Oct 22, 2014

Philosophical Courage and Temperance in Plato's Phaedo

The Phaedo, a recounting of Socrates's last conversations with his friends on his deathbed, ostensibly provided by the young man for whom the dialogue is named, includes early on in the discourse a short and startling discussion of the nature of several virtues -- courage and temperance first, and then wisdom and justice.  Plato has Socrates advance a doctrine that is entirely uncompromising, and in some respects paradoxical -- only philosophers actually possess these virtues.

As Socrates explains, everyone else is not only mistaken about the nature of these two virtues, i.e. temperance and courage -- that would not be surprising after all, given that even Socrates concedes a lack of knowledge about these in aporetic dialogues like the Laches and Charmides (or even virtue itself in the Meno!).  The "virtues" they possess, what they call and consider to be "courage" or "temperance" aren't really so.  In fact, the courage of the many (or even the non-philosopher one) is actually a kind of cowardice.  The temperance of the many really amounts to a sort of intemperance (or if you prefer more contemporary language, self-indulgence, lack of self-control).

Although there is some argument and explanation provided here by Socrates, carrying out the discussion with his interlocutors, Simmias and Cebes, it is a tantalizingly brief treatment of these matters, more suggestive than systematic.  Perhaps that is by Plato's own design -- I'm one of those who are willing to view many of the omissions, flawed arguments, hasty allusions, and partial inquiries in Plato's dialogues as invitations for us to enter into the conversation and take it further.  Still, this is one set of points upon which one might wish he had allowed Socrates to linger longer within the narrative.

How are the courage and the temperance of non-philosophers (and presumably, if he were around today, of many philosophers!) not really what they claim to be, what people take them as?  They are in some sense mistaken, illogical, atopos, as Plato's Greek says.  But why?  It has to do with the motivation for acting in a courageous manner, or in a temperate manner.  What is the reason for acting, for choosing, and perhaps even with habituation, for being that way?

Philosophical and Non-Philosophical Courage

In the case of courage for most people, Socrates argues, they withstand some kind of fear, they act in the face of danger, they expose themselves to risk for a motivation that will eventually reintroduce a fear which they do not resist, which masters them -- or rather, that fear and the non-courageous response to it, has been there all along underneath the surface appearance of courage. 

It's true that the courageous person -- if we're thinking of the paradigm case of battlefield courage (and we could extend this to other cases, e.g. policing, fire-fighting, defending friends or family against aggression or threats, even intervening against bullying) -- does stand up to the fear of something which he or she does think is a great evil, something terrible and even terrifying, death.  Socrates attributes this outlook to their love of the(ir) body, and contrasts it against love of wisdom.  And losing what one loves is indeed something that ought to scare one.

Why then, when faced with the possibility of losing what they value, what they love, what they fear for. . .  why do they take that risk, expose themselves to that danger?  It's because they love other things and fear to lose them, or to fail to get them -- wealth or reputation. This fear, in turn, predominates.  It is what the seemingly courageous person is driven by, what determines their choices, their commitments, their deeds, and the risks they run.  In fact, in terms of risk, you might say that the person who is courageous in the ordinary sense is willing to run the lesser risk precisely so that they can avoid exposing him or herself to the greater risk.

As a side-note, it's interesting that Socrates doesn't consider other possible motivations -- love for one's family or friends, for example, or a sense of patriotism, involving the sort of grateful service to one's country suggested in other dialogues, like the Crito or the Republic -- motivations that could indeed involve fear, but which would seem to be nobler, more right or just, than fear of losing (or not getting) wealth or honor.

In any case, what is going on in these cases of what most people take to be clear instances of courage?  There is courage being displayed in some sense.  But it is inconsistent, it is not really or entirely courage, because it also involves some cowardice -- giving in to the fear for one's wealth or one's reputation.  So, courage is courage by its opposite, cowardice -- it is a deeper, more motivating cowardice that causes the surface display of courage.

Philosophical and Non-Philosophical Temperance

Socrates deploys a similar dialectic with respect to the second virtue, temperance.  It too turns out, as practiced and conceptualized by non-philosophers, to involve its own opposite.  How does this happen?  Consider the sorts of matters upon which what the Greeks called "temperance" or "moderation," sophrosune, bears.  It has to do with our orientation towards bodily pleasures and the desires which we feel for such pleasures (and perhaps with the pains we feel at their lack or privation, and the aversion we feel towards such pains).

The examples Plato tends to focus on -- and here he's not particularly unusual for 4th century BC Greeks -- are three main kinds of pleasures:  those of eating, those of drinking, and those of sexual activity.  So, we have the pleasures of the palate -- eating for the taste, and eating in order to be filled.  We also have the pleasures of drinking, which in some part could be a matter of taste, even of simple satisfaction of thirst, but which also frequently have to do with intoxication, getting "buzzed."  And then we have the aphrodisia, pleasures stemming from the sexual organs, their desires, and presumably all the other stuff that comes to be associated with it (e.g. enjoying being in love, being loved).

