I’m a classics guy, so the ancient Greeks and Romans inform a lot of my ideas about what manliness means, particularly in regards to the way they equated manliness with living a life of virtue. One of the best books that I’ve come across on how the Greeks saw manliness as intertwined with virtue is by professor of philosophy Angela Hobbs. In Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness, and the Impersonal Good, Hobbs goes into detail clarifying Greek concepts related to manliness, including the wild, Homeric virtues of andreia (courage), thumos (spiritedness), and time (honor). Today on the show, professor Hobbs and I discuss these ancient notions of masculinity in detail as well why the philosopher Plato felt uneasy about them. We then talk about how much of Plato’s philosophy was about tempering these virtues so that they can be harnessed for the greater good of society and how that’s influenced our notions of masculinity today.
- The Homeric values of ancient Greece
- What the Greeks thought it took to be a “real man”
- Why thumos was necessary for manliness
- Why the Ancient Greeks believed honor was vital for manliness
- How andreia (manliness/courage) turned from a concept exclusively for men to a concept that could be used with women
- Did internal motivations matter to the Greeks when it came to having courage?
- The intersection of skill and courage in the minds of Ancient Greek warriors
- How Plato thought Greek society could tame thumos for the greater good
- Plato’s “political manliness”
- The importance of role models in Plato’s aim to create an ideal of “political manliness”
- Did Plato think women could display andreia?
- What would Plato think about today’s political atmosphere?
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- The Meno
- The Iliad
- The Odyssey
- Got Thumos?
- Our series on manly honor
- My podcast with Carlin Barton about Roman Honor
- Courage vs Boldness
- The 3 P’s of Manhood
- Electra by Sophocles
- Achilles and Hector: Two Paths to Manhood
- The Laches
- The Republic
- My podcast with Ted Lendon on how the ghosts of tradition inspired ancient Greek military might
- A Primer on Plato’s Philosophy
- Sigmund Freud
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- The Gorgias
If you’d like to dig deep into the concept of Greek manliness, you won’t find a better book on the topic. I’ve read a lot about thumos and Hobbs does the best job describing this important Greek concept. Plato and the Hero is a bit spendy for a book, but the amount of intellectual grist contained in it makes it well worth the price.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. I’m a classics guy. It’s what I studied in college. The ancient Greek and Romans inform a lot of my ideas about what manliness means, particularly in regards to the way they equated manliness with living a life of virtue. One of the best books that I’ve come across on how the Greeks saw manliness as intertwined with virtue is by professor of philosophy Angela Hobbs. In her book, Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness and the Impersonal Good, Hobbs goes into detail clarifying Greek concepts related to manliness, including the wild Homeric virtues of andreia, that’s courage, thumos, spiritedness, and tîmê, that’s honor.
Today on the show, Professor Hobbs and I discuss these ancient notions of masculinity in detail, as well as why the philosopher Plato felt uneasy about them. We then talk about how a lot of what Plato’s philosophy was trying to accomplish was tempering these virtues so they can be harnessed for the greater good of society and how that’s influenced our notions of masculinity today. A really fascinating show. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/hobbs, that’s hobbs with two Bs.
Professor Angie Hobbs, welcome to the show.
Angie Hobbs: Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a great pleasure to be here.
Brett McKay: So, you’re a philosopher and the book of yours that I’ve read and I’ve really enjoyed is called Plato and the Hero. The reason why I liked it, I’m a classics guy, that’s what I studied in college, and sort of the idea of masculinity that we’re trying to promote here on the Art of Manliness takes a lot of cues from the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans. In the book, you argue that Plato was somewhat ambivalent about the Homeric values that had guided ancient Greece and that all of his works, the Republic, all the dialogues, those were an attempt to temper or at least accommodate these sort of barbaric values to something more rational and refined. Before we get into the specifics of how he did this, let’s talk about these Homeric values. What were that and what did they look like in action?
