We continue our online symposium focused on the issue of “Stoicism and Courage” with three new contributions by Matthew Sharpe, Loreen Buenavista, and Makamba Maurice. If you’re interested in submitting a contribution to this ongoing symposium, you can do so by emailing your 400-1200 word draft to both Harald Kavli and myself.
Here is the original call for contributions
The online symposium would consist in a set of posts, each of which would include multiple contributions on the topic.Harald and I would like to invite each of you to contribute a short piece (400-1200 words) to our online symposium, focused on the Stoic virtue of courage. Here’s a set of potential topics (though contributions could be on other courage-related matters):
Why courage is needed for happiness, freedom, or flourishing
What the Stoics understand courage to be
Any one of courage’s subordinate virtues and why it matters
The difference between real courage and what passes as courage
Particularly striking examples of courage
Why courage isn’t the same as “manliness” for Stoics
Also, a reminder – in addition to Stoic Week and the main Stoicon conference coming up in late October, there is another big online event focused specifically on courage coming up as well. That’s the upcoming online Stoicon-X event “Courageous Paths to Flourishing,” hosted by Modern Stoicism, coming up on October 1 (you can find out more and get tickets here).
The Stoics and Aristotle on Courage by Matthew Sharpe
Aristotle and the Stoics agree on a lot. Above all, for both, virtue is the primary thing a person needs to be happy. But they also differ in key ways. Aristotle thinks external things like fame, power, money, and looks are also goods that a person will need. The Stoics disagree. Moreover, they each conceive virtue, or the virtues, differently.
As readers will almost certainly know, for Aristotle, virtue is about choosing a “mean” (meson) between extremes, in terms of the emotions we feel, and the actions we undertake. The Stoics’ model of virtue is different.
They define each virtue (moderation, courage, justice, wisdom) as a kind of knowledge (epistêmê). Whereas for Aristotle, virtues are primarily about emotions and actions, for the Stoics, the virtues as forms of embodied knowledge are above all about what things to select and avoid, not in moderation, but as much as you can.
The things in question are “indifferent” external things. The virtues enable a person to select those which are “preferable”, given our human nature, and those which are “not to be preferred”. (It’s preferable to have money, other things being equal. But it is still not necessary to be happy for example.)
Let’s see how these differences play out, for example, when it comes to courage.
Aristotle on Courage
Aristotle tells us in Nicomachean Ethics, book II, 7:
The observance of the mean in fear and confidence is courage (andreia). The man that exceeds in fearlessness is not designated by any special name (and this the case with many of the virtues and vices); he that exceeds in confidence is rash; he that exceeds in fear and is deficient in confidence is cowardly.
So, the emotional range that the virtue is about, is fear versus confidence. He who is overconfident is rash. They might run out to meet an enemy at the wrong time, when they are vastly overpowered.
But the more problematic excess here involves excessive fear, as well as a lack of confidence: it is cowardice. Aristotle means someone who doesn’t stand up for themselves, their friends, family, and values, when someone or something attacks them. They roll over, and then probably regret not being more courageous.
Courage hits the mean here between excessive or misplaced fear and excessive and misplaced confidence:
it is possible to fear such terrors too much, and too little; and also to fear things that are not fearful as if they were fearful. Error arises either from fearing what one ought not to fear, or from fearing in the wrong manner, or at the wrong time, or the like; and similarly with regard to occasions for confidence.
The Stoics against Aristotle on Courage
At one level, it is possible to almost go down a list of Aristotle’s major claims concerning courage, and place a Stoic “no” or “yes, but”, in the margin, alongside each of them.
The Stoic definition of courage (andreia) is an epistêmê or knowledge concerning what is really terrible (deinon), what is not terrible, and “what is neither” (oudeteron).
But for the Stoics, the only thing which is “evil” or “terrible” is vice. This means that, although courage is going to include endurance, it cannot from a Stoic perspective involve a mean, right level of fear. There is nothing outside of vice that a sage will fear. Adversity is indifferent, not to be preferred, but not to be dreaded either.
