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By discretion, the idiom is referring to choosing to be careful. By valour, the idiom is referring to being courageous. So how is discretion a "part" of valour? Valour and discretion are two distinct things. Shouldn't the phrase be something like "discretion is better than valour" or "when being valourous, also be discreet"? Even if you accept that discretion is a part of valour, what is the other part of valour which it is better than?

Is there some quirk of language I'm missing here to make this make sense?

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    The same way that an important part of being wise is knowing that you don't know some things. (It's not really a quirk of language, so the answer is no.)
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 9:18
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    only fools rush in – Elvis Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 8:10
  • In French, the usual translation of this idiom is the proverb "prudence est mère de sûreté", what literally means caution is mother of safety .
    – Graffito
    Commented Apr 6, 2023 at 12:19

4 Answers 4

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This saying has a curious history. Perhaps its most famous and influential iteration is by Sir John Falstaff, a comic character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. Falstaff’s version inverts the usual order of subject and predicate terms: “the better part of valour is discretion” (5.4.118–119). But that inversion is trivial in comparison with the inversion of values taking place.

David Scott Kastan, editor of the 3rd series Arden Shakespeare edition of the play (2002), annotates as follows:

i.e. the most important aspect of bravery is that it be directed by good judgement (otherwise it is mere foolhardiness), though Falstaff interprets the proverbial idea (cf. Dent, D354) to justify his cowardice; part means ‘quality’ not ‘portion’.” [“Dent” refers to R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index, 1981.]

The idea behind the saying harks back at least to Plato, Laches 190 –199. As in other early dialogues, Plato here explores the possibility of defining a moral virtue as a species of wisdom or knowledge. According to this line of thinking, the virtue of courage consists not in fearlessness but rather in the accurate ranking of various objects of fear, so that we rightly choose the lesser of evils, Scylla over Charybdis. In the paradigmatic case of courage in battle, standing one’s ground shoulder to shoulder with comrades in the hoplite phalanx could easily lead to one’s death; but breaking formation would lead to shame for self and family, more death among those comrades, and possibly the final defeat of one’s city, with slaughter, rape, and enslavement awaiting the rest of its population. These consequences, rightly considered, are worse than one’s own individual death, and so yet more to be feared; and the hoplite blessed with the discernment to consider the matter thus rightly is the one we rightly praise for courage.

In this older understanding of the saying, discretion refers to that discernment. (Merriam-Webster even defines discretion as “the quality of having or showing discernment or good judgment.”) As an idiom, the better [or greater] part can be and is defined as “most of” (Cambridge) or “more than half of (something) : most of (something)” (Merriam-Webster) or “The majority of something” (Farlex Dictionary of Idioms). Alternatively, heeding the last bit of Kastan’s note and the presence of better rather than greater, we may interpret discretion’s “part” in courage as that aspect which makes it a virtue—namely, its tendency towards the good.

Falstaff, however, perverts the saying by wholly upending the Platonic priorities. In the climactic Battle of Shrewsbury, this knight has shrunk from engaging the enemy, even pretending to be dead. As he sees it, with such discernment as he has, his own death would be a far greater evil than any consequence of such derelictions of duty. In particular, shame cannot faze him, for his cheerful shamelessness is the greater (if not the better) part of what has so endeared this character and this play to audiences, actors, readers, and critics.

It’s hard to say in which of these two senses the saying is more likely to be intended and/or understood today, the older Platonic sense or its Falstaffian perversion; that varies as it must by tone and context. We do find this saying used a bit archly in Wikipedia to introduce a certain fragment by the poet Archilochus, one that clearly shares Falstaff’s perspective on battlefield priorities, ridiculing the old with-your-shield-or-on-it military ethic. But dictionary entries for the saying as a whole seem at pains to accommodate both slants. Thus Cambridge offers “said when you believe it is wise to be careful and avoid unnecessary risks,” while Merriam-Webster similarly ventures “used to say that it is better to be careful than to do something that is dangerous and unnecessary.” Falstaff and Plato could both agree to both of those; but that very circumstance might argue that lexicographers apply the saying in its Falstaffian version.