Angie Hobbs: Yes, I’m not sure if barbaric is quite the right word, but certainly, they comprised a set of values which Plato thought needed to be interrogated. The key quality that the Homeric male was striving to achieve was arete, excellence. It combined intellectual, emotional, and physical qualities. For Homer, and for many of the writers after him before Plato’s, time your excellence was very much geared to your social role. It depended on whether you were male or female. Whether you were a master or a slave. Young or old. Rich or poor and so on. So, gender, class, age are crucial to what kind of qualities and behaviors you should be exhibiting.
A really lovely summing up of this Homeric ethos we actually find in an early Platonic dialogue called the Meno where one of the characters whom Socrates is interrogating, Meno himself who’s an aristocratic young man, and Socrates says to him, “What is arethere?” And Meno gives a Homeric response. He says, “Oh, it’s no difficulty about saying what arethere is. If it’s a man’s arethere you’re after, that’s knowing how to run his affairs capably and to stand up for himself and his family and sort of ward off his enemies and support his friends. And if it’s a woman’s virtue you’re after that’s in terms of running her house well and being obedient to her husband.” So, very gender and class oriented. As we’ll see later, Plato is going to hugely interrogate that. But that’s the basic idea in Homer.
If you’re a man in Homer, then it’s really crucial that you fulfill your manly duty of being excellent on a battlefield. What will that involve? It will involve physical strength, speed, skill at fighting, and of course, the kinds of qualities that make up what we would call courage. Some preeminent Homeric heroes who display these qualities, Achilles would be one, Odysseus would be another, and again we’re going to find out how Plato interrogates those role models and incorporates the best of them and discards what he regards as the worst of them.
There is this very strong notion of what it is to be a “real man” and preeminently you’re going to be good at fighting. You’re going to be strong. You’re going to be skilled, and you’re going to be brave. You’ve got the Homeric hero. He’s being brave. Homer uses various words for that. Absolutely key to whether you can be brave or not is whether you possess what Homer calls thumos. This is a really interesting word and it has both physical and spiritual connotations. Initially, it appears to have meant the breath viewed as a warm moist vapor which arises out of the boiling of the blood around your heart and lungs, but very quickly this physical breath and this physical boiling of the blood come to be seen as your life force. Your mettle. A certain spiritedness which is absolutely requisite if you’re going to be brave. The Homeric hero, the brave, able, strong Homeric hero, must have a very large quantity of this stuff called thumos. This breath, this life force, this raw drive or energy which is going to power his effectiveness on the battlefield.
Brett McKay: Related to thumos is this concept of honor, or I think the Greek is tîmê? Time? What role did tîmê or time play in the ancient Greek conceptions of andreia or manliness?
Angie Hobbs: Again, in Homer, tîmê is absolutely crucial to the hero’s sense of himself, what he wants above everything else is honor and glory. He wants to be respected and honored by those around him and that is required for his own sense of self-respect. It’s very much about how you … What is your status in the world? How do you feel you count in the world? What do you need to do to get honor? Well, the easiest thing is to do whatever your society already honors. It can appear that an honor-based ethos, at first sight, looks as if it might be quite conservative. It might encourage the repetition of established patterns of behavior which have been proven to win honor from your peer group in the past, your society in the past. That is one of the things Plato’s going to get to grips with.
We have this society based on notions of courage, a particular conception of manliness, which is aimed at honor and excellent behavior preeminently shown on the battlefield.
Brett McKay: So, the thumos was sort of the driving force that propelled a man to seek out-
Angie Hobbs: Exactly. Exactly. And sometimes Homer seems to use it to mean something very like boldness or courage itself. Later than Homer, but before Plato, so sometime in the middle of the 5th century BC, we get the arrival on the scene of the arrival of this word andreia, which literally means manliness. It means the qualities and behaviors suitable, appropriate for a man to display.
What is the most important quality for a man to display at this time? Well, the qualities needed for him to perform his main social duty of defending his society and his family in times of war. Your main manly qualities, again, going to be those which make you effective at fighting, back to our physical strength, our skill, our speed, how to use weapons, and so on, the knowledge of how to use weapons, but above all your courage. And, as we’ve seen, having courage will require this thumos, this sort of spirited mettle which is the engine force of your courage which propels you forward.
Again, at some point in the 5th century, though andreia literally means manliness, it came almost to be a shorthand for courage, and it is the most usual word for courage at this time. Which of course means that if you’re trying to describe a courageous woman, it’s very difficult to do that without calling her manly. We’ve got this very kind of complicated interweaving of ideas. A lot of the writers before Plato are aware of this and bring out these ambiguities in this word andreia, particularly when they’re talking about courageous women, because they can’t really do that without making some kind of comment, whether it’s favorable, wow, look a woman can be as courageous as a man, we seem to get that in Herodotus, a historian writing in the middle of the 5th century BC.
We also get critiques of women exhibiting Andreia before Plato. A very famous example would be in the tragic poet Sophocles, writing in the 5th century BC in his play Electra, where Electra is trying to avenge the slaughter of her father, Agamemnon, who was slaughtered by her mother’s lover, Aegisthus, in league with her mother, Clytemnestra. Electra is trying to persuade her sister, Chrysothemis, to help her slay Aegisthus to avenge their father Agamemnon. Electra says, “If we do this, everybody’s going to praise us for our andreia.” She presumably just means her courage, but Chrysothemis picks up on the root meaning of the word and says, “No, no, no. It is not appropriate for women to display andreia. It’s not appropriate for women to pick up arms.” There you get the playwright, Sophocles, very knowingly and in a very interesting way exploring the ambiguities of this word andreia, the best word he’s got available for courage, but of course, literally meaning manliness, all those sort of gendered expectations built in.
That’s what Plato has inherited, a notion of virtue and moral excellence which is very aligned to particular social roles, particularly as depended by gender and class, and the idea that the preeminent male virtue is going to be courage to such an extent that the word for courage is literally this word andreia, meaning manliness, and all of the consequent ambiguities of what happens when you want to talk about women being courageous. Is it appropriate for women to be courageous? That’s the really complicated mix of ideas that Plato has inherited.
Brett McKay: Before we get into how Plato explores these ambiguities with his works, particularly in the Republic, let’s talk about courage more. One of the things I love about Greek culture, ancient Greek culture, is they have these words like thumos, that it’s a very simple word, but there’s this complex and very rich meaning, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what they’re talking about. I think the same thing goes with courage. As you explained, there’s a lot of ambiguity with it. I’m curious about the concept of courage. How the Greeks perceived courage. It was an honor-based culture and usually, an honor based culture’s outward displays are more important that internal motivations. Was that the case with the Greeks? Did internal motivations matter in determining whether one was courageous or had andreia?
Angie Hobbs: That’s such an interesting question and I don’t think classical scholars would agree on an answer to that, because certainly at times it looks as if a display of courage in Homer, for instance, is all about the actions, as you say. It’s all about the behaviors. Indeed, in the plural to andreia, that means your daring exploits on a battlefield. However, the Greeks, way back as far as Homer, were very aware that those kind of exploits, those kinds of actions, were much more likely to happen if they stemmed from the right kind of emotional drive. I think, my view is that they were very interested in the kinds of inner quality, the kinds of psychological quality that were required to bring about these tough actions, which either required the endurance of pain or death or, at the very least, the risk of enduring pain or death. I would say that they’re always aware of the importance of a capacity for endurance, perseverance, this kind of raw spirited mettle that we’ve talked about as being embodied in this concept of thumos.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting too in terms of courage and how the Greeks rated or judged the courage of someone. You talk about this in your book that this idea of techne or skill. We think of increasing your skill is awesome. It makes you more powerful, more competent, but the Greeks thought that if you had increased skill it actually reduced your ability to claim andreia in the battlefield. Can you explain sort of the intersection of skill and courage for the ancient Greeks?
