Aristotle on Courage

In the sixth section of the third book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins his discussion of the virtue of courage, the first of the moral virtues.

As he’s stated before, courage is a virtue that occupies the golden mean on a continuum of levels of confidence in the face of fearful situations, between the opposing extremes of cowardice on the one hand and rashness on the other.

Fear, says Aristotle, is the expectation of evil, and evil is properly to be feared. Some fears are noble, for instance the fear of disgrace, and to be “fearless” in a situation where disgrace is to be feared is a vice (“shamelessness”), not a virtue.

Fear is a term most properly applied to the response to man-made evils; “we perhaps ought not to fear” such accidents of fate as poverty and disease, as they aren’t in this category. That said, we sometimes do consider someone to be displaying courage who acts bravely under, for instance, the threat of impoverishment.

Courage is exemplified by the soldier in battle, facing death, when it is the soldier’s own efforts against the foe that matter. The sort of courage displayed by someone facing an impersonal foe — for instance, someone in a storm-tossed boat — is of a different sort.

Myself, I have a hard time distinguishing the bravery of a sailor facing a storm bravely from that of a soldier facing a battle bravely. Aristotle breaks the storm case down into two classes of people: sailors, who face the storm bravely because they know what they’re doing and they’re doing all they can; and ordinary people, who are just sort of helpless before the storm, and just give themselves up to fate or to the skill of those who know better. The latter aren’t really showing courage because “courage is exerted in circumstances which admit of doing something to help one’s self” while sailors aren’t really showing courage because “these are light-hearted and hopeful by reason of their experience” (D.P. Chase’s translation).

Maybe he’s making the sailors out not to really be fearful because they know the situation isn’t as bad as it appears to the landlubbers. In that case, they aren’t really exhibiting courage because they aren’t really in danger of death; while the soldiers are. That would make more sense than what he seems at first to be saying, which is that the sailor isn’t acting courageous because he knows what he’s doing — wouldn’t that mean that the soldier also is only courageous in inverse proportion to his skill, understanding, and experience? I guess that makes sense to some extent: the first time a tightrope walker goes out on the rope, she is exhibiting courage; the hundredth time, she is mostly just exhibiting skill.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics