Having the Courage to Escape

The following article is one of many published in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.

By Steven Chen

We sometimes escape from a situation because we cannot endure it or do not want to remain in it—we run away. In Socratic accounts of courage, one important feature of courage is that it is a kind of endurance—endurance of fear and holding on to one’s place in the face of fear. For instance, in Laches 192c, Laches argues that courage is a kind of endurance of the soul. Interestingly, however, in Phaedo, Socrates gives an account of courage in passing where courage appears to be an escape from fear—the opposite of resistance and endurance. In this short essay, I will reconstruct Socrates’ counterintuitive argument in Phaedo that courage is actually a kind of cowardice—it is running away from fear.

But first just to provide some background on Socrates’ argument in Phaedo: Socrates distinguishes two kinds of virtue, that of “most people,” i.e., non-philosophers, and that of philosophers. He wants to show that philosophers’ virtues are rational, sound, and reliable because philosophers’ virtue are based on knowledge, whereas non-philosophers’ virtues are without soundness, ruled by passions, and sometimes even illogical.

One example of illogical virtues Socrates gives is non-philosophers’ courage. The argument lies in an exchange between Socrates and Simmias, which is just a couple of lines.

SOCRATES: If you are willing to reflect on the courage and moderation of other people, you will find them strange.

SIMMIAS: In what way, Socrates?

SOCRATES: You know that they all consider death a great evil?

SIMMIAS: Definitely.

SOCRATES: And the brave among them face death, when they do, for fear of greater evils?

SIMMIAS: That is so.

SOCRATES: Therefore, it is fear and terror that make all men brave, except the philosophers. Yet it is illogical to be brave through fear and cowardice.

SIMMIAS: It certainly is. (Phaedo, 68d-68e)

Let’s consider this argument in the paradigmatic case of courage in Socratic dialogues—a soldier’s holding to his place on the battlefield. A courageous non-philosopher soldier believes (or knows) that he is in danger of death if he stays on the battlefield and fight, and he considers death as a great evil. The expectation of incoming evil, then, creates fear, which pulls the soldier to run away. However, the soldier endures because running away will bring about a greater evil and hence generates greater fear.

One problem here is that Simmias seems to be too receptive to Socrates’ argument, assenting to everything he says without asking for clarifications, so we do not know what kind of “greater evils” Socrates have in mind. The “greater evils” could be, for instance, losing honor and being seen as coward. This interpretation would be consistent with Socrates’ frequent quotation of Homer in discussing courage (see, for instance, Laches and Protagoras). In The Iliad and The Odyssey, rhetoric of honor and shame is frequently used by characters to discourage soldiers from escaping and motivate them to endure fear and fight. But in this interpretation, the courage of non-philosopher does not seem noble enough to be a virtue because it is simply chasing fame and honor. When virtue is not the end but becomes a means to attain something else, it is no longer virtue. But let’s not forget Socrates’ main project in this part of Phaedo: Socrates is not saying that non-philosophers’ courage is actually not courage, but that it is an appearance of true courage and needs purification of knowledge (Phaedo, 69b). Interpreting “greater evils” as losing honor would render the scenario not even an appearance of courage.

A more charitable interpretation of “great evils”, I think, would be something like “losing one’s country” or “death of his family and comrades.” As much as the courageous soldier fears death, he fears losing his country or his family more, and therefore he holds his ground in the battlefield. In this interpretation, the courage of non-philosopher does not lose its noble character. The soldier is more afraid of running away and consequently causing his country harm, and hence he chooses what he fears less i.e. fighting and facing death. And now we see the problem Socrates wants to point out: the courageous soldier is actually escaping from something he fears more. Courage is a form of escape from fear, rather than endurance.

One (Aristotelian) response to Socrates’ argument might be that his description does not necessarily fit the phenomenological experience of acting courageously. It might be true that a courageous soldier does fear the loss of his country or the death of his comrades, and having these fears is an indication of his grasping the noble values: loving one’s country and comrades. But it is not necessary that he experiences these fears on the battlefield at the moment of fighting—he might simply aiming at the noble cause of defending his country and comrades, which, contrary to fear, inspires confidence. So a courageous soldier is not weighing two fears and the running away from the greater fear, but experiencing some fear and some confidence (For Aristotle, the one that experience two fears is not courageous; according to him, a courageous person must have the appropriate amount of fear and confidence). But for Socrates, this response at most exclude that part of Aristotelian courageous people, those who feel both fear and confidence, but Socrates’ argument still applies to the rest of those who feel two fears.

So far I do not see many discussions on this exchange in Phaedo, probably because Socrates is not actually talking about courage or moderation here but only about his intellectualism, or more likely because Aristotle’ virtue ethics simply avoids this idea. But I think Socrates’ argument still sheds some interesting light on our understanding of courage and an interesting idea about escape: running away could be a form of courage.

One thought

  1. From my personal perspective and experience, the argument is inherently flawed. I never particularly feared death, especially while in combat. Nor too did my brothers around, or so it seemed at least.

    No, my experiences tell me that the fear of death, for those that have it, comes more and more strongly when not in battle. It’s the quiet times, especially those leading up to deployment in the AO when fear starts whispering in your mind the loudest.

    And that is when courage is shown or not. Then, courage cannot exist in the absence of fear since courage is nothing but the conscious rejection of fear’s whispers.

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