Angie Hobbs: Okay. Well, I think it varies very much on the writer, because there’s no question that some hero like Achilles is highly skilled and is also regarded as very courageous. So, I’m not sure if Homer sees there as being a tension between skill and courage.
However, you’re absolutely right that there was a debate, and it’s particularly picked up in an early dialogue of Plato’s called the Laches in which two generals, two old retired generals are discussing what kind of education is best for a young man and what kind of training is most likely to result in manly excellent courageous behavior on the part of the young man. They particularly ask about this notion of skill as a new technique of fighting in armor required for the new kind of battle formation, a new kind of hook like battle formation, where instead of being in a chariot or on foot and dashing around a battlefield, you stand in line and you hold your post, and you protect the man on your left and your right. That’s a new way of fighting. A non-Homeric way of fighting which is requiring new kinds of skills and the skill of fighting in armor is preeminent.
There is a really interesting debate about whether it’s … But if you fight and are very skilled and that reduces the risk, does that mean that you’re less courageous? The question is what’s the relationship between courage and risk? That’s what’s really at the heart of the question about the relationship between courage and skill. Is it the case that the more risky the enterprise, the more courageous the action? Certainly, Plato raises the possibility that no, there is no direction correlation between risk and courage, because, in certain circumstance, a very risky action might be just utterly hopeless and foolhardy and reckless and not likely to achieve anything positive at all, not even for the people you’re trying to protect. In which case, taking the risk, how can that be seen as courageous rather than just reckless stupidity? So, Plato wants to make a distinction between courage, which is always good in his mind, and boldness which could be good or bad.
On the other hand, if you have no risk whatsoever of suffering any kind of pain or harm, then he would agree that action can’t be courageous. You’ve got to be enduring or risking enduring some kind of suffering for an action to count as courageous. If you’re so skilled that it makes the situation completely safe, then that action can’t count as courageous. Plato comes up, I think, with a really interesting solution. I say a solution, it’s an idea that’s explored in the dialogue, as ever he never gives us a very clear answer about what he thinks himself because he wants us to think about these issues for ourselves. I think he thinks, yes, no risk at all can’t be courageous, but if you are skilled that actually will increase your chances of performing a courageous action in two ways.
One, it will make you more likely to enter into the fray in the first place if you know there is a reasonable chance you could achieve something good. You may not save your own life, but there’s a reasonable chance that you can help protect your people. Two, the fact that you’re skilled, because it gives you some reasonable hope of achieving some of your aims in the fighting, then that skill is what makes the difference between an act counting as courageous and an act counting as simply reckless folly, which is not going to help you or your people or anybody in the world.
What Plato does, I think, is say we can train for courage. We can train to make it more likely that when the challenge comes, when the crisis calls, when our country calls for us, it will be more likely that we’ll take up that challenge.
I think the notion that a skill in itself doesn’t make your courageous, but a skill can make it more likely that you will act courageously when danger occurs. That there is preparatory work that you can do in order to be courageous. I think that’s a really interesting idea to explore.
Brett McKay: That is interesting.
We’ve sort of laid out what manliness meant for the ancient Greeks, the Homeric inheritance. It meant courage. It meant seeking honor or glory. You were powered by this thumos, this spiritedness. By the same time, as we’ve said earlier, Plato was a little ambivalent about this. I think you alluded to why, because the concept of andreia was … It could be applied to women, but how can a woman be manly? I’m sure that kind of confused ancient Greeks. Was that part of the reason why Plato was sort of, he felt like these masculine virtues needed to be interrogated more, or that he was ambivalent about that he needed to explore further?
Angie Hobbs: He’s certainly very interested in exploring the genders. I’ll come back to that in a few moments. His first issue is this notion of thumos. This raw drive which is required for courage. It’s the engine room of courage, but left unguided by reason, left to its own devices it’s very very dangerous. It can take people in good or bad directions. It can give rise to enormous anger and rage and bloodthirtiness, which might be useful if directed against the right enemies, but of course, can be hugely damaging if directed against your own side, your own friends or your allies. In some cases, it might even eat you up. It might be self-directed.
