As Aristotle teaches us — specifically in book 3, chapters 6-8 of his Nicomachean Ethics — courage is not the opposite of cowardice. Rather, like all the chief virtues, courage is a mean between the extreme of cowardice and its true opposite, rashness (or recklessness). Those two extremes — cowardice and rashness — are both vices; to be courageous means to succeed in neither being too little nor too much concerned with the events in the world that rightly cause us to fear. What are things that rightly cause fear? Here’s one . I remind us of this Aristotelian lesson in thinking about courage as a mean that is not the opposite of cowardice because it seems to me this rational fear demands that we think again about “what we’re talking about when we talk about courage.” So, we’ll come back to the events of the day in a moment, but first let me unpack briefly what Aristotle tells us about courage.
Earlier in the same work, while concluding his general discussion of virtue and vice, Aristotle refers to the famous story of Odysseus facing the original “rock and a hard place” dilemma. Odysseus knows that he has no choice but to pass through the middle of the whirlpool and a ferocious sea monster. Aristotle deploys this as a powerful visualization of the challenges we face in the nearly impossible task of achieving virtue. Namely, we must avoid both the vice of deficiency and the vice of excess. How are we to do this? Following the advice of Circe, Odysseus sails directly for the sea monster Scylla, losing six of his men but saving his ship and the majority of his crew. Aristotle interprets this as demonstrating that we must “sail” directly toward the vice that we are less inclined to; if we are inclined toward deficiency, sail for excess, there is safety. Why? Because if you try to “sail right down the middle,” you will end up drifting toward whichever excess your passions will incline you, given your particular predispositions. If, for instance, you are given to fear excessively, attempting to “split the difference” will mean you end up stuck in cowardice. But if — like the United States as an actor on the world scene since WW 1 (think: Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, El Salvador, Vietnam, Congo, Chile, Cuba, and so on) — you incline toward rashness and over-intervention, you are not going to want to try to hit the middle, because you will find yourself drifting back to the excess of rashness. So, instead, you will want to steer directly for the vice you are less inclined for, because in so doing (like Odysseus’ ship) you will find yourself pulled back from the excess to which you incline and thus stand a better chance to find the middle course.
As is surely clear, I find this exactly the lesson we need today as we try to make sense of the recent horrific chemical attack on civilians. All around the comment trails online and in Facebook posts and tweets and also among the commentariat on cable TV and news radio, we hear comparisons between the boldness of President Trump’s actions in comparison to the “fecklessness” or “cowardice” of President Obama. What all these voices forget, it seems to me, is this simple but absolutely fundamental lesson from Aristotle: courage is not the opposite of cowardice. Rather, rashness (vice of excess) is the opposite of cowardice (vice of deficiency). Courage, the virtue, is contrary to bothrashness (the vice of excess) and cowardice (the vice of deficiency), but it is not opposed to either of them. No: rashness and cowardice oppose one another and courage — a mean between extremes as are all the virtues — is contrary to them both.
Now we apply the lesson. Let us allow for the sake of argument that President Obama was guilty of the vice of deficiency with regard to courage and its contraries. (I do not believe this, but let’s allow it.) That in no way whatsoever justifies the many voices I hear who say: “Look at Trump doing the opposite of Obama; that’s courage.” To such voices, Aristotle would make (I believe) the clear and correct reply: “It is not yet possible to judge with certainty the nature of the action taken on April 6 th. But, if we allow that it indeed was the opposite of Obama’s and further allow that Obama’s (in)action was cowardly, then all we have shown is that in launching these strikes without deliberation concerning the likely outcomes, President Trump has hit the extreme of excess, rather than the extreme of deficiency. He’s proven himself rash (or reckless), which is indeed the opposite of cowardly (or “feckless” which seems to be the word of the hour). But what we need here is courage and courageousness rests precisely in the measured response to threats, and the relevant measure here is that one acts, or refrains from acting, with a proper measure of fear.”
Courage, then, is not “absence of fear” or fearlessness — the “boldness” I keep hearing and reading about. This is a mistake we often make in our private judgments and all too often in public life. But no. Courage, as Aristotle can teach us if only we will (at last) listen, is the willingness to act, and also to refrain from acting, in accordance with our immediate responses to events, but only haven taken their measure. “Taking their measure” means that the virtue of courage operates together with the virtue of moderation (sophrosune). To act moderately and courageously, and to live virtuously, does not entail that we eliminate our fear, our anger, and our righteous indignation as we strive for the good life and right action. On the contrary, courage demands that we enter the practical realm with sound judgment (phronesis) on our side, preserving our passionate responses — anger and fear chiefly — even as we rationalize those passions through “right reason.” I see no evidence that anyone in the Executive (Presidency, NSC) or its Departments (Defense, State) is acting courageously according to this definition. Rather, I see only the desire to be the opposite of President Obama. And strangely, this seems to be “enough” for a huge swath of popular opinion, embracing the interventionist left and the “Cold Warriors” on the right.
I hope people start, in Aristotelian fashion, thinking: “What are we doing?” Even if it means that what we would be doing is “only” some combination of admittedly unsatisfying actions like: welcoming asylum seekers; pressing the UN Security Council for action, and isolating Russia if it tries to protect Assad; getting the facts about the chemical attack and demand Russia recognizes them; finally, increasing and extending sanctions on Putin and his cronies to get them to rethink their tied-at-the-hip approach to Assad. Pausing and accepting the limits of our capacity to reshape the world in our image, while also doing what (little) we can in these ways? That would be courageous. And it seems strangely like what motivated President Obama’s policy, which I also acknowledge was unsatisfying.
It is no accident, I fear, that these reflections have become necessary 100 years (plus one day now) since the entrance of the United States into WW I. Like everyone, I too am responding very much in medias res, and my judgments here might be mistaken. So, in Aristotelian fashion, I end not with a judgment but with a prayer: Let us hope that our leaders — who seem to me to lack any deliberate and detailed plan and thus to be acting rashly and not courageously — haven’t just initiated a conflict on a much greater scale than any of us imagined was on the horizon. As I consider this prospect, and wish to buttress my Aristotelian prayer with some more modern wisdom, I turn once more to Yeats. You can simply plop a “plus one” in the second line and imagine this was written for our own day:
“The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”