The courageous Stoic endures things not going her way. But s/he does not need to do so through fighting off her own fear, lest it become excessive. Her courage will involve the defense of things the Stoic sees as worth defending, consistent with the other virtues, and her roles in the world. But the only thing a Stoic will “fear”, if that remains the word, is falling into forms of vice.
And this is within her control, at least with training and endurance.
Stoic forms of Courage
To get a sense of how this looks in action, we can consider the Stoic table of virtues which Christopher Jedan reproduces in Stoic Virtues: Chrysippus and the Religious Character of Stoic Ethics.
The table is based on the four cardinal virtues (justice, courage, moderation, wisdom) which the Stoics take from Socrates and Plato. But each virtue is defined by Chrysippus (the third Stoic scholarch, after Zeno and Cleanthes) according to its specific epistêmê.
Under courage, with its knowledge concerning what is terrible, not terrible, and neither, we get five specific forms of the virtue which we can again contrast with Aristotle’s vision. Each is a form of “endurance” or “patience” (hypomonê).
First, there is perseverance (karteria). For Aristotle, this falls under self-control or moderation, not courage, and is about managing our impulses. For the Stoics, perseverance is quite different. It’s the knowledge (epistêmê) which allows a person to stick to what has been judged correctly.
This sounds a bit “intellectualist”, as if it were only about holding to an opinion in a debate. But for the Stoics, what we do is based on our opinions. So, perseverance is a virtue which involves standing up for what you believe is right or true, despite opposition. This might involve fighting to defend your country if it is wrongfully invaded, for one example.
“Confidence” for Aristotle, as we’ve seen, isn’t a virtue. It’s an emotional or affective state which the virtue of courage will moderate. For the Stoics, “confidence” is the knowledge “according to which we know that we do not fall into (peripesomen) anything terrible (deinon)”, and it is a virtue. It is related to the virtue of “magnanimity” (megalopsychia, great souled-ness), which involves the knowledge which enables a Stoic to “look down on things which happen alike to good and bad people”.
Now, for Aristotle, we can’t have these Stoic “knowledges”. For him, as we’ve seen, there just are terrible things out there: bad things happen to good people. The Stoics contends that the only fearful thing is vice, not being the best version of yourself. The other things, which happen to good and bad folk, are in the hands of fortune, externals, “indifferents”. And the Stoic knows also that we don’t “fall into” vice, as a penny falls down if you drop it from the side of the Empire State. We’re not without a decisive say in the matter, through our capacity to think and assent.
Little wonder that, in another virtue which makes no Aristotelian sense, the Stoics say that courage includes “mental stoutness” (eupsychia, literally “having a good soul”), based in an “epistêmê whereby a person represents themselves to themselves, in their self-reflection, as “unconquerable (aêttêton)” by fortune.
The last Stoic form of courage is philoponia, the love of hard work or toil. This “love” takes in the epistêmê “which is able to accomplish what is due to be dealt with, undeterred by trouble or pain.”
This Stoic form of courage does not involve doing things, and imagining that there wouldn’t be obstacles: in the work processes, conceptual or other difficulties, as well as people who might oppose us. Taking in the Stoic reserve, and premeditation of “trouble or pain”, Stoic eupsychia is the virtue of keeping on, because it is the right thing to do.
The obstacles, which are not in our control, are part of the way, which it is ours to travel.
So, Aristotle and the Stoics agree that virtue is primary in a good life. But they disagree about how the virtues could be conceived, and even the number and shape of the virtues. We see this by comparing their respective accounts of courage (andreia). Aristotle allows a mean level of fear, since he allows that external things can be truly terrible.
The Stoics agree that courage exists in the face of adversity, but think there is no right level of fear, facing external challenges or threats. The Stoic will feel impulses to fear, surely, since even a sage feels such impulses. But they know that there is nothing in the universe to fear except vice. As Stoics, they will also know that with practice, impulses to unjust, immoderate, and cowardly actions can be ameliorated. It all just takes the endurance and exercise to transform oneself.
Running Towards Fear – by Loreen Buenavista
When courage leads to the change that needs to happen.
One of the most resounding lessons I’ve learned in life outside of an ancient philosopher was from a simulation, a third person action-adventure game called God of War (2018), set in a world loosely inspired by Norse mythology.
It happened during one of the campaigns when Atreus, Kratos’ son, observed a Stone Ancient (a menacing giant figure that attacks with beams of ice), was moving about, unaware of their party’s presence. The pair were sneaking their way into the dark tunnels in the abandoned mine while avoiding its detection.
Meanwhile, Atreus kept inquiring with his father about the intimidating figure — feigning curiosity for apprehension. The father-and-son duo were warriors and had battled countless monsters as they journeyed for the highest peak of the Nine Realms.
The enormous creature, although terrifying, would have been beatable if encounter was inevitable.
After quite some time of stealthily moving about the tunnels and Atreus’ incessant remarks about the Stone Ancient, Kratos declared in the most remarkable way which left an imprint within me: “We will fight it, because you are afraid of it.”
Those words were profound. It did not only mean that I had to move on with my journey in-game filled with adrenaline as I faced a frightening monster, but it also created a shift with my own understanding of fear.
Like the Stone Ancient, fear is what I’d like to run away from. It is the desire to sneak my way through life to avoid the things that are unpredictable, the circumstances that make the future uncertain, the paths that lead to the most of the unknown. Making decisions that radically changes my way of being is terrifying.
So it is fear that justifies inaction, and it is the same fear that creates the illusion as if failure means death. And ultimately, it is death that I feared the most.
This is where I draw in parallel what Seneca speaks about courage: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” Ep. 104.26
More often than not, the task at hand is easier to carry out when the doing has been done. Break it down to the smallest actionable step that can be made, and to the minimum viable product that can be created — anyone who has set out to accomplish such feat shall say in hindsight: the anxiety before the doing carried more burden than the act of doing by itself.
Things appear more difficult because we were afraid.
It is almost always the first step that is the hardest, the waiting that is the longest, the speculating the scariest. As Seneca has written: “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” (Ep. 13.4)
We tend to agonize over change that has not happened yet because looking into a future that is unknown scares us: we do not know what is right ahead, how to get there, and what danger lurks in the shadows. Our worries make us think of the worst things that can happen, therefore often rendering ourselves helpless: unable, unmoved, and undecided — incapable of instigating change.
In the four cardinal Stoic virtues, wisdom tells us what needs to change, prudence tells us when to change, justice tells us why change, but it is courage that tells us how to change.
Courage emboldens us to push forward despite fear.
Courage isn’t innate, it is drawn upon — that’s why we muster courage when we face our anxieties. Courage is imminent when it is the only choice there is. You see, we’re often not aware of what we’re capable of not until we’ve overcome our trials — and it is likely in those times when we’ve found courage when first there was none.
It is courage that inspires us to endure, despite pain or failure. It is courage that equips us with confidence, despite our own insecurities or insufficiency. It is courage that provokes us to remain steadfast in character, despite external pressure. It is courage that encourages us to be cheerful and grateful, despite misfortune. It is courage that urges us to be conscientious, despite arduousness.
Courage leads us to the change that needs to happen undeterred by any other external circumstances. We are made strong not because we go through life the easy way, but we are made strong because we chose to persevere.
In the same way that Kratos and Atreus have come out of the shadows to face the monstrosity that is the Stone Ancient, courage makes us run towards the very thing that we fear the most; because what may lie ahead and behind those fears are the very changes that need to happen which make life worth living.