Plato has this dilemma on his hands. He’s got this thumos, this raw drive, which he needs, but he’s got to somehow curb it, harness it, utilize its forces for good. That’s his main aim in the early education section of the Republic in books two and three of the Republic, when he’s laying out an education system for the young auxiliaries who are going to be the fighting force in his ideally just state. Everything is geared to getting the correct balance in the education of thumos. It’s toned up enough that it can inspire you to be courageous when needed. It mustn’t be slack, but at the same time, it’s got to be something that is answerable to reason. It can be guided by reason and it can select and understand who the true enemies are and who the true friends are, so it doesn’t attack the wrong people.
Plato devices a really interesting mix of physical education, but also what he calls musika, a cultural education. Not just music, though music is included, but in literature and the arts generally to tone down the rougher aspects. It’s at this stage that we get him really interrogating the epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey left by Homer and asking questions about the role models in them and whether censorship is needed and whether these role models need reworking for the kind of ideally just state that he’s trying to build. He’s saying how do we get the energy from thumos without the untrammeled aggression and indiscriminate bloodthirstiness? How do we get the right balance between courage and risk?
He says that his definition of what he calls political andreia, political manliness, by which he means the kind of manliness and courage appropriate within the polis, within the city-state, within a civilized context. He says the aim is to dye, d-y-e, the young trainee soldiers in the correct notions of what is and is not to be feared. As if you’re kind of immersing them in a sort of fleece, immersing a fleece in a vat of dye to color it. He wants them absolutely impregnated with the correct beliefs about what is and is not to be feared so they will never think twice. They will just automatically do the right thing.
The only thing that is to be feared is moral shame, moral turpitude and a dishonorable sort of cowardly death. The only thing that is shameful is more dishonor. Once you realize that physical death isn’t to be feared, that physical pain is not to be feared in itself, the only thing that is to be feared is your moral wrongdoing, then Plato thinks you’ve got the right basis for exhibiting true courage, courage that will be helpful to your community, rather than a wild rash boldness that might sometimes help your community, that might often harm it.
Brett McKay: It sounds like the Homeric values are very personal. It’s all about personal glory. I’m doing this for myself. It sounds like Plato was trying to take that same energy, that same drive, and direct it to the greater good. Would that be a correct statement?
Angie Hobbs: Yes, I think that’s a very astute comment. It is very clear, if you read the Iliad, that Achilles is very driven by both personal glory, his quest for glory, and also for his love for particular friends such as his beloved Patroclus, who later is portrayed as his lover, though not in Homer himself. In Homer, they’re very close friends, they’re not lovers.
But Achilles’ motivations, as you say, are always personal. There are certain notions, however, in Homer, that this is one of the things that Achilles should be critiqued for, that he’s not a team player. When he kind of abandons the battlefield, and goes off and sulks in his tent because he feels his leader Agamemnon has not given him sufficient honor, Agamemnon has taken away Achilles’ mistress, and Achilles takes this as a personal slight. He’s not being rewarded properly for his courage and he goes off and sulks and refuses to fight for a bit. An embassy of the other Greek fighters go to his tent to try to persuade him to rejoin the team. There was, certainly, a debate in Homer about what your real motivation should be.
Plato, certainly, expands that debate and says absolutely you should regard yourself as a part of a greater whole. There is a passage in the Republic, a literally totalitarian passage, in which to summarize, he’s sort of trying to get rid of the adjectives I and my and replace them with we and our. He says that we are all sort of the parts of the state as if we were a finger or a toe as a part of the body. This is the idea that everything you do should be ultimately motivated by how it serves your community as a whole. That’s how you should see your place in the world. There are roots of that idea in Homer and in other earlier writers, but Plato really develops that.
Brett McKay: You mentioned role models were very important to Plato in making his case. We just mentioned Achilles. I guess, Achilles for Plato would be an example of what not to do. Right?
