What is political virtue?

Apologies for the long hiatus again. Cambridge terms move very swiftly!

I’m beginning to sketch out my thoughts on a paper on intellectualism and moral education in Plato’s Protagoras and Republic. One of my motivating questions is why Socrates in the latter dialogue adopts for the guards’ early training so many features of the cultural education described by Protagoras in the former. Here’s a question that came up in comparing the two accounts: Where does the notion of political virtue or the virtue of the citizen (politikē aretē) in these dialogues originate?

When Protagoras sets out to defend the thesis that virtue can be taught (indeed, he tries to show that virtue must in fact be successfully taught wherever political communities exist), he refers, as Socrates does, to political virtue. In the rest of the Protagoras, it seems as though Socrates is out to show (implicitly) that whatever the state is of well-habituated people in a decent city, it can’t be virtue; for virtue consists in a systematic knowledge of goods and ills. A bit further on after the description of the guards’ education in the Republic, we are told that their education results in a specifically political kind of courage (IV, 430c). A natural assumption in the context of the rest of the Republic is that courage without qualification is to be found only among the rulers, who possess wisdom. But even in this passage, there is some question about whether Socrates is actually attributing political courage to the auxiliaries, or whether the description “political courage” applies instead to the city, which is made courageous by the preservation of a belief by the auxiliaries (indeed, a not unimpossible translation of politikē andreia is “courage belonging to the city”). After all, we are told we must wait for a fuller account of courage itself. But if Socrates is only discussing the city’s virtues in this passage, then this seems both to disregard that we’ve already been told in Book III that the early education of the guards makes them moderate and courageous and also that in his discussion of moderation in Book IV, he seems to start from facts about moderation in an individual in order to find moderation in the city, rather than the other way around. It may also be useful to keep Phaedo 80a-c in mind, where Socrates refers to the virtues of non-philosophers as “demotic and political”, but no less a guarantor of happiness; such people are reincarnated among one of the social animals or in decent people (andres metrioi).

So that brings us back to my question: do we have any evidence in Greek thought prior or contemporary to Plato [1] about what “political virtue” might mean, and can we use that evidence to adjudicate among these different views about what Socrates means in the Republic by it?

[1] Some very quick TLG’ing turns up one use of politikē aretē in Xenophon (Lac. Pol. 10), but I can’t help but think there must be 5th c. antecessors of the concept, if not the precise collocation.

    • djr
    • November 4th, 2010

    I don’t know off-hand of any prior or contemporary usages of the phrase, but it may not be entirely vain to compare Aristotle’s use of the phrase in NE 3.8. In that chapter he identifies five forms of courage that do not amount to courage in the unqualified sense. The first is political courage, which, he says, most closely resembles real courage. What distinguishes it is the agent’s motivation: “citizens are thought to face dangers on account of the penalties that stem from the laws as well as the reproaches, and on account of the honors. That’s why they are thought to be most courageous among those by whom cowards are held in dishonor and courageous people are honored.” (1116a18-21) This motive contrasts with that of courage proper: the courageous person “makes his choice and faces [terrifying things] because it is fine or because it is shameful not to” (3.7 1116a11-12). A genuinely courageous person acts because his action is required by the situation, and to fail to face the danger would be to fail to act well. The politically courageous, in contrast, face the dangers, but only because of the consequences imposed by others in their political community. As a point of Aristotelian ethics, this passage shows that an agent’s consideration of what is fine or shameful in action is not reducible to concerns with other people’s attitudes towards him. For purposes of comparison with Plato, however, the important point to note is that the force of the “political” qualification is to tag the agents’ willingness to act as determined by other people’s attitudes.

    Of course, Aristotle’s usage has little evidential value for reading Plato, though I suppose one might argue that since Aristotle’s use of the phrase likely owes its origins to Plato, it is also likely that he uses it in the same way. But there would seem to be some good reasons to suspect that Plato has the same thought in mind. If what makes the auxiliaries’ courage ‘political’ rather than full-blown is their lack of knowledge, and if, without knowledge, agents are liable to be driven by their emotions rather than by their rational judgments of how one should act, then their ability to act as a courageous person would act will depend on their emotional motivations. Since thumos has much to do with emotions of self-assessment, and honor and shame are emotions of self-assessment par excellence, then it would seem that anyone who doesn’t have knowledge will only reliably act as a courageous person would act if his concern for honor and shame directs him that way. Even if those emotions need to be internalized to be effective, these emotions are not typically entirely divorced from the external expressions of honor and shame in one’s community. In short, the psychology of Rep. IV seems to point in the direction of a sort of courage without knowledge that is motivated by these sorts of concern. There might be an important difference between Aristotle’s account and Plato’s, since Aristotle apparently treats political courage as motivated entirely by other people’s attitudes towards us, but allows internalized shame, at least, a role in the genuinely courageous person’s motivation. But then, there will be other differences, too, having to do with the role of knowledge.

    I’m not sure if that helps at all, but it seems at least worth thinking about.

      • Dhananjay
      • November 5th, 2010

      That does help. I think what you outlined on political courage is essentially the view that Irwin proposes in ch. 14 of Plato’s Ethics. The larger aim of that chapter is to show that Socrates’ various comments in the Republic don’t amount to a rejection of the view that knowledge is necessary (and indeed, sufficient) for virtue. Adam’s commentary is the source of the suggestion that πολιτικὴ ἀνδρεία might refer to the city’s courage rather than a lesser form of courage possessed by the auxiliaries themselves, a point which would also be congenial to Irwin’s view.

      On a slightly different note, another 4th c. source for πολιτικὴ ἀρετή perhaps worth considering is Aeschines in Ctes., which uses it twice. The speech dates, I think, to 330, which is roughly contemporary with Aristotle.

    • djr
    • November 5th, 2010

    I’m intrigued but skeptical of Adam’s suggestion. On the one hand, I can see what its motivation might be. On the other, in addition to the problems you raise, it seems as though the education that Socrates describes just does make the auxiliaries capable of acting as courageous people would act, at least when the proper course of action is fairly apparent. So even if Socrates’ use of the phrase ‘political courage’ is intended to ascribe courage to the city, we still need to account for what makes that possible and how. Any reason to suspect that Irwin is mistaken?

    As an answer to your original question, though, even if knowledge is still sufficient for happiness, surely proper habituation is necessary for knowledge, or at least for the attainment of the sort of knowledge that would be sufficient. No? If so, would that be enough to answer your question about why Socrates’ educational program for the auxiliaries resembles Protagoras’?

    I really will get back to you on parts and wholes in the Politics soon. I’ve been taking a few days of downtime after finishing a draft of what might or might not be a chapter, depending on how much of it Steve crosses out. But now I’m back to work.

    • djr
    • November 5th, 2010

    For ‘sufficient for happiness,’ read, of course, ‘sufficient for virtue.’ Same difference.

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