Aristotle’s Courage: A Clear and Short Explanation

Aristotle defines, defends and explains a number of virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics, invoking examples and arguments to make a case for what is his understanding of the virtue in question, taking for granted that the virtue in question is in fact a virtue and worthy of cultivation.

One such virtue, I expect, that none would object to is the virtue of courage.  And this, in fact, is the first virtue Aristotle speaks about in detail.

Now, like all virtues, the virtue of courage (andreia, literally ‘manliness’)1)ἀνδρεία deals with a mean, that is, a midpoint of moderation between two extreme points, which should both be avoided as they either involve excess or deficiency.  On the side of excess there is boldness (tharsos),2)1115a7 θάρσος while the result of a deficiency is fear (phobos).3)((φόβος))  Lastly, harkening back to the language of moderation, Aristotle says that the one who exceeds in fearlessness is rash (thrasus)4)θρᾰσύς 1115b29 while he who exceeds in fearing is a coward (deilos).5)δειλός 1115b34

In order to describe the domain in which courage is operative, Aristotle next makes the rather obvious point that we fear all bad things6)1115a10 πάντα τὰ κακά so that it is commonly said that fear is an expectation7)1115a9 προσδοκία of bad things.  However, merely not fearing fearful things is not sufficient to call someone courageous.  For example, a virtuous man should rightly fear the loss of a good reputation; it would be absurd to suggest he is not courageous because he fears the loss of his reputation.  As this example shows, the appropriateness or not, of courage in the right circumstances ought to inform us as to whether someone is actually courageous or not.

Aristotle does not, as we just said, simply bestow the title of courageous upon anyone, so long as they lack fear, no matter the situation.  Rather, he defines the courageous person thus:

The courageous man withstands and fears those things which it is necessary [to fear and withstand] and on account of the right reason, and how and when it is necessary [to fear or withstand] them, and likewise in the case of being bold (1116b17-19)8)ὁ μὲν οὖν ἃ δεῖ καὶ οὗ ἕνεκα ὑπομένων καὶ φοβούμενος, καὶ ὡς δεῖ καὶ ὅτε, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ θαρρῶν, ἀνδρεῖος·

This passage illuminates several points.  The most obvious is that the man of courage acts courageously in a qualified way: at the right time, in the right manner, with the right motivation, etc.  This is why Aristotle also says that those who do not fear being poor (i.e. they waste their money) are not courageous and those who commit suicide to escape certain things are behaving cowardly (1116a13).  This passage also tells us the courageous man is both fearful AND bold, but he is such in the right time, right manner, for the right reason. This right reason, or the correct motivation, as Aristotle repeats or implies several times,9)see also: 1116a15, 1116b3, 1117b20 is that courageous acts are conducted with an eye on the correct purpose, or what is commonly translated as the “final cause.”10)οὗ ἕνεκα  As he helpfully tells us at 1115b, the purpose for which courageous acts are done is the “fine” or “noble” (kalon).11)καλόν  Aristotle, at this point, does not explain the fine sufficiently, but he does offer this up to reinforce its centrality, “Indeed, on account of the fine the courageous man withstands and does what he does in accordance with courage.”12)καλοῦ δὴ ἕνεκα ὁ ἀνδρεῖος ὑπομένει καὶ πράττει τὰ κατὰ τὴν ἀνδρείαν.

Perhaps to better understand Aristotle’s conception of the fine as it relates to the courageous, we should look to the paradigmatic case of courage.  For Aristotle, as for many of us, the soldier in battle is the best example of courage.  He gives us a couple of reasons to believe this is so.  The first is that death, of all things, is the most frightening.13)1115a26  Yet, it is not just any kind of death, but death in war, for this is the finest.14)Strongly implied, as the answer to the question, “Is it in the finest?” (1115a29-30)  What this shows is that courage is shown best in situations in which “there is a fight” (1115b4).15)ἀλκή  The fact also, Aristotle thinks, that we most publicly honor those who either die in battle or successfully overcome the enemy, is a proof that this is the highest type of courage.  In light of this, he also notes that courage has more to do with fearful things than bold things, although of course it involves both.  What he means is that we praise the courageous man because he is able to withstand the painful and not because he restrains himself from the pleasurable, for the first is more difficult.



References   [ + ]

1. ἀνδρεία
2. 1115a7 θάρσος
3. ((φόβος))
4. θρᾰσύς 1115b29
5. δειλός 1115b34
6. 1115a10 πάντα τὰ κακά
7. 1115a9 προσδοκία
8. ὁ μὲν οὖν ἃ δεῖ καὶ οὗ ἕνεκα ὑπομένων καὶ φοβούμενος, καὶ ὡς δεῖ καὶ ὅτε, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ θαρρῶν, ἀνδρεῖος·
9. see also: 1116a15, 1116b3, 1117b20
10. οὗ ἕνεκα
11. καλόν
12. καλοῦ δὴ ἕνεκα ὁ ἀνδρεῖος ὑπομένει καὶ πράττει τὰ κατὰ τὴν ἀνδρείαν.
13. 1115a26
14. Strongly implied, as the answer to the question, “Is it in the finest?” (1115a29-30)
15. ἀλκή