The virtue of courage
1. The dialogue moves from the issue whether it is good to teach
young man the “art of fighting in armor” (181c) to the related issue of
deciding in what way “the gift of virtue” may be taught to young men in
order to improve their minds (190b). Socrates gets the interlocutors
to agree that to decide the issue one must first know the nature of virtue;
they also agree that since determining the nature of a part of virtue would
be easier than determining the nature of virtue as a whole, and courage
is both a part of virtue and allegedly inculcated in young men by the art
of fighting in armor, the discussion will center on the nature of courage
2. Laches’ definitions:
3. Nicias’ definition: courage is the knowledge of what inspires
fear or confidence in war, or anything (195a).
courage consists in remaining at one's post and fighting the enemy
at times courageous soldiers do not stand their post but withdraw to attack
later, as the Spartans at Platea(191c)
more importantly, the task requires a the determination of the nature of
courage, that is of what all the different manifestations of courage (in
battle, at sea, in politics, in sickness, in poverty, etc.) have in
courage is a sort of endurance of the soul (192c).
courage is a noble and advantageous quality; but foolish endurance
is evil and hurtful; hence the definition is too wide (192d).
NOTE: The point here is that mere daring or, worse, foolhardiness is
Courage is a wise endurance of the soul (192d).
Wise at what? A qualification is needed because one who perseveres
reasonably as a businessman, as a physician, as a soldier or even as a
diver is not, just by that, courageous (192a-193c).
NOTE: the point is that the businessman who is bullish about the market
because he knows more than I do may seem courageous to me, but he's merely
clever at his job.
the physician, the artisan, the husbandman know what to fear and what not
to fear in their respective arts; and yet, this does not make them courageous.
Nicias’ reply: the knowledge needed for courage is not the specific
knowledge of any of the arts but a knowledge of what's good and bad
in general. For example, what's to be feared from a medical point
of view, death, can at times be a good. (195c).
wild animals are often called courageous, and yet they have no knowledge
of good and bad (197a).
Nicias’ reply: people are wrong in calling them courageous;
there's a difference between rashness and courage. A courageous action
is also a wise action (197b).
NOTE: then, as Nicias allows, courage is an excellence only a few can
Knowledge has no temporal modality: the same science (e.g., medicine,
husbandry or military art) has knowledge of the same things, be they past,
present or future (198d). Hence, the knowledge involved in courage is
not only about future goods and evils, but also present and past (199b).
So, a courageous man knows all good and evil and knows how to deal with
it, and consequently lacks no virtue. But then courage turns out to be
the whole of virtue, while it was agreed that it only a part of it (199d-e).
NOTE: Socrates’ argument, such as it is, is rushed and far from cogent.
However, Nicias has no reply, and the dialogue ends in seeming aporia.
However it points to Plato's idea of the unity of virtue: one cannot
have courage without having the other virtues as well. Hence, courage
cannot serve evil goals.
Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics, book 3, chs. 6-9.
1. Courage is a mean regarding fear and confidence.
NOTE: hence, courage deals with two emotions, although more with
fear than with confidence.
There are many evils we fear, and indeed some (e.g., disgrace) ought
to be feared. However, courage is primarily concerned with the most awesome
of evils, death, and in the noblest of circumstances, in battle.
2. Both feelings of fear and confidence can be excessive in two
Aristotle's notion of courage is much more restricted than Socrates’.
The brave man does not fear death from sickness or at sea; however, he
dislikes it because it does not allow the display of prowess and it isn't
noble. Such deaths are, one might say, beneath the excellent man.
So is suicide in order to escape sickness, poverty or unrequited love because
the brave endures death when it is noble, not to fly from evil.
one might fear what shouldn't be feared, a noble death or, perhaps,
poverty and disease. If so, then one is a coward.
one might fear too little or not at all (Aristotle mentions the Celts).
If so, then one is fearless, a “sort of madman or insensible person.”
By contrast, the brave man faces and fears
one might have too much confidence, and thus be rash.
one might also have too little confidence and be too ready to despair.
One might call this timidity.
3. Aristotle distinguishes between true courage and five types of
the right things (e.g., wounds or death)
for the right motive (a noble end, e.g., the defense of country, or friends)
in the right way and
at the right time (i.e., as a wise man would) and
feels confidence under the corresponding conditions.
NOTE: since courage involves facing death and wounds, which a happy
man fears because his life is worth living, its exercise is not
pleasant, except insofar as it achieves its goal (e.g., the preservation
The “courage” of the citizen-soldier, who faces danger because
The “courage” of the professional, e.g. a mercenary, who, knowing
the dangers, e.g., of war, seems courageous to those who tend to overestimate
them. However, when danger is really great, professional soldiers turn
cowards, fearing death more than disgrace.
he is ashamed of the reproach of his peers and wants to win honor
NOTE: this is closest to true courage because it involves virtue in
the form of the desire to avoid shame and to obtain what's noble (honor).
he’s afraid of the sanctions of the law.
NOTE: this is farther away from courage because its motive is not the
desire for what's noble.
NOTE: here the issue seems to be that the mercenary acs merely
from prudential reasons.
The “courage” of one who acts in the grips of passion, without deliberation,
for the wrong reasons, without choosing the mean, and without seeing the
dangers ahead, like an ass who’s hungry; but he is merely pugnacious,
not brave. For although brave men are passionate, nevertheless they
choose courageous acts (in part) for honor's sake, knowing the perils which
NOTE: here the issue seems to be that merely passionate people don't
act from rational principles
The “courage” of sanguine people who seem brave only because because
of previous success or because in altered mental states (e.g., drunk) are
overconfident. However, when things go badly, they run away, while the
brave man stands.
The “courage” of people who are just misinformed about the dangers.
Some Problems with virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics has much to command it. To the extent that morality should
tell us how to live, it should also tell us what kind of people we should
be, not merely what we should do. Certainly the virtuous man is better
than the merely strong willed one, even if the latter would act in accordance
with the Kantian imperative.
However, there are some problems:
Determining who the virtuous people are.
As we saw, Aristotle is not forthcoming on this. He seems to think
that we know how to identify them as a matter of course. However:
Difficulty in determining what one should do in some particular cases.
this may be true in a city-state, but can hardly be true in a pluralistic
ands even multicultural society. Indeed, the city-state Aristotle seemed
to haven in mind was disappearing within empires and kingdoms.
Aristotle's excellent man is an idealized creature of fourth century Greece,
racist, slave owner, and sexist. The problem here is that Aristotle’s conclusions
are linked to pre-existing behavior.
NOTE: this is less of a problem for Socrates and Plato, who linked
morally excellence more directly to theoretical knowledge than Aristotle
and had, to some extent, a revisionist theory.
Aristotle would tell us to do what the virtuous does. But what would
the virtuous say about, e.g., abortion, doctor/patient confidentiality,
Aristotle might reply that ethics is an imprecise discipline, but presumably
one want more than that. It seems as if some appeal to rules might be
necessary, although by no means rules can always direct our actions in
Difficulty in stating specific intolerable actions (e.g., rape,
property theft, forced sterilization which are absolutely forbidden because
they impinge on rights of the victims) in terms of, say, the vices of the
One might reply that these actions are intolerable because of custom
or positive law.
However, this raises two problems:
NOTE: All of this suggests that perhaps rule based ethics and virtue ethics
can complement each other, since for every moral rule there seems to be
virtue, e.g., Tell the truth - Sincerity; Don't betray - Faithfulness;
Help people - Benevolence, etc.
they seem to be also morally wrong, and would remain so even if the positives
law or custom allowed them.
this would open the door to some form of moral relativism, which many reject.