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    Great answer - it answered everything I was confused about. Thanks!
    – Adam
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 0:44
  • For the benefit of those who lack the patience to read through this excellent answer ('TL;DR'), it can perhaps be summarised as follows. What the sentence claims is that an essential part of valour is exercising judgement as to what is the most effective way of dealing with the danger that one is facing; that is what distinguishes genuine valour from foolhardiness. That claim is sometimes a part of a bona fide attempt to analyse the concept of valour or courage (Plato), and sometimes an attempt to redefine it for one's benefit (Falstaff).
    – jsw29
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 15:31
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One thing you may not understand is that one thing can partake of another. Someone can be brave, but have that bravery tempered by circumspection—what some may call discretion. If it's a hot day, but you have your feet in a cold bucket of water, you can be both hot and cold at the same time: part warm, part hot. I can be smart about language but stupid about physics. People are seldom one thing entirely.

Now for the more interesting part:

What you and many others may sometimes miss is that the statement was originally intended as comic utterance. In Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One Falstaff, a comic character, feigns his own death in a battle rather than face the wrath of the foe and justifies the ruse in this way:

PRINCE HENRY

He spieth FALSTAFF on the ground

What, old acquaintance! could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell!
I could have better spared a better man:
O, I should have a heavy miss of thee,
If I were much in love with vanity!
Death hath not struck so fat a deer to-day, Though many dearer, in this bloody fray.
Embowell'd will I see thee by and by:
Till then in blood by noble Percy lie.

Exit PRINCE HENRY

FALSTAFF

[Rising up] Embowelled! if thou embowel me to-day,
I'll give you leave to powder me and eat me too
to-morrow. 'Sblood,'twas time to counterfeit, or
that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too.
Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die,
is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the
counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man:
but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby
liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and
perfect image of life indeed. The better part of
valour is discretion; in the which better part I
have saved my life.'Zounds, I am afraid of this
gunpowder Percy, though he be dead: how, if he
should counterfeit too and rise? by my faith, I am
afraid he would prove the better counterfeit.
Therefore I'll make him sure; yea, and I'll swear I
killed him. Why may not he rise as well as I?
Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me.
Therefore, sirrah,

Stabbing him

with a new wound in your thigh, come you along with me.

Takes up HOTSPUR on his back

Re-enter PRINCE HENRY and LORD JOHN OF LANCASTER I'll give you leave

In this sense, and in the sense used today, the expression is a rationalization that one would rather not risk life and limb where such is not warranted. If that makes one a coward, at least one would rather be a live coward than a dead hero.

Falstaff here is going to claim heroism, however, by insisting it is he, and not Prince Henry, who slew Hotspur.

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    Also, one can't be valorous when dead (since one then becomes the "counterfeit" of a man); discretion allows you to remain valorous and whatever else you choose to be :) Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 2:43
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    I'm not sure that this fully answers OP's question, which I think is about the sense of the word "part" being used here.
    – alphabet
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 2:58
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    The 2002 Arden3 edition by David Scott Kastan annotates that Falstaff is here twisting a proverbial notion (citing R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index, 1981, D354). I would suggest that it is more specifically a Platonic notion, explored/developed in the Laches, that courage is a form of wisdom consisting in the correct apprehension ("discretion") of which things are more to be feared and which less--as for instance the wisdom (?) of fearing dishonor more than death. Falstaff, self-servingly and typically for him, is turning precisely that completely on its head. Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 3:57
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    This answer doesn't really answer my question. The first paragraph is explaining what I already meant by "when being valourous, also be discrete". Sure, you can be good at languages and bad at physics, but you wouldn't say "the better part of being bad at physics is being good at languages", would you? No, they are two separate things, and each is a part of you, but one is not part of the other (unless being good at languages somehow made you bad at physics or vice versa). The second part of the answer is interesting but doesn't really address the question about the wording of the sentence.
    – Adam
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 5:55
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    @BrianDonovan, your comment seems to amount to an answer; would you care to post it as such? It is certainly more responsive to the OP's concerns than what has been posted as answers so far.
    – jsw29
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 20:05
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By discretion, the idiom is referring to choosing to be careful.

