Bravery As An Ethical VirtueOctober 8, 2018
Aristotle sees bravery as a mean between cowardice and rashness – but what does this mean? A deficient amount of bravery results in cowardice, but an excess of bravery makes a person rash.
But what does Aristotle really mean when he says that someone demonstrates the virtue of bravery? Aristotle sums up the discussion of what it means to be a brave person when he says that “he who faces and fears those fearful things which he should, and for the right cause and in the right manner and at the right time, and who shows bravery in a similar manner, is a brave man”. For instance, a brave person ought not to fear poverty, disease, or anything in that category that is not in the person’s power to control.
This seems on target because if a person becomes too consumed with worry over the uncontrollable, e.g. the fear that a life-threatening disease would strike, living a good life would be difficult. On the other hand, Aristotle maintains that it is noble to fear a bad reputation – in fact, if people do not fear this then Aristotle calls them disgraceful, “for he who fears this is a good man and has a sense of shame, while he who does not is shameless”.
Aristotle builds on the concept of fearing the right things, but what does that mean? Aristotle maintains that “[the brave man] will fear even such terrible things, but as he should and as reason follows, for the sake of what is noble; for this is the end of virtue”.
Reason allows a person to pursue virtue in the right manner. For Aristotle, there is no “one” thing that makes one person brave over another because “what is fearful is not the same for all men”. What matters most is that reason is associated with ethical virtue, and without reason guiding virtuous actions, achieving happiness would not be possible.
Assuming that Aristotle is right about death being the most fearful thing known to man, he argues that it is reasonable to fear death in certain circumstances, such as times of war, since the “perils here are the greatest and noblest”. By the same token, he calls a person brave “if [the person] is fearless in facing a noble death or in facing emergencies in which death is close at hand”.
Certainly the person cannot charge into battle recklessly without reason because that person would die. Not only would that be a bad decision, but it would seem to be what Aristotle defines as a rash person. However, Aristotle defines a rash man who “is thought […] to be boastful and a pretender to bravery”, or a person who has the appearance of being brave but does not carry out any brave actions.
Likewise, the person cannot fear death to the point where the person becomes a coward, which is the deficiency of bravery. A coward “fears the things he should not, and in the manner he should not […] and he is also deficient in courage […] for he is afraid of everything”.
If the person were to fear the wrong things, then it is certain that the person’s fear of death would paralyze the person in battle, thus being ineffectual and taking no action or the wrong actions. Aristotle wants the brave person to avoid the vice of cowardice because a coward fears things that should not be feared. For instance, Aristotle considers war as the noblest occasion to demonstrate virtue. A coward might fear something much more disgraceful, such as death by consuming too much alcohol. Not only is alcohol intoxication a disgraceful act, but it is also within our power to choose to imbibe alcohol.
We can choose to demonstrate bravery in battle as well; in order to demonstrate this action, we must have already acquired the habit of bravery. Aristotle emphasizes this theme throughout his work: there is a right manner, or right reason, for a person to exude courage and fear; and when the action is done according to right reason, it is virtuous. When actions are not performed in accordance with virtue and reason, it results in a vice.
This is how Aristotle presents the rest of the ethical virtues; he discusses the virtue, its two vices, and details actions that people take that put them somewhere along the spectrum of deficiency, mean, and excess, with the mean being sought after. Those who perform these virtues according to right reason will maintain the right kind of happiness