In order to try to better understand the different ways in which the moral virtues are exhibited and understood, on the one hand, by the person pursuing the theoretical life, and on the other, by the one who seeks the practical life, I propose to briefly look at the specific moral virtue of courage as understood by Aristotle.
A) Practical Courage and Its Complexities
In a lengthy section of Book III, Aristotle lays out his basic tenets regarding courage. The courageous, in order to truly exhibit her virtue, must know what she is doing, choose it for its own sake, and do so from a fixed and permanent disposition (1105b33). Moreover, her choosing involves aiming at the mean lying between rashness and cowardice as determined rationally by the prudent man (1107a1).
Practically speaking, the truly courageous are those who face the greatest terrors that humans can face, those of the battlefield where the dangers are “greatest and most glorious” (1115a30). City-states honour their dead; presumably then we would expect Aristotle to base the choosing of courageous actions as the means to the, more important, survival of the community by safeguarding the conditions for the common good. But Aristotle wants instead to investigate the viability of choosing the moral life for ITS own sake, not for anything external to it (only later to be considered under the banner of justice). This is the reason why for Aristotle civic courage, though the most akin to moral courage, is not quite it. The civically courageous yearns to receive something in return for what she knows involves the greatest of self-sacrifices, death. What moves her to act is truly something outside the action itself, namely the honour bestowed on those who are remembered as martyrs of the community. Now, if the greatest courage involves death in the battlefield, and such actions cannot be grounded on one’s own love of one’s country, then one is puzzled and led to ask, what precisely is the courageous rationally choosing, in choosing to die for its own sake?
According to Aristotle, having negatively characterized what courage is not, it should not be difficult to grasp what courage actually is (1117b22). But, if our target is that of happiness, at the core of which lie the moral virtues in a complete life (1101a16), and which is pleasant in itself because virtuous actions are pleasant in themselves (1199a14), it looks as though courage as virtue stands quite at odds with such a goal.
Aristotle tells us that the pleasurable in courage lies in the end obtained, just as boxers who receive punches, but in the end gain glory (if they win). So, and if the analogy holds, the courageous human will endure death and wounds “because it is a fine thing OR because it is a disgrace not to” (1117b8). (The ‘or’ revealing the tension between choosing it for its own sake, or for something else).
In the case of the happy human the conflict reaches its peak for his life is pleasurable and supremely worth living; “he will be distressed at the thought of death” (1117b10). However, as morally virtuous, she will choose, and more bravely than any other, to give up his life “because in preference to these blessings he chooses a gallant end in war” (1117b14)
B) Contemplation and courage
In Book X, *6, Aristotle reminds us that happiness involves activity chosen for its own sake; in it nothing is required beyond the exercise of the activity. (1176b9). Strikingly, it seems he still maintains that happiness consists in activities in accordance with virtue (1177a9, reminding us of 1098a16 in BK. I).
Chapter *7 therefore is quite illuminating in that it points to a reconsideration of the possibility of human happiness through the activity of contemplation; the “highest virtue” in us corresponding to the best in us (1177a12). Not only is this activity the most continuous, the most perfect and self-sufficient, one seeking no end beyond itself, but that which is most akin to the divine. The gods are the supremely happy beings, and we ought therefore to aim, not simply at living according to mortal thoughts, but instead, “so far as in us lies, to put on immortality” (1177b33).
Herein lies “the perfect happiness of man” (1177b33), not simply the secondary kind of “happiness” associated to the actions of the morally minded human. Politics and warfare (courage being as central virtue to both), lack the necessary leisure (1177b9) and are chosen for something external to themselves (1177b16). Moreover, all the virtues cataloged by the morally minded, are unworthy of the gods (1178b15), who instead are dearest to those engaging in the contemplative life (1179a28).
Given all this, in the case of a courage demanding situation, how will the contemplative human act? Will he run away leaving his friends and the city which is worthy of defending? Will he not seek to preserve himself instead?
Although the contemplative human is the most self-sufficient, he can practice contemplation by himself, Aristotle is quick to point out that “he does it better with the help of fellow-workers” (1177a33). Besides, like the moral human, the contemplative is in need of external necessities such as that of a healthy body (1178b31), and friends (1170b12). But in excess these can even become a hindrance (1178ba). Aristotle quotes both the man of practical affairs (Solon) and the man of wisdom (Anaxagoras) as agreeing on the limited importance of such external accessories. The happy human might turn out to be “an oddity in most people’s eyes, because they judge from outward appearances” (1179a12). But how precisely would this human regard courageous action? Who could be such a courageous human?
Perhaps one ought to consider a being such as Socrates whose courage was displayed both in words and in deeds. He was courageous, not only in the battlefield, where particularly in retreat he shone like no other in the defense of his worth-while city and worth-while friends (Symp. 220 , Laches 181b), but also in the world of the struggle for articulation and clarification. The contemplative Socrates tries to get clearer on the nature of courage in the Platonic Laches. Although the dialogue seemingly ends in Socratic aporia, for he tells us “what I don’t advise is that we allow ourselves to remain in the same condition we are now” (201a), it carries the seeds to move beyond aporia in the very picture of Socrates. Socrates’ quest is one of self-understanding and courageous questioning of his and other’s way of life. Socrates will fight, but he will do so nowhere better than in the realm of understanding. Perhaps even deaths will follow and new re-births from a wise human who leads us “into giving an account of (our) present life-style and of the way (we have) spent it in the past” (187e). However, unlike Socrates, Aristotle, whose work so questions us while at the same time aiding us in clarifying our perplexities, did not choose the hemlock.