Courage and Stoicism by Makamba Maurice
According to what I have internalized through my consistent reading of different
books – be it online, phone apps and manuals – it seems to me Stoicism was
based on the idea that “true human beings should not be governed by
emotions that arise within themselves.” The emotions notably are fear, delight,
grief, joy, and so on. This would mean aiming at the ultimate goal of Stoicism which is termed as “eudaemonia,” a word with Greek roots, meaning to be happy and a fulfilled
individual. So let me not deviate from the theme “courage vs Stoicism,” as understood by Stoics of the ancient period, like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Epictetus, Zeno, Socrates, and others from both the Roman empire and Greek city
Courage did not mean not to be fearless, as we often literally think of it today. To these thinkers, courage was for an individual to see danger or encounter a certain challenge. you can imagine now, of course, that they might have fear, since it is part of our stimuli. You had to keep that fear within yourself, and do the right thing with conscience and
reasonability or logic as a good person would act, despite experiencing fear inwardly.
Moreover, Stoicism regarded courage as one part of the four central or cardinal virtues that, once fully perfected or developed by an individual (along with the three others wisdom, temperance and justice) would result in the person attaining the ultimate goal of “eudaemonia”. A person was not considered brave if he or she saw danger and recklessly exerted effort to fight it, rather than taking necessary logical steps to deal with or avoid it, without examining the problem or threat by reasoning or applying the mental faculties.
Stoics demonstrated courage while under dangers or threatening situations through
calmness. This calmness was the opposite of dealing with challenging situations
through impulsiveness, and applications lacking in critical thinking.
Similarly, Stoicism associated courage with progress in one’s society, because Stoics thought that a courageous individual will consistently take action and change the status quo in order to adapt to life changes, because change was part of life. Life without change
was fruitless and undesirable. Changes were not limited in scope, and courage implies changes in thinking, the ways things are done, and finding solutions to problems. It also involves always improving human mental faculties by continually learning and adapting through asking questions to arrive at reasonable conclusions.
One way of understanding this is by reference to the Paul-Elder standards of critical thinking. The nine they identify are relevance, accuracy, clarity, precision, depth, fairness, breadth, logical and significance. I would argue that a courageous person, as understood by Stoicism, might employ most of these while dealing with a certain threatening or appalling situation, by contrast to an ordinary person’s reactions. For instance, a courageous person who espouses Stoicism should think before acting, give an answer even if under pressure, and that answer should reflect most of the above standards. This would tally with the ultimate goal of Stoicism which is always remain in control of your emotions, regardless of external forces or circumstances.
Stoicism in its pivotal rules advises self-discipline, self-control and at
any time or situation not to be overwhelmed by emotions such as fear,
sadness, grief, or indulgence in pleasurable practices. For the Stoics it required courage
for an individual even to withdraw from indulgent acts like obsessive sexual
attachments, overindulgence in alcohol, and other hedonistic practices.
Matthew Sharpe teaches philosophy in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond and co-author of Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions. His website is https://matthewsharpe.podia.com/, and his blog, on Stoicism, philosophy, and psychological subjects is Castalian Stream – Medium. He is also a co-organiser of Stoicon-x Melbourne 2022 – Saturday 29 October, 2022 (stoiconxmelbourne.com.au).
Loreen Buenavista is a facilitator and people-connector. She creates intentional spaces that draw the wisdom of the collective to spark creative insight — helping both the individual and the collective feel wholesomely supported, get energetically inspired, and equipped with renewed clarity. She writes about ikigai, passion projects, and courage (to pursue the difficult yet meaningful things in life) in her Substack Newsletter at https://ikigaicafe.substack.com.
Makamba Maurice is a passionate reader of different books related to philosophy, military history and other sciences. He is co-author of “Electronic Warfare-A Review of Classical and Modern Methods”. He studies at Hellenic Army Academy/Stratiotiki Scholi Evelpidon. He has worked in different capacities in the army and as a professional soldier in Rwanda. He is looking forward to always excel in what he does in terms of being the master of his profession, interacting with diverse personalities and groups through connecting wherever possible.