Angie Hobbs: To some extent. I mean, he has this interrogation of and fascination with Achilles throughout much of his early and middle work. He comes back to Achilles again and again and he clearly finds Achilles very charismatic and glamorous as, indeed, he is. He is the most glamorous of the Greek warriors. Plato certainly doesn’t want to dismiss everything about Achilles. That embodiment of the life force and vital energy that is Achilles, Plato wants to harness that. But he’s certainly very critical of his wild bloodthirstiness, of his extremely destructive anger. Destructive both to himself and to the other Greek fighters. He’s critical of his insubordination, both to his commander Agamemnon and to the gods, because, as you remember, in the Iliad Achilles even challenges and lambastes the gods on occasions. He’s really a real force of nature.
Plato wants to harness the energy, but turn it into much more constructive channels. What he does with Achilles, and also with Odysseus, another very famous Greek fighter, famous for his endurance of all sufferings and his ability, finally, to make it home to Ithaca, but also cunning, wily, untrustworthy. So, again, not a perfect role model. What Plato does with both of those is to rework them and remodel them and keep the best bits and, in a way, try to put the best bits together into a new model which is his version of the historical Socrates, who was Plato’s mentor and friend. Who didn’t write anything himself, but tramped around Athens discussing philosophy with anybody who would listen and quite a few who wouldn’t. And was put to death by the Athenian democracy in 399 BC, allegedly for corrupting the young and introducing new gods into the city-state, though it was probably more of a political show trial.
Plato doesn’t want to just get rid of Homer and the Homeric role models, because he can see people’s fascination for the. He knows that the young men he’s trying to educate are intrigued by them and these heroes. He wants to utilize that, but he wants to remodel them and rework them. He wants to explore questions about does andreia, does this manliness and courage, can it only be displayed on a battlefield? Can it not be displayed in peace time, in civilian life? Could not a philosopher, a thinker, a writer be just as courageous as a military warrior? Is not Socrates a paradigm of courage in sticking to his philosophical beliefs all his life, even when eventually he gets put to death for standing up for philosophy?
Plato is trying to extend the field of andreia, of courage and manliness, into other areas that the military ones. Plato also wants to question whether andreia courage is specifically male. His answer there, I think, is quite clear, that no, it isn’t. That women and men exhibit virtues in the same way and that in terms of virtue your gender is irrelevant. There is very good evidence that Plato gets this idea from the historical Socrates himself, that the historical Socrates taught that there is no sort of role specificity to virtue, to excellence, that it doesn’t depend on gender or class or money or anything else. It depends entirely on your inner qualities of character and the kind of actions that stem from them.
Plato is really engaged in this lifelong interrogation of what does it mean to be a real man. What does it mean to be courageous? Are the two inevitably interlinked? Can women be courageous too? Plato says yes, absolutely, because in his ideally just state there are going to be brave women auxiliaries, women in the fighting force, and there are going to be philosopher queens, as well as philosopher kings. And they’re all to display andreia.
Also, as we’ve seen, andreia depends on thumos, this life force, this spirited element, which in Plato becomes formalized into the third part of his tripartite notion of the psyche. For Plato, the psyche does not just consist of reason and the appetites, but also this third part, the thumos or thumoeides, which is a motivational set, if you like, of qualities which are aimed at success, honor, glory. It’s everything to do with sense of ourselves. Of how we stand in the world. Do others respect us? Do we respect ourselves? A really important motivational set.
In fact, we’ve seen it raised a lot in international politics in the last two or three years. People’s very deep need to feel that they count for something. That they are heard. They’re listened to. That they matter. That they count. That they have status within their society.
We may or may not feel that all the ways that desire manifests itself are helpful, and Plato would have said exactly the same thing. This desire for respect and honor and to feel you count for something can manifest itself in both helpful and unhelpful ways. He would have agreed. However, he would definitely be saying to us this root of courage is also an absolutely crucial part of human make up, which yes, has a vital role to play in courage, but in other things too. It is a vital part of what makes us who we are as human beings. We need to attend to people’s deep need for respect and self-respect, as well as our yearning for truth and understanding and as well as our desire to satisfy certain physical and material appetites.