It would not be much of a stretch to extend the scope of temperance -- or of its counterposed vice, self-indulgence -- to many other pleasures which we enjoy and pursue through our bodies.  The Greeks, at least those who could afford it, were people who were given to luxurious treatments of the body -- massages, baths, getting oiled up (so, our equivalent of facials and similar treatments).  Presumably they also enjoyed sleeping in, laying in bed, being warm and cozy when its cold, getting cooled off when it's hot, basking in the sun, and similar pleasures just as much as we still do at present.

Most people are temperate, according to Socrates, not because they recognize it as the best way for them to be, temperance being a condition and achievement valuable in itself, but rather because by developing some modicum of control over -- or at least resistance to! -- their desires for physical pleasures, they are better able to enjoy some other physical pleasures.  Put in another way, they are concerned with losing the pleasures which they value more highly, so they minimize or cut out entirely some other pleasures which they value less -- and because they display some sense of restraint with respect to these latter pleasures, they are considered to be "temperate".

Really though, they are only temperate in that respect.  In relation to the other, more highly or deeply desired pleasure, such people are really intemperate, immoderate, self-indulgent.  Plato goes further in the critique, though, along lines similar to those of the earlier discussion of courage.  The temperance of most people really involves its opposite, intemperance, as its motivating ground.  These people control themselves, their pleasures and their desires, precisely because they also lack self-control.  Intemperance is the cause for what imperfect temperance they do enjoy.

There are three kinds of cases Socrates doesn't consider, but which would be interesting to think about.  I'll just suggest them here.  One of these would be the person who is compelled to be temperate -- a servant who is not allowed to indulge, and whose life goes a lot easier and less painfully if he just abides by rules which result in relatively little enjoyment of physical pleasures.  Another would be the person who appears temperate across the entire range of possible pleasures, basically because he or she has figured out that continual enjoyment of their pleasures requires that none of them be given absolute priority over the others.  The last would be the kind of person who we nowadays call a connoisseur, whose motivation for restraint is to make possible a much fuller indulgence, though still in some senses a restricted one, of their most desired and appreciated object.

Exchange and Purification

Both courage and temperance thus turn out to be -- at least the ways most people characterize and embody them -- "irrational."  It is irrational, alogon, for courage to exist because of its opposite, cowardice, causing it.  The virtues of non-philosophers contain the vices within themselves, Socrates is telling us.  He's also outlining an explanation of why this is the case -- and while doing this, he explicitly brings in a third virtue, justice (dikaiosune), and leaves it open for any other genuine virtue (kai. . .  alethes arete) one might want to add.

Motivation, choice, and action along the lines of the virtues turns out to work like a kind of exchange, a transaction of values.  Where the non-philosopher goes wrong, and where the philosopher goes right, is a matter of what coin or currency right (or partly right) one's action is being changed for, what courage or temperance (or justice, piety, or any other virtue) is purchasing for that person.  What's on the other side of the transaction?

For the non-philosopher, it is, as Plato tells us, pleasures or pains, fears or desires -- matters of affectivity or emotion -- that are being exchanged, that are entering into the transactions, that tell us how to count the cost.  For the philosopher, it is something different, something better -- wisdom, phronesis (interesting to see Plato using this here, instead of the sophia he alternates it with elsewhere).  Wisdom -- one of Plato's four (or in some dialogues, five) principal virtues -- rightly orients all of the other virtues.

Wisdom allows the courage of the philosopher to be just courage, not some transmutation of -- not even containing a tincture of -- its opposed vice of cowardice.  Likewise, because of wisdom, the temperance of the philosopher is genuinely temperate, entirely temperate, not merely disguised or prudentially trimmed-back self-indulgence.  How precisely does wisdom do this?  On that, Plato is a bit more allusive -- and here we get to one of those intriguing passages so often enfolded into the dialogues.
[T]rue temperance and justice and courage are [each] a purgation (katharsis) from all of these [i.e. fears and desires, pleasures and pains], and wisdom itself is some kind of purification (katharmos).
It is noteworthy -- and no little commentary ink has been spilled about the fact that -- Plato sets wisdom apart from the other virtues in this passage not only by a kind of priority, but even in characterizing how it functions, using related but distinct terms -- the other virtues are katharsis, but wisdom is a kind of katharmos, clearly related to the other term or concept, but evidently not precisely the same.  Both involve some sort of purification, cleansing -- and from what?  From the affects, from the emotions, from the feelings and drives, from the play of desires and fears, the sensations and effects of pains and pleasures.

This is not just a highly intellectualist image of the virtues, but perhaps what one might call a "bloodless" perspective.  Does it fit in with, can it be reconciled with Plato's many other discussions of the virtues, in which affectcity does retain some role?  Perhaps not. . .  but that remains a matter  to be worked out in further discussions, in future posts.

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