‘Why be gentle?’

‘Why be gentle?’ my philosophical friend asked me. ‘That is a good question,’ I said.


At the beginning of Theaetetus, Socrates asks Theodorus whether there are any good young men whom he knows. Theodorus replies,

Yes, Socrates, I have become acquainted with one very remarkable Athenian youth, whom I commend to you as well worthy of your attention. If he had been a beauty I should have been afraid to praise him, lest you should suppose that I was in love with him; but he is no beauty, and you must not be offended if I say that he is very like you; for he has a snub nose and projecting eyes, although these features are less marked in him than in you. Seeing, then, that he has no personal attractions, I may freely say, that in all my acquaintance, which is very large, I never knew anyone who was his equal in natural gifts: for he has a quickness of apprehension which is almost unrivalled, and he is exceedingly gentle, and also the most courageous of men; there is a union of qualities in him such as I have never seen in any other, and should scarcely have thought possible; for those who, like him, have quick and ready and retentive wits, have generally also quick tempers; they are ships without ballast, and go darting about, and are mad rather than courageous; and the steadier sort, when they have to face study, prove stupid and cannot remember. Whereas he moves surely and smoothly and successfully in the path of knowledge and enquiry; and he is full of gentleness, flowing on silently like a river of oil; at his age, it is wonderful.

The young man Theodorus is referring to, Theaetetus, is exceptional in that he combines a ‘union of qualities’ such as intelligence with a mild temper, courage with composure, sureness with evenness. The crescendo: he is ‘full of gentleness.’

The adverbs–‘surely and smoothly,’ also ‘silently’–signal what is at stake. When I go gently, I do not go roughly or coarsely, harshly or in a shrill way, abruptly or violently or brusquely. I go slowly, softly, tenderly. According to the OED, I can be gentle-minded, gentle-natured, gentle-voiced.

Arguably, gentleness is the beautiful splendor expressive of the life of the virtues. I may relate news to someone, share an opinion, tell a story, approach an angry man, say farewell, carry a tune, touch a lover’s forehead, greet a neighbor whose car has broken down, introduce myself to a stranger, schedule something with a tentative soul, and so on. How do I go about this? To begin with, I exercise the salient virtue or virtues: attention, compassion, courage, temperance, kindness, composure, or whatever. But my success in this endeavor stands or falls, in many cases, based on the way in which this virtue is displayed. When I approach an angry man or say goodbye to a former friend, I want my compassion to be shown in a gentle way. The gentleness is beauty shining forth, softening the virtue or virtues in question. Courage too–a great power–can be gentle.


‘Why be gentle?’

First, because gentleness is the contrary of arrogance.

Second, because it is ‘world-encompassing’: to be gently courageous is to act in view of the other and at the same time to shape my character. My character is becoming gentler as I am gentle to him. My gentle courage enfolds self with other in a shared world.

Third, because it demonstrates the elevation of some virtue P beyond its ‘infancy’ to the level of beauty. No longer do I go hastily or clumsily.

Fourth, because it lets one act, speak, and demean in such a way that would go beyond withdrawal into silence on the one hand and beyond forcefulness on the other.

Fifth, because it maintains the harmony between my character and the world. Not only am I not in conflict, my soul thrown into discordance with itself; but also my soul still continues to stand in accordance with the world even though something difficult has been put before me.


Provisionally, I might argue that gentleness implies a unity of the virtues. (As Vlastos puts the unity of the virtues thesis in connection with Socrates, whoever has one virtue has them all.) About this, however, I am not sure.

A reminder to be ‘full of gentleness, flowing on silently like a river of oil.’