Aristotle on Confidence in the Face of Fear

In the seventh section of the third book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle reminds us that a brave person isn’t fearless, but when facing fearful things “will [though afraid] face them as he ought and as the rule directs, for honour’s sake; for this is the end of virtue.”

In the realm of confidence in the face of fear, there are many ways in which you can go wrong. You can fear the wrong thing, fear at the wrong time, fear in the wrong way, and so forth. Similarly, you can draw confidence from the wrong thing, in the wrong time, in the wrong way, and so forth. Okay then; standard Aristotle stuff here.

But in the Ross translation, in the middle of this boilerplate, Aristotle lets loose with this whammy: “[T]he end of every activity is conformity to the corresponding state of character.” That seems important but I couldn’t make sense of it. He tries to clarify this in the following way:

This is true, therefore, of the brave man as well as of others. But courage is noble. Therefore the end also is noble; for each thing is defined by its end. Therefore it is for a noble end that the brave man endures and acts as courage directs.

This just made me more puzzled. So I went to look for some other translations:

  • “[T]he end of every energy is the end according to habit, [i.e. the beautiful in conduct;] and to the brave man fortitude is beautiful. The end, also, is a thing of this kind; for every thing is defined by the end. For the sake of the beautiful in conduct, therefore, the brave man endures and performs all that pertains to fortitude.” — Thomas Taylor (translation, )
  • “[T]he end of every energy is that which agrees with the habit; and courage is the noble thing in the case of the courageous man; this therefore is the end. For the sake therefore of what is noble, the courageous man sustains and performs those things which belong to courage.” — anonymous translation (“Printed by W. Baxter for J. and C. Vincent. ”)
  • “[T]he end of every separate act of the exercise of a disposition is that which accords with the disposition. In the brave man courage is a noble thing, so then must the end of courage be, for each thing has the character of its end. So nobleness is the motive from which the Brave man withstands things fearful, and performs the acts which accord with Courage.” — D.P. Chase (translation, )
  • “[T]he end in view in each particular act will be the end which is conformable to the habit of which that act is a manifestation. To the brave man his bravery is a noble thing. Such then will be the end which his bravery as a whole has in view; for in every case the attributes of a habit are determined by its end. And consequently it will be for the sake of that which is noble that the brave man faces danger, and achieves his acts of bravery.” — Robert Williams (translation, )
  • “[T]he ‘end’ of every activity, (in order to be either virtuous or vicious,) must be one which corresponds with the fixed attitude of mind in the agent. To the mind of the brave man the display of his bravery is a source of pride and honour. The ‘end’ of his every activity, therefore, is a feeling of honour, since the character of every action is determined by its ‘end.’ It follows that the motive for which the brave man incurs perils, and performs the acts of bravery, is a sense of honour or a feeling of noble pride.” — Walter M. Hatch (translation, )
  • “[T]he end of every energy is that which is according to the habit; and courage is that which is honourable in the case of the brave man; such therefore is his end; for everything is defined by its end. For the sake, therefore, of what is honourable, the brave man bears and performs those things which belong to courage.” — R.W. Browne (translation, )
  • “A courageous act, like every other virtuous act, realises its own end when it shows forth the end for the sake of which its parent habit exists. The habit of courage is a glory to human nature: it exists for the sake of being a glory to human nature — to be this that it is is its end. To show forth then the peculiar glory of courage is the end for the sake of which the courageous man faces danger and does deeds of courage.” — J.A. Stewart (summary, )
  • “[N]ot only the formed habit, but also each individual act of Courage, will be guided by this one motive, the attainment of the ideally noble.” — Edward Moore (summary, )
  • “[T]he end or motive of every manifestation of a habit or exercise of a trained faculty is the end or motive of the habit or trained faculty itself. Now, to the courageous man courage is essentially a fair or noble thing. Therefore the end or motive of courage is also noble; for everything takes its character from its end. It is from a noble motive, therefore, that the courageous man endures and acts courageously in each particular case. [The courageous man desires the courageous act for the same reason for which he desires the virtue itself, viz. simply because it is noble.]” — F.H. Peters (translation & note, )
  • “[T]he end of every activity that a man displays is determined by the corresponding moral state. To the courageous man courage is noble; therefore the end or object of courage is also noble, for the character of everything is determined by its end. It is for the sake of what is noble then that the courageous man faces and does all that courage demands.” — J.E.C. Welldon (translation, )

St. George Stock’s interesting paraphrase of Aristotle’s arguments notes the difficulty in this passage and tries to address it like this:

[Aristotle.] …the end proposed by any act must be identical with the end or aim of the state of mind from which that act proceeds. But the brave man regards his courage as morally right. Of this nature therefore must be the end: for everything derives its character from its end. Therefore any brave act, to be truly such, must be done for the sake of right.