All of this, Plato is interrogating. It starts with a question about the nature of andreia and manliness and courage. And that’s a very important conversation in its own right. But that conversation branches out into even broader areas to do with really what is it that makes us human, fully human. What drives us? Plato is unusual amongst philosophers in putting in this need for honor and respect, so centrally into the human make up. There haven’t been many philosophers who’ve done that. Bishop Butler much later on in the 18th century, but really, it’s Freud in the 19th century, a psychologist rather than a philosopher who works with Plato’s psychology and is fascinated by it and, to some degree, takes Plato’s notion of the thumos and reworks it as the superego.
Brett McKay: How did Plato’s interrogation of andreia, how is that influenced modern western culture or modern political western culture?
Angie Hobbs: It started influencing debates very very early on. Including in the ancient world, we get debates about whether this new person called Jesus could be regarded as a hero or not and those kinds of debates, I would argue, influenced by Plato’s questioning of the whole notion of what it is to be a hero? What is it to be a role model? What is courage?
Then we get this sort of resurgence of interest in the 19th century. I’ve mentioned Freud and the way he takes Plato’s nation of the thumos and reworks it, with some significant alterations, as the superego in his tripartite ego, superego, and id.
We get Nietzsche, of course. Now Nietzsche’s a really interesting person in this narrative, because Nietzsche kind of says, what he ostensibly says is that he despises Socrates and Plato. He says they’re life-deniers, unlike Homer who’s a life-affirmer, and for Nietzsche, it’s all about life-affirmation. But actually, Nietzsche’s always intrigued by the character of Socrates, in particular. Nietzsche is fascinated by Plato’s idea that the philosopher, the thinker, can show courage, can be a hero. Nietzsche certainly develops a notion of a philosopher hero in his works and, I suspect, saw himself in that light to some extent.
Yes, I would say that we’ve certainly remained very influenced by Plato’s extensive of this sphere of courage into areas other than the battlefield. We’ve at least theoretically remained very much persuaded by his notion that the links between courage and its root meaning of manliness need to be disentangled and that women can be as courageous as men. However, I would add that we’ve never quite got over the original initial sort of links between courage and manliness that we saw in Homer. If you think about it, even after the Greeks, we have the Romans. Their word for man is vir and our word virtue comes from that word and our adjective virile comes from that word. Maybe we don’t always realize it, we’re still influenced, I think, by the very deep European links between certain kinds of courageous virtue and manliness in our thought. Not always to our benefit, I would say. But on the whole, Plato has won the debate to some extent.
However, I would say that there is a real danger, and it’s a danger that Plato is very aware of in his dialogues, and I think we’re seeing a resurgence of it now. In his critique of different notions of courage and manliness, Plato doesn’t just interrogate the heroes in Homer, he also interrogates popular ideals of manliness in his own day, in the 4th century BC when he was writing. There were two characters who appear in his dialogues, in particular, who I think are unfortunately having a resurgence in popularity now. Not that people may be aware of the connection. What Plato’s talking about is having a resurgence.
One is the character of Callicles in a dialogue Plato wrote called the Gorgias. Callicles gives, I would say, the most powerful, eloquent, and disturbing speech in praise of the theory that might is right, that possibly we have in the whole of western literature. That power and strength are magnificent. That those who are, in his words, more manly, and he uses that phrase many many times, that those who are more manly and more resourceful and stronger than others, it is right and proper that they should have more material goods and more power, thinks Callicles. He thinks there are naturally lion-like men who should, by rights, rule. He also, disturbingly sees democracy as a hindrance to these lion-like men taking their rightful position in the world. He thinks democracy is a terrible idea which thwarts the ambitions of the naturally strong. He really doesn’t want much truck with it. His ideal of the strong, resourceful, ruthless man of affairs was very admired in Plato’s day.
