15 October 2007

My Complaint, Sharpened

Here's a way to sharpen my complaint with how this passage from NE III.7 typically gets handled. Rowe/Broadie say:

"The aim of this passage is clear, although the detail is obscure. ... Aristotle is emphasizing that an action is correctly said to be done from courage only if it is, and is done as, an instance of the fine, rather than, say, because it is useful, or because one will be punished otherwise. This will be the main criterion that distinguishes actions of real courage from ones belonging to the five false types (see below). In four of these the fine is absent, and in one (the first) it is present imperfectly."
All that this commentary says (in three different ways), is that Aristotle wishes to include some reference to the kalon in his definition of courage.


He had already done so! -- Yes, look again at 1115b11-13, a few lines earlier:
φοβήσεται μὲν οὖν καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα, ὡς δεῖ δὲ καὶ ὡς λόγος ὑπομενεῖ τοῦ καλοῦ ἕνεκα· τοῦτο γὰρ τέλος τῆς ἀρετῆς.

"So he will be afraid of those things too, but he will withstand them in the way one should, and following the correct prescription, for the sake of achieving what is fine; for this is what excellence aims at." (Rowe/Broadie).
Thus the point has already been made, and--one would think--sufficiently emphasized. So, then, what is this later passage meant to do? Why does Aristotle revisit the point? Presumably he is now giving an argument for including the kalon in the definition of courage (recall its conclusion: καλοῦ δὴ ἕνεκα ἀνδρεῖος ὑπομένει καὶ πράττει τὰ κατὰ τὴν ἀνδρείαν). The interpreter's task, I should think, is to explain why Aristotle thought he needed to argue for this, and what that argument is -- which the Rowe/Broadie commentary, for all its ample merits and astuteness elsewhere, does not provide.


Anonymous said...

Micheal, you are quite right that the conclusion of our passage appears earlier in the text. This looks to me like evidence for thinking that what we have in our passage is not meant to be an argument at all. In fact, what Aristotle is doing in the whole chapter is laying out what he thinks follows simply from what he (thinks he) has already argued for.

The "argument" in our passage is not for someone who agrees that courageous actions aim at something distinctive but doesn’t agree that they aim at the fine; rather, the argument is for someone who thinks that courageous actions are not to be defined by a particular aim at all - someone who thinks that courageous actions are defined by the emotion (rather than intention) of the agent at the time of action or by the consequences that the actions actually have. This is someone who has simply missed one of the main points of the preceding books.

Aristotle has already (bk 2.5) argued that all the virtues are dispositions [hexeis]—i.e., they are inherently end-seeking. It follows directly from this that the corresponding actions will be end-seeking. So in defining each of them, the only question will be what end do they seek (not - or at least, not so much - what do they actually accomplish or what are the emotions felt by the agent performing them); and for that, we must simply look to what end is it that the person with that virtue is seeking. Aristotle is not here presenting so much an argument as a rehearsal of things already argued for.

A courageous act (or any act that accords with some virtue) is not simply one that has certain qualities like facing frightening things, or performed without fear, or even achieving a certain end (like pleasure or even the good) (1105a28-30).

Rather, an courageous act (and any act that accords with a virtue) is one that is performed with a particular wish or end in mind (1105a30-33).

In order to see what is distinctive about acts that accord with a certain virtue, we must look to what they aim at; and that means, looking at the disposition [hexis] in question (since dispositions are inherently purposeful things).

What is the end of the disposition F-ness? The answer lies in what the person with that disposition wishes for. To the courageous person, courage (the disposition) is fine. Since dispositions are inherently purposeful, the end of the disposition of courage will have the same character as the disposition itself has. So the end of courage, will be the fine. (Why does Aristotle consider the views of the courageous person? Well, since courage is a virtue (and those who have virtue wish for the real good, not just the apparent good - 1113a25-31, 1176a15-16), the courageous person’s wishes are automatically accurate, so they must tell us something true about the nature of courage.) So the end of courageous acts is the fine (the end of virtuous acts is the same as the end of the disposition from which they are performed). So no act that doesn’t aim at the fine will be a courageous one (even if it faces the same fears and happens to achieve the same ends as the genuinely courageous act does).

