The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter

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Aristotle's account of courage exhibits several general principles of his architectonic. First, Aristotle applies to courage what I have called the doctrine of disjoint spheres. (1) Each virtue has its own sphere completely separate from the spheres of all other virtues. Aristotle then goes on to narrow the sphere of courage by insisting correctly that courage governs only situations involving both fear and confidence. Aristotle does not make the mistake of further restricting courage to life-threatening situations. Like his accounts of other virtues, Aristotle's account of courage involves several different parameters. (2) Each virtue is a disposition for getting all of the relevant parameters right. (3) People can go wrong with respect to some parameter without going wrong with respect to the others. This produces some character traits which are often mistaken for courage because they resemble courage in some respects. People can even be excessive with respect to some parameters while being defective with respect to others. They can be rash cowards. Aristotle neglects the duration parameter of courage. On the other hand, he rightly avoids the temptation to divide courage into a fear virtue and a confidence virtue. Aristotle's account of courage conforms to his doctrine of the mean. (4) For each parameter there are two ways to go wrong. (5) A disposition for going to excess with respect to any parameter(s) is one vice; a disposition for being deficient with respect to any parameter(s) is the opposite vice; and a disposition for getting all of the parameters in a mean is virtue. Aristotle is committed to the plausible thesis that, if a person goes wrong with respect to some parameter then he or she goes to excess or defect with respect to some parameter, rather than the dubious thesis that if a person goes wrong with respect to some parameter then he or she goes to excess or defect with respect to that parameter. Virtue and vice are not the only sorts of character traits. (6) A disposition for getting choice and action right despite going wrong with respect to some other parameter(s) is continence; a disposition for getting choice right but action wrong because of going wrong with respect to some other parameter(s) is incontinence. (7) A disposition for going very wrong is brutishness. As long as we recognize that fear can push people to guard their safety not only by performing cowardly acts, but also by being careful about performing courageous acts, we will see that Aristotle does not conflate courage and continence. Aristotle does not contradict himself by maintaining that courageous acts both are and are riot pleasant for the courageous. (8) He believes that virtuous actions may produce both first order pleasures and first order pains for virtuous people. (9) However, virtuous people always enjoy the realization that they are performing virtuous acts. In the case of courage, the first order pains of courageous acts typically outweigh the pleasure of knowing that one is acting rightly except in cases where the courageous act achieves its external goal. Overall, Aristotle's account of courage in NE III.6-9 illustrates many of the components of Aristotle's architectonic of the virtues without going wrong in the five ways that critics have suggested. Therefore, Aristotle's account of courage deserves more respect.


Howard Curzer presented "Aristotle’s Account of Courage in EN III.6-9” to the Society at its meeting with the Eastern Division in Atlanta in 1996. A revised version became Chapter 2 of his Aristotle and the Virtues, Oxford University Press, 2012.

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