The Over-Specification of Courage
Right in the middle! This is the place Aristotle respects. In the book Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle does his best to explain what the many virtues of the world are. To Aristotle, the virtue courage is ?a mean with respect to fear and confidence?(68), but more specifically, ?a man who fearlessly faces a noble death and any situations that bring a sudden death?(69-70). This is certainly consistent with his philosophy that all virtues are simply the correct middle between any excess and deficiency. There do, however, arise many complications with the definition of courage. What may seem like courage might not be. Consequently, Aristotle sets the bounds that courage must result from reason, must not be confused with duty, and is only measurable in unexpected situations. If outside these bounds, then actions cannot be classified courageous. Though I feel that Aristotle has for the most part hit true courage on the button, he is wrong to label no action courageous if it is not in his bounds. The trouble with Aristotle?s analysis is that it destroys courage by ruling out any situation where it possibly could exist, by not considering different degrees of emotions that lead to different human decisions, and by not allowing for any form of partial courage.
Aristotle sufficiently argues that the qualities similar to courage aren?t true courage. Duty of citizens is the first of Aristotle?s criticisms. Citizen soldiers are prompted by a ?sense of shame?(72) or ?a sense of fear?(72) and fight either because ?their laws and customs will stigmatize them?(72) or ?they are forced by their superiors?(72). Next, experience is criticized because experienced soldiers ?give the impression of being courageous to others who do not know what is happening,?but when they are inferior in men and equipment,?they are the first to run away?(73). Temper is also criticized because, though it brings about the ability for men to ?turn on those who have wounded them,?they are not guided by reason but emotion?(74-75). Like experience, optimism is not to be confused with true courage because optimists, who ?think they are strongest and will suffer no harm?,(75) will actually turn and run when the unexpected arises. Finally, ignorance cannot be mistaken for courage because the ignorant, like the experienced and optimistic, simply ?give the impression of being courageous?(75). Only under the will of reason and in the complete lack of the presence of duty, experience, optimism, or ignorance can true courage be found.
Aristotle is absolutely right that true courage can only be found within these bounds. If a citizen comes back dead from war, there is the high likelihood that he might not have been acting courageously when he died. He certainly could have been forced by an officer to fight or have been too scared of the stigma that society would put on him to run away. If either was the case, then the soldier didn?t act with true courage. Temper likewise is fair to criticize. Anyone who is terribly consumed by emotion is not acting in the way that their natural reason would guide them. In this sense angry people are not themselves and their actions to not warrant the credit of the label ?truly courageous?. As follows, experience, optimism, or ignorance are also effective issues to argue upon. If someone is charging hard and going beyond what normal men would attempt, then they just might know something the rest don?t. In the case of ignorance, they might not be acting as they truly would. Either way, it can?t be disputed that it would take ?a sudden situation?(75) to see if there was no experience, optimism, or ignorance that gave a man a false expression of courage before the sudden situation arose. Aristotle?s definition of true courage is solid; it truly can only be measured in non-citizens that are in sudden situations and acting with complete reason.
The trouble with Aristotle?s analysis, however, is that he equates true courage with all courage and leaves no room for partial courage. Just because a soldier is a citizen with duties, he still might act very courageously. He might need only to be forced by an officer in only the most extreme of situations. Such would be when the battle is for all practical purposes lost and the enemy out numbers you one hundred to one. In normal and even very difficult battles, this soldier may fight hard and for all the right reasons. I feel this person is not necessarily truly courageous, but he is still very courageous. Further, when a person is acting with emotional anger, they are detached from their true self, but to what degree? Aristotle fails to allow for different degrees of anger that would shift people different degrees away from their true selves. If a soldier were a little bit angry and acted courageously, Aristotle would give him no credit because the utmost reason was not involved. Lastly, where is there a case that, experience, ignorance, or optimism is not present? Undisputedly, there is no soldier devoid of either experience or ignorance. If these invalidate any perception of courage, we will never find any example of courage anywhere. Continuing, in Aristotle?s sudden situations, what do we do? How sudden is sudden? How surprised does a soldier have to be for us to be able to see, that when he doesn?t run away, he is courageous? Aristotle has killed the very issue that he hoped to define. There is nothing left of courage.
I would be very upset with Aristotle?s definition of courage if I were a soldier. He would give me no credit where it could certainly be due. True I may not act with complete reason, I may have a little experience and optimism, but in most cases, I would certainly ?fearlessly face a noble death?(69). Aristotle has located his prized ?mean between confidence and fear?(68); he has found true courage. It unfortunately it exists nowhere in the real world. Ironically, Aristotle has defined courage by its extreme, and extremes are the very thing that Aristotle sought to gain the most distance from upon the outset of his argument. Aristotle has remarkable reasoning, but look at where it has left him. How dismal to only be called courageous if one ?endures and fears the right things, for the right reason, for the right motive, in the right manner, and at the right time?(70).