Monday, March 31, 2014

Courage in Nicomachean Ethics

I want to talk about Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue courage, which he goes through in Book III of Nicomachean Ethics. His goal in this passage is to clarify a virtue that is commonly praised and sought out. However, he tells the reader that of the many conceptions and seeming appearances of courage are not truly instances of it. His description of courage is this: “courage is a mean in relation to what inspires confidence and fear in the circumstances described… it makes choices and stands its ground because it is noble to do so, or shameful not to.” (1116a). The bit to focus on here is that courage acts founded on nobility and against shame, not on a basis of fear of pain.

 Aristotle lists five instances of pseudo-courage (things that appear to be courage but are not). Citizen courage is the closest to the original formulation, in that it is motivated by desire for honor and avoidance of shame. However, often it is the case that the real avoidance is of pain, not shame. A second type is what Aristotle calls “experience of particulars” (1116b). This state is situational; soldiers will feel brave in their line of work because they are accustomed to it, but in others, they may not. Third, he lists spirit, with the flaw that courage is “accompanied by rational choice and directed toward some end” (1117a). Hopefulness is next, stopping short of courage because it is founded on confidence based on previous successes, and when it becomes clear that victory is unlikely, it fades. “Foreseen can be rationally chosen on the basis of calculation and reason, but unforeseen ones only in virtue of one’s state of character.” (1117a). Finally, Aristotle mentions people who act out of ignorance. They appear courageous, but have less confidence than the hopeful people. These all fall short of the ideal courage Aristotle proposes.


  1. Good detailed engagement with the text.

  2. I love the idea of the mean- I wrote about it in a blog a while back as well. I used to think of the Doctrine of the Mean in geometrical terms-- as in there is a kind of continuum with each extreme or vice on the opposite ends of the line, and with the virtue right in between them. To a degree, this is correct. But I think what's so interesting about Aristotle's thoughts about virtue is that it's so much more complex than simply finding this moderation- as if moderation can be universal. To have the virtue of courage for example, is to have courage at the right time, at the right place, in the right amount, and for the right reason. Virtue isn’t just about maximizing positive character traits; instead it is something that strives to find the perfect balance between vices-- in many ways. This idea of complexity is also shown in his explanation of virtues being relative to each person. One’s courage may be more rash, and another person’s courage may be more cowardice. So, it can't simply be an idea of finding THE perfect balance on this continuum, so to speak, it's so much more than that.