Another proponent of a similar kind of ideal is put forward by the character of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. Thrasymachus also thinks might is right. He’s got a slightly different ideal from Callicles in that for Thrasymachus, the definition of strength is simply whoever does possess political power. If you possess political power that shows you are strong, whether you’re a democrat, an oligarch, and aristocrat, a monarch, a tyrant. It is simply the possession of power that shows that you’re one of the strong. Again, like Callicles, Thrasymachus has this very deep admiration for the ruthless, successful man who is able to do whatever he wants by whatever means he wants and get away with it.
Now, Plato takes on both these characters in the Gorgias and the Republic respectively. He thinks they’re his main moral opposition. As we’ve seen with the Homeric heroes he thinks there are strengths and weaknesses, and he thinks there are some good things about Achilles and Odysseus that he can remodel and incorporate into his new ideal of Socrates. But with the ideals of Callicles and Thrasymachus he thinks it’s much more dangerous, because he thinks that their heroes really are amoral and utterly out for themselves. Utterly ruthless. Utterly unscrupulous. And are also completely happy to lie and deceive others and manipulate people through rhetoric and I think if Plato were alive now, he would look around the world and he would say watch out, world, because the ideas of Thrasymachus and Callicles are on the rise again and it is going to be very bad news for society. We need to be very very alert. We need philosophy. We need to think. We need to use our human power of reason and we need to harness our spirited energy and our mettle for the greater reflective good.
Brett McKay: I’m curious, what would Plato say why these ideals that you were just talking about, why they’re back on the rise? What makes them appealing to people?
Angie Hobbs: In his own time, they had found favor, particularly in the last years of the 5th century BC, which were times of great suffering and stress for Athens. There was a very long protracted war with Sparta. There was a disastrous expedition against Sicily in which the Athenians lost heavily in terms of both men and money and honor and respect. There was a terrible plague in Athens. There were food shortages. People were under very very severe stresses and, in Plato’s eyes to a large extent, moral society cracked under the strain and did not cope well. People were yearning for a strong man to come along and sort of, a kind of a fantasy of the strong man to come along and sort out their problems and make everything all right again. A kind of magical thinking, if you like.
Plato’s view is that getting a lot of bad people together is not going to bring about good outcomes. The best thing to do to cope with problems in human existence, whether they’re to do with the natural environment or the economy or whatever, is to use reason to think through our problems, to engage in dialogue, and calm, courteous, rational debate, to recognize the dark side as well as the good side of human nature, and to do what we can to harness the good and to dial down, if you like, the bad side in humans. And for him it would be dialogue, it would be formal and informal education. It would be surrounding ourselves with a healthy vibrant culture and it would be an ability to see through these allegedly, these self-proclaimed strong leaders and see them for what they are, and not be fooled by the very seductive rhetoric. Because they are not going to solve our problems. They’re in it for themselves. In Plato’s view, we have to solve our problems ourselves and not look to mythical strongmen to sort them out. We have to think. We have to talk. We have to invest in education.
Brett McKay: Angie, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your work?
Angie Hobbs: I have a pretty full website, angiehobbs.com. A-N-G-I-E H-O-B-B-S dot come. That has a lot of links to TV and radio programs that I’ve made over the years and to a lot of my written material. I, also, tweet a lot about what I’m doing, on @drangiehobbs. I have a job in the public understanding of philosophy here in the UK, so a very great deal of my work is in the public sphere. People can always contact me by Twitter, by email, and I’m happy to continue the dialogue and the conversation.
Brett McKay: Fantastic, Angie Hobbs, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Angie Hobbs: It’s been a huge pleasure. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Angie Hobbs. She’s a professor of philosophy and the author of the book Plato and the Hero. It’s available on Amazon.com. Also, you can find out more about her work at angiehobbs.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/hobbs, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. Our show is edited by Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you have any audio editing needs or audio production needs, check them out at creativeaudiolab.com.
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