Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On Courage

Danger is an escapable part of life. We fear confronting it, but we like the thought of doing so. We adore our heroes, real and fictional, who confront danger and we say that they possess courage. Two recent articles on the dangers of farm life in Modern Farmer and on the dangers of sanitation work in City Journal. They both spout the boilerplate that such work should be made safer,
but more noteworthy they suggest that somehow we should "talk about" and recognize the danger, as if courage is its natural companion. Is this so? We need to recognize danger so we can recognize courage, but to recognize courage we also need to know the man.

N.B. Some of the following is paraphrase or summary of Aristotle and some my own explanation, extension, expansion, and examples. The full text of the Ethics is here for your examination in English and here in Greek.

Aristotle's discussion of the virtue Courage is one of his most nuanced in the Nichomachean Ethics and anywhere. The Philosopher writes:
is a mean with respect to things that inspire confidence or fear... and it chooses or endures things because it is noble to do so, or because it is base not to do so. (1116a)
Foremost then, the brave man has to experience fear, the pain due to a mental picture of a an approaching destructive or painful evil or danger which may harm us. Likewise he must have sufficient character as to face the danger with the hope that he will succeed at his noble end, for example either in preserving his life or honor. Aristotle continues:
The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave. (1115a)
What a great number of conditions on which Aristotle predicates the first of virtues. Whom do we not call brave, then? One can fail to be brave, 1) by being unaware of danger, ignorance, 2) by giving into fear and fleeing the danger, cowardice, 3) by not fearing that which a man ought to fear (such as disgrace) out of a) recklessness (rashly meeting the danger), b) overconfidence (arrogantly meeting the danger), c) imprudence (fearing the wrong danger), or d) shameless indifference to the good, or 4) by fearing at the wrong time, such as fretting before one is in veritable danger or fearing only after it is too late to act.

Aristotle also presents us with situations in which a man may seem brave, but is not so at all or not in the purest sense.

First, Aristotle discusses those who fight by compulsion, such as citizen soldiers. The may be brave in facing danger and avoiding shame, but they may also do so out of fear of penalty, rather than out of nobility.

Second, consider also a professional with a risky job, even a professional soldier. These people have special knowledge and/or tools to deal with specific dangers, and their experience has given them special confidence with which to approach the challenge. These people are very good at their jobs, for the strongest not the bravest men fight the best, but their bravery is not the purest form.

Third, those who act from passion have something akin to courage, but not what we have called true or pure courage, for they act not from honor or nobility, but from strength of feeling. Passion may aid the noble man, but he does not act driven by feeling but from nobility.

Fourth, the confident (εὐέλπιδες) man who faces danger which he has conquered before may not exhibit pure bravery, if previous success has made him feel unconquerable. Facing risk with the expectation of success is not the same facing a danger which you think may kill you. Likewise facing a sudden danger with courage exhibits more bravery than reacting with preparation, for the former results not from preparation or expectation but a state of character.

Finally, we must say that it is the greatest of losses which is the ultimate concern of the brave man: death. As such, the courage of the noble and happy man is intensified because he at the risk of losing or in preservation of his good and finite life, risks death.

Where does this leave our discussion of people who face danger, such as farmers, police officers, sanitation workers, fire fighters, and soldiers? It would seem to leave us with an inability to call any of these entire groups brave. For the character of the individual and how he approaches danger, not the danger itself, constitutes courage.

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