Thesis: Alexander at various times exhibited the only form of courage Aristotle outlines in the Eudemian Ethics – the virtue of the balance between rash and cowardice. Analysis of the model of virtue ethics and the doctrine of the Mean described in Eudemian Ethics allow to distinguish between difference forms of courage on the scale between rash and cowardice, with courage being the “golden mean” of human virtue. In his epos about Alexander Plutarch mentions many situations and descriptions of events related to Alexander’s life showing him from many perspectives; however, all of them can be classified as true courage according to Aristotle’s scale.
Eudemian ethics of Aristotle is not so popular as his Nicomachean ethics partly because it describes an analytical model of virtue – concept of the Mean. However, this is a key concept in Aristotle’s model of virtue ethics. The virtues of being and ethical approaches to virtues have been considered by philosophers since early times. Courage is one of classical examples in ethical models, and Aristotle used courage as one of the best examples to describe his concept of the Mean. The purpose of this paper is to consider the interconnections between Aristotle’s model of mean, concept of courage and the manifestations of courage in Alexander’s life (according to Plutarch). Aristotle was the most influential teacher in Alexander’s life and had incredible impact to his personality forming. It can thus be assumed that Alexander exhibited the courage Aristotle outlines in his “Eudemian Ethics”. Evidences of this approach can be found throughout the texts of Plutarch.
Aristotle’s considered courage to be one of human virtues. Usually, it is common to claim that this philosopher outlined several types of courage, according to reasons which raise it. However, this idea does not reflect the Aristotle’s doctrine of the Mean. According to “Eudemian Ethics”, the definition which might be used to determine the nature of courage is: “Courage is the mean between fear and recklessness” (Aristotle).
In other words, courage can be explained as the optimal (virtuous) balance between fear and recklessness. Coward person is not able to act under the influence of fear, reckless person does not feel fear at all. On the other hand, courageous individual feels fear similarly to all other people, but he is still able to act voluntary with the confidence for honor and nobility. This is the core meaning of courage as the virtue for Aristotle (within the context of Eudemian Ethics). However, Aristotle also uses the term “courage” in situational context.
Here is the list of the manifestations of courage (expressed differently on the courage scale): civic – the result of punishment cowardice transformed to forced feel of braveness; ignorance – “children and madmen face things rushing on them” (Aristotle); military, based on knowledge “not of what is formidable, but of ways of encountering what is formidable”; boldness, based on previous luck, which motivates one to face danger; passion – leading to heedlessness of the possibility to defeat (Aristotle). It is possible to determine that, according to Aristotle’s view, there can be different manifestations of courage (seen as a scale), but the true courage is the balance between the extreme ends of this scale. Other types of behaviour described above are also related to courage, but they are not achieving the Mean.
The work of Plutarch describing events from Alexander’s life is incredibly valuable, since his presentation is clear and unbiased (without extra worship of Alexander, but written with deep respect). Using Aristotle’s ethic, it is possible to develop a totally new perception of Alexander’s true courageousness, and its consequent manifestations. However, in certain situations it is also difficult to judge whether it was true courage or rashness. For example, Alexander’s courage during some of battles can be perceived both as Aristotle’s virtuous balance between fear and recklessness, and as his courage of boldness, generated by too self-confident character. In my opinion, Alexander manifested true courage (according to Aristotle’s model), since he managed to balance between rashness and cowardice.
Throughout the text of Plutarch, it is possible to trace the moments when Alexander exhibited the courage, not the cowardice (or similar reactions) and not rashness, but the golden middle between them. Below there are several examples of Alexander’s courageous behaviour, and the analysis of them.
The scene with horse, from Alexander’s youth, is a good example of true courage as it was defined by Aristotle. When nobody could subdue recalcitrant stallion, Alexander said then: “What an excellent horse do they lose for want of address and boldness to manage him!” (Plutarch). Then, he bravely took control under the horse in few minutes just, risking to get wounds. Was the courage in his actions in fact? Managing very unbridled horse could cause serious harm to his health, thus, the answer is “yes”. Was this courage the manifestation of courageous child’s “ignorance” of character Aristotle wrote about? Obviously, not. Furthermore, Alexander’s skills of horse managing and the ability to tame the wild horse showed he was able to find the true balance – evidence of wisdom which enabled him to become the greatest conqueror. Thereby, the above-mentioned actions of the great General can be considered as the manifestation of true virtue which Aristotle defines in his “Eudemian Ethics”.
The events related to Alexander’s entering the ruling of kingdom show another manifestation of true courage. “It seemed to the Macedonians a very critical time; and some would have persuaded Alexander to give up all thought of retaining the Grecians in subjection by force of arms, and rather to apply himself to win back by gentle means the allegiance of the tribes who were designing revolt, and try the effect of indulgence in arresting the first motions towards revolution. But he rejected this counsel as weak and timorous, and looked upon it to be more prudence to secure himself by resolution and magnanimity, than, by seeming to truckle to any, to encourage all to trample on him”(Plutarch). Was his attitude towards kingdom ruling courageous? Definitely! Being a wise and skilled strategist and a leader, Alexander understood potential dangers. However, honor became the reason not to accept compromises he was forced to and not to take side of cowards. Being the closest to real courage according to Aristotle, Alexander managed to go against the prevailing opinion.
The scene of battle near the river Granicus also illustrated the courage of Alexander in Aristotle’s sense. Conditions of Alexander’s army and location were absolutely unfavorable. In addition, he had to deal with the common belief that Daesius month is not suitable for successful military performance. The incredible influence of prejudices in ancient times should also be considered. What was the Alexander’s response? Here are some quotes from Plutarch: “It was late, he told him that he should disgrace the Hellespont should he fear the Granicus”. The greatest victory followed the courageous decision of General. It cannot be said that Alexander did not feel fear at all. The quote illustrates that he found strength to get over it for the love of honor, nobility and greatest purpose.
In general, the types of Aristotle’s courage do not have clear lines to get the only precise meaning. Multiply treated philosophical statements are even more disputable in the aspect of ancient historical events. However, it is stated that unbelievable courage of greatest conqueror is worth to be recognized the virtue of wisdom (the golden mean) in Aristotle’s ethical model. Numerous examples illustrate the nature of courage of Alexander the Great and it is the doctrine of the Mean and true virtue that enabled him to make an outstanding contribution in the world’s history.
Aristotle.“ Eudemian Ethics”. Oxford university press. 2007. Web 08 May 2011. http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Philosophy/History/Ancient/?view=usa&ci=9780198240204
Plutarch. “Alexander”. Translated by J. Dryden. 2008. Web 08 May 2011. http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-greece/plutarch_alexander.asp