Nicomachus. That sounds like a syllogism, father; only it seems rather involved.

Aristotle. It is a syllogism and more. For the minor premiss is supported by a reason, which implies a preceding syllogism. I will condense the statement, so that you may the more easily detect its form.

The end of the state is the end of the act.
Right conduct is the end of the state (for what characterizes anything is its end).
∴ Right conduct is the end of the act.

The pro-syllogism, which supports the minor premiss, would, if drawn out in full, run thus — 

What characterizes anything is its end.
Right conduct characterizes the state of courage.
∴ Right conduct is the end of the state [of courage].

These various translations, summaries, and paraphrases help spotlight Aristotle’s argument from various angles, and I think make it a little more clear, although I think there is still one point of disagreement and ambiguity, which I’ll mention in a moment.

Putting on my technical-writer hat, here is how I would try to phrase my understanding of what seems to be the most common interpretation of what Aristotle was getting at, as shown by these translators:

Everything that we do characteristically, that is, as a manifestation of some tendency or character trait in ourselves (that is, not just something we do haphazardly or incidentally), we do for a purpose that is identical to the purpose of that tendency or character trait itself. So, for instance, any particular courageous act has the same aim (at least with respect to its courageousness) as the general trait of courageousness does. The aim of any particular demonstration of courage is not to be found in the specific and incidental goals of the act itself, but in the overarching goals of the tendency of courageousness. The reason why someone develops the characteristic of courage is that he or she sees courageousness as honorable and beautiful and noble, as “a glory to human nature” as J.A. Stewart put it. Therefore every particular demonstration of courage by someone who cultivates this trait in him or herself is really aimed not to the particular superficial goals of the act itself, but to this overarching goal of attaining the honorable and beautiful and noble state that is courageousness.

This highlights what makes Aristotle’s ethics so different from many other ethical systems. In most ethical systems, your motive for doing the right thing is that it results in the right consequences: you are courageous because your courage will help you make some good thing happen, or because if you give in to fear and don’t do what you should, some bad thing might happen. Alternatively, maybe you do the right thing out of a sense of neighborly reciprocity: you are courageous now because you would like to expect your fellow-man to act courageous in your situation. Or maybe you are courageous because there is some set of rules, external to you and independent from your own interests but demanding of respect, that commands courage from you. In Aristotle, you are courageous because courage is a variety of excellence you are striving to attain — “nobleness is the motive,” “the feeling of honour,” “the attainment of the ideally noble.”

So if you are exhibiting courage in, say, fighting a battle in order to win a war, in order that your army should conquer theirs or not be conquered by theirs or what have you, your motive for fighting courageously is not that this will make it more likely that you will win the battle or win the war — your motive for fighting courageously is to thereby be courageous.

We exist not to serve others or to serve God or to serve a cause — not for the sake of something else in other words — but we exist in order to exist well, to thrive, to flourish. Suddenly I’m reminded that Ayn Rand was a big Aristotle-head. “[A] plant or animal is its own raison d’être; it performs the functions of its nature for the sake of maintaining that nature in perfection” (Stewart, commenting on this section of Aristotle).

A brave person, at least in the dimension of courage, thrives, flourishes, and is whomever he or she is in the best sort of way that this can be done — that is, he or she achieves eudaimonia. A coward, on the other hand, “is a despairing sort of person” while the rash person, at the other extreme, is more interested in appearing to be brave than in actually being brave, and so does not actually thrive, flourish, et cetera, but only pantomimes it.

All that said, there is another possible interpretation of this difficult passage that has a much more conventional feel to it. Stock points the arrow in the other direction in his paraphrase: he says that an act can only be courageous if it is aimed at something that is morally right, since courageousness is morally right and an act can only be morally right if its end is also. His syllogisms don’t really support his conclusion on this point, and the other translations seem to flatly disagree with him at worst, or at best to be ambiguous on the point (saying that one does courageous acts only for the sake of what is honorable leaves ambiguous whether that is a descriptive or restrictive clause). Many of these translations (Ross, Taylor, Williams, Browne, Welldon) can be read in either way, the others (Chase, Hatch, Stewart, Moore, Peters) disagree with Stock.

But when I skipped ahead to book four, I found reason to wonder whether Stock was right after all — the translation of Aristotle’s description of the virtue of liberality is much more like Stock’s description of courage in this regard than it is like the other versions I ran with here. But this will have to wait until we get to book four.

(In my searches, I have found that this passage has puzzled some others. See this discussion and this follow-up at Dissoi Blogoi.)

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics