At one point or another in our lives we have all come across a phrase in the vein of: eyes like a hawk, or, as fearless as a lion.
Indeed, in the Iliad, the Trojan warrior- Hektor- was described as a fearless wild boar before being hemmed-in by foemen and struck down while rallying his army during the battle of Troy:
“As when among a pack of hounds and huntsmen assembled
a wild boar or lion turns at bay in the strength of his fury, […] the proud heart feels not terror, nor turns to run, and it is his own courage that kills him; […] such was Hektor as he went through the battle and rallied his companions” (Homer, 1951, p. 259 in; Price, C. (2019) ‘Questioning tradition’. A111: Discovering the arts and humanities. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1421785)
It is perhaps needless to say that no human being possesses the eyesight of a hawk, nor the physical prowess of a lion.
If a human being cannot possess the eyesight of a hawk, can a hawk have the human virtue of courage?
It is primarily the reasoning of Nicias that has led us to this conclusion, and while his answers may not have satisfied Socrates on the nature of courage as a virtue, it provides a compelling case for the question in this essay: on whether animals can be courageous.
Indeed, in the passages of Laches you will be hard pressed to find a compelling counter argument to his points on the subject, for several reasons that we will highlight going forward.
For us to understand how our conclusion has been reckoned, we must first see how the question at hand arises out of a higher question regarding the nature of courage.
Laches is a dialogue written by Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE), in which his former mentor and friend Socrates (469–399BC)) is one of the main characters.
In his former days Plato had been an aspiring writer of poems and plays before hearing an oration by Socrates one day. This had been a watershed moment for Plato, compelling him to devote himself to philosophy thenceforth.
Plato had a distinctive style when he wrote philosophy, in that he did not write lengthy treatises or essays, but instead wrote dialogues, that were themselves very much like plays:
“SOCRATES: Now, Nicias, tell me — or rather tell us, since Laches and I are sharing the discussion between us — your argument is that courage is knowledge of what is fearful and what is encouraging, isn’t it?
SOCRATES: And this isn’t something that everyone has — isn’t that what you said?
NICIAS: Yes, it was.” (Readings 5.5, paragraph 52–55,)
It is in this fashion that Laches, one of Plato’s many dialogues, was written. Though it is worth remembering that these dialogues are fictional, but still feature people reported to have lived at the time. They also reflect some of the philosophical concerns of the day, as noted by Price.C (Questioning Tradition, pp 235–244).
The central theme of Laches, or plot as we may call it, is the debate surrounding the nature of virtue in its relationship to the education of young men — namely, the practice of training in armour, and the virtue closest to this: courage.
Two generals are asked their advice on the matter: Laches and Nicias, who then request the arbitration of Socrates. Laches and Nicias both confidently claim to know the definition of courage, but, as it turns out both men disagree with one another.
For the sake of simplicity, we may place the generals into two camps: Laches — who believes that courage is a kind of endurance of character; and Nicias — who believes that courage is a form of in-depth knowledge regarding consequences of actions. Neither argument satisfies Socrates on the wider subject however, and ultimately the debate ends inconclusively. And is perhaps still inconclusive today.
But it is in this latter part of the dialogue that the question we are concerned with emerges. Can animals be courageous? We have leveraged the reasoning of Nicias to make a case for why they cannot be.
It is Socrates who offers up the following criticism to Nicias’s premise: that if Nicias’s assertions on courage and virtue were to hold true — that what really underpins courage is an understanding of what is right and wrong, and what is good and bad — then animals are excluded from being courageous. On the basis that they do not possess this understanding. As Nicias reasoned, even some human beings did not possess this knowledge.
This arouses Laches’s frustration, who dares Nicias to contradict the traditional belief that animals can indeed exhibit courage:
LACHES: Now let’s have an honest answer to this, Nicias. Are they wiser than us these animals we agree are courageous? Is this what you’re saying or have you the nerve to contradict everyone else and not call them courageous at all? (Readings 5.5, paragraph 59,)
Undeterred, Nicias agrees that this is what he believes.
