture, however, are largely ideals for young Athenian males. H. postpones until Chapter 8 a consideration of the question whether Greek culture ever allowed for the possibility of courage in women. That is, was the idea of courage ever fully disentangled from the virtue’s association with “manliness” (p.69)? H. describes this question as one of the central issues of her book (p.69). But first Chapters 3-6 step back to consider Plato’s treatment of courage in a number of earlier dialogues.

In Chapter 3 (“Arms and the man: andreia in the Laches“) H. examines one of Plato’s early treatments of courage. In the Laches, we are told, Plato wanted to disentangle the concepts of courage ( andreia) and manliness (p.78). He wished to open up the possibility of a gender-neutral form of courage in order to extend the exercise of courage beyond the martial arena to the realm of philosophy (p.96). He wanted first to attract people to philosophy by describing the discipline in traditionally “manly” terms and then later to convince them that philosophy properly befits both men and women (p.98). (Plato’s rhetorical strategy here might be described more concisely as an example of what the philosopher Charles Stevenson called the use of “persuasive definition.”2 “Persuasive definition” involves the attempt by a speaker or writer to alter the normal use of value terms in his or her own interest. Arthur Adkins first applied this concept to the study of ancient philosophy with great success.3) Three definitions of courage are offered in the Laches. Courage is first defined as a non-cognitive psychological capacity (“endurance of the soul,” p.88); secondly, as a non-cognitive psychological capacity accompanied by wisdom (“wise endurance,” p.91); thirdly, as a cognitive state alone (“knowledge of what is to be feared and dared,” pp.99-100). When read in the light of Plato’s mature psychology, the Laches implicitly demonstrates the need for the thumos. In the Republic Plato adroitly combines the second and third definitions of courage offered in the Laches, defining the courage of the Auxiliaries as “the capacity ( dunamis) to retain in all circumstances correct belief concerning what is and is not to be feared” (p.110). (We will take up below the question of whether H. is correct in viewing courage based upon correct belief as courage in the strict sense of the term.)

Chapter 4 (“Odd virtue out: courage and goodness in the Protagoras“) surveys the Protagoras but comes to the same conclusion reached through the study of the Laches : courage cannot be properly understood without a more complex account of psychic structure and motivation than Plato yet has at his disposal (p.135). Unlike Vlastos and others, however, H. wants to see the Protagoras as constituting an advance over the Laches in its representation of the nature of courage (p.117). For unlike the Laches the Protagoras offers a science of measuring pleasures and pains, represented by the hedonistic calculus (p.128), which is said to provide some insight into occasions on which the virtue of courage might be exercised. Yet, as even H. admits, it is difficult to imagine that Socrates really believes what he is saying when he identifies the good with pleasure (p.128). I find it difficult to see how the Protagoras can be thought to mark an advance in Plato’s thinking about the nature of courage.

Chapter 5 (“Why should I be good? Callicles, Thrasymachus and the egoist challenge”) primarily concerns Callicles but also draws Thrasymachus, Alcibiades, and Achilles into the discussion. All emerge as victims of ungoverned thumos. Despite being a hedonist by declaration, Callicles aspires to be well respected ( kalos k’agathos, p.137). He believes that one should emulate men who possess wealth and reputation, and thus he demonstrates an interest in ideals and role models. (H. fails to note that Achilles’ interest in role models, only briefly referred to in an early footnote [p.60, n.26], might provide a significant parallel with Callicles.) H. argues that Socrates is once again, as in the Laches, trying to rework the notion of courage as “manliness” so as to move toward the “ideal of ungendered humanity” (p.153) that will finally come to fruition in the Republic. However, Socrates will require a psychology and a sense of the meaning of human “flourishing” more sophisticated than is at hand in the Gorgias (p.162), though the dialogue’s notion that psychic order will be to an agent’s advantage clearly anticipates the psychology of the Republic (p.156).

Chapter 6 (“Heroes and role models: the Apology, Hippias Major and Hippias Minor“) is somewhat of a distraction in this otherwise clearly argued book. H. begins the chapter by showing that the old Homeric heroes like Achilles and Odysseus are still powerful influences in Classical Athens, and she rightly points out that if Plato wishes to establish Socrates as a new role model “he has competition on his hands” (p.175). She finds it “odd” (p.180), “baffling” (p.183), “puzzling” (p.185), “somewhat puzzling” (p.188), and “all very strange” (p.195) that Socrates is frequently compared to Achilles in early dialogues, yet she sheds little new light on the reasons underlying the various comparisons between the hero and the philosopher.

