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To Do Something Truly Courageous, You Have To Mean To

Dr. Larry P. Arnn teaches the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s ‘Nichomachean Ethics,’ explaining that he defines courage as ‘the right disposition toward pain.’


Courage is a vivid virtue. Think of military heroes whose actions we deem courageous. Their actions are beautiful in their sacrifice, but their courage is not the result of random occurrence or uncalculated impulse. Military heroes are so honored because courageous actions require skill and intelligence, but not only those. They also require a good end in mind.

Courage is defined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle as “the right disposition toward pain.” At Hillsdale College, Dr. Larry P. Arnn teaches a free online lecture on this segment about courage in Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics.”

Like all good choices, intent is important to determining the rightness of a given action. Good choices require the correct disposition of the soul, which is cultivated in the process of developing virtue. Since courage is the result of choice, good intent is paramount in making the courageous action good. This is because people can do things that may appear courageous but were actually motivated by evil desires. Therefore, true courage requires both intending to do a good thing and then acting in such a way as to achieve that good thing.

But what is courage? Courage is the careful balance between the extremes of fear and confidence. On the battlefield, courageous soldiers must seek the mean between an excess of fear, which is cowardice, and the excess of confidence, rashness. Just as cowardice will drive soldiers away from battle, rashness will provoke unnecessary injury or loss of life. Courage means balancing enough fear to prevent rashness and enough confidence to prevent cowardice. The result is a beautiful, intelligent, and skillful action.

But these actions, no matter how masterful, are not truly courageous in the Aristotelian sense without good intent. For a courageous action, moral intention is discerned by identifying what you want accomplished. The desired outcome must be something beautiful. And for a courageous action to be beautiful, it must be intellectual and skilled. However, Aristotle claims there is one overarching qualifier that even the most prolific demonstrations of courage must have: good intentions.

Referring to stories of military heroes who demonstrate good intentions in risking their lives for others, Arnn said, “That is the human being in action, body and soul. That is the epitome of moral action, which involves thinking and decision too. Where is the thing that makes it a true virtue? It’s in what is wanted. You must do something that is beautiful and of service. Ethics is not just about being good. It is about what you want. What you want is cultivated through practice of the virtue.”

As virtues are of a personal nature, so courage is on an individual level. Not everyone is capable of the courage of special combat heroes. People have different limitations and talents. Thus, courage extends beyond specific actions, so everyone can cultivate courage according to their abilities.

“Aristotle says nearly everybody has a chance to be a good human being regardless of circumstances,” Arnn said. “We are so busy excusing things today, conditions make everything happen, and the next thing we know, we are trying to organize all of society to control the conditions, which takes away from people the chance to develop their souls. You need to live your own life.”

All these opportunities in our lives are chances for us to grow as a human.

“Courage is a ‘doing’ virtue, as well as a thinking virtue,” Arnn said. “Each virtue is a combination of a desire and a judgement about how to get it. And both have to be excellent for the act to be superior and beautiful.”