This isn't an argument so much as an elucidation of previously established principles about the nature of virtue "in general": particularly the principle at 1105a28-33. I would say in general that repetition of previously presented points and arguments - often unnecessary and to the point of tedium (at least for the careful reader) - is a hallmark of Aristotle's writings.

Anonymous said...

It is important, for the proper appreciation of Aristotle's aim in the chapter, to recognize that the view about courage that he rejects in the passage is no straw man of his own imagination; the view that courage is simply steadfastness or boldness was (and probably still is) the popularly accepted one. In the Phaedo, Socrates speaks of "what is named 'courage' " (67c5; cf. what the many name 'temperance' " at 68c8-9): that kind of "courage" seems to consist simply of withstanding/facing frightening things like death (68d8-9; just as what the many name "temperance" is just keeping away from pleasures - 68e6-7). This is just the (conventional) account of courage proposed and defended by Laches in the dialogue named after him (190e8-9, 192b9, 197a-c) and mentioned (in passing) at Meno 88b3-4. (This of course was not the view of courage accepted by Plato's Socrates, who seems to characterize boldness/steadfastness as "demotic/popular" or "political/civic" courage (Phaedo 82a11-b1, Rep. 430c3), as opposed (presumably) to "philosophic" courage which requires understanding of the good.)

Michael Pakaluk said...

I think that Anonymous 1 is right that Aristotle is making an appeal to the distinctive motivation of a courageous man (and thanks for your helpful comments), but unlike Anonymous 2 I don't think his concern, at this point in his discussion, is to correct for a common (mis)understanding of courage, but rather to make a clarification in relation to his own previously stated views--as I shall try to explain in a new post.

Anonymous 1: I've come around to agreeing with you that our passage contains something more like an elucidation than an argument, though I don't find it either unnecessary or tedious (nor do I think that many passages in NE at least are like that).

A question for Anonymous 2: Why, do you suppose, Aristotle's key word for describing the action of a courageous man, is hupomenei, "stands firm", "remains steadfast", "holds his position"--and this is hardly ever (at all?) supplemented by a description which would suggest that aggressive attack might sometimes also be a mark of courage? I don't know whether you have a view on this.

Anonymous said...

Michael, in response to your question for Anon 2:
You seem to be suggesting that steadfastness implies passivity or defensiveness rather than offensiveness. But I think it does not. For Aristotle, steadfastness doesn't always (certainly not 'by definition') involve literally holding one's position. Rather, he speaks of steadfastness as holding/maintaining one's resolve against the most frightening things, particularly death on the battlefield (1115a24-35), whether keeping one's resolve involves an attempt to stand one's ground & not retreat or an attempt to gain ground. Of course in many situations this kind of steadfastness will involve resisting the urge to flee or retreat. (As you know, with the exception of Sparta and other like communities, the armies ancient Greek cities consisted mainly of militias rather than professional soldiers; so it was probable hard enough to get civilian soldiers simply to stand rather than drop arms & run - never mind getting them to attack aggressively.) But in certain circumstances, Aristotle's brand of steadfastness will entail aggressive attack or rushing foward. This becomes clear in his discussion of the false forms of courage (III.8): One of these forms at least seems to be genuine courage simply because it involves a capacity for defense and attack (1116b9, 1116b11-12); another at least seems so because it involves bestial attack (1116b25), "great impulsiveness toward [pros] dangers" (1116b26-27), "thrusting out toward danger" (1116b34-35). Of course, in these passages, Aristotle is discussing cases of apparent but nongenuine courage; but he doesn't discount them on the grounds that they involve active aggression or rushing toward danger. Indeed, given his account of courage (viz. that courageous acts aren't defined by the quality of the acts themselves but rather by their agent's end), he can hardly discount these examples on such grounds. So these passages do show that Aristotle is certainly willing to consider not only literally standing one's ground, but also aggressive attack as a possible instance of courage.