Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

CLAUSEWITZ: On War III (Courage)

As we read through the Great Books it’s amazing how many times we can sense Socrates lurking in the shadows. And so it is with this week’s reading. Clausewitz says “In danger, which is the most superior of all moral qualities? It is courage.” Socrates would have been all over that one. We can almost hear him saying something like: I agree with you Mr. Clausewitz that courage is the most superior of all moral qualities. But that doesn’t tell us what courage is, now does it? Just so we can be clear in our minds, what is it that we mean when we talk about “courage”? And then we would be off to the races exploring various definitions of what courage actually is. (Socrates himself did a pretty good job describing courage in “The Apology” when he said “wherever a man stations himself in belief that it is best, wherever he is stationed by his commander, there he must I think remain and run the risks…”) Of course it isn’t Clausewitz’ intention to write a philosophical treatise on courage; he’s writing about war. Nevertheless, Socrates would have been pleased I think at the way Clausewitz handles the sub-topic of courage in relationship to war.

Clausewitz says: “Now courage is certainly quite compatible with prudent calculation, but courage and calculation are nevertheless things different in kind and belonging to different parts of the mind.” This is an excellent Socratic statement. Courage and prudence are certainly compatible. Only a man who faces danger wisely can be courageous. A man who faces danger foolishly can only display foolishness, not courage. But even though courage and prudence usually go together, they’re not the same thing. They are “things different in kind” to use Clausewitz’ phrase. And because they’re different kinds of things they belong to different parts of the mind. Courage requires firmness and willpower; prudence requires cool, clear thinking. Socrates would probably go on to develop this theme. How can we cultivate firmness and willpower in our own lives? What kind of training will help us develop an ability to think more clearly? Socrates was a true philosopher.

But Clausewitz was a military general. His aim was to cultivate a certain kind of courage and develop a certain kind of prudence. He’s not interested in courage and prudence as philosophical theories. He’s interested in how these qualities can be applied to the art of war. Clausewitz believes that “The art of war has to do with living and with moral forces; from this it follows that it can nowhere attain the absolute and certain; there remains always a margin for the accidental…” Courage and prudence are certainly fundamental moral forces. So any theory of war has to include these forces as well as physical forces such as how many soldiers the enemy has. But courage and prudence are also what Clausewitz calls “living” forces. They’re not just abstract philosophical theories. They’re moral qualities which affect real life situations like war. War isn’t fought in a book; it’s fought in real life. And here once more we come face to face with the ghost of Socrates.

Socrates never wrote a book. We only have Plato’s version of what he said. So we may want to ponder for a moment; why is that? Maybe he thought books can’t take the place of real life. Books can tell us many things. But they can only tell us the same thing over and over. We can’t question a book the way we can question a real person. And for Socrates the whole point of life was to go around talking about subjects like courage and prudence and war. The whole point of Great Books is to read them and then talk about them with other people. Clausewitz provides a golden opportunity to talk about courage and war.


Post a Comment

<< Home