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  • Courage in the Democratic Polis: Ideology and Critique in Classical Athens by Ryan K. Balot
  • Joe Wilson
Ryan K. Balot. Courage in the Democratic Polis: Ideology and Critique in Classical Athens. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xv, 408. $65.00. ISBN 978–0–19–998215–8.

Balot offers this work as a timely meditation on Athenian courage; timely in that he hopes that his analysis may inform contemporary discussions on courage in democracies to help them avoid the mistakes endemic to Athenian courage, which he sees as overt aggression and rampant imperialism, and focus on the positive aspects of democratic courage, which made the Athenians ardent, if slightly flawed, proponents of eudaimonia (human flourishing). Balot’s project appears to be ill-timed. Courage has generally disappeared in modern society. Perhaps the virtue has been too bastardized to permit the serious discussion that Balot seeks. We inhabit a world where everyone, it seems, who simply does his or her job is suddenly promoted to a hero; in which golfers who go for a par 5 in 2 instead of laying up short of a water hazard are “brave”; and one in which professors often assert their courage in opposing overbearing administrators by declining all committee work or special projects with students, thus making a virtue of sloth. Outside of a few pockets of resistance, courage has been in full retreat for some time. Not only is the barn door locked but the horse appears to have died, presumably of malnutrition.

That said, Balot’s book does provide an insightful discussion of courage in Athens. He ranges widely over the sources, from the funeral orations of Pericles and Lysias to Thucydides and Herodotus to the orators and philosophers, with additional nods to comedy and tragedy. He examines how the institutions and practices of the Athenians, particularly isegoria and parrhesia, gave shape to the Athenian definition and practice of courage. Making extensive use of Pericles’ funeral oration, Balot argues that the courage of the Athenians, resting more on sound judgment than animal instinct, affords a superior model for the virtue. He may overstate his case here; after all, the Corinthian ambassador’s remark that the Athenians fight like their bodies belong to someone else (Thuc. 1.70) suggests a certain recklessness.

Balot sets Athenian courage in contradistinction to Spartan, to the marked disadvantage of the latter. Not all will concur: Balot relies heavily upon Herodotus’ account of Spartan behavior at Plataea and throughout the Persian invasions. This is unsound; Plataea was a legendarily confusing battle, and Herodotus could not have known that Pausanias was terrified by the Persians, as he claims in his account of the meeting of the Greek leaders prior to the battle (9.46–48); his sources would clearly have been Athenians, hardly reliable witnesses in this case. Nor does the fact that the Spartans are brave because they recognize nomos as despotes (7.104—once again from an unreliable witness, Demaratus) render them quite the automata Herodotus implies; the authority [End Page 271] of tradition has long been a focal point of religious practice, not (necessarily) to the detriment of the intellect or judgment of the practitioners. No solid conclusions about Spartan courage can be formed from such flimsy evidence; one might as well form an opinion of Roman Catholicism from the testimony of five fundamentalist preachers and a defrocked apostate Jesuit theologian. As for decisions about defending the Peloponnesus, events proved Spartan judgment correct: even the Athenians could not hold their own city, with Greece affording no good choke points between Thermopylae and the isthmus. Sound tactics never indicate cowardice.

Balot offers two very stimulating chapters, one on Plato’s Laches and one on Isocrates. His analysis of the Laches provides a clear discussion of the operational differences between logos and ergon, and argues that Plato judges the Athenians defective in the ability to combine the two; only in the character of Socrates does Plato seem to find someone who might live up to the Periclean ideal. The chapter on Isocrates, in turn, analyzes the orator’s discussions of contemporary politics and mythic events. Isocrates’ purpose is to quell the destructive imperialist urges of...


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pp. 271-272
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