The quote “Courage is knowing what not to fear” is often attributed to Plato, although like many quotes associated with ancient philosophers, its precise origin and context can be hard to pinpoint. Nonetheless, the statement can be interpreted within the broader framework of Plato’s philosophy, particularly his thoughts on virtues and the nature of the human soul.
Virtues and the Tripartite Soul
In works like “The Republic,” Plato outlines his theory of a tripartite soul, consisting of the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive parts. Each part of the soul is associated with a specific virtue: the rational part with wisdom, the spirited part with courage, and the appetitive part with temperance. According to Plato, a just and well-balanced soul is one where each part performs its function well and in harmony with the others.
Courage as a Virtue
In Plato’s philosophy, courage is not merely the absence of fear or the willingness to face danger; it is a more nuanced quality. Courage, associated with the spirited part of the soul, is about regulating fear and confidence correctly. In other words, it’s not just about facing fears head-on but knowing what should and shouldn’t be feared.
Knowing What Not to Fear
The quote emphasizes the discerning aspect of courage. To Plato, true courage involves a form of wisdom or knowledge. It’s about understanding the difference between right and wrong, important and unimportant, and acting accordingly. For example, a soldier who runs headlong into battle without any regard for strategy or ethics may be fearless, but he is not courageous in the Platonic sense. By contrast, a soldier who understands the stakes, who knows what is truly worth fighting for, and who acts based on this understanding is demonstrating courage.
Context in a Broader Philosophy
This nuanced understanding of courage fits into Plato’s broader philosophical aims to align the parts of the soul in a harmonious relationship, guided by reason and wisdom. Courage, in this framework, is a balanced middle ground between recklessness and cowardice. It helps the individual make ethical decisions and take appropriate actions, thereby contributing to a balanced, just soul and, by extension, a just society.
Therefore, when Plato says “Courage is knowing what not to fear,” he is emphasizing the role of intellectual and moral understanding in the virtue of courage, advocating for a form of bravery that is guided by reason and ethical discernment.