In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle aims to answer the questions of what makes a human good, what happiness is, and how we as humans may use our goodness, if we possess it, to achieve the end of happiness in our lives. For Aristotle, the question of how to be happy is the question of how to live well as a human being, and living well is inseparable from attaining the virtue or virtues that make possible the best activity. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempts to explain how we can achieve the end of happiness and what the best life to live to attain this end is, and in the process, provides us with the moral virtues he claims will guide us to that end.
These eleven virtues are courage, moderation, liberality, magnificence, greatness of soul, ambition, gentleness, friendliness, truthfulness, wittiness, and justice. These moral virtues were identified by Aristotle as the virtues one must possess in order to live a happy life by an unusual method of analysis on the part of Aristotle, which leads to discrepancies in the definitions of the individual virtues themselves and ultimately, complicates the morally virtuous path one must follow in order to live as Aristotle’s understanding of a good human being and subsequently achieve a live of happiness. The discrepancies between Aristotle’s definition of the first listed moral virtue, courage, and his later definition of a courageous act illustrate the flaws in Aristotle’s understanding of virtue as situational, and suggest that perhaps we must revisit the essential question of philosophers of his time– how do we better define virtue so that we may lead virtuous lives to live as good humans and utilize those virtues as guides to the greatest end: happiness.
We see Aristotle’s situationally specific understanding of nature through his initial definition of the moral virtue of courage in Book III, Chapter XI of Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle defines courage as moderation or observance of the mean with respect to feelings of fear and confidence . In this case, the mean of courage does not mean one must be the correct amount of courageous, rather it mandates that in order to be a courageous person, one must be courageous under certain conditions.
Aristotle explains a man is not to be called cowardly for fearing outrage to his children or his wife, or for dreading envy and things of that kind, nor courageous for being unmoved by the prospect of a whipping [55.22], rather the term courageous will be applied to him who fearlessly faces an honourable death [55.33] and the circumstances which especially call out courage are those in which prowess may be displayed, or in which death is noble [56.4].
Situations in which one must be courageous are, by definition of courage, situations in which one is subjected to pain, suffering, and death and are not at all pleasant. However, Aristotle asserts that the beautiful and pleasant is the end of moral virtue. Virtuous human beings are guided by their moral virtues to carry out actions and make choices that lead them to an end that is good, thus making them good human beings. Noble, often used as a synonym for beautiful in Nicomachean Ethics, is the end those who die with courage achieve. While the pain one endures facing illness, war, and death is unbearable, it is temporary, but the noble end for which that suffering endured is forever and is the greatest pleasure. The courageous person is not one who chooses to be courageous for the pain and suffering of the circumstance but instead is one who looks past the pain and the end of pleasure and chooses the noble end.
To be courageous, choosing the noble end must be a conscientious choice, as achieving nobility requires us to decide with rational intention to carry out the acts that will lead us to a noble end. Aristotle discusses this in Nicomachean Ethics when he writes about the appearance of courageousness of professional soldiers. Though professional soldiers appear brave because of their knowledge of battle and expertise in warfighting, Aristotle states professional soldiers become cowards when the danger outstrips them and they are lacking in numbers and preparations [59.16]. In the case of professional soldiers, knowledge masquerades as courage. According to Aristotle’s definition of courage, soldiers are not courageous because they face peril not as a rational choice to meet the noble end, but because their profession is associated with conditions in which death is sometimes unavoidable.
Aristotle further stresses the importance of one choosing the noble end, writing of sailors and passengers the courageous man despairs of his preservation and is disgusted with this sort of death, whereas sailors are of good hope, given their experience. But at the same time too, the courageous act like men in circumstances where prowess in battle is possible or dying is noble; but in the sorts of destruction mentioned, by contrast, neither such prowess nor nobility is possible. [55.33-56.7] The impossibility of nobility in circumstances of destruction when prowess is also not possible can be attributed to the lack of rational decision-making power by those in peril. We may perceive those in peril of sudden death out of their control, such as an accident at sea in Aristotle’s example, as brave when they face danger and death calmly, but their demise will not lead to an end of nobility because they did not choose that end for themselves.
While the previously discussed definition of courage focused on courage in situations of violence, immeasurable pain, illness, and war, Aristotle also provides a definition of a courageous act in the context of friendship and self-love. He writes, it is quite true to say of a good man that he does many things for the sake of his friends and of his country and will it need be, even die for them. [202.20] One would assume a good man is willing to die for his friends because of the love and duty he feels for his friend, but Aristotle’s explanation of the good man’s motivations diverge from that assumption greatly. Chapter 8 of Book IX of the Nicomachean Ethics’s primary focus is the mean of self love and what differentiates a bad man from a good man in terms of their love of self and love of others. Aristotle states at the beginning of the passage that the decent person acts on account of what is noble; and the better person he is, the more he acts on account of what is noble and for the sake of a friend, while disregarding himself [200.33].
Dying for one’s friend is considered a courageous act because the good man must act on account of what is noble, a proviso of Aristotle’s earlier definition of courage in Book 3, Chapter 6. To die for one’s friend, one must face the pain and suffering of certain death for the noble end, seemingly so that his friend may have the gift of a longer life. However, as Aristotle is considering this courageous act whilst analyzing self-love, the good man is not so much dying for his friend as he is dying for his own advantage. Aristotle affirms that good men will do everything in their power to live the noblest life possible and a self-loving good man will strive to secure the greatest goods, as virtue is the greatest good of all.
Thus, when one dies for his friend he is securing the greatest good for himself: a noble end. Though his friend may live and accumulate wealth and honors throughout the rest of his life, the good man who has died for his friend achieves greater nobility, for is it nobler for him thus to become the cause of his friend’s actions than to perform those actions himself. [202.34]
The original definition of courage in Book 3, Chapter 6 and the definition of the courageous act of dying for one’s friend provided in Book IX, Chapter 8 demonstrate what makes Aristotle’s understanding of virtue unique from those of other moral philosophers– his emphasis on context, intention, and character.
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