No it is referring to making sound judgements.

OED: discretion

II. Senses relating to discreet adj.

4.a. The quality of being discreet; the possession or demonstration of sound judgement in speech or action; prudence; tactfulness, trustworthiness.

1927 A. Conan Doyle Case-bk. Sherlock Holmes 73 A single word showed you, sir, that your secret was discovered, and if I wrote rather than said it, it was to prove to you that my discretion was to be trusted.

By valour, the idiom is referring to being courageous.

Yes. OED:

c. The quality of mind which enables a person to face danger with boldness or firmness; courage or bravery, esp. as shown in warfare or conflict; valiancy, prowess.

So how is discretion a "part" of valour?

It is not “a part”, it is the better part = the greater part; the larger constituent.

Rational thinking, i.e. Good judgement, i.e. discretion, is, the saying claims, the chief constituent of bravery. One assesses, dispassionately, the risks and rewards and acts accordingly and in the best interests of one's allegiance.

Shouldn't the phrase be something like "discretion is better than valour?"

No. We don’t bugger about with set phrases. Amateurs cannot “improve” them.

In response to some objections:

The better part = the larger part:

OED

Better (adj.)

5. Larger, greater. Chiefly in the better part of: almost all of, most of. Cf. best adj. 5.

See also better half n. 1. discretion is the better part of valour: see discretion n. Phrases 3.

2006 Guardian 25 Jan. ii. 24 The battery lasts the better part of a day.

The quote is from Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV Part 1, Act V Scene 4. It’s spoken by Sir John Falstaff.

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    I think "choosing to be careful" is the "sound judgement" being made in the idiom, but I'll grant you that I was slightly wrong there. But the next part of your answer doesn't make much sense. If something is the better part of something, it must also necessarily be a part of it. The question is: how is discretion the chief constituent of bravery when it doesn't seem to be a constituent of bravery at all? Your last sentence just seems like elitist snobbery. If, in a century, people are going around saying "I could care less", would you say "it's a set phrase, amateurs should leave them alone"?
    – Adam
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 20:42
  • @Adam The question is: how is discretion the chief constituent of bravery when it doesn't seem to be a constituent of bravery at all? Well, the saying says that it is, so we must accept this a priori. --"If, in a century, ..." (i) in a century, I'll be dead. (ii) The line comes from Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV Part 1, Act V Scene 4. It’s spoken by Sir John Falstaff. It has lasted 400 years ... your move...
    – Greybeard
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 23:08
  • @Greybeard, if you believe that 'the saying says that it is, so we must accept this a priori', then you are simply not interested in answering the OP's question. People who are curious about the language may want to know why and how something that appears to be paradoxical came to be established in the language. Some set phrases become set phrases for a good, explainable reason, and some become so due to errors and confusion; the OP wants to know whether this phrase is of the former or the latter kind. Exploring such matters is one of the central purposes of this site.
    – jsw29
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 15:37
  • @jsw29 "then you are simply not interested in answering the OP's question." I am intrigued as to how you have an inaccurate insight into my mind. The saying is a line from Shakespeare: we do not bugger about with Shakespeare either. I have added to the answer.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 17:34
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    @Greybeard I obviously wasn't offering those up as idioms to be used in place of the original - they are not nearly poetic enough. Note that I said "Shouldn't the phrase be something like this", and not "Shouldn't the phrase be this". I was merely asking why the original was phrased as it was since it didn't seem to make much sense, rather than a phrase that when analysed word by word actually means the thing that the idiom is trying to say. Of course, I know now from another answer that the idiom is using a different definition of courage than the usual one, so it actually does make sense.
    – Adam
    Commented Apr 1, 2023 at 20:57
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I agree, but, writers, politicians, and the like, have to put a spin on it to convince the gullible (young) to clamor for war, and other, action. As well as try to convince themselves (the writers et al) that they are the strong, brave, and free. Anyone who straps themselves to a million pound "motorcycle" engine, to venture off to the moon and back, is a sucker.

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