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Wotton’s Society ‘Aristotle on Courage’ with Dr Giles Pearson

Dr Giles Pearson is Lecturer in Philosophy at Bristol University, author of Moral Psychology and Human Action in Aristotle and a former research fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He began by defining Aristotle’s notion of courage as a mean pertaining to fear and confidence. He underlined that it lies in the domain of activity and that, whilst varying in purity, it must show prowess or nobility.

The role of emotions in courage was then considered. Showing that the virtue is not just concerned with the classical heroic ideal, he maintained that it necessarily involves fear. A distinction was made between fear as an evaluative impression or distress at a foreboding prospect (usually death) and behavioural fear in response to circumstances of danger. He delineated that the courageous agent is virtuous in acting in a motivationally fearless way, despite being fearful of the prospective events which could, for example, involve loss of life.

Putting aside the view of confidence as expectation of safety, he suggested Aristotle had a notion of the ‘right kind’ of confidence which constituted a belief that one is pursuing a noble end. The virtue of courage is seen in those who are confident in avoiding ignominy as opposed to being optimistically confident. Courage involves not only the fear of loss or death, but the fear of shame which overcomes it.

This led onto the discussion of the vices which accompany courage. Dr Pearson set out cowardice as excessive fear and rashness as excessive confidence to the point of being boastful. Although virtues are normally treated by Aristotle as golden means between two vices, he mentioned the often overlooked vice of extreme inhuman fearlessness, rooted in lack of concern. He then maintained that if Aristotle recognized this third vice, he should also have included the vice of deficiency in confidence.

Dr Pearson ended the talk by acknowledging the paradox that courage as a virtue does not promote the eudemonia which his ethics aims for as it involves risking one’s life and the potential happiness and flourishing that comes with it. After all, eudemonia is a state which can only be achieved over a lifetime. He argued that Aristotle resolves this by stating that the courageous agent might have to settle with imperfect eudemonia. In response to the talk, questions were asked concerning matters such as the role of impulse, the role of modesty, and the importance of the human capacity to achieve an end.

Will Ryle-Hodges OS (RGGP)