The following points are what make Nicias’s argument on the matter so persuasive. He explains that the notions of courage they have been describing are not courage at all, but fearlessness or even foolhardiness.
Nicias’s main premise is that that just because a creature lacks fear, based on its lack of understanding of the future consequences of its actions, does not mean that it is courageous:
“Nicias: Yes, I have, Laches. Courageous is not a word I would use to describe animals or anything else that is not afraid of danger because of its own lack of understanding. I prefer fearless and foolish. Or do you suppose I call every little child courageous because it doesn’t understand and so is not afraid of anything? No. To be unafraid and to be courageous are two quite different things. Courage and foresight are, in my opinion, things possessed by a small number of people, whereas being reckless, daring, fearless and blind to the consequences is the norm for the vast majority of men, women, children and animals. So, you see, what you and others call courageous I call reckless. Courageous actions are wise actions as I have said.” (Readings 5.5, paragraph 60,)
According to Nicias, courage is knowing whether sacrificing one’s life for a moral principle or military victory is worth it. This is a compelling point, nobody going forward in Laches brings up a weighty counter against this assertion.
Another potential hole in Laches argument in favour of animals being courageous, is his interpretation of courage itself; that it is endurance of character, perseverance in the face of danger we may say:
“Laches: well now, it seems to me that courage is a sort of endurance in one’s character If I had to say what it is in every case” (reading 5.3, paragraph 31)
But what if that endurance were used for the wrong purpose? In pursuing that which is considered bad for instance, would it still be regarded as courage?
Socrates raises this contradiction; that Laches surely could not consider every act of endurance as a display of courage- Laches is subsequently persuaded by Socrates that all acts of courage are admirable- thus contradicting Laches’ initial premise, and further contradicting the notion that animals can be courageous.
However, there are reproaches we could consider regarding Nicias’s arguments; one such criticism being brought up by John Weaver (2019, Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University) in his interview with Carolyn price. John brings up a that there are many kinds of animals, for instance goldfish are nothing like dolphins. And there are definite instances where animals, like horses or dogs; while not being extremely intelligent; do display something resembling courage.
So that in essence there could be differing degrees of courage, depending on the animal, perhaps, but this is hard to evaluate.
As we saw in the extract from the Iliad at the beginning of this essay, the notion that animals can be courageous has a long tradition and is by no means confined to the ancient world. We get the impression that Laches opinion stems from this long tradition and is unused to giving it a rational examination, hence his frustration with Nicias.
Plato, like his mentor Socrates before him, and Nicias in Laches, challenged and rejected traditional beliefs’ and held them up to scrutiny. It is for this cause, that Socrates was sentenced to death: for corrupting youth and unfaithfulness to the gods.
He is purported to have challenged tradition even at the moment of his sentencing, where he may have been expected to repent in order save himself.
The bearing with which Socrates faced his death could almost be proof itself that animals cannot be courageous. Or was it simply foolish endurance? As it was with Hektor; akin to a wild boar, his own courage or lack of fear; being his undoing. Word count: 1483
Price, C. (2019) ‘Questioning tradition’. A111: Discovering the arts and humanities. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1421785 (Accessed: 17 June 2019).
Price, C. (2019) ‘Questioning tradition’, in Hughes, J. (ed.) Traditions. Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 193–246.
Price, C. (2019) citing: Homer (1951) Iliad. Translated by R. Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Open University (2019) ‘Audio 6, interview with Jonathan Webber’ [Audio]. ‘Questioning tradition’. A111: Discovering the arts and humanities. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1421785 (Accessed: 17 June 2019).
Price, C. (2019) citing: Readings 5.1–5.4 Plato (1903) Platonis opera vol. III. Edited by john burnet. Reprint, oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. Translated by Carolyn Price.