TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Courage as an Intellectual Virtue and the Puzzle of President Trump

American academics have much to lament about President Trump: his break with civility, his vilification of Mexicans and Muslims, his indifference to truth and to conflicts of interest, his hostility to science, his devaluation of diplomacy. Directly on campuses we recognize the vulnerability of undocumented students and dwindling numbers of international students. As a result, many faculty members and administrators have responded harshly to his presidency.

Yet President Trump retains the enthusiastic support of his base. This support stems to some degree from his courage, which contrasts so prominently with normal party politicians. Trump is a fighter who speaks his mind without constraint, mocking political correctness, challenging the Washington establishment, threatening North Korea, and pulling no punches even against allies. Trump himself has elevated this virtue. His campaign posters announced: “It’s easy to stand with the crowd; it takes courage to stand alone!”

But Trump is the opposite of courageous if one has any meaningful concept of this intellectual virtue.

This thought became abundantly clear to me when teaching Plato’s Laches, his early dialogue on courage. Plato’s dialogue is arguably the best work ever written on courage, certainly the most nuanced. One must struggle to decipher Plato’s argument, but one can do so with courage. Courage? Yes, Plato associates courage not only with military action on the battlefield but also with knowledgeable perseverance in seeking the truth.

A close parallel between military combat and intellectual argument is at the core of this dialogue. Fighting in armor is a metaphor for discussion. The intellect, like the body, needs to be trained to become strong; contests test fortitude not only of the body but also of the mind. The desire to win, the agonistic spirit, is a good starting point for dialogue.

Where Plato elevates endurance in argument, pursuing thoughts to their very end, even if they should contradict one’s initial presuppositions, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for Trump: The Art of the Deal, has remarked that Trump has no capacity to sustain a complex argument, “no attention span” whatsoever. In his more recent Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, Trump goes so far as to advocate having “a short attention span,” as it allows us to “get more done faster.” The president speaks notoriously in sentences of very few words, usually about himself and about winners and losers.

For Plato, in contrast, the ultimate object of discourse is not to win. Instead, it is to discover the truth. The spirit of combat is to be channeled toward a higher goal. Combatants must not only be armed with compelling arguments on behalf of their own views, they must listen to alternative perspectives and have the courage to admit their errors when correction is warranted.

Trump seems unconcerned with truth. According to PolitiFact, his record on truth and accuracy is astonishingly poor. Nor is he a master of logic. “I think I am, actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand,” Trump said in his 60 Minutes interview last year. But humility is the virtue of not drawing attention to one’s virtues, so as soon as Trump says that he is humble, he is no longer humble. Trump’s claim is as stupid as it is funny.

In assessing courage, Plato recognizes the importance of military experience and military history. Laches trusts Socrates because he has seen Socrates’ military valor first hand. Trump likes to use military metaphors, but he avoided the draft and seems to know little of military history, even recent events. Consider his ignorance during the campaign about Russia’s having invaded and annexed the Crimea. Plato’s Laches alludes to the failure of two generals. One is too rash, charging the enemy and being slaughtered when he should have waited for reinforcements. Rashness and foolish bravado are not courageous. The other tries in vain to hold ground when retreat would have been far more strategic. Stubbornness, even when it means risking one’s life (not to mention the lives of others), is not one and the same with the virtue of courage.

Plato draws a sharp distinction between fearless, unthinking action and courage, which presupposes knowledge and prudence. Something that is reckless and foolish cannot be a virtue. Trump’s threats that we might default on the national debt, radically change the nuclear landscape, move away from long-standing policy toward China, or attack North Korea “with fire and fury like the world has never seen” were not courageous but reckless. Courage without a rational analysis of risks and consequences is morally irresponsible.

Courage implies detailed knowledge of variables and options. It presupposes hard work and calculation as well as a sense of principles and priorities. Courage is a kind of wisdom. It is not compatible with mindlessly disorienting friends or strengthening adversaries. Trump has not only undermined trust among allies, he has at various times emboldened reprehensible leaders such as President Putin of Russia, President Duterte of the Philippines, President Sisi of Egypt, and President Erdoğan of Turkey. And by seeking to ban all Muslims, Trump has reinforced the terrorists’ tale of religious war.

Plato discusses not only courage on the battlefield and courage in argument, but also the emotional dimensions of courage, such as how one copes with poverty, illness, or other challenges. Trump does not endure setbacks with reason or composure; he becomes enraged. When his errors are exposed, he lashes out. In the face of fraud charges and later an ill-formulated policy on immigration, he attacked the legitimacy of the judicial system. As news stories about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians began to increase, Trump wildly attacked his predecessor and then fired the Director of the FBI.

Courage on the battlefield means clashing with enemies, but there is also an inner courage: this involves combating our own base instincts, resisting inappropriate desires, superficial pleasures, and momentary tendencies, in order to achieve what is worthier and more enduring. For Plato temperance is a form of courage, just as courage is a form of temperance. Even those who mistakenly praise Trump for his courage would hardly want to cite his crass displays of wealth, his multiple marriages, or his garrulous and hate-filled tweets as models of restraint.

Despite these gaps, Trump does embody something Plato elevates. Trump is unafraid to state his own positions even if they should be unconventional and unpopular. Socrates is constantly asking, what do you yourself think? And for Plato consensus is no criterion for truth. But expressing your own beliefs hardly suffices if they cannot be grounded with arguments, cannot be shaken by valid counter-arguments, and cannot be folded into the larger search for truth.

Plato teaches us that whoever is full of himself, dogmatic and self-assured, is unlikely to uncover truth. Nor are persons who lack serious interest in the disciplined and arduous pursuit of truth likely to be successful. Given Plato’s profound awareness of the conditions for discovering truth, it is not surprising that in any good discussion class, faculty members teach precisely such insights, be it explicitly or implicitly. To listen carefully to the views of others and to weigh them honestly, giving them a full hearing with your utmost attention, even if they should contradict your initial inclinations, is to practice a form of justice. To participate in the give-and-take of discussion by asking clarifying questions of other students, offering evidence to support your own positions, or proposing alternative perspectives in the light of disagreements is to exhibit respect for other people and for the common value of truth. To encourage effectively the participation of others and successfully draw good ideas out of them is to exhibit intellectual hospitality. To challenge the views of interlocutors without making the attack personal, and thus without drawing them away from the search for truth, is to practice diplomacy.

Courage, too, is one of the intellectual virtues that Plato elevates and that many of us hope students will develop in our classes. To hold on to a view even against consensus when you are convinced of its validity is to experience social isolation for your belief in truth and is thus an act of courage. But to relinquish false claims to knowledge in the light of more compelling evidence is no less courageous: the courage to accept criticism from others and admit your previous errors is a condition of the meaningful search for truth.

Trump’s base adores him and praises him because he speaks his mind. But speaking one’s mind does not mean one speaks the truth or has courage. While some instances of courage demand physical valor, every form of courage presupposes intellectual capacities. Courage remains today, as it was already for Plato, also an intellectual virtue.

Mark W. Roche is professor of German, concurrent professor of philosophy, and former dean of arts and letters at the University of Notre Dame.

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