Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, July 16, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Courage)

In Crito we read about a friend trying to talk Socrates into escaping from prison so he won’t be executed.  Socrates won’t hear of it.  So Crito gives several good philosophical reasons why Socrates should escape.  Socrates still says no.  Finally Crito begs him to think about his family and reconsider.  Socrates won’t give in.  Was Socrates stupid or just being stubborn?  Socrates may have been stubborn but he wasn’t stupid.  He knew exactly what he was doing; practicing courage.  As a self-professed philosopher Socrates made it his goal to practice virtue to the best of his ability and courage is one of the basic virtues.  John Dewey was also a philosopher and could appreciate what Socrates was doing.  Dewey points out that while love of excitement allures man from the path of reason, fear of pain, dislike to hardship, and laborious effort, hold him back from entering it.  In last week’s reading Dewey talked about how pleasure lures a man away from his chosen path in life.  But this week Dewey talks about the opposite problem: pain, or the fear of pain, keeping a man from staying on the path he has chosen.  Socrates made it his business to follow the path of wisdom.  Fear of dying is a powerful motivation to get off that path.  But Socrates didn’t seem to be afraid of dying; what he was most afraid of was abandoning philosophy.  So was Socrates really showing courage when he chose to die for philosophy?  Would it have been more courageous for him to abandon his beloved philosophy and continue to live so he could raise his sons?  Which is more important: to defend philosophy or give up philosophy and get up every morning and go to work and support my family?  How can we decide these things?  Dewey puts a high value on reason.  He says love of excitement allures man from the path of reason.  So for Dewey courage means following my reasoning power and keeping on this path of reason wherever it may lead.  But is following the path of reason (as Dewey is proposing) the same thing as following the path of virtue (as Socrates was doing)?  Dewey saw courage this way: Intensity of active interest in the good subdues instinctive shrinking from the unpleasant and hard which slackens energy or turns it aside.  Such energy of devotion is courage.  Socrates was certainly interested in pursuing good and did not shrink away when the going got rough.  Here was a man totally devoted to philosophy and he followed this path through to the bitter end.  But did Socrates’ courage come from his head (thinking things through) or from his heart (sheer willpower)?  Was Socrates just a little smarter than the rest of us or was he truly a more virtuous person?  We can become like Hamlet and spend too much time thinking and not enough time doing.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: your goodness must have an edge to it.  So Dewey’s approach is not to become a mere thinker but a practical doer: (There is) a common idea that moral goodness means loss of practical effectiveness.  When inner disposition is separated from outer action, wishing divorced from executive willing, morality is reduced to mere harmlessness.  Philosophers can become harmless daydreamers.  But Socrates would say those guys are just playing around.  Socrates wasn’t playing around when he said one ought not return injustice for injustice.  He was serious.  Jesus wasn’t playing around when he counseled us to turn the other cheek.  Their enemies weren’t playing around either.  Those were dangerous times and required courage.  Dewey says nowadays it takes courage just to go against the crowd: moral courage is devotion to the good in the face of the customs of one’s friends and associates, rather than against the attacks of one’s enemies.  It is willingness to brave for sake of a new idea of the good the unpopularity that attends breach of custom and convention.  We may also assume that it takes courage to risk unpopularity by defending the old ideas and upholding traditional customs.  So we end up with two brave people with good intentions pushing against each other.  Now what?  Should we go with the new idea or stick with the old one?  To answer that question we need to explore justice and wisdom.  Dewey will explore these virtues next.


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