Monday, February 6, 2012

Aristotle Fiddles the Mean on Courage

It's easy enough to set up a general law or rule.  It's when you have to apply the rule in practice that the fun begins.  So it is with Aristotle's idea of the mean when applied to the virtue of courage.  He defines virtue as a mean between two vices such as "the man of practical wisdom would determine it", for the vices exceed or fall short of "what is right in both passions and actions while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate."  Then, when our man of virtue actually goes forth and acts in the world he acts upon three principles: he must have knowledge, must choose his acts for their own sakes, and must proceed from "a firm and unchanging character."

Very good, that is the theory.  How does it work out in practice when considering the virtue of courage?

In practice Aristotle wants to privilege a certain kind of courage.  It is the courage of the hoplite, the citizen-soldier that stood in line with his fellow citizens  to defend his polis.  You can understand why.  The independence and civic pride of each polis depended upon the courage of its hoplites, the first heavy infantry in history.  Heavy infantry is designed for "shock" battle, and victory depends on soldiers with the courage or the discipline to stay in line, not matter how bad things get.  How about your Aristotelian mean then?

You might think that the professional soldier, experienced and knowledgeable in the "many empty alarms in war" and the contingencies of fighting, would represent the mean.  But the professionals "turn cowards" when things turn against them "while citizen forces die at their posts."  In other words, the professional soldier observes the mean of courage, while the citizen-soldier stands at an excess.  Perhaps the professional soldier, although possessing knowledge, suffers a defect since he does not choose acts for their own sakes, but subordinate to the job of professional soldiering.  Still, he seems to exhibit a firm and unchanging character: he does what is sensible and practical.  Does not then the citizen soldier exceed the mean when he continues to fight shoulder to shoulder with his brothers against all odds?

The "sanguine" also merit the back of Aristotle's hand.  They are "confident in danger" because they are used to success.  But put them in a sudden firefight and they run, unlike the braver man who is "fearless and undisturbed in sudden alarms".  The "ignorant" are just as bad as the sanguine, only worse.  If "deceived about the facts" they often fly from the battle as soon as they are undeceived  And as for courage from "passion", why "wild beasts act under the influence of pain".  Men who fight under the influence of passion, when from anger or pain, are "pugnacious but not brave".  They act not from honor or rule, but from feeling alone.  But Aristotle allows their pugnacity as "something akin to courage."  So here Aristotle keeps with his system: passionate courage is all from feeling, not a balanced application of feeling and reason.

To privilege his citizen-soldier, Aristotle must meddle with his definition of courage, defined back in Book II-2 as the mean between the excess of rashness and the defect of cowardice.  "For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger become rash." (1104a21-23)  Now he wants us to forget that, for his hoplite must not observe the mean but exceed it if his polis is to win the shock battle of heavy infantry.  Now he says that the man who "exceeds in fearlessness has no name".  Really?  I thought he was the rash chap.  Not a bit of it.  The rash man, it turns out, "is thought to be boastful and only a pretender to courage".  Most of the rash men are "a mixture of rashness and cowardice."  It turns out that the coward and the rash man are similar.  They both of them exceed and they both of them fall short.  So Aristotle's new analysis conveniently leaves the courageous man in the middle (rather than at the extreme you'd think he is at since both the rash chap and the cowardly chap fall short in the courage department).

Why all this fol-de-rol? Aristotle could have held with his excess-mean-defect model just by saying that the rash are wild and excessive.  They want to rush out and attack the enemy rather than advance in the right way at the right time with the right intention.  Sounds like he'd had a bad day in the agora and had forgotten his system for a moment.

So what then is the man of courage?  He lives a mean between fear and confidence, but some things he does not fear: "poverty and disease" and "the things that do not proceed from vice".  Certainly he should fear "insult to his wife", but he must "stand his ground against what is awe-inspiring" even unto death and be willing to face the noblest death, to fall in battle.  Thus he fears what he should, and fears not what he should not, for the "brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs."  Courage is the bravery of the hoplite soldier, but not the courage of the professional soldier, not the man in a fury of passion or anger, nor the habitual courage of the "sanguine" person used to conquering, not the courage of the ignorant.  Courage is for "facing what is painful", accepting pain for the end aimed at.  In the virtuous man, the virtue of courage is all the more excellent since the more virtuous a man is, the more painful is the thought of death.


The idea of the mean is a great idea.  It's just that, when it comes to courage and the defense of the city-state, the mean between excess and defect just doesn't cut it.  The deeper Aristotle gets into his analysis of the courageous person the more his model of the mean falls apart.  See how he proceeds.  In Book III-6 some things are to be feared; some are not.  But the epitome of courage is courage in battle, courage against death, "the most terrible of all things".  Never mind death at sea or from disease; the courageous man is only concerned with the noblest things: death in battle, which is "honored in city-states and at the courts of monarchs."  But this is not a mean between excess and defect, but a striving towards the utmost.  He is "brave who is fearless in the face of a noble death."  What then becomes of courage as a mean "with regard to feelings of fear and confidence"?  They are all forgotten in the celebration of a good death.

But wait, now we are done with Book III-6.  In Book III-7, the brave man, "dauntless as may be" may now, Aristotle tells us, "fear even the things that are not beyond human strength".  But he will "face them as he ought and as the rule directs".  Now the courageous man is not fearless after all, and so we are back at the mean, and the right action at the right time in the right way.  But he will, of course, do all this facing of fear only for a noble end.

You can go just so far with that.  Then it is best to pull up like Mr. Brooke.  In Book III-8 we gather to dispose of the courage of professional soldiers, the passionate, the sanguine and the ignorant, who are said to be courageous but, according to Aristotle, are not.  We come to praise only the courage of citizen-soldiers who "die at their posts" rather than admit that discretion is the greater part of valor.

Finally, in Book III-9, Aristotle trims his notion that courage is a mean between confidence and fear.  It is really more about fear, the "things that inspire fear", for "facing what is painful" just as the boxer takes the distressing blows for the pleasant aim of winning the "crown and the honors".  Thus it is not necessarily always the case that the exercise of virtue is a pleasant, lifelong journey of eudaimonia.  Getting there is often painful.

It's all very well to talk of virtue as a mean between excess and defect.  But the man of virtue is not in fact living at a delicate balance point between two extremes.  The virtuous person is hacking through a jungle armed only with a machete, he is living an arduous life that is located right out on the edge of the Bell Curve.  The man practicing the virtue of courage is straining to the utmost to practice that virtue in the right way at the right time for the right reason.  He is standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow citizens slowly advancing towards the opposing line of hoplites.  His reward is not to occupy a mean but to cherish the hope that, if he falls in the melĂ©e, his awful and painful death will be celebrated as noble and honored by his fellow citizens.

It is telling that the Prussians solved the problem of shock battle with "Prussian discipline" and file closers.  They felt that the fear of combat could only be neutralized by the mindlessness of discipline and the fear of the sergeant.  It was only the in the 20th century that the Germans turned away from compulsion and General von Seeckt called for soldiers "self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility."  So for Seeckt courage came more from confidence, not from overcoming fear or a mean between confidence and fear.  Courage is a matter of extremes, as Aristotle accepts, when he shifts his gaze from theory to practice.

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