Chapter 7 (“The threat of Achilles”) is a gem. H. demonstrates in convincing detail that Achilles has fallen from grace in the Republic and is now depicted as “a highly undesirable role model in every way” (p.199). Achilles embodies the thumos of Republic 4, and he resembles the “timocratic” man of book 8. Diminishing Achilles’ stature emerges as part of a larger project: Plato is concerned to undermine the Iliad‘s tragic view of life. Achilles’ tragic choice between returning home and dying in battle in book 9 is predicated on the idea that an individual may sometimes be compelled to make choices between the noble (winning fame and dying in battle) and the “beneficial-in-all-other-respects” (p.211), in this case returning home. For Plato, however, “flourishing” can never be divorced from noble and virtuous action (p.218); the potential for tragedy is thereby removed from human life. H. demonstrates a clear understanding of how Achilles was viewed as the quintessential hero of both the Greeks and the Romans. This chapter should be required reading not only for philosophers but for students of Homer as well; it provides a sober corrective to much modern scholarship on the Iliad that views Achilles as somehow managing to transcend the heroic ethic at the end of his poem. (One relatively minor correction: the work of Gregory Nagy, Pietro Pucci and others undermines H.’s claim that “Achilles and Odysseus are not actually rivals in Greek mythology” [p.196].)

In Chapter 8 (“Plato’s response: the valuable as one”) H. returns to a consideration of the Republic and demonstrates that the courage ( andreia) of Achilles is thoroughly transformed by Plato “into something altogether calmer and more dependable,” a state of the soul akin to moderation ( sophrosyne, p.231). According to H., the role model for the new age would be a “suitably purified” Odysseus (p.239), Socrates himself or, given the nature of the ideal philosopher, perhaps no human role model at all is appropriate (p.240). As for the question of the relationship between courage ( andreia) and manliness, a topic early said to be a major theme of the book (p.69), H. modestly concludes that Plato probably has not reflected as much on this issue as one would wish (p.247). Who, after all, will be the role models for the Philosopher-Queens (p.248)?

Chapter 9 (“Alcibiades’ revenge: thumos in the Symposium“) makes a strong case that the explosive appearance of Alcibiades in the Symposium marks the later failure of Plato’s hopes to educate and harness the irrational in general and the thumos in particular—at least outside the context of the ideal state (p.261). A brief epilogue (“The weaver’s art: andreia in the Politicus and Laws“) concludes the book on a somber note. The Politicus and the Laws provide compelling evidence that Plato ended his life doubting the compatibility of courage ( andreia) and moderation ( sophrosyne) that is emphasized throughout the Republic. The prospects for transforming the raw drives of the thumos into true courage are not encouraging.

In a book that offers a comprehensive reading of even a single aspect of the development of Plato’s ethical theory from the early to the late dialogues, readers will find much with which to agree and disagree. One of the greatest strengths of the book arises from H.’s ability to move comfortably from an analysis of the most complex philosophical text to insightful and penetrating analyses of Greek epic poetry. Her account of the nature and significance of the thumos and its role in the cultural conglomerate Plato inherited from Homer and bequeathed to the modern world is truly insightful and impressive.

My major criticism of the book arises from the author’s thesis that the prominence of the thumos in the psychology of the Republic signals a significant change in Plato’s ideas about the essential nature of courage. True, as H. points out, the Auxiliaries of the Republic will demonstrate a “capacity ( dunamis) to retain in all circumstances correct belief concerning what is and is not to be feared” (p.110). But the Republic offers no direct support for the stronger claim that ” andreia depends upon knowledge of the Good or correct belief based on others’ knowledge…(p.233). For, as John Cooper has convincingly shown, a condition of correct belief is not sufficient for the possession of virtue in the Republic. The Auxiliaries do not possess courage, despite their correct beliefs based on the knowledge of the Guardians; they have only so-called “civic courage” ( politike andreia), not courage itself.4 Virtues like courage are purely cognitive states; they are forms of knowledge and as such reserved for the Guardians alone. Furthermore, I remain unconvinced that role models ever had the special significance in Plato’s theory of education that this book assigns to them. Role models are probably only one of a very large number of environmental factors influencing the education and development of the thumos. (Indeed, the subject of role models was probably of greater interest to Homer than to Plato.)5 Following the initial claim that Plato gives the subject of role models a central place in his ethics (p.60), H. is able to produce few examples of role models for Plato’s new age of philosophy—with the exception of Odysseus (p.239) or Socrates (p.240). Indeed, as I noted above, H. even questions whether human role models are appropriate for the philosophers of the Republic (p.240).

Despite these criticisms, I feel safe in predicting that Plato and the Hero is likely to become a standard work on Platonic psychology. My reading of Plato (and Homer) has been greatly enriched through it.


1. Arthur W.H. Adkins, Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values (Oxford, 1960) 238.

2. Charles Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven, 1944).

3. Adkins (above, n.1) 38-40.

4. John M. Cooper, “The Psychology of Justice in Plato,” in Reason and Emotion (Princeton, 1999) 140.

5. Cf. Robert J. Rabel, Plot and Point of View in the Iliad (Ann Arbor, 1997) 207-208.