Courage and Fortitude: From Plato to Thomas Aquinas

Courage and Wisdom: The Stoics

Courage and Self-affirmation: Spinoza

Courage and life: Nietzsche

Courage and Fortitude: From Plato to Thomas Aquinas

In Plato’s Republic courage is related to that element of the soul which is called thymos (the spirited, courageous element), and both are related to that level of society which is called phylakes (guardians), thymos lies between the intellectual and the sensual element in man. It is the unreflective striving toward what is noble. As such it has a central position in the structure of the soul, it bridges the cleavage between reason and desire. At least it could do so. Actually the main trend of Platonic thought and the tradition of Plato’s school were dualistic, emphasizing the conflict between the reasonable and the sensual. The bridge was not used. As late as Descartes and Kant, the elimination of the “middle” of man’s being (the thymoeides) had ethical and ontological consequences. It was responsible for Kant’s moral rigor and Descartes’ division of being into thought and extension.

The sociological context in which this development occurred is well known. The Platonic phylakes are the armed aristocracy, the representatives of what is noble and graceful. Out of them the bearers of wisdom arise, adding wisdom to courage. But this aristocracy and its values disintegrated. The later ancient world as well as the modern bourgeoisie have lost them; in their place appear the bearers of enlightened reason and technically organized and directed masses. But it is remarkable that Plato himself saw the thymoeides as an essential function of man’s being, an ethical value and sociological quality’.

The aristocratic element in the doctrine of courage was preserved as well as restricted by Aristotle. The motive for withstanding pain and death courageously is, according to him, that it is noble to do so and base not to do so (Nicomachean Ethics iii 9). The courageous man acts “for the sake of what is noble, for that is the aim of virtue” (iii. 7). “Noble,” in these and other passages, is the translation of kalos and “base” the translation of aischros, words which usually are rendered by “beautiful” and “ugly.” A beautiful or noble deed is a deed to be praised. Courage does what is to be praised and rejects what is to be despised.

One praises that in which a being fulfills its potentialities or actualizes its perfections. Courage is the affirmation of one’s essential nature, one’s inner aim or entelechy, but it is an affirmation which has in itself the character of “in spite of”, it includes the possible and, in some cases, the unavoidable sacrifice of elements which also belong to one’s being but which, if not sacrificed, would prevent us from reaching our actual fulfillment. This sacrifice may include pleasure, happiness, even one’s own existence. In any case it is praiseworthy, because in the act of courage the most essential part of our being prevails against the less essential. It is the beauty and goodness of courage that the good and the beautiful are actualized in it. Therefore it is noble.

Perfection for Aristotle (as well as for Plato) is realized in degrees, natural, personal, and social; and courage as the affirmation of one’s essential being is more conspicuous in some of these degrees than in others. Since the greatest test of courage is the readiness to make the greatest sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s life, and since the soldier is required by his profession to be always ready for this sacrifice, the soldier’s courage was and somehow remained the outstanding example of courage. The Greek word for courage, andreia (manliness) and the Latin word fortitude (strength) indicate the military connotation of courage. As long\as the aristocracy was the group which carried arms the aristocratic and the military connotations of courage merged. When the aristocratic tradition disintegrated and courage could be defined as the universal knowledge of what is good and evil, wisdom and courage converged and true courage became distinguished from the soldier’s courage. The courage of the dying Socrates was rational-democratic, not heroic- aristocratic. But the aristocratic line was revived in the early Middle Ages. Courage became again characteristic of nobility. The knight is he who represents courage as a soldier and as a nobleman. He has what was called hohe Mut, the high, noble, and courageous spirit.